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M. R. Sellars

In the bleak midwinter

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“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us. Is that so, Spirit?”

- Ebenezer Scrooge

CHAPTER 1

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3:26 PM – December 22, 1975

US Highway 136

Midway between Mais and Hulis Townships

Northern Missouri

Merrie Frances Callahan’s ten-year-old brain felt like it was going to explode at any moment. She knew it couldn’t really, but it still felt like it. But even if it could, she imagined the blow-up probably wouldn’t happen until sometime after she threw up. Of course, the way she felt right now, that might well be coming soon enough.

Her stomach was aching, as if something was trapped inside her and trying to claw its way out. Her head pounded, and her mouth tasted like sour milk, just as it had for most of the afternoon. It hadn’t helped either that Sister Regina had made her eat lunch, whether she had the appetite for it or not. But that was Sister Regina for you. She wouldn’t believe you were sick unless you threw up right in front of her, and sometimes not even then.

“Do as you’re told and keep your mouth shut, or else,” was what she would always say.

The or else part was never pleasant where any of the nuns at Immaculate Conception were concerned, but when Sister Regina said it, you definitely listened. Sister Conran was even worse than her, but not by much.

Knowing this, Merrie only dared to object once, which as it turned out was one time too many given Sister Regina’s reaction. After that, she did exactly as she was told, without complaint, even though every bite of her lunch had made her want to puke.

“It would be your fault…”

The painful words continued tumbling around inside her head, stopping mid somersault to jeer at her whenever she so much as blinked. For that very reason she tried not to. She simply stared straight ahead, watching quietly through the windshield of the car, until finally and without fail, the dry air would force her eyelids to flutter, no matter how hard she tried to stop them.

“It would be your fault…”

Normally she loved words. Reading was her best and favorite subject. In fact, she had even won the fifth grade spelling bee last month, beating out that stuck-up Johnny Seitz on the word COMMEMORATE; and it was one from the eighth grade vocabulary list.

But these words were different. These words she hated. She hated them very much, as well as the words that came along with them. She hated those even more. But just as she couldn’t stop herself from blinking, no matter how hard she tried to forget the painful words, they just wouldn’t go away.

Merrie listened to the hum of the tires against the pavement as it blended with the low whoosh of the air from the heater vents in front of her. She concentrated on the drone, allowing it to pour into her ears in hopes that it would fill her head and force the hurtful words out.

Much to her disappointment, it didn’t, but before long its soothing lull caused her to give in to the dry air. She closed her eyes, then breathed deep while trying to think of something happy. For most anyone else, that would be easy. After all, it would be Christmas in just a couple of days. However, that didn’t cheer her up at all. In fact, it just made the bad feelings worse and the pain in the pit of her stomach even more terrible.

Behind her, strapped into the back seat, Merrie’s younger sister Becca began singing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Well, she was really only singing part of it. Her version was just repeating one or two lines of the chorus and then throwing in extra words whenever she felt like it. However, since she was barely five, she was doing okay and she was even almost staying on key. Unfortunately, the cheerful noise wasn’t helping Merrie’s mood any more than her own constant thoughts of the coming holiday.

She heard her name and then felt a light brush against her arm. The unexpected sensation was like an electric shock and it made her jump. In that brief moment of fear, she shrank away from the touch, pressing herself into the cold, vinyl upholstery of the inner car door.

“I’m sorry, honey.” Her mother’s concerned voice drifted into her ears. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“That’s okay,” Merrie replied.

“Why so jumpy?”

Merrie shrugged inside her coat. “I dunno.”

“You’ve been awfully quiet since we left the school. Are you feeling all right?”

Merrie allowed herself to slump back down into the seat as she mumbled, “I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?”

“I just kinda have a headache. That’s all.”

Elizabeth Callahan picked her glove from her fingers with her teeth, while leaving the other hand on the steering wheel in order to keep the vehicle aimed along the two-lane stretch of blacktop.

Spitting the glove onto the bench seat between them she said, “Lean over this way for a second.”

Once Merrie complied, she reached over and pressed the back of her bared hand against her daughter’s forehead.

“Are you feeling sick, sweetheart?”

“Maybe a little,” Merrie replied. “I just… I just have a headache.”

“Well… You don’t feel like you have a fever,” her mother announced. “But you do look a little flushed. Is it just a headache? There’s a flu going around.”

“My stomach doesn’t feel very good either.”

“I sure hope you aren’t coming down with something,” Elizabeth said while she carefully manipulated the glove back onto her hand. Eventually she offered, “Do you think maybe it was just too much excitement at your class party today?”

“Maybe,” Merrie replied, agreeing easily. “That’s when I started getting the headache. There really was a lot going on.”

It seemed like as good an excuse as any, and if her Mom came up with it, even better. She’d be more likely to believe it that way, and maybe she would stop asking questions if Merrie just played along.

“I bet you ate a lot of candy too.”

“Yeah.” Merrie lied. She didn’t want to, but her mother was still prying and it was just easier this way.

What she really needed was for her to stop digging because if she didn’t, then she might accidentally tell her what happened; and if she did, then… Well… Merrie didn’t even want to think about it, but she just couldn’t make herself think about anything else.

“Did you at least have fun?” Elizabeth prodded.

“Sure.”

“Oh, I meant to ask earlier… Did you get to help with the younger kids and S-A-N-T-A like you wanted?”

Merrie felt her stomach twist into a hard knot. This was exactly the kind of thing she had been afraid her mother would ask. Fortunately, her sister gave her an unexpected reprieve.

“SANTA! SANTA!” Becca chirped from the back seat, abandoning the never-ending song in favor of her mother’s mention of the Jolly Man himself. “Santa Claus!”

Obviously the spelling trick was no longer a viable option.

Elizabeth said something to her youngest daughter, but Merrie didn’t catch it, other than to know words were being spoken. The man in the red suit was filling her thoughts as well, but in a much different way than he was for Becca.

And, those painful words were bouncing around inside her skull once again.

“It would be your fault…”

Even as the phrase echoed silently through her head, she could feel him. His hand slipping beneath the pleated skirt of her school uniform as he groped her in places he shouldn’t touch. The bare light bulb inside the janitor’s closet cast a dim glow from above, and as he held her down he appeared as little more than a hulking silhouette in muddy tones of red and white. He stank with a weird “grandma’s house” smell of cigarettes, mothballs, and peppermint candies. It filled her nose, tingling and taking her breath away as he held his other hand pressed tightly over her mouth. Even now, she could feel the hot tears that had burned her eyes as he pushed his fingers into the waistband of her underwear and pulled them down around her knees.

“Remember, this is a secret…” he whispered, his cigarette stinking breath was wet on her cheek, and the fake beard felt scratchy against her skin. “If you tell anyone, I’ll have to come to your house and hurt your parents. Maybe even kill them. It would be your fault that I would have to kill them. You don’t want that to happen, do you? You don’t want to make me kill your parents, right? Promise you won’t tell…”

She had tried to promise, but her mouth was still covered and all that came out was a whine from her nose. Of course, it didn’t matter, because he wasn’t listening to her anyway. He was already doing things he shouldn’t do.

Things that hurt…

Things that made her cry…

“We’ll see, Becca… We’ll see…” Elizabeth’s exasperated voice snapped Merrie back into the here and now, but the memories remained, fresh and painful as ever.

She shrunk herself as small as she could inside her down-filled coat, balling her small hands into tight fists and pulling them up into the puffy sleeves. She pushed her chin against her chest and her dark hair flopped forward to cover her face. The air from the heater vent in the floorboard was hot against her legs, and it reminded her of his rough, probing hands against her skin. She shuddered, and then lifted her chin and turned her head to look out the side window. In an absent motion she reached up and brushed the hair from her eyes with the back of her sleeve.

Merrie stared through the smudged pane of glass as the landscape rushed by. The sun was already resting low on the horizon behind them, so the snow covered fields on either side of the highway were already filling with scary, blue-black shadows. But home wasn’t all that far away. They would be there soon and then maybe she would finally feel safe.

Home had to be safe. It just had to be. Surely he couldn’t find them there. Ater all, he wasn’t really Santa Claus. Santa wasn’t even real. So he didn’t have a magic list.

But maybe he didn’t need one. He knew her name…

“Ho, Ho, Ho!” he bellowed, putting on a show for Sister Conran. “Why yes, Sister. Yes, Merrie was very helpful today. Thank you so much for letting her assist me. I wouldn’t have been prepared to visit with the younger children without her. She’s Santa’s special little helper. Aren’t you, Merrie?”

She wanted to cringe when he reached over and rubbed his hand against her back in a way that just didn’t feel right. She thought about telling the nun what had really happened, but she knew Sister Conran would probably think she was lying.

“What do you say, Merrie Frances?” Sister Conran demanded, her voice sharp and mean like always.

“Yes, sir… Thank you for letting me help.” Merrie managed to choke out the words, but she kept her eyes aimed at the floor as she spoke. She simply couldn’t bear to look at him.

“Yes,” he continued with his praise and unwelcome touching. “Merrie is Santa’s very special little helper, she is… VERY special…”

Merrie’s stomach continued to churn as a new wave of fear settled over her. He knew her name.

But… it’s just my name, she thought. And I live in Hulis, not Mais. That’s a whole town away. He can’t really know where I live. Unless he is following us…

Hollowness filled Merrie’s chest at the thought, and she wasn’t sure she could breathe anymore. She closed her eyes and tried to wish as hard as she could that she was really just asleep. That this was all just a terrible nightmare, and that when she opened her eyes she would be waking up in her bed. And that instead of mothballs and cigarettes, she would smell the fresh cut evergreen Christmas tree in the living room… And wood burning in the fireplace… And hot oatmeal with lots of butter, and cinnamon, and brown sugar, just the way she liked it…

But when she finally did open her eyes, the snowy fields were still flashing by the window behind a gray-white fog on the inside of the glass. And though he wasn’t here, his nasty smell lingered in her nose, even if it was just a bad memory.

And, she was still afraid.

Merrie loosened her safety belt then slowly twisted in the seat, lifting herself up just enough to see over its back. Fear or not, she had to know if he was following them. Peeking carefully through the rear window she saw no cars, just the empty, dark asphalt of the highway funneling toward a shrinking point in the distance.

At least now maybe she could breathe.

“Santa Claus is coming to town!” Becca crooned, grinning at her older sister and waving her hands as she yelped out the song. “Watch out! He’s gonna find out you’re naughty and nice! Santa Claus…”

Merrie managed a weak smile at her sibling before turning around and settling back into her seat and rearranging her safety belt. Becca didn’t understand. She still believed in reindeer. And magic. And happiness. And Santa. She didn’t know who he really was. She didn’t know what the man in the red suit would do to her. That thought frightened Merrie most of all.

“Is something wrong?” Elizabeth asked, glancing into the rear view mirror, then over at her daughter.

“No.”

“You’re not acting like yourself, honey.”

“I’m okay. Just tired from the party. Like you said.”

“Okay…” Elizabeth sighed, then added, “I really hope you aren’t coming down with that flu. Especially this close to Christmas.”

“Mom?” Merrie asked after a short pause.

“Yes?”

“Does God really hate you if you have bad thoughts about someone?”

Elizabeth glanced at her daughter thoughtfully and then centered her eyes back on the road. “Is that what the nuns at school tell you?”

“They say you’ll go to hell.”

Her mother sighed. “Are you having bad thoughts about someone?”

Merrie mumbled, “Yes.”

“Who?”

“Just…someone.”

“You don’t want to tell me?”

Inside her head, the bad words bullied Merrie once again.

“Remember. This is a secret… If you tell anyone, I’ll have to come to your house and hurt your parents. Maybe even kill them. It would be your fault that I would have to kill them. You don’t want that to happen, do you? You don’t want to make me kill your parents, right? Promise you won’t tell…”

“I can’t…” she replied.

“Why not?”

“I just can’t… I… I sort of made a promise.”

Elizabeth glanced at her daughter again. “So is that what’s really bothering you, honey? These bad thoughts… Is that maybe why you’re feeling sick?”

Merrie gave her a shallow nod. “Sort of… I guess.”

Her mother sighed. “You’re only ten-years-old, sweetheart. I’m sure God will forgive you.”

“Are you really sure?”

“Yes, honey. I’m really sure.” Elizabeth waited for a moment before adding, “If you don’t feel like you can tell me about it right now, and it’s still bothering you later, maybe your father and I can talk with you this evening. But only if you want.”

“But… Wouldn’t God hate me if I broke a promise?”

“I don’t believe God hates anyone, sweetheart, and you shouldn’t either.”

Elizabeth made a mental note to discuss this with her husband and schedule a conference with Sister Conran. Soon. This wasn’t the first time Merrie had expressed a fear of Hell, but it was definitely the first time it seemed to affect her so adversely. They were paying the tuition and making these twice-daily road trips so that they could send their daughter to Immaculate Conception for a good education, not so she could be brainwashed and intimidated. They’d known the staff at IC wasn’t as progressive regarding religion as they would have liked, but it was the only Catholic school within a reasonable distance, and moving simply wasn’t an option. However, if this was the sort of thing Merrie had to endure, she would probably be better off going to the public school in Hulis; not to mention it would save both money and time.

After a pause, Elizabeth said, “You know, Merrie, sometimes it helps me feel better if I talk about what’s bothering me.”

“Even if you made a promise not to?” Merrie asked.

“Sometimes,” she replied with a nod. “It sort of depends on the promise…” Elizabeth paused for a long moment then clucked her tongue and said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll stop pestering you about it. You just give it some thought, and if you feel like talking later we can. I’d just hate it if you were feeling bad over the holidays. So would your father. Especially if it’s something we can help you sort through.”

“Okay,” Merrie replied. “I’ll think about it.”

The truth is, she didn’t want to think about it at all. She wanted nothing more than to make it go away. She wanted to just pretend it never happened. But she had a terrible kind of weird feeling inside. It was a kind of feeling that told her she couldn’t ever make this go away.

Ever.

Still, her mother’s words gave her some small bit of comfort. In a way, they had switched on a dim light in the terrible darkness that had been wrapped around her all afternoon. Once they were at home, maybe they really would be safe. And, if she could tell Daddy what had happened, he could protect Mom and Becca from the man in the red suit. Daddy would know just what to do and then everything would be okay. He would make it all right.

They continued along the highway in silence, but Merrie’s mood wasn’t quite as dark as before. The inner glow was becoming brighter as they closed the distance between themselves and home. For the first time since late this morning, she was feeling that it was possible everything could be okay. They just had to get home before that could happen.

However, a few short minutes later, as they entered the limits of the township of Hulis, her mother slowed the vehicle and then turned it to the right instead of the normal left. In that moment, everything changed. They were headed toward Main Street and away from the safety of home.

Alarmed, Merrie asked, “Where are we going?”

“Oh, I must have forgotten to tell you. I have to stop at Norris’s to pick up a few things for Christmas dinner,” Elizabeth replied. “The weatherman is predicting a lot of snow tonight and tomorrow, so I want to get it done now so we don’t have to go out. Besides, that way we can just stay in and bake cookies all day.”

“Oh.”

“What? Baking cookies doesn’t sound like fun?”

“Yes…it does. I like baking cookies,” Merrie said, trying to use the thread of conversation to hide her sudden panic. “Can we make chocolate chip?”

“Absolutely!” Elizabeth glanced over at her daughter and saw that her expression, just like her tone, didn’t truly match her words. She smiled and reassured her, “Don’t worry. It shouldn’t take very long. We just need a few things.”

“Okay… Umm… How long do you think?”

“I suppose that depends on how busy they are, honey,” her mother told her. “Why?”

“I dunno…” she mumbled. “I guess I just want to be home.”

“I know… We will be soon enough.”

Merrie considered her options for a second. Her father worked an early shift and was almost always home not long after she got in from school. She offered that fact as an appeal. “Won’t Daddy be wondering where we are when he gets home and we’re not there?”

“He’s working late tonight, sweetheart,” he mother explained. “We’ll still be home long before him.”

Working late? Merrie swallowed hard as her stomach flipped over, and then flipped over again. If she had felt panic just a minute ago, this was twice as bad. Her head pounded some more, not that it had ever really stopped, and she could feel the tightness returning to her chest once again as it became hard to breathe. The previously growing light at the end of her darkened tunnel had already dimmed when they made the right hand turn. Now it had gone completely out. The blackness was moving in on her again, and it was terribly bad.

This was worse than waiting for her birthday, or Thanksgiving, or anything… The promise of everything being okay was gone, just like that.

“How late?” she forced herself to ask.

“He probably won’t be home until after dinner, honey,” her mother said.

After dinner! That was even worse. She wasn’t sure she could wait another minute, much less until after dinner. She was all kinds of sick inside, and the longer she kept this secret, the more it hurt. The more it felt like it was eating her up. Suddenly, she felt as if she had to tell someone what had happened before she just exploded. She couldn’t take it anymore.

As Elizabeth pulled the car into a diagonal space in front of the store, Merrie looked over at her and said, “Mom?”

“Yes, Merrie. What is it?”

Merrie opened her mouth, preparing to spill everything, but before she could make a sound those painful words hammered against the inside of her head.

“… If you tell anyone, I’ll have to come to your house and hurt your parents. Maybe even kill them…”

“Maybe even kill them…”

“Maybe even kill them…”

She stared back at her mother, but was unable to make herself let go of the pain she was feeling. She was sure Daddy could protect them, but she didn’t have that same belief about her mother. Not right now, anyway. It hadn’t been all that long ago that Mom had been in the hospital for what she had called “woman problems,” whatever those were. Merrie just knew that she had been really sick for a long time, and finally the doctors had to operate on her. And now, just a few weeks later she still heard Mom complain about being sore and tired all the time. And most especially, how she always said that she felt weak.

Merrie kept imagining the man in the red suit doing the same things to her mother that he had done to her, and Mom not being able to stop him. Even worse, she saw flashes of him doing the terrible things to Becca as well because her mother was too weak to save her. Then, she would see them dead. As the horror of it played out inside her head, each image made her feel even sicker than the one before.

No. She couldn’t possibly tell her mother what had happened. Not just her alone. She had to wait for Daddy. Only he could protect Becca and Mom.

“… If you tell anyone, I’ll have to come to your house and hurt your parents. Maybe even kill them.”

Merrie balled her fists inside the arms of her coat once again and squeezed as tightly as she could. She felt her fingernails biting sharply into the palms of her hands. It hurt, but in a way it didn’t. Not like it hurt when he had done the bad things to her, anyway. It didn’t make any sense that something hurting could feel good. But, it did. It made her feel like she was here, and not there.

It made the other hurt go away, if only for a moment.

“Merrie?” Elizabeth asked, a mix of confusion and concern rimming her voice. “What is it?”

“Nothing…” Merrie finally said. “Just… I love you, Mom.”

Elizabeth smiled; she could tell her daughter had been on the brink of confessing the issue that appeared to be bothering her so much. What held her back she didn’t know, but she wrote off the sudden backpedaling to the earlier conversation about keeping promises. With a quick nod she said, “I love you too, sweetheart. Don’t worry. If you want to talk later we’ll sort everything out when your father gets home, okay?”

Merrie nodded.

“Everything will be fine, honey. Whatever it is that’s bothering you, I’m sure it can’t be that bad. Now… What say we get this shopping done so we can get home, okay?”

Can’t be that bad? Merrie thought to herself. If only she could tell because she just knew this was bad. And she knew that when her parents heard it they would think it was bad too. Instead, all she could do right now was force a thin smile and say, “Okay.”

“Can you do me a favor and help your sister with her seatbelt?”

From the back seat, Becca started to gleefully chant once again, “He knows you’re naughty… Santa Claus is coming… He knows you’re naughty… Santa Claus is coming…”

CHAPTER 2

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4:01 P.M. – December 22, 1975

Sheriff’s Department

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

“… JUST a little past four in the afternoon and this is Rockin’ Ronnie comin’ at you from the middle of Cornelius Bremerton’s cornfield, here on K-I-M-O FM. Reach on over to the dash, pull out that tuner button, and punch it right back in for a lock on great music every day…”

The final rolling beats of a song’s orchestral drums were still reverberating in the background as the radio announcer voiced over with the station ID. He wasn’t joking about the cornfield; that’s exactly where the transmitter and cramped broadcast studio were located. Cornelius Bremerton came from the proverbial “old money” in Hulis, and he owned the small, local station as well as the land on which it was parked. If you wanted to get right down to it, the truth was that the Bremerton family owned more than half the town, and when Cornelius and his wife finally went on to their final rewards, their three kids would bicker over the spoils that were left behind. Unfortunately, their offspring hadn’t inherited their values or sense of community.

Once the tune finally faded out, the disk jockey continued, “That was a new solo release from Greg Lake called I Believe In Father Christmas… Wheww! I’m not sure what he found in his stocking that made him write that one but sounds to me like it was probably a lump of…”

Rockin’ Ronnie’s voice came to an abrupt halt before the sentence was finished. Somewhere out there he was still filling the airwaves, but not here. Deputy Addison “Skip” Carmichael had killed the engine of his patrol car, cutting off power to the radio.

Letting out a quiet snort, he mumbled to himself, “Yeah… I’d say that one was just a little to the depressing side.”

Shaking his head, he unbuckled his seatbelt and then popped the door and climbed out of the vehicle. Out of habit, Carmichael gave a quick glance upward. The sky was a gray drop ceiling that had been hung just a little too low, and it seemed to be darkening even as he watched, almost like a lamp attached to a dimmer switch. He allowed his skyward gaze to linger for a good minute, maybe even two. He knew that what appeared to be a flat expanse of cloud cover was really a pregnant winter storm, and it looked like it was ready to deliver at any moment.

Deputy Carmichael grunted, then started to swing the door of the police cruiser shut, but stopped mid-push. He thoughtfully checked the timepiece on his wrist and let out a soft harrumph. He’d been busy running errands and fulfilling some personal obligations for a good part of the day, so he hadn’t yet heard the latest weather report for the evening. What he saw above seemed pretty obvious, and while the fact that it was going to snow was a given, the accumulation totals were a different story. The way things changed here in the Midwest you just never knew, and judging by what was hanging over his head, he was betting they were in for something bigger than the three to six inches they’d been predicting this morning.

He decided it probably wouldn’t hurt for him to be up to date before going on duty. According to his watch-which he kept set to the clock in the office-he was almost an hour early anyway. His shift didn’t actually start until five. Since he had some time to waste, he opened the door wider, climbed back into the seat, and then pulled it shut. After shoving the key back into the ignition he gave a half twist to click it over to the ACC position.

The gauges on the dash came to life and the various engine status lights flickered for a moment as the seatbelt warning chimed for attention. With a staticky pop, the radio blipped back on and the announcer was rambling once again, or maybe still. You just never knew with him, but one thing hadn’t changed-as usual he seemed overjoyed by the sound of his own voice. “…ing up in just a couple of minutes. Hey, here’s some news. I don’t know if any of you caught this or not, but it seems Winter Solstice happened at around five forty-five central standard time this morning. That means last night was the longest night of the year. Or is it tonight? Who knows? Probably the NASA guys, right? But it’s good news for you night owls, I guess. And on the up side for you sun worshipers, the daylight hours start getting longer from here on out.

“Just for fun I dug up some info on this stellar event, so here are some Solstice facts for you stargazers out there. Number one…”

“C’mon, c’mon. Give me some weather…” Deputy Carmichael muttered.

“…moment the Earth’s axial tilt is at its farthest point from the sun, whatever all that means.” There was an audible shrug in the disk jockey’s voice that underscored the latter words. “Two. I


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t is the official start of the winter season… Yeah, like the white stuff falling out of the sky starting around Thanksgiving didn’t give us a clue about that already, right?”

“Sheesh, Ronnie…” Skip grunted. “Quit screwin’ around. Just get to the actual weather forecast, will you…”

Oblivious to the deputy’s frustration, of course, the announcer was still ticking off his list of factoids. “…also called midwinter. Hey, what kind of sense does that make? Is it the start of winter or the middle of winter? Make up your minds, guys. You have to wonder if those astrologers are getting a little tipsy at the office party, huh?”

Carmichael shook his head as he grumbled. “Astronomers you idiot. Astronomers, not astrologers.”

“…And four: Did you know that in ancient Pagan cultures, the Winter Solstice marks the holiday known as Yule? I guess that means the natives will be restless tonight, huh?” The announcer chuckled at his own joke before continuing. “And here’s something about this particular Solstice: Depending on the year, they can occur either on…”

“The twenty-first or the twenty-second,” Skip announced a bit louder, and then let out a sigh. His moist breath turned into the barest hint of steam that dissipated as quickly as it formed. With more than noticeable exasperation, were anyone there to see it, he said aloud, “Will you just give the damn weather forecast, you turkey…”

Even though he was early and had plenty of time on his hands, Carmichael was quickly growing tired of the drone. He had little patience for unnecessary prattling, most especially if it was coming from Ron “Rockin’ Ronnie” Connelly. The only reason he even listened to K-I-M-O was that it was the only station that came in worth a damn, especially if the weather was rough. The other three on-air personalities he could handle, but this guy made him want to punch something.

Of course, part of his annoyance certainly stemmed from the fact that “Ronnie” and he had gone to high school together and hadn’t exactly been what you would call friends. Actually, that was putting it mildly. They had been more along the lines of archrivals, all for the affections of a particular cheerleader.

Of course, that was then, and this is now, as they say. High school was almost seven years behind them, and the competition should be a distant memory. However, it had carried on well past graduation, and though it had been moot for a good while now, time had done little to change his adversarial opinion of the man behind the drive time voice of the hometown radio station.

At the thought, Skip once again stuffed his hand into his jacket pocket and wrapped his fingers around a small box. He’d already checked a dozen times since leaving the store, just to make sure it was still there, but so far it hadn’t escaped. Even so, it made his heart thump a bit faster each time he repeated the motion and felt the container clutched tight in his grasp. He wasn’t exactly sure if that was because he was afraid it might be gone, because of what it meant, or a combination of the two.

“…st what we need, right? More of the white stuff. It’s four-oh-eight P.M. and time for some more holiday music to help you get into the spirit. In fact, here’s one to go with that forecast. You’re listening to Rockin’ Ronnie on K-I-M-O FM.” Following immediately behind the announcer’s voice, the first notes of Let It Snow rang from the car radio’s speakers.

“Damn,” Skip muttered aloud then shook his head. He clicked the ignition to off and pulled out the key.

Daydreaming had distracted him and he’d missed the weather again, just like earlier. Couldn’t very well blame Ronnie for that one, no matter how much he might want to. Oh well, judging from his words and song selection, apparently more snow was still in the forecast, so that much hadn’t changed. Odds were Clovis would have the latest report anyway. She usually did.

Deputy Carmichael climbed out of the patrol car once again, this time without hesitation. He locked it out of habit then pushed his hat down on top of his short crop of brown hair. It didn’t do much for his ears as far as the cold was concerned, but he could live with that. He took a moment to adjust his belt before starting across the small parking area at the back of the building that housed the town jail and sheriff’s office.

Another glance at his watch told him he was still flush with time before his shift started, so he considered going ahead and having a cigarette now. Sheriff Morton had banned smoking inside-a side effect of being a reformed nicotine addict himself.

Stopping near the back door Skip reached inside his jacket and withdrew a pack of reds from the inner pocket, then tapped one out across his index finger. After tucking the filter end between his lips he dug around for his lighter. Absently shoving his hand into an outer pocket he once again felt the small box and paused. After a moment of introspection he snatched the unlit cigarette from his mouth, pushed it back into the pack, and stowed it, then popped a peppermint into his mouth instead.

He wanted to talk to Clovis before her shift ended, and besides, he would probably end up smoking half a pack later. He always did whenever he was out on patrol. It wasn’t because of an addiction so much as it was just something to help him escape the boredom without being too distracted.

After all, this was Hulis. It’s not like anything ever really happened here.

CHAPTER 3

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4:01 P.M. – December 22, 1975

Bremerton’s Dime Store

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

All Merrie wanted right now was to be at home.

No… That wasn’t really true. She wanted way more than that.

She not only wanted to be at home, she wanted to be warm, next to the fireplace, with hot chocolate and a book. And, she wanted it to be yesterday. She wanted more than anything for today to just vanish. She wanted for it to have never, ever happened.

And, her list didn’t stop there.

She also wanted something back that had been taken from her. She wasn’t sure exactly what that something was, but she could feel the emptiness inside where it used to be, so she knew without a doubt that it was gone. And she was certain that he had taken it.

She didn’t just want these things, she was wishing for them. In fact, she had been wishing hard on them for hours now. But so far, wishing hadn’t worked out any better than wanting.

Still, out of all those things she wanted and wished for so desperately, right now, at this very moment, she would settle for just being home. And, the sooner they were finished here, the sooner that could really happen, which is exactly why she was standing before the huge front window of Bremerton’s Dime Store, clutching tightly to Becca’s mitten encased hand.

Her little sister simply wasn’t going to be happy until she had officially recited her amended wish list to the jolly elf in person. The letter Merrie had helped her write, decorate, and “mail” to the North Pole two days ago just wasn’t enough in her young mind. She had to talk to the man himself.

The problem had started in the car on the way here, and before they were ever inside the market it had grown. Beginning as an “I want” that quickly turned into a whine, it then became the first embarrassing squeals of a signature Rebecca Kathleen Callahan tantrum. She didn’t throw them as often as she used to, but when she did they were just horrible, and Merrie could tell this one had been well on its way to being one of her worst.

Merrie could also tell that Mom was already wearing down, and Becca’s outburst wasn’t helping at all. The observation made her feel more confident about not having said anything to her mother about what had happened at school. Right now it wasn’t something Mom could handle. Not without Daddy to help, at least. But the confidence came at a price, because at the same time it made her feel even more afraid for their safety being out here and not at home. It was obvious to Merrie that her mother couldn’t protect herself and Becca, and she still couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t followed them.

Unfortunately, as her sister’s temper fit grew in volume, her mother’s nerves began to fray, and she finally gave in, promising that she would take her next-door to see Santa once they had finished the shopping.

Becca was happy about getting her way, of course, but still not satisfied. As five-year-olds tend to be, she was twice as impatient as she was excited, which was still just as annoying. Merrie actually shared her unwillingness to wait, but for a wholly different reason. Panic had set in once again as soon as her mother made the promise. Their current detour was already bad enough because it turned out that Norris’s Market was packed with people doing last minute shopping too, and that was turning a short stop for a few things into what felt the same as a whole morning grocery-shopping trip, just like they did every other Saturday. The idea of it taking even longer still before they got home was just unthinkable for her.

Merrie decided she had to keep that from happening, and so she did the only thing she could think of to do. She had offered to take her sister next door to visit Santa while her mother waited in line at the butcher counter. Divide and conquer, that’s what Daddy always said. If they could just get this all over with now, they could go home and wait for him. Then she could tell the secret. Then maybe she wouldn’t hurt inside so much. And maybe, just maybe, things could finally be okay…or at least as okay as they could ever be again.

Although the sick feeling in her stomach had sort of gone away for a time, it had never really left completely. However, now it was back worse than before as she watched the brightly colored “Holiday Express” electric train weaving its way through a fantasy toyland on the other side of the window glass. As much as she wanted this to be over, she now found herself stalling. With each step closer to Bremerton’s, her dread at seeing Santa Claus had increased. Even though it wasn’t him, the suit was the same, and she wasn’t sure she could handle it.

The train, however, was different. Through the weather frosted pane she could barely hear the dull tick, tick, tick of the wheels on the metal track as the engine circled, pulling behind it a line of colorfully decorated cars. But, if she concentrated hard and listened closely, it was definitely there.

Tick, tick, tick, swish…

Tick, tick, tick, swish…

And then the faint whistle…

Tick, tick, tick, swish…

In those sounds she found some minor bit of comfort-not exactly from what she was hearing really, but from the pleasant remembrance the rhythmic noise brought rushing back into her head. The vivid memory of standing here with Daddy for what seemed like hours last Christmas season, watching the train, pointing out the various miniature scenes, and grinning so hard that it made her face hurt.

Happiness and joy…

But the comfort of the memory didn’t stay with her for very long. Last Christmas was forever ago, and now things were all different and messed up. Yes, the train still chugged around the track, just as it had done then. The tiny caroler figurines were still “singing” in front of the tiny plastic church, just as they had done then. The brightly colored lights strung around the display still winked off and on, just as they had done then.

But that was then.

Now everything was changed. Merrie’s face hurt but she already knew that this time it wasn’t because she was grinning. She was no longer able to feel those things called happiness and joy. She could only feel the darkness and the pain.

She swallowed hard and blinked. When she looked again her eyes focused on her own reflection in the glass. It came as no surprise that the face staring back at her wore a deep frown. After what had happened today, she wasn’t so sure she would ever smile again.

A lick of icy wind weaved its way through the bustle of people moving along the sidewalk behind them, and it blew hard against her back. She watched the reflection as her hair whipped around her head, a shock of it eventually coming to rest across her face and blocking her tired eyes. She brushed it away with the back of her hand, and then purely out of habit she reached down as she momentarily hiked up her leg and proceeded to adjust her sagging knee sock. The thin cotton did little to protect her against the cold, but right now she really didn’t care.

Still quietly staring into the window she pulled her free hand back inside the arm of her coat and clenched her fist hard. Her fingernails dug into her palm, and as she felt the sting she winced and then relaxed her fingers. She had thought the pain helped earlier, but now she wasn’t so sure. It didn’t make anything go away this time. It was just more pain on top of what was already there. Maybe there was nothing at all that could help her.

Maybe this really was all her fault. Maybe God was punishing her for something. That’s what Sister Conran would say. “God punishes bad girls.” She had heard those words more than once from the nun, but they had never really applied to her. That is, maybe until now.

Merrie just wished God would tell her what she had done wrong, so she could confess her sin and be sorry. She would say Hail Marys and Our Fathers until she lost her voice if it would make all of this go away and keep her from going to Hell.

She didn’t want to go to Hell. She felt like she was already there anyway, and that was bad enough. If Hell really was worse than this, she didn’t want any part of it.

Her jumbled thoughts were interrupted a moment later when she felt a furious tugging at her other arm. The constant pull was soon joined by seemingly desperate words screeching into her ears.

“Mare-reee…” Becca pleaded. “C’mon, Merrie… C’mon… I doan wanna lookit the train no more… I wanna see Santa now.”

“Okay, okay,” Merrie mumbled, giving in and allowing her sister to drag her toward the door. “But we have to be quick. Okay? Mom will be waiting.”

Becca began chanting, “Santa Claus is coming… He knows you’re naughty… Santa Claus is coming… He knows you’re ‘wake… Santa Claus is…”

“Don’t sing, Becca, okay?” Merrie grumbled.

The request fell on all but deaf ears, not that it really mattered. Her younger sister was too overwhelmed with excitement, and she couldn’t stop singing even if she tried.

Still holding on to Becca’s hand, Merrie reached out and tugged the door open. The bell at the top jangled, then her ears were filled with voices, holiday music, the swishing and ticking of the model train, and all of the other sounds that came with a busy store at Christmas. But as loudly as they echoed inside her head, they couldn’t push away his voice. It was louder still.

“… You don’t want to make me kill your parents, right? Promise you won’t tell…”

Immediately following the wall of noise came a blast of warm air rushing outward into her face. It was comfortable and stuffy at the same time. Chasing away the chill of winter, but also stale and thick in a way that made it hard to breathe. Like the sounds, it too was filled with way too many things-

The sweet smells of candies, and the buttery aroma of popcorn…

The spiciness of candles and perfumes…

Of fruitcake…

The chemically sharpness of flocking…

Of plastic trees…

And even the smell of the people shopping…

Floating in between like some kind of invisible glue holding the odors together, was a weird, pretend Christmas tree scent. The kind that came in a spray can and made everything smell like the pine sawdust the janitor always used whenever someone puked on the floor at school.

School…

The janitor’s closet…

The piney stink was just another reminder that Merrie really didn’t need right now. Her stomach felt like it flip-flopped and her mouth started to water. She paused, holding the door open as the fear began chewing its way through her insides all over again.

However, Becca wasn’t going to wait.

Still set on her single-minded mission, the five-year-old stomped forward toward the threshold. When she could go no farther because of Merrie’s grip on her hand, she stopped chanting her joyful tune and began tugging hard on her sister’s arm. “C’mon, Mare-reee… C’mon…”

Merrie gave in and plodded slowly through the doorway and into the store, even though the panic in her chest made her want to turn around and run away as fast and as far as she could. Even worse, the feeling was getting stronger with each step, and before they had even made their way past the checkout stand she found herself once again trying to reason out a deal with her younger sibling in order to escape the horror of facing anyone in a red suit, even if it really was just Mister Babbs behind the beard, just like he always was at Christmas.

“Becca…” she asked as the five-year-old pressed forward with her in tow. “Wouldn’t it be more fun to just look at the train some more?”

“No!” her sister yipped.

“But you didn’t see everything. I can show you…”

“No!”

“I’ll let you have my dessert after dinner tonight.”

“No! Santa!”

“But you already saw Santa,” Merrie objected. “When Mommy and Daddy took us shopping at the big department store last weekend. Remember?”

“Santa! Santa!” Becca demanded, pulling harder as her older sister came to a full stop and began to resist.

Merrie started to object again and even considered pulling big sister rank on her. “But, Becca, I’m…”

Before she could finish, a cheerful voice interrupted. “Did I hear someone say they’re looking for Santa?”

“Santa! Santa!” Becca chirruped, dancing in place as the excitement percolated from her tiny body.

Miss Ruth, the store manager, smiled down at them, then turned up her wrist and pushed back her sleeve so that she could check her watch. “Hmm,” she said. “Well, I believe Santa is taking a break right now so that he can feed the reindeer up on the roof.”

A wave of intense relief washed over Merrie as the words registered. She couldn’t have asked for a better excuse to get out of this whole mess.

Becca’s eyes widened and she yelped, “Rainn-deeeer! Can I pet Rudolph? Can I?”

“No, honey, I’m afraid it’s too slippery up on the roof for little girls,” Miss Ruth explained, apology clear in her voice. Then she asked, “You’re Elizabeth Callahan’s girls, right?”

“Yes ma’am,” Merrie replied.

“Is she next door?”

“Yes ma’am, at Norris’s,” Merrie answered again, this time with a slight nod, then she added, “She’s waiting in line for the butcher, so I said I would bring Becca over to see Santa. But since he’s busy…”

Miss Ruth smiled wide. “Oh, no need to worry dear. Santa should be back down in just a few minutes.”

Unfortunately, that bit of news sent a second wave crashing down upon Merrie, but this one made her feel miserable all over again.

Miss Ruth squatted down in front of Becca and gave her nose a tweak as she continued. “And, you know what’s even better?”

“What? What?” Becca asked, excitement pushing her eyes even wider at the idea of something better than petting a real, live reindeer.

“I’m pretty sure you two are the only children in the store right now, so if you just go on back and wait, you’ll be first in line to see Santa when he’s done.”

Becca’s body literally shook with more glee than could be contained by a full-grown adult, much less by a five-year-old. She started dancing in place once again as it fought to escape. Tugging on Merrie’s arm she demanded, “C’mon, Mare-ree! Hurry! C’mon! Santa! We kin be first…”

Miss Ruth stood up and pointed toward the back of the store, then smiled at Merrie and gave her a wink. “Go all the way to the back, sweetheart. I’m sure he’ll be out to see you very soon.”

“Thank you,” Merrie muttered, forcing the words out as nicely as she could, even though she didn’t feel very much like being polite anymore.

Still dragging her feet, she stumbled along behind her sister, who seemed to need no help whatsoever finding the Jolly Elf’s lair. The farther back they went down the aisles, the less crowded it became, until finally it seemed there was nobody around but them. Bremerton’s wasn’t as huge as the fancy department store in Mais, but it was still really big. Or it seemed that way to Merrie, at least. Now, looking back over her shoulder she couldn’t even see the entrance anymore. And, no matter how hard she listened, even the tick, tick, tick of the electric train was gone. All that remained was the annoying Christmas music from above and distant voices of the shoppers.

Becca came to a halt the moment they stepped out into the open area at the back of the store. She uttered a soft “Wow… North Pole…” but other than that she remained quiet, staring in wonder at the cardboard cutouts and bunched up blankets of glitter-covered felt “snow” that surrounded the decorated throne-like chair. The smell of peppermint candy canes mixed strongly with the other odors that were still floating around the inside of the store. It seemed to Merrie that God was intent on torturing her at every turn with smells and sounds…and just everything.

If only she knew what she had done to make him so angry at her.

She looked around, but the Jolly Elf was nowhere to be seen. Display stands were bunched together to one side of the area, arranged in an organized sort of mess; all to make room for the fake North Pole scenery that was now holding her little sister’s attention. On the wall, to the left of the cardboard fireplace and plastic tree and empty pretend presents, was a large door. Attached to it was a sign that read EMPLOYEES ONLY.

“That’s probably where ‘Santa’ is really taking his break,” she thought to herself.

Merrie’s stomach was now churning more, and she pressed the palm of her free hand against it. Even through her coat she could feel her insides gurgling and somersaulting. If only Sister Regina hadn’t made her eat that lunch, then maybe, just maybe it wouldn’t hurt so badly right now. And maybe she wouldn’t feel so much like she needed to puke.

She swallowed hard and wondered how much longer they would have to wait. She really wished this would all be over. If Mister Babbs would just come out here right now in his red suit and listen to Becca for a couple of minutes and give her a candy cane, they could leave. Maybe Mom would be finished with the shopping then, and they could go home.

Home. Safe. Then she could wait for Daddy and tell him what happened. He could fix this. She just knew he could. He had to. Because, if he couldn’t, then she really was going to Hell-if she wasn’t already there, that is.

Merrie squeezed her eyes tightly shut and wished as hard as she could for Santa to appear and get this over with. Wishing hadn’t worked before, but this one was just a little wish. It wasn’t big like the others. Maybe it was just small enough to come true. Besides, she had no choice but to wish because she was too afraid to pray. If God really was mad at her, she knew he wouldn’t listen. Still, even if the wish didn’t work, at the very least she hoped Miss Ruth was right about Santa being here soon because she wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep herself from throwing up.

However, as she stood there concentrating she remembered something Daddy always said. Be careful what you wish for, because sometimes what you wish for isn’t what you really want at all. When she heard the door she opened her eyes, and then she knew exactly what he meant. It wasn’t Mister Babbs in the Santa suit this year, and in that moment Merrie began to wish that she had never wished for anything, ever.

“Ho, ho, ho,” the sickeningly familiar laugh came from the man in the Santa suit. As he started toward them he said, “Well if it isn’t, my very, very special little helper… And, ho, ho, ho… You brought a friend to see Santa…”

CHAPTER 4

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4:15 P.M. – December 22, 1975

Sheriff’s Department

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

Clovis Meriweather started to speak but caught herself before any sound actually made it past her lips. Instead, she kept her mouth closed and bit down softly on the end of her tongue-not enough to hurt of course, but just enough to remind herself to remain quiet for the moment. The almost unconscious act was one she’d had since she was a little girl. In fact, it had started right around the time she’d heard her grandma say, “bite your tongue” in response to someone’s thoughtless comment. A year or two later, when the nuances of language began making sense to her, she realized that the instruction was really just a metaphor. However, by then it had already settled in as a quirky habit, and it just never went away.

Clovis furrowed her brow as she took a long look at the black, velvet-covered cube resting on the desk in front of her. It had been placed on the dark green blotter with a light but purposeful thump. However, the deputy who had done the placing had not yet spoken a single word. He was still standing silently on the opposite side of her desk. She knew he wouldn’t be expecting a stereotypical reaction, so she almost gave one just to trip him up; but that really wasn’t her style at all. No, this definitely called for one of her customary off-the-wall replies.

She released her tongue, pursed her lips, wrinkled her nose, and then looked upward to his face. As she figured, he was staring back at her with an expectant look in his eyes. She smiled and said, “Has it started snowing yet?”

“No,” he answered without hesitation. “Not yet, but it looks like it’s going to any minute.”

He continued to stare at her, the anxious expression intact.

She couldn’t resist making him wait. “I just heard on the radio that the weather service has issued a blizzard warning. Looks like it’s going to be worse than they originally thought.”

“Come on, Clovis…” the deputy appealed.

“Really. I’m not kidding,” she told him, staring back with an earnest expression as she nodded her head with enough vigor to tousle her layered shag of blond hair.

He sighed. “You know what I mean.”

She glanced down at the box on her desk. “Oh… You mean this?”

“Clovis…”

She cleared her throat then let out a dramatic sigh and said, “Well, Skip, I’m not quite sure what to say… I’m flattered and all, but you know darn well I’m already married.”

“Real funny,” Carmichael grunted, a slight chuckle now replacing the impatience in his voice. “You’re a regular comedian today.”

Now that she had toyed with him for a bit and delivered the expected sarcasm, she could safely embrace the girlish excitement that was bubbling inside her.

“So, should I assume this means…” she asked, leaving the crux of the question hanging in the air with an intentional pregnant pause to keep it company.

“Yeah,” he replied with a nod. “That’s what it means.”

She grinned then scooped up the small box and cradled it in her fingers as she carefully levered the clamshell open with her free hand. At almost the very instant her eyes fell on the intricate gold band adorned with a sharply faceted diamond, she breathed, “Oh Skip, it’s absolutely gorgeous…”

“You know the kind of stuff Kathy likes, Clovis. Do you think it’s the right style? Is the rock big enough? Old Man Turner said she’d looked at this setting a couple of times before, but I could exchange it if I needed to.”

“It’s perfect. Just perfect,” she returned. “I was with her when she was looking at it. She’ll love it, Skip,” she paused and then almost quivered with her now escaping enthusiasm. “Okay, so when? Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?”

“Christmas morning probably,” he said with a nod then gave her a half shrug. “That’s the plan, anyway… If I can wait that long… I know it’s only three days away, but… Well, you know… I’ve already been putting it off for so long as it is, what with her wanting to finish her degree and all… I talked to her dad yesterday, so at least that part of it is out of the way.”

“What did he say?”

Skip tensed and deepened his voice for effect. “‘Bout time, son. Just remember, deputy or not, if you hurt my little girl I’ll hunt you down and kill you.”

“That sounds like him,” Clovis replied. “Was he smiling?”

“Yeah.”

“Then you’re fine.”

He nodded and chuckled. “I know.”

“Okay, so explain to me why it is I’m just now hearing about this,” she pressed.

“That should be obvious,” he answered, shrugging. “You’re her best friend. I want it to be a surprise.”

She pouted an objection. “I can keep a secret.”

“You mean like the time you told her about the surprise birthday party I had planned for her?”

“We were in high school, Skip,” she grumbled.

“I’m talking about last year.”

“Oh… That… Well… That was different.”

“Different how?”

“It just was. Really… I can keep a secret.”

“Yeah… Do yourself a favor and don’t sw


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ear to that under oath or anything. Some of us know better.”

“Who’s the comedian now?”

“I wasn’t trying to be funny. Honestly, I wouldn’t even have told you about this at all, except that I wanted your opinion on the ring. I’m taking a big enough chance telling you now as it is. You’ve got a whole three days to spill it and ruin everything.”

She ignored the gibe. “You know if you’d just said something I could have gone shopping with you.”

“What was I just saying, Clovis? Are you not even listening to me?”

She rolled her eyes at him then ogled the engagement ring again.

“I won’t tell her,” she assured him.

“You’d better not. Besides,” he added. “It looks like I picked out the right one without your help anyway.”

“Sure, but how long did it take you to decide before you actually bought it?” she asked.

“That’s not the point.”

She chuckled. “It doesn’t matter, it’s beautiful, Skip. You did real good. Kathy is going to be so happy…” After a moment she furrowed her brow again and looked up at him. Visible confusion spreading across her features, she said, “Wait… You’ve always said you weren’t going to ask her until…”

He nodded as her voice trailed off. “Yeah, I know. That’s the other thing. I got the call last week.”

“Seriously?”

“Uh-huh. I start the academy in KC with the next class. Just a few months from now. And I should have a job waiting for me when I graduate.”

“Oh my gosh, Skip! That’s fantastic! Congratulations! Does Sheriff Morton know?”

A gruff voice came from across the room behind her. “Do I know what?”

Clovis swiveled her chair and glanced over her shoulder at the sheriff, who was several feet away and in the process of emptying the dregs from a drip coffeemaker carafe into his stained ceramic cup. She twisted quickly back around and shot a wide-eyed gaze toward Deputy Carmichael as she mouthed, “I’m sorry.”

“KC, Boss,” Skip announced, shaking his head and grinning. Then he addressed Clovis directly. “Don’t worry, he’s known ever since I got the call. He was the first one I told. After all, it was him that got me accepted in the first place.”

“Bullshit,” the sheriff huffed, ambling over to the side of the desk. He took a sip of the coffee, screwed up his face, then swallowed with an even deeper grimace while shaking his head. “Christ… How old is this sludge?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s leftover from this morning,” Clovis replied.

“No wonder,” he sighed. Without hesitation he leaned toward the poinsettia on the corner of her desk and dumped the remaining contents of the cup into it.

“You know you’ve killed two of those already this month by doing that,” Clovis announced.

“Better them than me,” he replied then held the now empty mug with his middle fingers hooked through the handle as he nodded toward Skip. “You got your own damn self into the academy. I just made a couple of calls to warn ‘em that you’d probably be a pain in the ass to them just like you are to me. But since you got in anyway, it looks like they didn’t much care what I thought, now did they?”

Skip chuckled. “Whatever you say, Boss.”

The sheriff shot him a quick and wholly uncharacteristic grin. Since Archie Morton wore an almost perpetual poker face to go along with his dry wit, any visible show of emotion in his expression was more than enough to give his staff pause.

“Needed doin’. You’re just wastin’ your talent here, son,” Morton offered. “That much was obvious as soon as you got your head on straight and started using your powers for something other than winning bar bets.”

“Powers,” Skip repeated with an embarrassed chuckle. “You make it sound like something from a comic book.”

“Whatever you want to call it,” Morton continued. “You and that scary accurate instinct of yours would better serve a police force that has actual crimes to solve, and we both know this isn’t it. Hulis is where old cops go to relax when they’re too tired to chase the bad guys anymore. Hell, that’s why I came back.”

Skip waited a beat for another dry wisecrack to be tacked onto the end of the statement. Just as Sheriff Morton’s expression remained virtually constant, praise was not something he offered on a regular basis either, especially not without something diametrically opposed thrown in to temper it. Given that he’d now given him two compliments in a row, surely there was a dig coming in their wake.

However, when several seconds had passed with no further comment, the deputy raised an eyebrow and said, “Uh… Thanks, Boss.”

“Yeah, well don’t let it go to your head. You might be ‘The Amazing’ Skip here in Hulis, but when you get to KC there’ll be some sonofabitch who’s even more special than you are, trust me.”

The sheriff looked around and then let out a snort. “Now, shouldn’t you be workin’ or somethin’?” He offered the words as a statement more than as a question. “You ain’t off to the big city yet, you know.”

“I’m in early. I’m not scheduled for duty until five.”

“Yeah, so what? You’re here aren’t you?”

“True.”

“Well then don’t just stand around looking for more compliments. You just got your quota for the year and then some. Make yourself busy. Put on a fresh pot of coffee or something…”

Now that sounded more like what he had been expecting. Skip started to offer a quick, “right on it, boss,” but before he could speak the aforementioned instinct kicked in. In truth, it was really just a keen awareness of his surroundings combined with a good memory, but instinct was as good a word as any. The semantics weren’t all that important.

Skip cocked his head and announced, “Phone’s about to ring.”

A half-heartbeat later, the first pushbutton along the bottom of Clovis’s telephone began to flash, and then the loud mechanical ringer itself jangled for attention.

Even though she’d been warned, or perhaps because of that very fact, Clovis physically jumped in her seat at the first ping of the sound. She then shuddered as she started reaching toward the device. “Darn it, Skip! You know it creeps me out when you do that. Now I’m all jittery.”

He shrugged to punctuate the fact that he considered the feat to be wholly unremarkable. Jerking a thumb toward a nearby door he explained, “The junction box over here in the closet clicks twice just a couple of seconds before the phone rings. It always has.”

“Like I said,” Sheriff Morton offered. “Scary accurate.”

“And creepy,” Clovis announced again, snatching up the phone and then stabbing the winking button with her index finger just before the fourth ring had finished. Placing the handset against her ear she said, “Sheriff’s office, how can I help you?”

With her other hand she snapped the small ring box closed then held it out toward Skip, who took it from her with a quick flash of a smile. Then she switched the handset to her other ear and picked up a pen from the desk as she talked. “Sure, Hazel. What can we do for you this afternoon?”

Sheriff Morton nodded at the velvet-covered box in Carmichael’s hand and waved him toward the front reception counter. Once they were a few steps away from Clovis’s desk, he asked in a quiet tone, “So… You and Mack Higgins’ daughter finally taking the plunge?”

“That’s the plan,” Skip replied. “Guess I’ll find out for sure come Christmas Day when I ask her. She could still say no.”

“That she could,” the sheriff grunted, then inspected the inside of his empty coffee mug for a moment before adding, “Seems like just yesterday that you and Ron Connelly got all drunked up over at Happy’s Tavern and went to fighting over her.”

“It’s been a few years, actually, boss,” Skip replied.

Morton ignored him and continued. “Right out in the middle of the street, if I remember correctly.”

“Yeah, boss,” Skip conceded. “Never going to let me forget that, are you?”

“Nope,” Morton replied.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. So… You tell her about the academy yet?”

Skip shook his head and held up the jewelry box, giving it a small shake. “I figured I’d tell her once this part was out of the way.”

“Take my advice, son. Tell her about it before you ask her to marry you. You owe her that. No matter how much you two might be in love right now, she has to be able to make an informed decision.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean there’s a big damn difference between bein’ a city cop’s wife and a small town deputy’s wife.”

“You mean the risk.”

“For one,” Morton agreed with a nod. “But even more so, the stress. It can be hell on a relationship, son. Especially if you plan on starting a family.”

“Yeah… Guess you’re right.”

“Ain’t no guessin’ to it. Been there, got the divorce papers and the alimony payments to prove it,” he told him. After a short pause he snorted out a half chuckle. “Probably doesn’t matter either way though. If she’s smart, and with that fancy degree Mack paid for she oughta be, then she’ll run the opposite direction the minute you ask her.”

Skip grinned, taking the tension-breaking gibe in the good nature he knew it was intended. “Yeah, boss, th…”

“That was Hazel Parish down at Norris’s Market,” Clovis interrupted as she hung up the phone. “She says Elizabeth Callahan is down there pitching a holy fit. Apparently one of her girls went missing while she was shopping.”

“Well hell, if she’s at Norris’s the kid probably just wandered over to Bremerton’s Five-and-Dime to look at the toys,” Sheriff Morton huffed. “Hazel should know that. So should Elizabeth. They have a look for her over there?”

Clovis was nodding even as he spoke. “Seems that’s actually where the girl was when she went missing,” she explained. “Ruth Babbs was the last one to see her and her sister when they came in.”

“Both of ‘em missing?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No. Just the older of the two.”

“Could be she’s just hiding from her sister,” Skip offered. “I did that a few times myself when I was a kid. Younger siblings can be pretty annoying.”

Clovis shrugged. “They’re going through the store for the second time right now and trying to calm Elizabeth down while they’re at it. That’s why Hazel from Norris’s made the call instead of anyone from Bremerton’s. It sounds like things are a little out of control over there.”

“Yeah, sounds that way,” Sheriff Morton agreed. “Better get someone on over there. Where’s Carl?”

She reached out and wrapped her hand around the stem of the dispatch radio’s base microphone and pulled it closer. Keying it up she said, “Carl, this is Clovis, over…”

A burst of static popped from the speakers and seconds later a voice followed, “This is Carl, over.”

“What’s your twenty?”

“East end of town next to Butts’ Feed store. What’s up? Over.”

Clovis looked up at the sheriff.

Morton shook his head, gesturing toward Deputy Carmichael as he turned and headed back toward his office. “Tell him to stay put and send Sherlock on over instead. He needs somethin’ to do anyway. And do me a favor… Put on a fresh pot of coffee when you get a chance…”


OFFICIALLY, sunset was still around twenty minutes away. However, for all intents and purposes it had arrived well ahead of schedule. The overburdened clouds that were assembled in close formation overhead stretched from horizon to horizon, blotting out anything even remotely resembling sunlight. What Skip had imagined just fifteen minutes ago as a cosmic dimmer switch was now turned to the fully off position. Mother Nature had all but canceled dusk and was sending night in to take the stage early.

The dusk to dawn light over the parking lot had already flickered to life and was now casting a harsh, blue-white swath downward to highlight the hoary patterns of salt and cinder on the asphalt. Carmichael pushed the back door shut and headed for his patrol car at a slight jog. The odds were that the missing child would turn up well before he ever arrived at Bremerton’s, making the whole trip moot. But, by the same token Missus Babbs and the staff down there didn’t generally call unless they’d already looked high and low. Of course, none of that really mattered. Just because this was more than likely a nuisance call, that wasn’t a reason to be lackadaisical about response time.

Even though he wasn’t officially supposed to be on duty just yet, he didn’t mind taking this one. He was never really the type to avoid work, whether it was above and beyond his regular schedule or not. By his way of thinking, it would all even out at some point. It seemed like it always did if you were just patient and gave it long enough to do so.

Besides, right now he could really use the distraction. The looming marriage proposal was starting to weigh heavily on him. It wasn’t as if Kathy and he hadn’t talked about it several times before, but this go around it wasn’t going to be just talk.

This time it would be for real.

It probably wouldn’t be bothering him so much if it weren’t for the fact that while she went away to college he had stayed here and worked. Now, she had a Masters Degree and he… Well, he was just a sheriff’s deputy in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Midwestern town. Sure, he was finally on his way to the police academy in Kansas City and a job on the force there afterward, that much was true; but even then he’d just be a cop, and she’d have those fancy letters behind her name.

He knew damn well she could find someone better, and that’s what worried him; because whether she loved him or not, like Sheriff Morton had said, she just might be smart and say no. He knew the comment had been offered as a joke, but he’d already been fighting with that very thought himself, ever since he’d picked up the ring.

Yeah. A mindless distraction would definitely help right about now.

C HAPTER 5

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4:31 P.M. – December 22, 1975

Bremerton’s Dime Store

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

Premature darkness wasn’t the only thing Mother Nature had on tap for what was already going to be the longest night of the year without any help from the weather. She was definitely in a mood to show everyone who was really in control.

Before Deputy Carmichael had pulled out of the sheriff’s office parking lot, the leading edge of the predicted storm-turned-blizzard was rolling into town. As he hooked a quick right onto Grimes Avenue, heading over to State Street, clumped together snowflakes were starting to throw themselves against the windshield of the cruiser in hesitant, on-again, off-again bursts, driven by a rapidly rising wind. Two blocks later, the vacillating showers of frozen precipitation had worked through the series of spasmodic starts and settled into a steady diagonal curtain of the icy tufts as the official beginning of winter took possession of the small town. By the time he had traveled the last three short blocks to Bremerton’s, the snow was liberally applying itself to the landscape with relentless intent, building the first of many fresh layers upon the frozen foundation that was already in place.

Skip slowed the cruiser as he reached the dime store, quickly scanning for a space to pull in. Almost immediately he noticed a silhouette framed in the light that was escaping from the storefronts. The dark form waved and gestured toward the corner farther down. Picking up on the cue, he coasted another fifty or so feet, then flicked on the cherries as a visible warning before giving the steering wheel a quick turn to cut across oncoming traffic. Slipping carefully between the front of a pickup truck and the back end of a compact that was waiting to make a turn, he guided the cruiser through a hard arc and into a diagonal space in front of Evanston’s Drug at the opposite end of the strip.

Out of habit, he checked the time. According to his watch, slightly less than five minutes had elapsed since Clovis had hung up from the initial call. However, given the traffic snarl he had encountered at the Lake Street intersection, despite a quick burp of the siren to clear the way, Deputy Carmichael wondered if he could have been here just as fast traveling on foot.

He levered the vehicle into park, then shut off the engine and killed the lights. Bremerton’s was back up the street, on the other side of Sissy’s Florist Shop, which was nestled almost dead center between the five-and-dime and the drug store. However, before he even had the key out of the ignition, the silhouette had come down to meet him and was already standing under the awning on the sidewalk directly in front of the patrol car. In the yellowish glow pouring from Evanston’s windows he could see that what had earlier been little more than a dark outline was in fact Ruth Babbs, Bremerton’s store manager. Apparently she hadn’t taken the time to don a coat before coming outside, so she was now hugging her thick sweater tight, with her hands tucked beneath her crossed arms.

“Evening, Missus Babbs,” he said, nodding in her direction as he climbed out of the vehicle, only to be greeted by a cold gust of wind that presented him with a face full of the oversized snowflakes. He sputtered and blinked, then shoved his hat onto his head. After pushing the car door shut he walked toward her.

“Skip,” the manager called back to him by way of a greeting. “I sure do appreciate you coming down so fast.” Her voice sounded relieved, but what he could see of her face still appeared to be deeply creased with concern.

A tangle of voices was coming from the small crowd gathered just outside the dime store’s main window at the opposite end of the short block. Even with the distance and other background noise, it filled his ears with a muddy thrum, interspersed here and there with a random high note or two. Threading through it all was the unmistakable sound of a small child bawling. Given the combination of darkness, backlighting, and heavy curtain of snow, he could actually hear the people better than he could see them. However, that in itself was more than enough to get a general assessment. Even if he hadn’t been aware of the current situation, he would have been able to tell just from their sound that they weren’t there to watch the train, as would usually be the case this time of year. Their audible distress warned him that things weren’t yet resolved, and that raised his own concern by a notch or two.

“So you still haven’t located the child?” he asked, just to be sure.

Stepping up onto the sidewalk he came under the shelter of the wide awning that ran the length of the storefronts. Now that the oversized flakes were no longer streaming directly in front of his eyes he could see much better, and Missus Babbs’ expression was definitely pained.

She gave her head a shake. “No, we haven’t, and we’ve been over the entire store three times now.” She looked in the direction of the crowd for a moment then back to him and added, “Elizabeth is just beside herself. She came out front to get some air, but I’m not sure it’s done much good.”

“Has anyone called her husband?” he asked.

She nodded. “He’s on his way.”

“Good,” Skip grunted. “I’m sure everything is going to be fine, but having him here should help. So, did anyone see the girl leave the store?”

“Not that I know of.” She shook her head again. “They’ve checked all through Norris’s and Evanston’s too.” She tilted her head toward the entrance of the drug store as she continued. “Sissy’s was already closed for the day. We’ve asked around, but a lot of people were going in and out of the stores, so…”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Skip replied as her voice trailed off. “Well, let’s go have another look. She’s probably just hiding somewhere.” He gestured ahead and they started walking toward the store proper. “So, Clovis said you were the last person to see the girl?”

“Yes.” She nodded.

“And where was that?”

“When she and her sister first came into the store. They wanted to see Santa, so I sent them to the back where we have the North Pole all set up.”

“Okay, so what about Mister Babbs then? Didn’t he see them?”

Skip made what he considered a logical assumption since everyone over the age of seven knew Missus Babbs’ husband played the part of Santa at Bremerton’s and that he had for what seemed like forever. In fact, there was even a Polaroid in his parent’s family photo album from back when Skip was a small child. It showed him standing next to Mister Babbs while the jolly man in the red suit cradled his younger sister on his lap. In the photo, Skip was clutching a candy cane and looking genuinely befuddled by the entire ruse. Even back then very little escaped his attention, including the fact that Bremerton’s Santa was really the owner of the sandwich shop.

She shook her head. “Actually, Elvis isn’t here. He came down with that bad flu that’s been going around, and we had to hire someone to take over for him this past week.”

“Who?”

“His name is John Carter.”

“That doesn’t sound familiar. Is he local?”

“No. With it being so last minute we had trouble finding anyone. Mister Bremerton actually had to hire him through an agency all the way down in Saint Louis. I understand that it wasn’t cheap, but he didn’t want the children to be disappointed.”

“Sounds about like Mister B.”

She nodded agreement. “Anyway, Mister Carter seems like a very nice man. He even gave his time to go over to Immaculate Conception in Mais this morning to fill in for Elvis at the school party there. That wasn’t part of the contract, so he didn’t even get paid for it. He just volunteered.”

“That was nice of him to do that,” Skip said.

Voices were becoming more distinct within the overall murmur as they closed the gap between themselves and the clutch of people in front of the main window. Some of them were attempting to be soothing, most were concerned, but there was a standout that was unmistakably panicked. Skip figured that one in particular had to belong to Elizabeth Callahan. The bawling youngster hadn’t fully stopped either, but she seemed to be in a lull for the moment, with the warbling cries replaced by quieter gasping sobs, punctuated by short wails.

“So, what about this Mister Carter?” Skip asked. “Did he see the girl at all before she went missing?”

Missus Babbs slowed then completely stopped in her tracks, still several yards away from Bremerton’s storefront. Scrunching her forehead in thought and resting the tips of her fingers against her lips for a moment before shaking her head slowly, she answered, “You know… Come to think of it, I haven’t actually seen him since all of this started. He was on his dinner break when the girls first came in, but he was due back soon so I sent them back to wait. Then, in what seemed like it was just a couple of minutes later, Becca, the youngest, came wandering up to the front of the store, all alone and in a complete fit. All we could get from her was that her sister wouldn’t let her see Santa and that she couldn’t find her now.”

“Wouldn’t let her see Santa?” he asked.

“I know,” she replied. “It seemed strange to us too, but you know how kids are. I went back and looked for her, but she was nowhere to be seen.” The woman shrugged. “I just assumed Mister Carter hadn’t come back from his dinner break just yet and that the Santa thing was just a matter of a big sister picking at her little sister… And since then we’ve been so worried about finding Merrie I didn’t even think about him.”

The earlier notch of added concern was now joined by several more, and Deputy Carmichael felt every single one as each ratcheted into place. It wasn’t that a missing child hadn’t been important from the outset, but this was a small town. Kids around here were never really missing; they were just off being kids, daydreaming and hiding in plain sight while parental hearts skipped a beat or two.

However, something suddenly felt very different about this situation, and he didn’t like it at all.

“So that’s the missing girl’s name?” he asked, a thin but noticeably real edge of urgency had crept into his voice. “Merrie?”

She nodded. “Yes. Merrie Frances Callahan.”

“Would you happen to know where this Mister Carter goes on his dinner break?”

“No…” She shook her head.

“How about what type of car he drives?”

“It’s older. Kind of an orangish-brown,” she replied hesitantly, then paused to think. A heartbeat later she added, “It’s a four door, and it has a vinyl roof. Black, I think… Definitely dark… He’s only been here a few days, and I never really paid much attention to the make or anything. I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay,” Skip told her as he glanced quickly up the row of vehicles ahead of him as well as the traffic on the street. “That’s a good description. Did he normally park out here, or in the back?”

“In the back,” the manager replied.

“When you were looking for Merrie did you happen to notice if his car was out there?”

“No. I’m sorry. I didn’t even think to look for it.”

“Do you know where he’s staying?”

“I believe Mister Bremerton said he put him up at the Greenleaf,” she replied. Obvious fear was now welling in her voice. “You don’t think that…”

Skip filled in behind her failing words. “I’m just covering all the bases, Missus Babbs, that’s all. But I need you to do me a favor. I want you to go in and call back to the office, and give Sheriff Morton all of that information you just gave me, as well as a description of Carter and the girl. Tell Clovis that I told you to talk directly to him, okay? Can you do that for me?”

He could see that Missus Babbs was now wearing a far more concerned expression than when he had first arrived on the scene. She nodded in the affirmative, but didn’t say a word.

“Okay, let’s get moving,” he told her.

There was far more urgency in their pace now. It didn’t take uncanny powers of observation for Skip to put these pieces together and see that the picture they might well be forming wasn’t very pretty.

The gap between them and the crowd shrank quickly now, and as he expected, once he could start making out faces Skip recognized that he knew several people in the clutch. Those he didn’t actually know, he registered as having seen before. After all, Hulis wasn’t really as big as it looked on a map. Truth is, the majority of it was farmland spread out around a spot on the road that just happened to have its own post office. The population was relatively small, so it was easy to become familiar with faces, especially when you’d lived here your entire life and had a good memory.

“You have to find her,” a voice cried at him as they moved through the parting bodies. At almost the same instant, a hand clamped tightly onto his arm.

“Go on ahead in,” Skip told the manager as he came to an unscheduled halt. “And, make that call right now.”

Missus Babbs continued on, and Skip turned to see Elizabeth Callahan staring at him, a tight mask of worry clawing at her features as she clung to his arm. “Something’s wrong,” she said.

“I’m going in to look for her, Missus Callahan,” he said.

She shook her head, moaning, “This isn’t like Merrie at all.”

“Has anything been bothering her lately?” Skip asked. “Anything that might give her a reason to run off? Trouble at school or at home, maybe?”

“No, noth…” she said, then backpedaled almost immediately. “Wait… She said she wasn’t feeling well when I picked her up. I finally got her to tell me that she was worried about going to Hell because she was having bad thoughts about someone…”

“Bad thoughts? What kind of thoughts? About who?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I don’t know. She wouldn’t tell me.”

“Do you think she was bothered by it enough to run away?”

A fresh round of tears began welling in her eyes, overflowing to embark on a trek downward across her cheeks. She blinked hard, and then answered in a choked whine, “I don’t… I don’t know… I… just… Please find her…”

He locked eyes with her and found himself searching for something to say. Unfortunately, he wasn’t having much luck where words were concerned.

The simple fact was, it hadn’t been all that long ago that Deputy Carmichael had been just plain “Skip” Carmichael, a former high school football star who had somehow been lucky enough to avoid being drafted into the service, thereby missing the horrors of Vietnam, unlike some of his friends. He’d had little ambition where furthering his education was concerned, but he’d always wanted to be a cop. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much luck when applying to accredited police academies in the bigger cities.

Eventually, he gave up and contented himself with working on the family farm. After that, he had no greater plans in mind other than convincing Kathy Higgins to marry him.

Then, the position for a deputy sheriff opened up. Sheriff Morton had taken a chance on him and soon afterward was making calls. No matter what the old man said, Skip knew he had called in some markers on his behalf.

And now here he was, on the verge of what could be his perfect career. The only problem was that the career was still on the horizon. Right now, he was just a deputy sheriff in a small town where the worst thing that ever happened was a drunk and disorderly call that didn’t even end up on the bo


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oks because it was someone you knew and you just drove them home, or let them sleep it off in the holding cell for a few hours.

He had been trained, yes; Sheriff Morton had seen to that. But he hadn’t been prepared for something like this. Besides, training wasn’t everything; experience was often the real teacher, and that was something he sorely lacked. Even he would admit that he was green enough to sprout roots if he stood still long enough.

And it was for that very reason, as well as the fact that in Hulis everyone seemed to be family whether related by blood or not, that he did the only thing he could think of to do. He opened his mouth, and what came out was something that would have caused any seasoned law enforcement veteran to cringe.

“Don’t worry Missus Callahan,” he said. “It’s going to be fine. I promise I’ll find Merrie. I’m sure she’s just fine. I promise…”


PLASTIC slammed hard against plastic. The initial noise made by the sudden clash of handset versus cradle was short-lived, but the echo and resulting forlorn ping of the telephone’s metal ringer hung on a bit longer. Not only did they linger in the air, they joined together and carried through the open transom above the closed door of Sheriff Morton’s office. The blended sound continued, unhindered by obstacles from that point on as it zipped across the span of the room and entered Clovis’s ears.

She swiveled around, startled by the sudden noise and the resulting commotion. Through the large windows on the back wall she could see that the sheriff was up from his desk and moving about his office in a purposeful fashion. It had only been a couple of minutes since Missus Babbs had called and asked to speak to him, apparently at Skip’s insistence. She didn’t yet have the details, but she got the impression they would be coming soon. The urgency in the woman’s voice had already given her a very bad feeling.

And now there was this.

A few seconds later the office door swung open and Sheriff Morton stormed out. He was heading straight for her desk, one arm stuffed into a sleeve of his coat while he fought to fill the other as well. An index card was tucked between his lips.

Given his expression, he didn’t seem like he was angry. Actually, he appeared more than just a little concerned and without a doubt, completely driven. Now Clovis was definitely worried.

“What’s wro…” she started to ask.

He cut her off as he yanked the index card out of his mouth, tossed it onto the desk in front of her, and began to bark instructions. “I need you to get these descriptions out to Carl and tell him to keep his eyes open. Tell him if he sees this car, pull it over and radio for backup. Then call Joe and Edgar and give the info to them too. Tell them they’re on the clock as of ten minutes ago. You’ll want to plan on working late too. Might wanna call Carol too. Get her in here to help.”

Clovis glanced quickly at the card. The lined stock was covered with a scribble of notes, legible, but obviously jotted in a hurry. Before she could utter any sort of response to what had already been said, the sheriff continued. “I want you to send Joe to the west end of town; tell him the same as Carl, keep his eyes open. If he sees the car, pull it over, call for backup. Have Edgar head over to Bremerton’s to help Carmichael. And then I want you to get the Highway Patrol on the line…”

When he paused long enough to suck in a quick breath, Clovis jumped on the chance and interjected a question, “What’s going on?”

“A goddamned false alarm, I hope,” he replied, then grunted hard as he finally managed to force his free arm through the other sleeve and shrug completely into his coat. “But right now it sure looks a lot like we’ve got an abduction on our hands.”

At his words, Clovis felt her heart slide up into her throat. The sharp pain of sympathetic fear washed over her immediately behind the first sensation, causing a strange hollowness to form deep inside her chest. She imagined it was probably the empty space where her heart used to be.

“Are… Are you sure?”

“Not yet, but it sure looks bad. And, I trust Carmichael. Something had to set him off for him to have Ruth call me.”

“What do you want me to tell the Highway Patrol?” Clovis asked, croaking out the words past the sudden tightness in her voice. Still looking at the sheriff, she reached sideways for the base microphone and fumbled after it with a shaky hand until she managed to grasp the neck and pull it toward her.

“Everything I just told you,” he replied, turning and starting toward the front door. “And have them run this John Carter for priors, just to be sure.”

She shouted after him. “Where are you going?”

A swirl of snow streamed inward on the sudden draft that was created when he tugged the door open with a quick jerk. He started forward into the storm while calling back to her, “I’m heading over to the Greenleaf to check on something. I’ll radio in just a few…”

CHAPTER 6

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Harsh light spewed from a pair of un-shrouded flood lamps and pooled on the parking lot just beyond Bremerton’s back door. The bulbs themselves angled slightly downward and were screwed into a fixture that was mounted a few feet above the top of the opening on the outside wall. The glare spread outward, throwing itself with singular purpose at the encroaching darkness.

Undaunted, the artificial illumination put up an admirable fight against insurmountable odds, but in the end it lacked the strength to fully overwhelm the night. Somewhere near the center of the back parking lot the opposing forces grappled, blending together in a murky gray skirmish, flanked on either side by the two sworn enemies, light and dark.

Deputy Carmichael paused at the threshold and gazed out into the wide arc of diminishing light created by the ongoing clash. Fat, crystalline flakes were filling the air before him, streaming down, diagonally, sideways, and even twisting in violent, short-lived swirls on sudden gusts of wind. As the frozen precipitation plummeted toward the ground, it was simultaneously reflecting the brilliance of the high-wattage bulbs, and casting oblique, animated shadows upon the already snow-covered surface of the asphalt.

Skip had hurriedly walked the interior of the store, from front to back, calling Merrie’s name as he went, and identifying himself aloud as well. If the little girl was simply hiding, he wanted her to know that the police were involved now and that the game had moved from simply annoying to downright serious. However, he received no answer from her, and though he had said exactly the opposite to her mother, he hadn’t really been expecting one. In his mind, that lack of expectation was supported by what he found at the back of the store.

The first thing to catch his eye when he reached the “North Pole” fantasyland was the angle of the cardboard fireplace. In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t off by much. No more than a few inches, really. In fact, the average onlooker might not have even noticed anything wrong about it at all, but the disruption to its positioning was more than enough to grab Skip’s attention. The fake logs with their orange cellophane embers were still pretending to burn, most likely exactly where they’d been placed originally. The fireplace facade itself, however, was askew by more than enough to fully expose the motorized workings of the flickering light behind the glowing hearth. Moreover, it was resting at an angle that suggested it had been struck by someone or something that was headed for the nearby storeroom door, and in a bit of a hurry. Under everyday circumstances, while the disruption to the scenery was certainly something he would notice, it wasn’t something that he would consider all that important, because there could easily be any number of mundane explanations for the issue.

In truth, those innocuous reasons could still apply, and he knew better than to discount them. However, the way things had been shaping up, the mundane didn’t seem very likely.

On that instinct, he followed what he perceived to be a trail, entering the storeroom and continuing to call out for the young girl as he searched. Eventually, he came to the back door of the building and opened it. And that is where he now stood, gazing out into the night.

“Merrie?” he called. “Merrie, it’s Deputy Skip from the sheriff’s office…”

Again, no answer came other than the rising and falling sigh of the frigid wind. His call had ridden out on a cloud of steam caused by his moist breath. A cloud that immediately leapt onto the back of the swirling air and was dragged away, taking each dying syllable of the words along as well.

Carmichael stepped through the opening and was instantly pelted with the blowing snow. He squinted his eyes and pivoted his gaze from left to right as he quickly scanned the lot, looking for both the missing girl and for Carter’s four-door sedan. Stark puddles of light similar to the one in which he now stood fell from fixtures mounted above the rear entrances of the flower shop and pharmacy. Two more sets of flood lamps were also positioned at the corners of the building. Still, the darkness of night, aided by blizzard conditions, was winning the battle for dominance over the lot. Were it not for the near whiteout, with the exception of the trash dumpster to his right he would have had a fairly unobstructed view of the parking area. Of course, as the old saying goes, “woulda, shoulda, coulda.”

Skip held his hands up with his fingers parallel to the brim of his hat and palms hooked at a ninety-degree angle, trying to shield his eyes from the blowing flakes as he concentrated on each individual car before moving his gaze to the next. Unfortunately, of the few vehicles present, the sedan Missus Babbs had described was nowhere to be seen, at least not that he could tell. On top of that, they were all currently excelling at the task of collecting their own blankets of white, which made them even harder to make out. However, that also meant that it was unlikely that any of them had been running recently enough to be warm.

He repeated the scan just to be sure. Not only was Carter’s vehicle not on the lot, there were no tire tracks or footprints readily visible in the freshly fallen snow either. This could simply mean that nobody had gone out this door since it had started snowing. When you combined that observation with the lack of a warm vehicle, it might also indicate that Carter wasn’t as conscientious about his job as Missus Babbs wanted to believe and that he was late returning from his dinner break.

Or, it could mean that Carter had indeed taken Merrie and had done so before the snow had really begun to fall, which fit the timeline. In Skip’s mind, as horrifying a thought as that was, thus far everything seemed to be adding up to foul play.

Finally satisfied that the car wasn’t there, Skip panned his gaze lower across the flat expanse of snow. Even though no tracks were immediately evident, that didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t there, or even that something else important might not be hiding in plain sight. Sometimes you just had to look a little closer. As he swept toward the right, he noticed a dark spot in the snow just a few feet away from where he was standing and very near the dumpster-right at the corner of it, in fact. The stain was roughly the size of a small dinner plate, though much more oblong in shape, and appeared as if something was melting through the thin layer of snow cover from beneath.

He stepped toward the spot and knelt down next to it, shifting his upper body to keep from casting his shadow across the anomaly. As he peered at the lumpy, wet mass, the wind made a sudden shift, sending a flake-filled gust directly into his face. He blinked against the onslaught of snow and at the same time sputtered a bit as a foul odor wafted upward into his nostrils. Taking a second, shallower breath he recognized the smell that was coming from the mass.

It was the sharp funk of fresh vomit.

Skip swallowed hard and continued to inspect the somewhat teardrop shape in the snow, despite having to battle his own wave of nausea brought on by both the sight and stench of the recent puke. Even though his own stomach now felt sour, his brain was noticing a pattern. The spread of the spilled stomach contents seemed to indicate that it had been propelled at a slight angle toward the back of the store, almost as if the person was facing the door instead of away. However, given the amoeba like bulge along the outer edge, it also seemed to have been deflected by something. Sending his eyes upward he found frozen dribbles of what appeared to be vomit clinging to the corner of the dumpster. Standing up and angling his gaze back downward, he followed the splatter in reverse, noticing that it spread in a way that suggested the person responsible might have been moving in the opposite direction. The fading line of smaller spots led several inches away from the primary, appearing to hook around the corner of the huge metal bin with spray-like lines radiating outward.

Skip’s heart jumped, felt as if it stopped, and then it started to race. A new thought popped into his brain. Perhaps Merrie was simply ill and disoriented with a fever. That flu had been going around, and it was bad; he knew that for a fact. Missus Callahan had said Merrie wasn’t feeling well. Maybe it wasn’t those bad thoughts she claimed to be having. Maybe she really was sick.

It could very well be that he had jumped to conclusions. That he had simply misread the circumstances and then allowed paranoia to take over, in turn driving him toward a faulty hypothesis. Maybe he was going to walk around the corner of the dumpster and find the little girl, delirious with a fever, and hiding from the world because of it. Right now, he would definitely settle for that instead of the other option that had been dominating his thoughts.

“Merrie?” he called out as he stepped forward and around the corner of the bin.

Unfortunately, there was still no answer. Not only that, there was no Merrie. Just fast falling snow and the hard line of the dumpster’s shadow where it stood in the swath of light from the flood lamps overhead. Skip felt the pit of his stomach sink when he was greeted with nothing more than the oblique line of blue-black darkness. He stood there for a moment and then looked out across the lot toward the entrance at the far end.

Between the heavy moans of the wind he could hear the occasional noise of traffic out on the main drag in front of the store.

He called out again, “Merrie?”

His voice hitched a ride on a snowy gale and disappeared into the darkness behind him.

“Merrie!” he called out again, cupping his hands on either side of his mouth and shouting against the weather. “MERRIE CALLAHAN!”

He held his breath and waited. There was still no answer.

Deputy Carmichael sighed and started turning to go back into the store. As he shifted, his own shadow moved, and in the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of something protruding from the snow as light glinted from it in a quick flash. Twisting back around, he scanned the area. It was probably just a random snowflake catching the beam from the flood lamps at just the right moment, but in his peripheral vision it had seemed far more metallic. Slowly, keeping his eyes focused ahead, he stepped sideways, allowing the light to fall in the general direction of the phantom once again.

Panning his gaze back and forth he suddenly caught another glimpse of the flash right at the edge of the dumpster’s long shadow and even farther out at the edge of his vision. He knew it could still have been a rogue flake, so he carefully and ever so slightly moved his head back and forth, staring through the curtain of falling snow.

The flash hit the edge of his sight once again.

Locking his eyes on the spot, he took a step forward and stopped. Then another, and waited again. Squinting against the wind he finally noticed an almost insignificant lump of crystalline white. He stepped toward it, and a more detailed outline began to emerge. Another step and he saw a small swath of black and the suggestion of a glint of silver. As the wind blew around it, a miniature drift was forming on the opposite side, leaving a concave void facing him.

He advanced the last few steps forward and again knelt down. Reaching out, he brushed away the rapidly accumulating flakes to reveal the object beneath. When he saw it, the pit of his stomach did more than just sink. This time it twisted into a hard knot as his heart thudded painfully in his chest.

A nauseating thought flickered through his head, and he remembered that less than a half-hour ago he had been glad to have a distraction. Now he was cursing himself for it.

He reached out and picked up the lone, abandoned shoe-a little girl’s black leather Mary Jane. Light once again glinted from the silver metal buckle as he lifted it from the snow, and his breath caught in his chest, lodging itself in that agonizing somewhere between an inhale and an exhale.

He didn’t need anyone to tell him that the shoe belonged to Merrie Frances Callahan. Nor did he need someone to explain that she was nowhere around to claim it.

He just knew.

CHAPTER 7

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6:23 A.M. – December 22, 2010

Huck’s Diner

US 61 North – Hannibal, Missouri

“… news out of Jefferson City this morning, the license of a Kansas City funeral home has been revoked by state regulators after multiple probation violations…”

The talking head on the dim screen continued, his voice droning outward from the speaker of the small television on the opposite side of the near empty diner. However, any further words he had on the story were all but drowned out by a far more cheerful voice that was issuing from a woman clad in a retro pink uniform, complete with an apron and a nametag that had MABEL stenciled across its face.

“How are you this morning?” the waitress asked.

“I’m fine, thanks,” Constance replied as she closed the vinyl-covered, tri-fold menu and looked up.

The woman in pink smiled. “Coffee, hon?”

“Definitely.”

“Regular or unleaded?”

“Regular.”

The waitress had come prepared. She placed a thick-walled mug upright on the table, and then with a practiced juggle of the two well-worn Pyrex globes in her other hand, plucked the brown handled one free. Tilting it carefully, she poured a stream of java while adding, “Fresh. Just made it.”

“Wonderful,” Constance replied.

The woman returned the pot to her other hand, once again hooking the orange and brown handles together in a death grip. Reaching into her apron pocket she pulled out a handful of creamers and put them on the table.

“Thanks.”

The waitress looked her over and with a genuine brightness in her voice asked, “Visiting Hannibal today?”

Constance gave her head a quick shake. “Just passing through, I’m afraid.”

“Too bad, we have a lot to see. And some wonderful little shops too. Great for last minute gift shopping.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Where’re you heading?”

“North.”

The waitress continued, undaunted by the vague answer. “Visiting family for the holidays?”

“Business, actually…”

“This close to Christmas? That’s a shame. Folks should be with family this time of year. Or, a pretty young lady like you, maybe with someone special?”

Constance smiled and shrugged but didn’t offer any information. Apparently her naked ring finger was doing all the talking for her. In any case, she was ready to bring the conversation to a close before it became any more invasive than it already had. She wasn’t unfamiliar with the friendly openness of small towns, so the woman’s queries didn’t really offend her. However, she also wasn’t accustomed to the culture either. In Saint Louis, where she lived, you were cordial to others; however, if you were too friendly, even out in the suburbs, people had a tendency to think something was either wrong with you or that you had an ulterior motive, nefarious or otherwise. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the time they were correct.

Of course, under the circumstances this exchange was probably good practice. The town where she was heading was even smaller than Hannibal, so she might as well be prepared for random Q and A from the locals there too. Still, she wasn’t ready to dive in headfirst. Not until she absolutely had to, and definitely not this early in the morning.

Fortunately, the waitress shifted the focus of her interrogation without any other prompting. “All righty then, hon, have you decided what you’d like, or do you need another minute or two?”

Constance smiled inwardly. Now they were back on track. She nodded and said, “The Becky’s Breakfast, I think.”

“How did you want those eggs?”

“Scrambled.”

“Bacon or sausage?”

“Do you have turkey bacon?”

“Sure do. White or wheat?”

“Wheat, please.”

“Okay, I’ll have that out in just a few.” The woman in pink flashed a smile and turned to head back toward the counter.

“Oh,” Constance called after her. “Do you have any grapefruit juice?”

“Not sure this morning, sugar. I’ll have to check on that for you,” the waitress answered. “If we have some do you want a large or a small?”

“Just a small. Thank you.”

Once the woman disappeared through the kitchen doors behind the counter, Constance turned her attention toward the TV. The morning news had given way to a kitschy commercial for a local car dealership. Oh well, she could tune in the news channel on her satellite radio once she was back on the road. Besides, right now she still had some reading to catch up on.

She took a moment to stretch. Two hours in the driver’s seat hadn’t done her any favors, given that the apparent urgency of this trip had caused her to miss her morning run, not to mention that she was operating on less than four hours sleep. She wasn’t a big fan of last minute assignments like this, but you went where your SSA told you to go. The mobility agreement was all part of the job, no matter the division where you were assigned, but most especially if you were a special agent in the field. Of course, in this instance she wasn’t even sure her SSA knew what was happening just yet. These orders had come from the SAC himself, and even he had implied that they originated from higher up the FBI’s food chain, which meant DC. Either way, when your boss’ boss is the one handing you an assignment, you don’t ask why. Not out loud, anyway.

Still, Agent Johnson was definitely going to owe her one for bailing on this. She didn’t care if he had a bad case of the flu or not. Tit for tat, that’s how it worked. He got out of it, and she got stuck with it, so he owed her. Moreover, if he was responsible for putting her name on the short list as a backup, his payback was going to be a bitch; namely her, and she had no problem bearing that moniker when she needed to.

What really bothered her was that the bureau had plenty of agents working from the Saint Louis headquarters, and she’d pulled more than her share of crappy assignments over the years. Wasn’t it someone else’s turn to work a holiday for a change? And why just her? Shouldn’t she at least have another agent from her squad along for the ride? Two sets of eyes were always better than one.

Or maybe it was just that she wanted to have someone to commiserate with?

Again, these were just more examples of questions and comments that you didn’t give voice, which is why they were now trapped on the inside with the rest of her thoughts and making a confusing din between her ears. On the flip side, it was possible she should be considering it a feather in her cap that the SAC, and possibly even someone in DC, had picked her out of the pool of agents. Unfortunately, the end of that feather was sharp, and right now it was poking through her cap and into her head in a most annoying fashion.

Constance ripped open a creamer and poured it into the steaming mug of coffee. Then she tore the tops from a pair of sugar packets and dumped them in as well. The caramel clouds of diluting cream were already losing their billowy shapes as she dunked her spoon and gave a quick stir.

She lifted the cup by its handle, then pursed her lips and blew across its rim before taking a tentative sip. It was still a bit too hot, so she placed it to the side for a moment. Letting out a quiet sigh, she experienced the moment of self-condemnation she had already known was coming.

She needed to stop feeling sorry for herself. She knew the score the day she entered the academy at Quantico. She had chosen this career because it’s what she wanted to do, and that hadn’t changed just because she didn’t like the timing of an assignment. Given some of the things she’d witnessed in her time as a field agent, she could easily find far better reasons to hate her job. But she didn’t. Sometimes it gave her nightmares, yes. But she was never one for walking away from a puzzle.

Especially not until it was finished.

She had to take the bad with the good, and she knew it, even if it meant not spending the holidays with Ben. She sighed again, but this time it was out of resignation mixed with a tenuous sort of contentment.

“Everything okay, hon?” the waitress asked.

Constance looked up, not quite startled but a bit surprised since she hadn’t heard the woman return. “Yes… Fine…” she replied. “It’s just that it’s already been a long day.”

The woman gave her a knowing nod as she placed a short glass in front of her. “Tell me about it. Here’s your grapefruit juice, hon. Your breakfast should be out in just a couple of minutes.”

“Thanks.”

When she was once again alone, Constance pulled out her cell phone and thumbed in a speed dial code, then tilted her head and tucked the device beneath her hair and up against her ear. After the third ring the speaker clicked and she heard a gruff voice say, “This is Ben Storm. You’ve reached my phone. I ain’t here. Leave a message.”

“Ben, it’s me,” she said after the beep. “Looks like we have to put our plans on hold. I’ve been sent out of town on an investigation and I’m not sure exactly when I’ll be back. I’ll call you later.”

Constance hung up then glanced at the time on the small screen. Ben was probably still in the shower right about now, which would explain why he didn’t answer. It felt later to her than it really was, probably because she’d already been up and working for several hours.

She slipped her cell back into her pocket, then shifted in the booth and pulled a large envelope out of the faux leather portfolio lying at her side. She’d had time for no more than a quick glance at it earlier before getting started on her four-hour journey north. The SAC had called her in at oh-dead-thirty for a briefing so spotty that it gave new meaning to the word, and until now every moment since had been rush, rush, and more rush. In fact, when she’d first arrived in his office her hair had still been slightly damp from her shower. Fortunately, he hadn’t seemed to care, or even notice for that matter.

She leaned against the padded back of the booth’s bench seat and unwound the string on the interdepartmental envelope. Considering what she’d been told during the meeting-which wasn’t much-the packet seemed a bit light and that was a concern. Starting from scratch with a new investigation was one thing, but this one was supposedly ongoing and as she understood it, had been for several years.

With an involuntary frown tweaking her features, she withdrew a sheaf of papers, most of which appeared to be reports filed by other agents over the span of the case. Protruding slightly from the top edge of the thin stack of official documents was a laminated sheet. Constance thumbed through the papers and extracted the rigid page.

Sandwiched inside was an aged photocopy of a section of newspaper clipping. A hyper contrasted picture took up the majority of the page, but it was really nothing more than black and white shapes with very little detail. The most you could tell was that it looked like there might be one or two people, and maybe a house pictured-then again maybe not, the quality was literally that poor.

There was no caption, nor was there any story beneath the photo. Constance rummaged through the papers once again searching for any other laminated pages, but she found none. She then slowly flipped through them a third time, keeping her eyes open for un-laminated copies just in case. Still nothing.

“Here you go, hon,” the waitress’ voice hit her ears again.

Out of habit, Constance turned over the short stack of documents, placing them face down on the seat next to her.

“Thanks,” she said, forcing a smile as she looked up at the server.

The woman in pink shook her head. “You work too hard, young lady. You’re going to give yourself indigestion.”

“It comes with the job,” Constance re


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plied.

“Well at least try to relax a little and enjoy your breakfast.”

“I will.”

“Can I get you anything else?”

“No, I think I’m good. Thanks.”

“Okay, hon. I’ll check back with you in a bit.”

Constance waited until the woman was back at the counter and busy filling a coffee mug for another patron who had just arrived. Only then did she slip the laminated sheet out from beneath the other papers and flip it face up.

She held the landscape copied page by the short edge and stared at it again. She checked the opposite side, but found nothing, so she flipped it back over and continued staring, purposely cocking an eyebrow and pursing her lips into a thoughtful frown. Other than the blown-out, useless picture, the only thing that remained on the page was a headline and the dateline of the story. At least those words were still legible, even though they were less than crisp around the edges; a fault of the copier technology of the day, from the looks of them.

The dateline below the photo read Hulis, MO – December 26, 1975.

The sensational, six-column, two-inch block headline overhead proclaimed, MERRIE AXEMAS.

CHAPTER 8

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11:03 A.M. – December 22, 2010

Sheriff’s Department

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

“Hrrmmph…”

The curious grunt that issued from the sheriff was accompanied by the popping creak of springs as he shifted in the wheeled desk chair he currently occupied. After staring silently at his visitor for an extended measure of heartbeats, he pursed his lips thoughtfully, then rocked back in a slow arc before finally allowing himself to slump the last few inches and fall heavily against the backrest.

FBI Special Agent Constance Mandalay stood on the opposite side of his desk, her credentials held forth, displayed in a well-practiced manner. The portly, uniformed man opposite her didn’t seem particularly interested in the badge and ID, but she wasn’t going to put them away just yet, even though she had identified herself verbally upon entering. She simply held his gaze, intent on establishing her authority as a federal officer.

Audibly matted against the tense quiet of the room, the chair popped and let out a dull twang as it settled under the sheriff’s now cantilevered weight. Constance wondered to herself if one of the springs had finally surrendered for all eternity. It wasn’t that the sheriff was morbidly obese or anything of that sort, but he definitely looked like he had done hard time at the dinner table. However, the real reason for the thought was that the piece of furniture looked like a broken relic from the post World War II 1940’s. Of course, when you got right down to outward appearances, so did the man sitting in it.

Sheriff Addison Carmichael let out a second harrumph, then raised an eyebrow and drew in a deep breath as he twiddled a pencil between his fingers. After a moment, he absently drummed it on the duct-taped arm of the heavy-framed chair while using his free hand to groom the gray-white thicket that lined his upper lip. Finally, forcing a long sigh out through his nose, he tossed the freshly sharpened #2 onto the stack of papers filling his blotter and then gave the petite FBI agent a shallow nod.

“Go on and put your badge away, honey,” he drawled. “I already know damn well what they look like.”

Constance quickly slid her index finger to the side and flipped the worn leather case shut, then slipped it into the inner pocket of her blazer.

“Sheriff Carmichael, I’m sure you know…” she started.

He interrupted. “Skip.”

“Excuse me?”

“Skip,” he repeated. “Everybody around here just calls me Skip. Always have. If you’re gonna work with me, you might as well too.”

“I see,” Constance replied with a nod. “Well, Skip, as I was…”

“Where’s Agent Drew?” Sheriff Carmichael asked, speaking over the top of her once again.

“Agent Drew was reassigned,” she answered after an annoyed pause. “In fact, he’s no longer with the bureau’s Saint Louis office.”

“Yeah, guess I’m not surprised. They send me a different Fed every year.”

“Actually, you were supposed to be meeting with Agent Johnson, but he came down with the flu.”

“Well, he would’ve been a new one too.” He shook his head. “So you pulled the short straw this time, eh?”

“I was assigned to this case if that’s what you mean. Is that a problem?”

“Dunno,” he grunted. “Is it?”

“It shouldn’t be.”

He huffed. “I actually kinda liked Drew. He had a sense of humor.”

“As I said, Agent Drew has been reassigned. Besides, my SAC thought a fresh set of eyes might be in order.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “They always do. That’s exactly what Drew said when he showed up the first time. And Agent Keene before him… I could go on. You make number five, ya’know that?”

“Yes, I do.”

“So now, as usual, I’ve gotta waste my time bringing you up to speed.”

“Not necessarily. I’ve read the file.”

“And so did the four in front of you, sugar. Let me ask you this: Did you learn anything with all that reading?”

Constance bristled slightly at the condescending sobriquet but allowed it to slide for the time being. “I’ll admit, the file is a little sparse on hard information.”

“That’s because we don’t have any. Besides, readin’ and knowin’ are two different things, young lady.”

“Don’t worry, I’m a quick study. Like I said, it really shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Woulda, coulda, shoulda… You Feds are all a bunch of damn parrots with the same vocabulary, you know that?” he grunted, then gestured toward a wooden chair. “Well, since you’re here, go on then… Sit down.”

Constance sighed. It appeared this man still wasn’t taking her seriously, so she dug in. “I think I’ll stand, thank you.”

The sheriff snorted. “Yeah, right… Go on… Take a load off.”

“Really, I’m fine. If you’ll just…”

“Listen, sugar,” the sheriff interrupted yet again. This time he rocked forward in the chair, then rested his elbows on the paper-strewn desktop as he tilted his head down and looked at her over the top rim of his glasses. “I know what you’re doing, and I ain’t got time for your little bureaucratic, girl-power bullshit.”

“Excuse me? My what?”

“Position and power, honey. Basic psychology. Right now you’re trying to prove that you can write your name in the snow bigger and better than anyone else because you’re a woman with a badge who has something to prove. On top of that, you’re showing me that you’re the one in charge because you work for the FBI. So look…I get it. You’re a Fed, I’m a small town cop. We’re all one big happy family as long as you’re on top. Fine. But I’m here to tell ya’, you can stop dancin’ because I’ve already done this waltz with every damn one of your predecessors.

“Now…” He waved his finger at her then thrust it toward the chair. “Since you’re standin’ there in a pair of brand new high heels, and we both know you’re dyin’ to sit down because your feet are killing you, quit tryin’ to prove that you’re the alpha bitch in this pack and just park it.”

Constance stood her ground and snapped, “I take it you have some sort of problem with women, Sheriff Carmichael?”

He shook his head and replied in an exasperated huff. “Damn, you’re a piece of work… First off, I said call me Skip. Secondly, hell no, I don’t have a problem with women. I love ‘em. I even married one. Got three daughters too.

“What I do have a problem with, however, is people wasting my time playing games like you’re doing right now. So either sit your ass down or get the hell out of my office, Special Agent Mandalay. Your choice.”

Once his diatribe was finished, the sheriff picked up his pencil and returned his attention to the paperwork at hand, as if Constance wasn’t even in the room.

Well, at least he was paying attention enough to catch my name, she thought to herself while continuing to stare at him long enough for the second hand to make a quarter orbit around the clock face. Personality-wise, Ben-the homicide detective she’d been dating for some time now-was a younger version of the sheriff: gruff, opinionated, and more than willing to speak his mind. He definitely hadn’t been mellowing with age, either. For a fleeting moment she wondered if she was stuck in some sort of Dickens-inspired nightmare and the Ghost of Christmas Future was torturing her with a glimpse of what may come. She gave a small shudder at the thought and then shook it off.

Finally she conceded. Draping her coat over the uncomfortable-looking straight back of the chair, she let out a small sigh then perched herself in the seat. As it turned out, appearances were not deceiving at all. The chair was just as uncomfortable as it looked.

“There, I’m sitting,” she announced. “Are you happy now?”

A full minute passed before the sheriff answered. Without looking up from his work he grunted. “Not my feet that’s hurtin’, young lady. Question is, are you happy now?”

She regarded him quietly for a moment, then asked, “Okay, I’ll admit it; I’m curious. How did you know my feet were hurting? Lucky guess?”

“Those shoes would hurt my feet. I figure they gotta hurt yours.”

“You barely glanced at me when I came in. How did you even know I was wearing heels?”

“I ain’t deaf yet, honey. I heard ‘em the minute you hit the front door.”

“Okay,” she conceded. “But that still doesn’t explain how you know I just bought them.”

The sheriff sighed and tossed his pencil back onto the papers again as he leaned back. He gave her the sort of look a teacher would bestow upon a student who wasn’t grasping the idea that one plus one equals two. “This a test?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean did your other Fed buddies tell you to screw with me?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“Sweetheart…” he muttered, then shook his head. “Okay. Fine. Let’s get it over with so we can get some police work done.” Wagging his finger up and down at her, he began to explain, “That blazer you’re wearing is a Charles Gray of London, unless I missed my guess, but I don’t think I did because my youngest daughter has one just like it. Not the highest dollar, but pricey, nice, and it’s current on the style. The one you’re wearing has been custom altered to drape properly because you carry your sidearm in a belt rig-on your right, by the way. That tells me you’re particular about your appearance and like to keep up with fashion, so it stands to reason that the shoes would be important too.” Now directing his index finger at the doorway, he continued, “But, when you walked in here a few minutes ago, you were favoring your left foot, even though based on the way you move it’s obvious you’re no stranger to walking in heels. In fact, I’d say you could even run in them if you were pressed.

“Anyway, then you stood here in front of my desk and kept shifting your weight from foot to foot, which means your right was bothering you too. That little dance tells me either you’re wearing new shoes that aren’t broken in yet and they hurt your feet, or you really have to pee. Now, I may be wrong, but I’m pretty certain that if you had to pee that bad you would have asked Clovis to point you at the restroom before you had her bring you in here to talk to me.”

Constance stared at him wordlessly for a moment, then asked, “You picked up all that from a quick glance?”

“You gonna tell me I’m wrong?” he huffed.

“Well… No… It was that obvious, huh?”

“Yeah, it was. To me, anyway. Don’t they teach you kids anything at Quantico these days?”

Constance ignored the gibe. “I have to say, Sheriff, your powers of observation and deduction border on uncanny.”

“For a sheriff of Podunk, you mean.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“Were you in law enforcement before-”

He verbally truncated her question with one of his own. “You mean, ‘was I a hotshot homicide detective on some major metropolitan police force before burning out and retiring to the rural Midwest where I could be an Andy Taylor clone and not even have to carry a gun?’ That’d be kinda cliche, don’t you think?”

“Yes, actually.”

“You’re right, it is. And, I am. All except the part about Andy Taylor and the fact that I’m not stupid enough to think I can get away without carrying a sidearm in this day and age. Even here in Hulis.”

“But you were, as you put it, a hotshot homicide detective.” Her words were a statement and not a question.

“I cleared a few cases in my day,” he grunted while looking around his desk, lifting papers and shifting file folders in the process. “I take it none of this information was in the file you read?”

“The file was on the case, not you.”

“Yeah, whatever,” he replied absently, still searching for something in the clutter. “Heard that one before. All I have to say is that’s some piss-poor police work for a bunch of Feds. If your research is that bad, my opinion of you G-men just ratcheted down another couple of notches.”

“Well, hopefully I can change that.”

“Yeah, I guess we’ll see, won’t we? Seven murders in seven years, all on the same damn day; we’re still at square one, and I’ve got my fifth new Fed to babysit. No offense, but from where I am, you’ve got your work cut out for you changin’ my mind.”

Constance ignored the negative commentary and pressed forward. “So, speaking of the murders, has the card arrived yet?”

“Yeah, it was waitin’ for me when I got here this morning, just like clockwork… Hang on a sec…” Sheriff Carmichael gave up his apparently futile search and pressed the side of his hand on the talk button of an intercom box that looked only slightly newer than the chair and desk, then called out, “Hey, Clovis?”

A handful of seconds later the speaker crackled, “What do you need, Skip?”

“Have you seen my coffee cup?”

“It’s out here on top of the filing cabinet where you left it an hour ago.”

“Dammit…” he muttered.

There was a short hiss, and then Clovis’s voice rattled from the tinny box again. “Want me to bring it in to you?”

“What time is it?” he asked, a mildly absent quality to his voice as he circumvented the original question.

“Eleven-thirty,” she replied. “I swear, Skip, you need a watch.”

“Why? You’ve got one.”

“Skip…”

The sheriff sighed, then smoothed his bushy mustache before turning his attention back to Constance. “You have lunch yet, Special Agent Mandalay?”

“No, actually… And you can call me Constance, by the way.”

“Skip? You want me to bring you your cup?” Clovis’s voice came over the speaker again.

He depressed the button. “No, hon… Thanks anyway. I think I’m gonna take the Fed over to That Place. You want me to bring you back anything?”

The intercom crackled. “I brought lunch today, but I sure could go for a piece of pie… Oh…but I really shouldn’t.”

“Coconut cream like usual?” he asked.

“I really shouldn’t,” she replied.

“Coconut cream it is,” he grunted.

“That Place?” Constance asked when he was finished.

“It’s the diner across the street,” he replied as he rolled back, then pushed up from his chair and ambled over to a bentwood coat rack in the corner, stopping for a moment to hitch up his belt before pulling down his jacket.

“Does it have a name?” she asked as she stood.

“Yeah, That Place.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah,” he said with a nod. “Come on, I’ll buy you lunch and see if I can get you up to speed on all this.”

“What about the card?”

“What about it?”

“May I see it?”

The sheriff hefted his jacket back onto a hook then walked back to the desk. “Exactly the same as all the others,” he grunted, shuffling through the papers and extracting a manila envelope labeled EVIDENCE, along with a few scribbles of information such as the date and time. Handing it to her he added, “Got it bagged for you; not that you’ll find anything. Your lab geeks never do.”

“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Eventually the killer will slip up.” She added a paraphrased retort, “ They always do.”

“Yeah. Good luck with that.”

“You seem a little jaded,” Constance said, reaching into her pocket and withdrawing a pair of surgical gloves.

“Like I said, seven murders, seven years, five Feds, square one,” he replied. “And now I’m staring at number eight in about three days time. You’ll have to excuse me if I sound less than hopeful regarding an outcome at this point.”

“I understand,” she replied, unwrapping the string closure and then carefully emptying the contents out into her gloved hand.

The Christmas card was nothing particularly unique. Printed on inexpensive stock, the front of it was a detailed color rendering of a serene, somewhat darkened living room. A fireplace dominated the center of the picture, with a bulging, bright red, gift-laden stocking hanging from the mantle. A pair of black boots attached to telltale red-suited legs were dangling down from the flue and into the dormant fireplace.

In the foreground was a small plate, upon it resting a half-eaten cookie and what appeared to have once been a full glass of milk, now mostly empty. Adjacent to it was a note written in a child’s hand that said, “For Santa, Marry Crismis. Luv Susie.”

Above it all, gracing the top of the scene, were the words ‘Twas The Night Before… printed in an embossed, bold script.

Inside the card was blank. On the back was only the simple logo of a generic greeting card manufacturer that had long since gone out of business according to the case file.

Constance turned the card over in her hands, looking at the back, at the blank inside, and finally lingering over the artistically depicted tableau on the front. Sheriff Carmichael watched her silently for several minutes.

Eventually, he cleared his throat and muttered, “Exact same damn card every year, stuffed right through the mail slot… Always on December twenty-second. No envelope, no prints, no DNA, no hair, no fiber, no nothing… Didn’t make the connection until the second year.” He paused for a second then spat, “Anyway… Every Christmas we find a man’s body…or I guess I should say pieces of one. They pretty much add up to a whole, except for…”

As the sheriff’s voice trailed off, Constance verbally filled in the blank. “The external genitalia.”

Out of reflex he nodded assent while he spoke. “Yeah. Always missing.”

“Just like John Horace Colson,” she breathed.

“Except Colson happened thirty-five years ago, and there’s no question who killed him…and why.”

“I know.”

“Yeah. You read the file,” he replied. “Then you also know we find the victim in the exact same spot Colson was found.”

“I do.”

“After number two, we started watchin’ the place. Full on, around the clock, starting the week before Christmas every damn year. This year’ll be the fourth where I’ve sat out there myself. Nobody in, nobody out, but on Christmas morning, the body is always there.”

“That was in the file too.”

“Good. Then maybe you can explain that one, because I sure as hell can’t.” He paused, then brought the present thread of the conversation back full circle. “You know, right around Thanksgiving every year I start wondering if the sonofabitch has finally run out of cards so that maybe this nightmare can stop. Then one shows up. Maybe this will be the last one…but I really doubt it.”

“Do you just wonder, or is that one of your uncanny observations?” she asked, turning to look at him.

He shook his head. “More like a Christmas wish. It’s the same one everybody in Hulis makes. Been a lot of wishbones snapped on it, believe me.”

Looking back to the card in her hands, she dropped her voice to just above a whisper. “Everybody in Hulis except for one, apparently.”

“No,” he told her. “This isn’t someone from around here. This is an outsider.”

“That’s just one theory.”

“Yeah, but it’s the theory I’m sticking with.”

“Why?”

“Because it makes me too damn sick to think otherwise.”

Constance slid the card back into the evidence envelope and secured the flap shut with the closure string.

As she peeled off the surgical gloves, in a matter-of-fact tone she remarked, “You know I have to talk to her.”

“I assume you mean…” he allowed the name to go unspoken.

“Merrie Callahan, yes.”

The sheriff sighed heavily, then reached up beneath the rim of his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose as he hung his head and shook it slightly. “Do you really think that’s necessary? You said you read the file.”

“Yes, it is, and yes, I did.”

“Well? There should have been interviews in there from the other four Feds.”

“There were, but they didn’t…”

“…say anything of any consequence.” He finished the sentence for her. “My point exactly. Believe me, this ain’t my first rodeo with you folks. What makes you think you’ll get anything different this time?”

“I won’t know unless I try.”

“Well,” Sheriff Carmichael sighed again. “I think you’re just wasting your time and mine too. I’ll take you to see her if you insist, but let’s go across the street and have lunch first.”

“Honestly, I’m not really all that hungry,” she objected.

“Maybe you aren’t, but I am,” he explained. “Besides, we need to talk about this first.”

Constance shook her head to punctuate her hard response. “You aren’t going to change my mind about this, Sheriff.”

“Not gonna try,” he replied. “I’m just gonna give you the facts so you don’t go in unarmed. Decision’s still yours. And I’m pretty sure I told you to call me Skip.”

CHAPTER 9

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“Thanks, Stella,” Sheriff Carmichael said, looking up with a slight grin at the young woman who was refilling his coffee.

She smiled back. The expression was strained and thin, but still noticeable. “Your meatloaf should be up in just a minute or two, Skip.” She leaned a bit closer and adopted a conspiratorial tone. “I told Max to put a couple of double thick slices on there for you.”

“You’re too good to me, Stella.”

That Place was more of a U-shaped lunch counter than anything else. It was crammed tightly into a narrow storefront across from the sheriff’s department and kitty corner from the town hall. The decor was typical small-town diner of the late 50’s or early 60’s-chrome and Formica counters with vinyl-topped stools bolted to the floor at evenly spaced intervals. Just as the sheriff’s office looked like a throwback to the 40’s, so did the small diner look as if it had been frozen in its own particular era for the rest of time.

The establishment was surprisingly slow for lunchtime, especially during the week. Besides the sheriff and Constance, there was only one other patron, and he was at the far end of the U. She took passing notice that he appeared lost in his own little world, his hands folded in front of him on the counter as he quietly contemplated his coffee cup.

However, there was something else about the diner that struck Constance as even odder still. It was December 22 ^nd, and with the exception of a poinsettia on the counter, the restaurant was devoid of holiday decorations, Christmas or otherwise. Just like the sheriff’s office had been.

The waitress glanced over at Constance and asked, “Are you sure you don’t want anything?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” she replied with a shallow nod.

“Suit yourself. I’ll be back out in just a minute or two.”

As she started away toward the kitchen at the back, Sheriff Carmichael called after her, “Oh, hey, Stella, I almost forgot. Clovis wants a piece of your mom’s coconut cream pie. Think you could box up a slice for me to take over to her? Just put it on my tab.”

“No problem,” she answered. “I’ll have it ready to go when you are.”

Once Stella disappeared through the swinging doors at the back, Constance twisted a quarter turn on her stool and focused on Sheriff Carmichael. “She seems a little tense.”

“Yeah,” he replied. “That’s ‘cause she knows who you are and why you’re here.”

“I’m here to help.”

“Like I told you, we’ve heard that before. Folks don’t get their hopes up anymore.”

She glanced around again at the lack of visible cheer. “So… People don’t decorate for the holidays in Hulis?”

“Not many,” he grunted. “Not for a few years now. Nobody wants to think about what Christmas brings to this town. Hell, my wife and I don’t even put up a tree anymore. Don’t know many folks around here that do.”

“That’s kind of sad.”

“It’s reality,” he countered.

“That doesn’t make it any less sad. It’s as if the town itself is a victim too.”

“It is,” he agreed. “That’s the difference between a small town like Hulis and a big city like Saint Louis. We’ve got a population of less than a thousand folks. What happens here is personal.”

“As I understand it, so far none of the victims have been from Hulis though.” Constance gestured with her index finger to indicate the surrounding area. “In fact, they’ve all been unidentified according to the reports.”

“True,” he replied. “But this is where they’re found, so that makes it personal, no matter who they are. You have to understand, Constance, people here aren’t afraid of being a victim of this killer. But they’re damned well on edge about this. Doesn’t exactly help our reputation, and the population is dwindling. This keeps up, Hulis could cease to exist.”

A quiet interlude fell between them as she weighed the gravity of what he’d just said. On the surface it was merely a statement of fact, but beneath the words, stark emotion was grappling with the logic, and it was winning.

The cafe doors leading to and from the kitchen swung open and Stella reappeared, plate in hand. A moment later she slid it in front of the sheriff, a waft of aromatic steam still rising from the pool of gravy welled in the center of the mashed potatoes that flanked an easily five-inch thick slab of glazed meatloaf.

Once the waitress had disappeared again, Constance re-started the conversation. “So, what is it we need to talk about, Skip?”

Sheriff Carmichael used his fork to carve a trench into the side of the mashed potato volcano on his plate then watched in silence as the gravy began to spill out. It flowed down the side and began spreading across the plate toward the meatloaf.

Eventually, the weighty pause ended and he asked, “Exactly what did your file have to say about John Horace Colson?”

She shrugged. “The pertinent details. He had a record ranging from petty larceny to aggravated battery. There was also a conviction for sexual assault on a minor. He did just under a year in the adult correctional institution at Gumbo Flats for the latter. And, of course, there was the abduction and rape of Merrie Callahan, and then his subsequent murder.”

He finished chewing the hunk of the meatloaf he had stuffed into his mouth, then swallowed hard. After taking a sip of his coffee to wash it down, he repeated her words with a razor sharp edge of bitterness. “The abduction and rape of Merrie Callahan… Makes it sound like a made-for-TV movie from one of those damn cable channels.”

“I’m sorry,” she replied. “I’m just answering your question. I didn’t mean to sound callous.”

“I know, I know… Truth is, the story might as well be a movie. It sure as hell plays out like one… It just doesn’t have a very happy ending.” He nodded as he spoke, waving a hand and sighing in apology himself. After staring wordlessly at his plate, he finally laid the fork aside and combed his fingers through the snowy brush on his upper lip. When he finally started speaking again, there was a fire in his voice that seemed unquenchable.

“Thirty-five years ago Merrie Callahan was ten years old,” he began. “She was a bright, freckle-faced kid, with a mop of chestnut hair and a personality too big to fit her body.

“Late on the afternoon of December twenty-second, Merrie’s mother picked her up from school. It was the last day before Christmas break. They were Catholic, so she went to the Immaculate Conception school over in Mais. That’s the next town west of here. Since there wasn’t any bus service, Elizabeth-that’d be her mother-would shuttle her back and forth. On the way home she stopped over at Norris’s Market, just up the street here, to do some last minute grocery shopping for their big Christmas Eve dinner.” He jerked his thumb back over his shoulder to indicate the direction.

“As the story goes, Merrie’s little sister, Rebecca, was pitching a fit about wanting to see Santa Claus and give him her list,” he continued. “Just so happened, Norris’s was pretty much right next door to the Five-and-Dime. Back then we had a little more by way of population, including kids, so they always had a Santa Claus. Usually it was Elvis Babbs, the manager’s husband, but he’d come down sick that year so they hired themselves a replacement for that last week before Christmas. Anyway, Merrie, being the sweetheart she was, volunteered to take her sister next door so that her mother could finish t


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he shopping in peace.”

“And Colson was that Santa Claus,” Constance offered, nodding. “That was in the report.”

“Yeah…” Carmichael grunted. “He was going by John Carter, which we found out later was apparently a known alias of his. How that sonofabitch got hired I don’t know. Of course, back then there wasn’t a sex offender registry, so I guess he just flew under the radar… Anyhow, about twenty minutes or so after Merrie took her sister next door, a clerk came rushing over to Norris’s looking for Elizabeth. Rebecca was standing in the middle of the dime store in hysterics, and all they could get out of her was that Merrie had taken Santa away, or some such. Of course, as we know, it was the other way around, but sometimes five-year-olds see the world differently than the rest of us.

“At any rate, Merrie was nowhere to be found, and no one except Rebecca had seen a thing. Colson had supposedly gone on a break, but he never returned and couldn’t be found in the vicinity, so he instantly went to the top of the list of people we wanted to interview.”

“‘We?’” Constance asked.

“Yeah… ‘We.’ Thirty-five years ago I was a commissioned deputy in this very sheriff’s department,” he explained.

“So, you didn’t just retire here,” Constance said. “You’re originally from Hulis.”

He nodded.

“That wasn’t in our files,” she puzzled aloud.

“I told you we needed to talk.”

“Obviously. Go on.”

“Well, back then I was green. I’d been on the department for less than a year, and we’d never had anything like this happen in Hulis. If you had a kid go missing, you found ‘em at a friend’s house, or they were skipping school and just forgot to make sure they came home in time to not get caught. But I knew this was different almost right from the minute I arrived.

“I was the first one on the scene. Both Sheriff Morton and I figured it was a nuisance call when it came in, but I rushed on over anyway. The minute Missus Babbs started filling me in I had a gut feeling that there was more to it. Then, I found the shoe.”

“The shoe?”

He nodded. “Colson apparently took Merrie out the back, through the stockroom. Since he parked his car behind the store in the employee area, that made it even easier for him to slip away unnoticed. When I was searching for her, I noticed some things that led me in that direction, and when I went out onto the back lot, I found one of her shoes. That’s when I knew for sure she’d been taken.

“We set up road blocks and organized a search, of course. I think just about everyone living here at the time helped look for her. There were even some State Highway Patrol officers sent in. Tom-that was her dad-and Elizabeth were basket cases, understandably, what with their little girl being stolen like that.” He shook his head and stared out the window for a moment before continuing. “I still remember my mom going over and staying at their place to help out with Rebecca, and just to make sure they had someone there.

“Anyway, we searched the rest of that night, even through the snowstorm that was hitting us. We didn’t stop. The searching went on all day the next and into that night too. By then we’d found out about the alias and pulled a complete background check on Colson, so we knew about his record, including the sexual assault on a minor charge. I’m here to tell you that information didn’t do much for our spirits.”

“I understand.”

Sheriff Carmichael drew in a deep breath and then puffed his cheeks in a drawn out sigh. “There was no such thing as an Amber Alert, but we got the word out to all the agencies, including yours. And then there was the media. They jumped all over it too. Next day was Christmas Eve,” he said. “We figured by that point Colson had probably gone across the state line into Iowa, or maybe even east into Illinois, so APB’s went out in every direction. But we kept lookin’ around here anyway. We weren’t about to give up. Of course, we still couldn’t find a thing. Not a trace of either of them. So…later that afternoon I went home and caught a nap. I had a regular shift coming up and I’d been running on next to no sleep. That evening I headed in for my regular overnight duty shift. Next mornin’ is when I found her.”

“How?”

“Luck, I guess,” he replied. “I’d just been sittin’ there in the office and twiddlin’ my thumbs the whole damn night. Soon as my shift ended, I figured I’d go out and cruise. You know, have another look even if I was just covering old ground. I was out for an hour…maybe a bit more…and everything just started to catch up with me. It was pushin’ five A.M., so I decided to go on home and hit the sack. I was out on the west side of town. Turned a corner to loop around the block and there she was. Standin’ in the middle of the road.”

He paused and Constance could see the fresh pain of an old memory creasing his face. He started to speak again, but his voice cracked, so he cleared his throat and took a sip of his coffee before finishing the story.

“At first I just thought I was seeing things,” he offered. “You know…that the lack of sleep was causing me to hallucinate or something… But… I wasn’t. It was her. She was covered in blood. Didn’t find out till later that wasn’t all of it hers. She was wearing her school uniform, or what was left of it. It was torn…just ripped up by that sick bastard. But I guess she’d put it back on after…well…you know.

“There was a good eight inches of snow on the ground, with even bigger drifts, what with that blizzard having blown through. Temp was in the twenties… But there she was, torn clothes, one shoe, and just standing there in the middle of the road, starin’ off into space. She wasn’t even shivering.” He hesitated momentarily as the vivid recollection welled inside him, gathering pressure before escaping via his tortured voice. “The ungodly things that bastard had done to that sweet little girl…cigarette burns…cuts…bruises…and… I… I… I just can’t even… I…”

“It’s okay,” Constance soothed. “I understand.”

“No,” he whispered, shaking his head. “It’s not okay. And unless you’ve seen it…I mean really seen it…then you don’t understand.”

“You’re correct,” she replied. “I don’t, really.” There was no reason to argue.

“Long as I live… I just…” Sheriff Carmichael stopped and blew out a heavy sigh. “Anyway…I wrapped her up in a blanket and called it in. She never said a word the whole time. Just sat there in my cruiser and stared out the window. They hustled her off to the hospital over in Mais while we started searching the neighborhood looking for Colson. About two hours later we found what was left of ‘im in the basement of a vacant house. It was a few blocks from where I found Merrie. It had been checked the day before. Or it was supposed to have been-nobody was sure-but if it was, where they were prior to that is still a mystery.

“At any rate, he was dead, of course. He’d been hacked up good with an axe. It was layin’ right there next to him, along with an empty bourbon bottle. Axe handle had small, bloody handprints all over it, and the fingerprints we pulled matched Merrie. Then, like I said, we found out that a good bit of the blood on her was his. She never told us what happened… I don’t honestly believe she even remembers. But the coroner’s report showed his blood alcohol was through the roof, so with the evidence at hand, the assumption was that he got liquored up, passed out, then Merrie found the axe and did what she thought she needed to do in order to escape.”

“Quite the feat for a ten-year-old girl,” Constance mused aloud.

“You know what they say about fear,” he replied. “It’s the great motivator.”

“True. And it does sound like a logical conclusion under the circumstances,” she offered. “So, what happened after that? The file had notes to the effect that Merrie is currently institutionalized?”

The sheriff shook his head and answered. “She never really recovered. For the longest time she was almost catatonic. She was well into her teens before she showed any improvement at all, but even then it was like she was mentally frozen in time. Stuck at ten years old forever. A little girl in a grown up body. Tom and Elizabeth took care of her even as they got older, but about ten years ago they were both killed in a head on collision out on the two lane. Merrie couldn’t take care of herself, so she pretty much lives at the retirement home. Between her inheritance and the good hearts of folks here in town, it’s covered.”

Constance cocked an eyebrow. “What about her sister?”

“Nobody’s seen or heard from Rebecca for a long time. Coming up on a decade I guess.” He gave his head a shake that exuded sadness in the very motion. “Merrie had become Tom and Elizabeth’s world, and I think Rebecca ended up resenting her for that. She’d been off to college and was living her life in Omaha before the accident anyway. She visited quite a bit. She came back for the funeral and then hung around long enough to dissolve the estate.” He shrugged. “Then she set up a trust fund for Merrie, took her half of the inheritance and left. She was back a few times after that, but each time it was shorter and farther between. Eventually, she just stopped showing up. Shoulda been something in your file about it. All of ‘em that came before ya’ tried to track her down but never had any luck.”

“Unfortunately for us, if someone really wants to disappear and they stay out of trouble, it’s easier than most people think,” Constance said.

“That’s a fact,” Sheriff Carmichael agreed.

He looked down at the plate of food in front of him. A visible, dull skin had formed on the surface of the rapidly cooling gravy, and the inviting gloss the butter had given the bright green peas was all but melted into oblivion. It didn’t matter. His appetite had disappeared thirty seconds into the story anyway.

He pushed the plate aside, then reached for the napkin dispenser only to discover that he’d been clenching one of the folded paper rectangles in his fist the whole time he’d been recounting the thirty-five-year-old horror. He carefully wiped his mouth, then brushed out his mustache with his fingertips as he tossed the crumpled napkin aside.

“So, tell me,” he began, turning his emotionally spent gaze toward Constance. “Now that you’ve heard all that, do you still feel it’s absolutely necessary to talk to Merrie?”

Constance nodded shallowly and returned a grim expression. “I’m afraid so. I realize it must be hard, so I can just go myself, if you’d prefer.”

“No, no… I’ll be going out to visit her anyway. I always do. Besides, she’s probably expecting us. Bringing her a new visitor on the twenty-second seems to have become a twisted little tradition where you Feds are concerned.”

“Sorry.”

He shrugged off the apology. “She’s not big on strangers either, but she’ll be okay with you if she sees us together and I introduce ya’.” He reached up and massaged a spot above his eyebrow with the side of a crooked index finger. “All right then. Let me go ahead and collect that piece of pie and run it back to Clovis, and make a couple of calls, then I’ll take you over there.”

CHAPTER 10

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Constance stood on the sidewalk in front of the sheriff’s office while he went inside, the collar of her long coat turned up against the breeze. The temperature was hovering in the upper 20’s, but the occasional gusts that surged along the street made it feel much colder. If the sun was out it might not be so bad, but a heavy blanket of gray clouds formed a low ceiling overhead, casting the small town of Hulis in a visible dullness that served to enhance the dark funk that already permeated it to the core.

Her cell phone speaker trilled as she held it pressed against her ear with a leather gloved hand. After the fifth ring a recorded male voice announced without identification or ceremony, “Leave a message.”

Constance rolled her eyes as a sharp tone followed, then began speaking. “Drew, this is Mandalay. Hey, I know it’s the holidays and all, but I got handed the ‘Christmas Butcher’ case and I’m up here in northern Missouri. I just finished a really interesting conversation with Sheriff Carmichael. Apparently our file on this whole situation is incomplete… Actually, that’s an understatement…but…anyway, since you were the last agent assigned, I wanted to run a couple of things past you. Do me a favor and give me a call back on my cell when you get this. Okay? Thanks.”

She stabbed off the device, then punched in a speed dial code using her ungloved hand, which she then promptly shoved back into her pocket once the requisite task was complete and nimbleness of digits was no longer required. Tilting her head to the side, she tucked the cell beneath a cascade of brown hair and pressed it to her ear once again. On the second ring a gruff but far more familiar voice issued from the speaker.

“Homicide. Detective Storm…” the voice said.

“Hey, Ben,” Constance half-cooed. “How is your day going?”

“Pretty damn quiet at the moment,” he replied. “But that’ll change. It always does.”

“Unfortunately,” she agreed. “I’m sorry we couldn’t connect before I had to leave town.”

“Yeah, got your message. Shit happens.”

She could hear the shrug in his voice, but underneath it she could detect a clear note of disappointment as well. They’d both been busy with their respective jobs, and getting together just hadn’t been in the cards as of late.

“So, how ‘bout your day? Where’d they send ya’ off to this time?”

“Hulis, Missouri.”

“Hulis… Where the hell’s that?”

“About four hours north of Saint Louis. Almost right on the Iowa border.”

“Ahhh… North Podunk Cornfield, eh?”

“Sort of. I hate to sound cliche, but quaint definitely fits…in a weird fashion.”

“Whadda they have ya’ workin’?” he asked, then added with a chuckle, “Grand theft scarecrow?”

“I wish. It’s a seriously screwed up case, actually…” She left her words dangling on the chilled air.

“That bad, eh?”

“In a word, yes.”

“Okay…” he said. “You’re soundin’ all depressed. Spill it. What’s wrong?”

She hesitated to answer. After all, why ruin his mood too? But it took only a few seconds for her reluctance to wane, and in the end she just couldn’t keep herself from sharing. “Unfortunately, I just finished listening to a detailed account of a child abduction, abuse, and sexual assault from thirty-five years ago. A ten-year-old girl named Merrie Callahan. It was heartbreaking.”

“Jeezus…” Ben muttered. “Yeah… I can see where that’d royally fuck up your mood. Did they at least catch the sick bastard who did it, or is that why you’re there?”

“They didn’t have to, actually,” she told him. “The little girl he took escaped after he got drunk and passed out. But rather than take any chances, she hacked him to death with an axe first. On Christmas morning, no less.”

“Jeez… Awww… Just… Jeezus…” he moaned. After a brief pause, in a somber tone he added, “That’s one tough little kid. Well at least she got away.”

“But not before he’d tortured and raped her over a period of three days.”

“Yeah… Well, if you ask me, the sick fuck got what he deserved.”

“At the cost of the girl’s sanity, apparently. She never recovered, mentally.”

“That’s fucked up…” he muttered, then fell silent.

She could hear him breathing on the other end of the line. As jaded as he could sometimes be about homicides, no matter how gruesome they were, if a crime involved a kid, he melted. Any act of violence against children pierced his armor instantly and without fail. Part of what made it hit closer to home for him was that he was a father himself.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I really didn’t mean to call and depress you too,” Constance offered.

“S’okay,” he replied. “I’m the one that asked. B’sides, can’t be easy for you ta’ deal with either.”

“No, it isn’t…” she agreed.

“Gotta have someone you can talk to or it’ll make ya’ nuts.”

“Uh-huh. Thanks for listening. I really appreciate it.”

“Any time, hon. So… Stupid question. Why’re you in North Podunk lookin’ at a thirty-five-year-old closed case?”

“Because seven years ago, a man’s body turned up here on Christmas Day, also hacked apart with an axe. Since then, same thing every Christmas morning. Man’s body, hacked up with an axe, and the external genitalia missing. Just like the incident in nineteen-seventy-five.”

“Damn…” he muttered. “That’s some twisted shit. Somebody out there’s a certified wingnut.”

“Seems like it.”

“One body a year, eh? That’s some serious downtime for a serial.”

“True, but an annual cycle isn’t unheard of. Also, the murder is always preceded by a Christmas card delivered to the sheriff’s office on December twenty-second, which is the anniversary of the day the little girl was abducted.”

“Well, not that ya’ needed any more proof, but that pretty much clinches your triggering stressor, right there, doesn’t it?”

“I’d say so.”

“And it’s been goin’ on for seven years now?” There was a hint of incredulity in his voice.

She responded in kind. “I know… Tell me about it.”

“Who the hell’s workin’ lead on this?”

“That’s just it. Nobody. Or maybe me, I guess. I’m actually the fifth agent that’s been assigned over the course of the case thus far. And it’s never a team. Just a single agent.”

“You’re kiddin’ me.”

“I wish I were. It doesn’t make sense.”

“No it doesn’t… Well… Lucky you, I guess.”

“Uh-huh, lucky me,” she spat.

“Well, I’m sure I don’t need ta’ even say this, but you’ve looked at family, right?” he suggested.

“Mother and father both dead. There’s a younger sister, but it looks like she voluntarily disappeared into the woodwork about ten years back and nobody has been able to locate her, so she’s a possibility. Finding her is the issue.”

“I’d look hard at that one,” he grunted.

“I plan to. But like I said, finding her…”

“Yeah, I hear ya’… So what about the girl herself?” he asked. “You said she was ten when it happened, so she’d be what, about forty-five now? And if she never really recovered…”

“Not likely. When I said she never recovered, I mean as in she’s institutionalized,” Constance replied. “Her body aged, but her mind threw in the towel. I’ve been told she still has the mental capacity of a ten-year-old child at best.”

“Not good.”

“Other than that, no real extended family other than the people here in town. Apparently they’ve all chipped in to help take care of her since the parents are deceased.”

“Yeah, that’s definitely a small town thing… Think it could be one of them? The townfolk?”

“It’s an angle I’m working, but the sheriff thinks I’m way off base.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about what a small-town sheriff thinks.”

“I don’t know,” she told him. “He’s pretty sharp. Actually, he reminds me a lot of an older version of you.”

“Yeah, I am pretty damn sharp, ain’t I?”

“Yes, but I’m fairly certain he’s sharper.”

“Ouch.”

“Seriously. He’s Sherlock Holmes kind of sharp.”

“He smoke a pipe and play the violin?”

“I’m serious.”

“So was I. Sorta,” he replied. “So listen, don’t take this the wrong way, but if he’s Sherlock smart, why’s he need the Feebs?”

“Good question. But given the lack of evidence left behind, maybe the killer is Mycroft smart.”

“Yeah, but Sherlock’s older brother was a fat, lazy bastard. I doubt he’d be motivated enough ta’ kill anyone.”

Constance allowed herself a brief, almost imperceptible chuckle. “Bravo.”

“Yeah, kinda figured ya’ didn’t think I knew who Mycroft was.”

“Always full of surprises, aren’t you?”

“That’s what I keep tellin’ ya’.”

“Well, in any case I’m still planning to talk to Merrie. In fact, the sheriff will be taking me over to see her in just a few minutes. I’m not sure what she’ll be able to tell me given her mental state, but you know the drill as well as I do.”

“Gotta verify the case notes,” he said with a knowing tenor in his voice. “Good’a place ta’ start as any.”

“That’s another strange thing,” she explained. “I read through the file and thought I was up to speed when I arrived here. But it turns out our documentation on this case is sorely lacking. All sorts of important information is missing.”

“Lost?”

“That or worse. Maybe pure negligence. Or even incompetence. I don’t know just yet.”

“Think someone coulda screwed with it on purpose?”

“I hope not, but I don’t know why anyone would. It’s not like this is a RICO case where there could be payoffs or something. It’s a serial killer.”

“True,” Ben grunted.

“Except…”

“‘Cept what?”

“Something that was in the file is that the victim is always dumped in the same location.”

“And so this is still an open case why?”

“Apparently the body just shows up. Whoever is doing it makes it past the surveillance without detection.”

“Bullshit. That’s why your file is screwed right there. You’ve got a dirty cop on your hands. Maybe Sheriff Sherlock is your guy.”

“I would think that too, except all four agents prior to me have been on the stake outs as well. I can’t see all of them being complicit in this, and why cover up for a small town sheriff if they were?”

“Yeah, I see your point. But then you’ve got that effed up case file…” he offered.

“I know…” her voice trailed off.

“You talk ta’ any of the other investigators?”

“Not yet. I left a message for one of the previous agents,” she told him. “Hopefully I can find out more when he calls me back.”

“That’d be good,” Ben agreed. “Just be careful. You never know, and if you uncover somethin’ somebody doesn’t want found out…”

“I’ll be on my guard.”

“I’m not kiddin’ here. Especially since you don’t have any backup.”

“I’m a better shot than you are, remember?” she chided.

“I’m serious, Constance.”

“I know you are… Believe me. I’ll be careful.”

She heard him breathing on the other end of the line as a heavy silence fell between them.

Eventually, he cleared his throat and said, “So…I assume you’ll be in Podunkville for Christmas then?”

Constance sighed and watched as her breath condensed in a thick cloud then instantly disappeared. “Unless there’s a miracle, I’m afraid so. I’m sorry. I know we had plans.”

“S’okay…” he told her. “It’s the job.”

The whoosh of weather-stripping against a metal threshold sounded in Constance’s free ear, and she looked up to see Sheriff Carmichael trundling through the opening and then down the short flight of stairs. He glanced at her and pointed toward the diagonally-parked police cruiser that was nosed in at the curb several feet away from her own vehicle.

“The sheriff just came out; I need to go,” she told Ben.

“Okay. Don’t worry about Christmas. We’ll celebrate when ya’ get home.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” she replied.

“Won’t be too hard,” he countered. “Remember… Be careful.”

“I will. I’ll try to call later. Bye.”

“Sounds good. Bye.”

She slipped the cell phone into her pocket then pulled her glove back onto her bare hand. As she walked over to the passenger side of the sheriff’s department cruiser, she thought about her relationship with Ben. It had been a tumultuous on-again, off-again ride that spanned several years now. The length of the breaks varied, but somehow they always came back together, so it was obvious that they cared for one another.

That much was evident in the words they exchanged.

And in the time they spent together.

And the sex… The oh-my-God-sex that was better than she had ever expected it could be, what with him being fifteen years her senior. She’d dated men half his age who couldn’t keep up with him, so there definitely weren’t any complaints there. At least not from her, and he always seemed more than satisfied.

Then she wondered silently why even with all that, neither of them ever seemed to be able to bring themselves to say to the other, “I love you.”

Under the circumstances, who knew? But maybe that was a good thing.

CHAPTER 11

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“Afternoon, Martha,” Sheriff Carmichael greeted the woman as she drew herself up from her chair and made her way over to the front desk. Then he asked, “How is she today?”

Constance glanced around the clean but small lobby area. The squat, somewhat new sign at the entrance to the semicircular drive read Holly-Oak Assisted Living Facility. Inside, the building itself looked more like what her grandparents use to call a “rest home.”

Holly-Oak was obviously well maintained, but from an architectural standpoint it had definitely been around a while. Of course, that seemed to be an ongoing theme in Hulis, as with many other small towns where time itself seemed to be on an extended holiday. It also hadn’t escaped her notice that a funeral home was located directly across the street, well within view from any of the facility’s front windows; in her way of thinking, not exactly the most comforting vista for the residents. In fact, it brought the old adage, “location, location, location,” right to the forefront of her thoughts.

“Afternoon, Skip.” The woman returned the sheriff’s greeting, then answered, “She’s Merrie,” punctuating the words with a shrug, as if that simple statement and gesture said it all.

Given the knowing nod the sheriff offered in response, for the two of them, apparently it did.

“So, how’s Kathy?” Martha asked as Sheriff Carmichael signed the visitor’s register. From her posture it was readily apparent that she was ignoring the fact that Constance was even present. There was also an audible tension in her voice that more than indicated the pleasantries, while sincere, were for some unknown reason forced.

“Feisty as ever,” he replied. “I stopped tryin’ to keep up with her a long time ago.”

She nodded. “Smart man. And the girls?”

“Fine, fine. Doing fine,” he replied. “Cyn came home on break Friday.”

“This is her last year at Mizzou, isn’t it?”

“Supposed to be,” he grunted. “But she takes after her mother, so she’s making noise about going after her Masters.”

“Good for her.”

“So, Martha,” Carmichael said, shifting the subject toward the inevitable as he wagged a thumb at Constance. “I’m sure you know why we’re here. This is Special Agent Mandalay from…”

“I know, I know,” she replied before he could finish. “I’ve been expecting you all morning. Then I got the call from Stella not fifteen minutes ago.”

“Yeah, not surprised. She’s got a big mouth, just like her mother.”

Constance reached in to her jacket to extract her credentials, but the woman stopped her. “Don’t bother. You’re with Skip, that’s all I need to know…or want to know, for that matter.” Her voice held more than a hint of disgust as she almost spat the comment.

“I’d like to speak with Merrie, if that’s possible,” Constance said, leaving her badge case stowed in its pocket and slowly pulling back her hand.

“When are you people going to leave that poor girl alone?” the woman demanded. “Don’t you think she’s been through enough?”

“Calm down, Martha,” the sheriff said. “She’s just doin’ her job. You know that.”

“I thought her job was to find whoever is doing this killing,” she replied, directing herself solely at him. “I don’t know how dredging up the past for that poor girl every year is going to do that.”

“I know, Martha, I know…” he soothed.

She scowled at Constance for a moment, then snorted in disgust as she turned away from the counter and headed back toward her desk. “She’s in her room, Skip,” she called over her shoulder. “Just keep an eye on the time. You know as well as anyone what day it is.”

“What does she mean by that?” Constance asked.

“I’ll tell you later,” Sheriff Carmichael said as he stepped back and pointed toward a door off the side of the lobby, indicating that she should go first. “It’s this way.”

Mandalay gave him a puzzled look. “Shouldn’t we wait? You did contact her state-appointed advocate, correct? I assumed that was the call you were making earlier.”

“Nope. She doesn’t have one.”

“If she has diminished faculties as you’ve said, then she definitely should.”

“Special Agent Mandalay,” he replied, a mix of bemusement and disingenuous formality in his words. “In case it has escaped your attention, this whole damn town is Merrie Callahan’s advocate. We’d all pretty much adopted her even before her parents were killed in that accident. Believe me, if you get your toes anywhere near the line, they’re gonna get broken, I don’t give a damn who you work for.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to protect our little girl…so will anyone else here in Hulis. And just so you know, that’s not a threat, sugar; it’s a promise.”


The carved, wooden sign on the door looked like one you would pick out from the pages of a personalized gifts catalog-the kind that had overpriced trinkets made to appear worth the cost be


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cause of the custom engraving. It was definitely too perfect to have been handmade. The router work had almost certainly been done by a programmed machine in a factory where they churned

out fancy name plaques by the hundreds each hour. In a deeply recessed outline font it read simply, MERRIE’S ROOM.

The door itself was only partially closed, with a gap of just a few inches left between it and the jamb. Through the sliver of an opening, the keyboard-heavy, pop music beat of a song floated on the air, although it was barely recognizable through the scratchy hiss of static that overlaid the notes.

Sheriff Carmichael tilted his head and listened closely for several seconds, then turned to Constance and said, “ Love Will Keep Us Together.”

“Excuse me?”

“The song,” he said, gesturing at the door. “ Love Will Keep Us Together. The Captain and Tennille.”

“Oh…” Constance replied, nodding. “I thought I’d heard it before.”

He shot her a half grin. “I guess you probably aren’t quite old enough to remember it, but they were on the Top Forty that year.”

She nodded but remained silent.

The sheriff reached out, hesitated, then gave a light, tentative knock on the surface of the door. After several seconds had passed with no answer, he cleared his throat then rapped his knuckles against it a bit harder and called out, “Merrie?”

A moment later the volume on the music ramped sharply downward, and a slightly frightened sounding woman’s voice answered, “Who is it?”

“Merrie,” Sheriff Carmichael called out again as he began slowly pushing the door open with his palm. “It’s Deputy Skip, from the sheriff’s department.”

“Deputy?” Constance asked softly.

“It’s nineteen seventy-five in here,” he answered.

“What?”

He didn’t get the chance to explain further. The sound of frantic footsteps was already coming from the other side of the door, and it was suddenly ripped fully open from within. A woman roughly Constance’s height all but tackled the sheriff in a tight hug, her demeanor having suddenly shifted from fear to excitement.

Her hair was a shoulder-length shag of chestnut, streaked ever so slightly with a few strands of gray. She was pretty but definitely looked close to her chronological age, even if she wasn’t dressed to reflect it. It was hard to miss that she was clad in a long sleeve, knee-length pleated dress. It was dark blue with a stark white collar, and looked like an adult-sized version of something straight out of a seriously retro clothing catalog for children.

“Deputy Skip!” she said, joy rampant in her voice as she continued to hug him tightly. “I knew you’d come to see me today. You always do. I told Miss Martha you would, but I don’t think she believed me.”

“Oh, I’m sure she believed you, Merrie,” he replied, giving her a grandfatherly squeeze. “You know how Miss Martha is.”

“Unpleasant,” she announced as she released her grip on him and stepped back.

“Listen to you,” he chuckled.

Just as one would expect of a ten-year-old child, she widened her eyes and rolled them as she cocked her head to the side and muttered a long, drawn out, “It’s true.”

He winked. “You’re right, it is. Just don’t tell her I said that.”

She giggled at their shared secret.

“So, Merrie,” Carmichael continued, gesturing to Special Agent Mandalay. “This is my friend, Miss Constance. I was telling her about some of the people here in town, and she thought that you sounded so interesting that she asked if she could meet you.”

Merrie glanced at her but held her position close to the sheriff. After a moment she said, “Umm… Hi.”

“Hi,” Mandalay replied with a smile. “I like your dress.”

“Thank you. Miss Mavis made it for me. I picked out the pattern and the fabric myself.”

“It’s very pretty.”

“Are you a deputy too? You don’t look like one.”

“No, Merrie, I’m not,” Constance answered. “But I’m a kind of police officer. I work for the FBI. Do you know what that is?”

“Yes,” she said with a nod. “My daddy used to watch it on TV, but it’s not on anymore.”

Constance was actually familiar with the old show, even if it was somewhat before her time. “Did you watch it too?”

“Sometimes. Do you have a badge?”

Constance nodded. “Yes. Would you like to see it?”

“May I?”

Mandalay withdrew her badge case and opened it with a practiced flip. Merrie inched closer and peered carefully at the credentials. “Cool…” she muttered. After a moment she looked up and smiled. “Do you have a gun too?”

“Yes, but I can’t really show it to you. It’s only for emergencies.”

Merrie nodded. “Where are you from, Miss Constance?”

“Right now, I live in Saint Louis.”

“Saint Louis! Have you ever been to the Gateway Arch?”

“Yes, I have. Where I work downtown isn’t very far from it, as a matter of fact.”

“Did you ever go up inside?”

“Yes.”

“Is it cool?”

“Yes it is. You get to look out the windows and see everybody running around like ants down below.”

“You’re so lucky. I’ve only seen pictures,” Merrie offered. “Daddy said he would take me to see it for real someday. Maybe even this summer.”

Constance glanced over at Sheriff Carmichael and shot him a questioning look by way of furrowing her brow. In response he gave her a barely perceptible shake of his head. Focusing back on the childlike woman, she said, “That sounds like it will be fun. They have a theater underneath where they show a movie about how they built it. Make sure you see that, it’s really interesting.”

“So, Merrie,” the sheriff spoke up. “Would you mind if we came in and visited with you for a little bit?”

“That would be fun,” she told him, stepping back so they could enter. “Do you like The Captain and Tennille, Miss Constance?”

“Yes, I do,” she replied as she followed the sheriff into the room. In truth, she wasn’t really sure if she did or not. If the earlier noise was any indication, however, she was probably leaning toward not. But there was really no percentage in saying as much.

“Me too,” Merrie said. “And I really like KISS, but Sister Conran from school says they play Satan’s music.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, but I will say they do look a little scary.”

“I don’t think so. I think they look really cool. How about Supertramp? Do you like them?”

“Definitely,” Constance agreed. Finally, that was some classic rock she could get behind.

Beyond the door, the room looked much like any average ten-year-old girl’s bedroom-provided one stepped back in time thirty-five years. Stuffed animals were piled on the bed, and what appeared to have once been a small stack of teen idol magazines were haphazardly spilled across the floor nearby. There was even a pinup page of a teen heartthrob from one of the publications taped to the wall. It was faded and had definitely seen better days, but it was still recognizable. All together the tableau formed a solid, visual indicator that Merrie Callahan’s mind was forever stuck in that tween wasteland between childhood and puberty. Not only that, it was frozen at its own arbitrary moment in time, much like the town of Hulis itself-yet another oddity to be added to a growing list of things that were perplexing about this case.

In the corner of the room was the source of the earlier music, and it became readily apparent why the quality had been so lacking. A black vinyl disk that showed visible scratches, even at a distance, was spinning on the turntable of an old, all-in-one stereo system. With the volume turned low, now only a tinny background noise issued from the rectangular speakers sitting on either side of the unit. And even it was almost overwhelmed by the hissing sound of the stylus scraping in the worn grooves of the record album.

“Pink or purple?” Merrie questioned without warning.

“Pink or purple what?” Constance asked, shooting another questioning glance at Sheriff Carmichael, who simply nodded.

Merrie repeated the question in more detail. “Do you like pink or purple?”

Mandalay shrugged. “Both, I suppose.”

“Pick one,” Merrie insisted.

“That’s hard… Okay. Pink. Why?”

“You’ll see.” Merrie scurried over to a chest of drawers and rooted through a clear plastic box that was resting on top. Momentarily, she returned with a small bottle in her hand that she was shaking vigorously as she seated herself on the edge of the bed. “Come here. I’ll do your nails.”

Constance glanced at her hand. Long nails were one of the fashion accessories she didn’t cultivate. She kept them trimmed short, otherwise they didn’t get along very well with the trigger guard on the. 40 caliber Sig Sauer that was riding on her hip. She silently debated for a second, then stepped over and draped her coat across the footboard of the bed, then took a seat next to Merrie and held out her right hand.

“I like your shoes,” Merrie said as she started brushing pearlescent pink lacquer onto Mandalay’s nails.

“Thanks,” Constance replied. “I just bought them.”

“I’ll get new shoes soon,” Merrie said. “I always do for Christmas. They won’t be fancy like yours. They’ll be just like these.” She kicked her leg out and pointed her toe to display her footwear.

Constance glanced down. The shoes in question were black Mary Janes with a silver buckle. The patent leather showed scuffs and crinkles from age and daily use. Merrie was wearing white knee socks with her dress, but at this angle Constance couldn’t help noticing the old burn scars marring her bare legs just above her knee. They were faded with time, but still obvious as they marched up her thighs and disappeared behind the hem of her dress. She remembered what Sheriff Carmichael had said about Colson and the cigarette burns on the little girl’s body, then felt terribly sick to her stomach. For the scars to still be this visible this many years later, the original burns had to have been horrific.

“When I get new shoes, they’re really just for school and church,” Merrie explained as she continued laying on the nail polish. “But since it’s Christmas, Mom will let me wear them to dress up for a while. But then I’ll have to put them away. I had another pair, but I lost one of them.”

Constance took the opening and gingerly asked, “You lost a shoe? Did you look under your bed?”

“No,” Merrie answered, unfazed. “That’s not where I lost it.”

“Where then?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t remember?”

“No. I just lost it,” she answered succinctly and gave a quick shrug as she shook her head. In the next breath she changed the subject. “Okay, I’m finished with this hand. Give me your other one, but don’t touch anything until they dry or you’ll mess them up. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Constance switched hands, splaying out her fingers and inspecting the fresh manicure. Merrie had done a good job. Of course, the color didn’t really go with her attire, not to mention that it was definitely a disco era shade.

“I do manicures for my sister Becca,” Merrie announced.

“That sounds like fun. What’s her favorite color?”

“Pink. Like you, Miss Constance,” she replied, then frowned and cocked her head to the side as she continued to paint the polish onto Mandalay’s nails. “But Becca’s not talking to me right now.”

“Why is that, Merrie?”

She answered in a matter-of-fact voice, “She’s mad because I pushed her.”

“Why would you push your sister?”

“To protect her.”

“From what?”

Instead of answering the question directly, Merrie replied, “I worry about Becca.”

“Why?” Constance probed.

“Because she still believes in Santa Claus.”

“You don’t?”

“Of course not,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “Santa Claus is something grownups tell little kids to keep them from being scared.”

“Being scared of what, Merrie?”

“The man in the red suit.”

“Santa?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean. Why would you be afraid of Santa?”

Merrie ignored the dangling question. “Becca is only five. That’s why she still believes, but she won’t for much longer, I hope.”

“Why won’t she believe for much longer?”

“Because she’s already been learning to read. That’s when you stop believing the story.”

“Why is that?”

“Umm…because…” Merrie rolled her eyes like she was trying to remember something, then with a small dose of young frustration in her voice, tried to explain. “There’s a word for it, but I can’t remember what it is. Do you know what it is when you can make a word out of another word, Miss Constance? You know, when you rearrange the letters?”

“Yes. They call that an anagram.”

“That’s the word. Anagram. Sounds like telegram.”

“Yes, it does a little bit.”

“Well, we learned about them in school, and Becca will too. Then, just like me, she’ll know the truth.

“What’s the truth, Merrie?”

“That Santa is really Satan.”

“No, honey, Santa isn’t really Satan,” Constance offered in a soothing tone.

Merrie continued painting Mandalay’s nails and replied, “Yes, he is.”

“That anagram is just an unfortunate coincidence,” Constance explained.

“I know that it’s true, Miss Constance. Know why?”

“Why?”

Merrie stopped and looked up at her in earnest. “Because he does very horrible bad things to little girls, even when they’ve been very, very good.”

CHAPTER 12

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“Believe me now?” Sheriff Carmichael asked.

He and Special Agent Mandalay were standing at the back of his patrol car on the parking lot of Holly-Oak. The visit with Merrie had produced nothing in the way of information, but it most certainly swelled with an overabundance of heartbreak.

“Yes,” Constance replied, nodding. “It’s not that I didn’t believe you before. I just…”

“…had to do your job,” he finished for her as he slipped a key into the trunk lock and gave it a twist. It let out a dull thump as the latch released, almost as if underscoring his added comment, “I know.”

“Speaking of jobs, ever have one of those days when you really hate yours, Skip?” she asked. “Because I’m having one right now.”

“December twenty-second through twenty-fifth, every damn year,” he sighed, then repeated in a quiet mumble, “Every blessed, goddamned year…” With that, he lifted the trunk lid, extracting the key from the lock as it rose, then offered the jangling ring to Constance. “Here. No need in you standin’ out here in the cold. You might want to start it up and get the heater going. I’ll just be a few minutes. I need to take this stuff in.”

Mandalay glanced into the well of the trunk space and saw three large shopping bags, each with festively wrapped presents protruding from their depths. “I thought you weren’t big on celebrating Christmas here in Hulis,” she asked.

“These are all for Merrie,” he told her. “The new shoes she’s expecting. Some clothes. Mavis Crawford does sewing out of her house, so she makes things for her. And, a few other odds and ends. Whenever anyone travels or goes into the city, they hit those vintage resale stores and pick up old records and such. Things like that. We all carry a list in our wallets of what needs to be under the tree. Of course, most of us have it committed to memory by now.”

“I was actually planning to ask you about that,” Constance mused. “Why are all her clothes and belongings mired in the past?”

“It keeps her happy,” the sheriff responded.

“But is it healthy?” she pressed.

He shook his head as he gathered the bags and hefted them out of the trunk. “I suspect it’s as healthy as it can get. Merrie doesn’t cope very well with change, I’m afraid.”

Since his hands were full, Constance reached up and levered the trunk lid shut for him as she asked, “How so?”

Sheriff Carmichael huffed out a heavy sigh then grimaced noticeably. “Merrie Frances Callahan lives her life in a year long continuous loop, Constance. For her, it’s always nineteen seventy-five. That never changes. And, if you try to take her out of her little world, she just shuts down. That’s what I was trying to tell you when we were inside.”

“Shuts down?” she repeated. “Mentally, you mean?”

“And physically,” he said, punctuating the statement with an animated nod. “Last time a doctor tried to force her into the here and now, she almost died. She reverted to a catatonic state, was hooked to a feeding tube, and was just wasting away. That was right around ten or twelve years before Tom and Elizabeth died in that wreck, give or take. I was still playing detective in Kansas City back then.

“I do remember that they were actually expecting her to go at any moment. They’d already resigned themselves to it. Made funeral arrangements and everything. She was literally that bad off. It was gettin’ close to Christmas, and Elizabeth was a sentimental sort, so she got out all of Merrie’s old things and re-decorated her room back to how it originally was.” He shrugged. “Then, like some kind of damn miracle, she got better. Well…as better as she could, I guess. For most of the time, anyway.”

There was a pained sadness in the last comment, and Constance picked up on it instantly. “What do you mean by most of the time?”

“It gets a little rough this time of year. You heard what she said about Santa Claus.”

Constance nodded. “Repressed memories.”

“Something like that,” he replied. “Probably worse.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning they might not stay repressed.”

“Are you saying she actually relives the abduction and abuse?”

“We’d like to hope not,” he said then nodded. “But, unfortunately, in her head, we think she does, yeah.”

“You think she does?”

He thrust his chin toward her. “What time is it?”

Constance furrowed her brow in confusion at his query but pushed up the cuff of her glove and glanced at her watch anyway. “Two thirty-eight. Why?”

He bobbed his head toward the building. “In a couple of hours it’ll be right about the time Merrie was abducted thirty-five years ago. All of a sudden, just like someone flipped a switch, the girl who just painted your nails will go catatonic. She won’t snap out of it till about five on Christmas morning. Happens every year. After that, it’s like her clock is reset.”

“So that’s what Martha meant earlier about keeping an eye on the time.”

“Yeah,” he nodded. “That’s what she meant. When Merrie wakes up it will be pretty much like nothing ever happened. For her, it will be Christmas Day, nineteen seventy-four, which in her mind was the last time the holiday was ever good to her. We even have a tape of the ball dropping in Times Square, New Year’s Eve, to ring in seventy-five. She stays up to watch it every year.”

“What about other things? Like school and such? People aging around her? Not having any other children to play with? Surely she can see that things have changed.”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t seem to matter. She focuses on the Christmas holidays. Those are important to her. The rest of it seems to play itself out in her head as long as nobody interferes and she has her room.”

“But there are other physical issues. She’s a grown woman. What about menstruation? Arousal?”

He nodded. “She knows how to handle the monthly thing. Her mother was still around when that started. As to any sort of desires and such, to my knowledge she’s never exhibited any other than a crush on a teen idol from the day. No matter what her body does, in her head she’s ten. She doesn’t know any better than to think that’s just how it’s supposed to be. And… Well, we don’t really know what she sees when she looks in the mirror.”

Constance turned and stared toward the building as she breathed, “Dear God…”

“Sweetheart, in my way of thinking, God doesn’t have much of anything to do with it,” Carmichael spat. “If he does, then he’s just as big a sonofabitch as Colson was, and I’ll tell him that to his face when I get to the gates… As you can imagine, the preacher and me don’t much see eye to eye on that issue.” He paused for a second, looking at the ground thoughtfully, then hefted the bags once again and turned to go. “Let me get this stuff inside, so Merrie has her presents to open Christmas morning. It’d break my heart to disappoint her, and the past seven years I’ve been too busy to deliver ‘em when she wakes up. When I missed the first couple it caused some problems for her.”

“I understand,” Constance replied. As he started to walk toward the door, she called after him. “When you’re finished with that, do you think you can take me by the scene? I’d like to have a look at it.”

He stopped, half turned, looked up into the sky and then back down at her face. “Not really much daylight left,” he grunted. “No electric over there, and it’s boarded up, so it’s gonna be dark enough as it is. Be better if we did it tomorrow morning. Believe me, I’ve been down this road before. Nothing’s gonna show up there till Christmas Day anyway. But it’s really up to you. You’re the Fed.”

Constance thought about it for a moment. “Do you already have the house under surveillance?”

“Yep. Broderick should be out there now. Slozar’ll relieve ‘im this evening. We can drive by and check on them if you want.”

Truth is, he was correct. That visit could wait. As far as all of the previous murders went, the site was cold in almost every way imaginable. And this year, as a crime scene, it technically didn’t yet exist. She wasn’t going to learn anything stumbling around in the dark with a flashlight that wouldn’t be there for her to discover tomorrow morning.

And besides, at this point her feet really were killing her.

She nodded in agreement. “Okay, tomorrow morning then. I would feel better if we checked on the surveillance though.”

“We can do that. I assume you’re staying in town tonight?”

“I booked a room at the Greenleaf Motel, yes.”

“Good. We’ll swing by to check on Broderick, then we can suss out a time for me to pick you up in the morning. Just do yourself a favor tomorrow…”

“What’s that?”

He dipped his head toward her feet as if he’d read her mind. “Since we’re going out to do serious police work, wear a different pair of shoes. I’m a little tired of watchin’ you dance.”


“HARRY, this is Special Agent Mandalay,” Sheriff Carmichael said. He jerked a thumb toward Constance while pressing himself a bit deeper into the driver’s seat to allow for a slightly more unobstructed view. “Special Agent Mandalay, meet Deputy Harry Broderick.”

Skip had pulled up so that his driver’s side window was matched up against that of the deputy’s cruiser. Therefore, the two simply nodded at one another across the span in between.

“So… Anything?” Skip asked.

“Same ol’, same ol’,” Broderick replied.

He grunted in reply, “Yeah, figured as much.” He looked over to the passenger seat and addressed Constance. “There ya’ go. Harry’s on the job. Nothing to report, just like always. Ready to head back?”

She glanced at her watch. The package delivery and drive over here had taken a little longer than expected, but it was still only now approaching 3:30. She glanced out the window then back at the sheriff. “Actually I think maybe I’d like to get out and have a look around, if you don’t mind.”

He raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Change your mind about waiting till in the morning?”

By way of an answer she said, “It’s still light out…”

“Your call,” he replied, an audible shrug in his voice as he shifted the vehicle into gear and started it rolling forward. “Just let me get us out of the middle of the street first.”

Once they were parked, Constance unbuckled and climbed out of the patrol car. After swinging the door shut, she simply stood there for a moment, looking at the property over the top of the vehicle.

The house at 632 Evergreen Lane on the north side of Hulis Township was a simple one and one-half story bungalow, sitting on what appeared to be an average-sized lot. However, while there were other houses lining the street itself, none of them were what you could consider nearby. In fact, the closest in proximity was at best a football field away. On top of that, the undeveloped lots that made up that distance between them were to the heavy side of moderately wooded with stands of conifers. The arrangement effectively left number 632 to occupy its own private corner of the world.

“From the looks of the trees I suppose it has always been this secluded,” Constance observed aloud as Skip levered his door shut.

“Yeah,” he replied, leaning to the side and looking around the light bar at her. “Looked pretty much the same in seventy-five. It was a different color, but…well… This place has been boarded up more than once over the years.”

“Secluded and abandoned. That would explain why Colson chose it to hole up.”

“Yeah, that’s what we thought too. Just don’t know why we didn’t find them here on the first pass…” Skip sighed heavily then cleared his throat. “Back when I was a kid, old man Henderson lived here. Died here too. After that we used to think the place was haunted.” He glanced over his shoulder, gazing at the structure for a good while, then added. “Who knows? Maybe now it really is.”

“I’d like to think there’s a mundane explanation for what’s been happening,” Constance replied.

Skip gave a quiet snort, then nodded and said, “I’d be much obliged if you could find one.”

Sunset was still a little over an hour away, but the cloud cover that had been looming over the town all day was still firmly in place. What little daylight they had left was being consumed by the ravenous shadows from the surrounding wooded lots. Whether it was the clouds, the shadows, or something else entirely, to Constance it simply didn’t seem as “light” out here as it had just a scant few minutes earlier. The muted patina made her feel unnaturally chilled.

She continued to stare across the top of the police cruiser, silently taking in the tableau. In stark contrast to the green-needled conifers on either side of the property, a bare-branched pin oak tree was rising out of the front yard. It was malformed, probably due to some sort of damaging wind or storm that had sheared off the weaker branches at one time or another in its history. Though dormant now, she imagined that when its foliage was full during summer, it likely had an abundance of character and provided a refreshing shade. However, at the moment there was nothing inviting about the tree. In fact, it looked to her like a spindly, tortured soul trying to escape a forgotten grave, the headstone for which was the house itself.

The state of disrepair on the structure was evident. The once white paint on the aged clapboard siding was filthy, stained, and dull. Large areas were peeling away to reveal a coat of slate blue beneath, some of which was peeling as well. Along the left front corner, the gutter had separated from the fascia and was hanging several inches below the edge of the roof. The downspout was bent and cocked outward, but still secured to the side of the house. It appeared to be the only thing keeping the trough from crashing to the ground.

Plywood covered the windows on either side of the front door. Before affixing them, someone had actually taken the time to cut the sheets to fit the top arc so that they would be flush against the trim. However, combined with the weathering and fading light, that care in craftsmanship made the boarded up windows appear as a pair of dead eyes, rolling upward into the half story.

Hair prickled along the back of Constance’s neck. The tingling sensation continued the length of her spine as a low moan began to rise in her ears. Her breath caught in her throat and she tensed. In a movement born of pure reflex she hooked her thumb and slid her arm back, smoothly shifting her coat out of the way and brushing her hand against the grip of her Sig Sauer. A heartbeat behind the forlorn sound, its source was revealed when an icy lick of wind caught her hair and whipped it around, stinging as it slapped against her weather-reddened cheeks.

Halfway through closing her fingers on the sidearm she realized what she was doing, and Constance allowed her hand to loosen, then slide slowly back down to her side. She cast a furtive glance around and allowed herself to breathe. The deputy was still in his vehicle and the sheriff had his back to her. Fortunately, it appeared that her moment of weakness had gone unnoticed. The last thing she needed was to look like a wimp in front of them.

“Damn,” Skip muttered.

Constance focused on him as he turned back toward the car. “What’s wrong?”

“I think these batteries are dead,” he complained, hammering the butt of a multi-cell flashlight against the heel of his hand, then clicking the button repeatedly. He frowned at the unlit business end of the torch and huffed, “Weird. I just changed them last week… Well…hang on. Let me borrow Broderick’s.”

The sheriff turned and started toward the other vehicle, but Constance interrupted before he had taken three steps. “That’s okay. We can just do this tomorrow.”

Skip stopped and looked back over the car at her. A curious expression applied itself to his face and he said. “You sure?”

“Yes,” she replied, glancing up at the


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sky then back down to his face. The wind was still rising and falling, so she reached up and brushed a wayward shock of hair out of her eyes then gave him a thin smile. “Like you were saying, not much daylight left, and we won’t find anything tonight that won’t still be there in the morning.” She shrugged. “Besides, maybe your flashlight being dead is a sign.”

He snorted out a half chuckle. “Yeah… Okay…”

“Trust me, Skip,” she offered. “I’ve seen stranger things.”

He looked at the flashlight, then cocked an eyebrow and regarded her quietly for a handful of seconds. Finally he said, “I’m not sure I even want to know.”

She nodded. “You’re right. You probably don’t.”

The chill dancing along Constance’s spine didn’t really subside until they were almost back to the sheriff’s office near the center of town. As she struggled to shake it off, she didn’t know whether she should be disturbed, embarrassed, or both.

CHAPTER 13

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4:49 P.M. – December 22, 2010

Greenleaf Motel

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

Constance pushed aside the sad remains of what was supposed to have been a Cobb salad. She’d picked it up from That Place on her way to the motel since it had been rapidly approaching dinnertime, and she wasn’t really interested in venturing out once she’d managed to get settled. The salad was edible, but it had been devoid of avocado, shredded Colby had taken the place of the Roquefort cheese, and the only dressing they had was prepackaged pouches of ranch. In reality, Faux Chef Salad would have been a more apt label for it. Hindsight being what it was, she concluded that the meatloaf might have been a better choice.

Stella, the waitress from earlier in the day had handled her order. She’d been courteous enough but never managed to achieve a state that could be construed as friendly. Constance had also experienced much the same reaction from the desk clerk when checking in to her room. Other than Merrie, no one seemed particularly happy about her presence here in Hulis. Even Clovis at the sheriff’s office had been aloof around her, and she still wasn’t quite sure what to make of Carmichael himself.

After digging through her computer case twice, she finally managed to locate an old network cable buried in one of the inner pockets. The motel had boasted Internet access, however, as it turned out it was hardwired only. Apparently the concept of Wi-Fi hadn’t taken hold in this small town just yet. Based on everything else she had seen thus far, she wasn’t overly surprised.

Still, she hoped the cable would work. Actually finding it in the bag was only the first hurdle. She couldn’t remember the last time she had used it and was sure it had been quite some time since it had even seen the light of day. Given the severe crimps in the cable’s length, its condition was definitely suspect.

She crawled around on the floor and located the network receptacle, then plugged in. The connector immediately popped out and fell to the floor. It took three tries before she realized the locking tab on the plastic rectangle, while still hanging on, was severely cracked. She turned the cable around, pushed in the other end, and heard it click. She gave it a slight tug to be sure and let out a sigh when it remained solidly in place. That was the second hurdle. She figured maybe she could just hold the broken end in on the computer while she worked, assuming there was nothing else wrong with it. Backing out from beneath the desk, feeling a bit frustrated with all of these gyrations, she misjudged the distance and banged her head on the underside as she came up.

“Oww,” she yelped, then mumbled, “Dammit…”

Constance stood up, then while rubbing the back of her head with one hand, she pushed the damaged end of the blue cord into the jack on her notebook with the other. It stayed for a half heartbeat then popped out, much as she’d expected. She picked it up and jammed the clear connector back into the side of the computer once again and held it there.

She gave it a thoughtful frown. Working like this was going to be awkward, especially if she had to type anything of length. Hunting and pecking with her left hand wasn’t going to be terribly efficient. She considered walking over to the motel office to see if they had a cable she could borrow, but something told her it would be unlikely. Besides, she didn’t even want to think about putting shoes back on right now, heels or otherwise.

After staring at the problem for a moment she let out a quiet “hmph,” then let go of the connector. She heard it click against the desk as it fell out again, but her attention was elsewhere as she ambled over to the nightstand and opened the top drawer. Fortunately, the Gideons were on top of their game, even in Hulis. She pulled out the hardbound Bible, sauntered back to the small desk, then shoved the cord back into the socket and plopped the heavy book on top of the wire, pushing it up against the back edge of the clear plastic connector. This time it stayed firmly in place, so she pointed at it and mumbled, “don’t even think about moving,” then she carefully pressed the power button on the notebook.

While the computer whirred through its start-up sequence, she parked herself in a straight-backed chair that was so uncomfortable she was firmly convinced it had to be from the same matched set as the one sitting in the sheriff’s office. She shifted around, trying to find a less miserable position, but finally gave up. Obviously this just wasn’t going to be her day. Snatching up her cell phone from the desk, she leaned back and thumbed through the screens to see if there were any text messages or voice mails she might possibly have missed.

Nothing.

She stared at the device and pursed her lips, then frowned. It was almost 5:00. Not exactly late, but that made it better than four hours since she’d left the message for Agent Drew. Of course, it was the holidays, after all. He might be with family, if he had any. Or, he could just be avoiding her. She wasn’t really sure which was most likely. Truth is, she wasn’t really sure about anything where Drew was concerned, other than they’d had no choice but to work together on occasion and that they had a noticeable clash personality-wise.

She considered ringing him again but stopped short of actually pulling up his number on the screen. Maybe she needed to try calling one of the other agents who had been assigned. With a little luck she might actually reach one of them instead of a machine.

Leaning over toward the foot of the bed and stretching her arm out, she snagged the case file envelope from the folio she had tucked into the outer pocket of the computer satchel. After sitting back, she dumped the contents out on her lap. Flipping her way through the documentation, sparse as it was, she located a recent case report. She eyeballed the Kansas City based number on the attached business card and thumbed it into her cell.

The phone trilled twice and a woman’s voice answered. “Kimball…”

“Hi, Agent Kimball?” Constance asked.

“Yes, who’s this?”

“SA Mandalay, Saint Louis headquarters. I was trying to reach Agent Keene?”

“You must have an old file,” Kimball said, “He transferred to the Seattle field office over a year ago.”

Constance replied, “Oh, sorry. Listen, I hate to ask, but I’m in the field right now. Would you happen to have his new number?”

“Sure, hang on a second.”

Less than a minute later she had stabbed in the new number and thumbed TALK. After a trio of rings, a voice issued from the speaker. “This is Keene…”

“Keene, hi, you may not remember me, but this is Special Agent Mandalay from the Saint Louis headquarters,” Constance announced.

“Mandalay… Mandalay…” he mused. “Brown hair, worked violent crimes. We met at a close-quarters defense demo, right?”

“Right. I wasn’t sure you’d remember. It’s been several years.”

“Hard to forget. You’re the one who kicked Joe Lanting’s ass in that demo, right?”

She allowed herself a small chuckle at the reference. “The same.”

“Broke his nose as I recall.”

“He had it coming, the way I remember it.”

“That he did. So, yeah, I definitely remember you. I bet Joe does too. So…how are you doing? Didn’t I hear that you took a couple of rounds a while back?”

Constance reached for the scars on her chest out of unconscious reflex. The shooting had occurred during a sting to apprehend an elusive and somewhat prolific serial killer who had decompensated into a rapid cascade of violence. As the killer’s mental state degenerated further, the woman had engaged in a bloody spree, leaving a horrific trail in her wake, all in an attempt to get to a high profile consultant who was directly involved in the case.

Constance had led the team responsible for taking her down, but in the process had come close to becoming another of the victims herself. Her vest had stopped one of the bullets, but the other had struck at an unfortunate angle, allowing it to slip in behind the Kevlar barrier and penetrate her upper chest. The pain had been unlike any other she’d felt in her life. She didn’t remember much about it after that. Not until she woke up in the hospital ICU, anyway.

Last week had marked the fifth anniversary of the incident.

“Actually…” she hesitated as the faded memory tried to bloom anew. “It’s…been quite awhile ago.”

“Really?”

“Yeah…” she replied, an uncomfortable disquiet in her voice. “I’m good. Fully recovered. Thanks for asking.”

“Glad to hear it,” he told her. “Sorry to bring up an old…”

She hurried to end the topic before it could gain a foothold in her thoughts. “That’s okay. Like I said, I’m all good.”

“Yeah…” he returned, breathed an apologetic sigh, then asked, “So, what can I do for you, Mandalay?”

“Actually, I was hoping you might be able to answer a few questions about a case that you worked a couple of years ago.”

“If I can help, sure; no problem. Which one?”

“The Christmas Butcher.”

There was a sudden and obvious silence at the other end of the line.

“Agent Keene? Are you still there?”

Keene cleared his throat. “Yeah. I’m here. Exactly where are you calling from, SA Mandalay?”

“I’m actually in Hulis, Missouri at the moment. I was assigned to the case. Do you remember it?”

“Yeah,” he replied, his tone shifting from warm camaraderie to a businesslike chill. “Hard to forget. So that’s still open…”

“I’m afraid so.”

“I guess I’m not surprised.”

“Why is that?”

“Just a gut feeling,” he replied, then quickly shifted the subject. “Godawful what happened to that little girl.”

“Definitely,” she agreed. “So, I was wondering if you could help me out. I’ve been going over the file and it seems incomplete.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. For one thing, there was no mention of Sheriff Carmichael’s connection to the original abduction case back in seventy-five, nor to John Horace Colson’s murder investigation. Also, there was no background on the parents and the sister, Rebecca Callahan.”

“Have you checked with archives?” he asked. “I’m sure I mentioned in my report that we’d been unable to locate the sister.”

“No offense, Agent Keene, but there wasn’t much detail to your report.”

“My SSA and the SAC signed off on it, right?”

“Yes, but…”

He cut her off. “I’m afraid I can’t really help you, SA Mandalay. Like I said, maybe you can check with archives if you feel like something is missing from the file.”

“I plan to do that,” she said. She was feeling somewhat perplexed by his sudden stonewalling but pressed forward. “Still, since you worked the case I’d appreciate it if you could fill me in on-”

“Have you spoken to the girl?” he asked, interrupting her yet again.

“Merrie Callahan? Yes, I talked to her this afternoon.”

“So then you know about her mental state.”

“Yes, but that’s not-”

“Do you plan to see this through?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Unless something has changed, then you have a murder that’s about to occur, correct?”

“As I understand it, yes. I believe that’s why I’m here.”

“Then perhaps you should focus on that instead of the past,” he instructed.

Now Constance had moved from perplexed and straight into annoyed. “Excuse me, Agent Keene, but I’m trying to prevent the murder. If I can figu-”

“Try me after Christmas, SA Mandalay,” he said, heavily stressing the after.

“What do you mean after Christmas?”

“Exactly that. If you still think I can help you after Christmas Day, then give me a call. But honestly, I don’t expect to hear from you again. Not about this, anyway.” His words were followed by a rustle and then dull silence.

“What do you- Agent Keene… Agent Keene?”

Constance pulled the cell away from her ear and stared at it before mumbling, “Bastard.”

She waited a long moment, still fuming over the verbal bum’s rush she’d just received from a colleague. However, based on what he’d said and the way he’d gone cold at the mention of the case, she was definitely beginning to wonder if maybe Ben was correct when he suggested the possibility of a cover-up. It wasn’t an idea she relished considering, but something was going on and it definitely didn’t fit with standard procedure.

Once her flare of temper had mellowed a bit, she thumbed through the phone book on her cell, highlighted a number, then pressed the button to dial.

For the second time today she heard five rings, followed by a recorded voice announcing no more than a curt, “Leave a message.”

“Drew, it’s Mandalay again,” she announced in the wake of the start tone. “This is my second message, and I need for you- Scratch that… Look, I’m sorry if I sound a bit frustrated, but I just had a really bizarre conversation with Agent Keene. He was assigned to the Christmas Butcher case prior to you, but if I had to guess I think you already know that. Listen… I know you and I have had some differences in the past, but the case always came first, even when we disagreed. Something really strange is going on with this… I could use your input. Just call me back, okay? This number. Thanks.”

She stabbed the END button with her thumb then ran the fingers of her free hand through her hair as she blew out a heavy sigh. This case was starting to make her head hurt, literally. Of course, maybe it wasn’t the case as much as the lack of sleep combined with the frustration she was feeling about her uncooperative colleagues. However, since they and the sleep deprivation were both a direct result of the assignment, why not just go ahead and let it take the blame? It seemed like as good a scapegoat as any.

After another sigh Constance shook her head in resignation then stood up from the chair and padded across the room. She rummaged around in her suitcase, dug out a bottle of ibuprofen and tossed back a couple of the pills with the remains of the diet cola she’d purchased with her dinner.

She wandered over to the door and double-checked the deadbolt, then swung the small security bar into place out of habit. Pushing the drapes aside, she glanced out the window into the night. There was little to see other than the parking lot and the dim glow of the exterior lights mounted next to each of the room doors. Even so, while she stood staring into the darkness, the earlier chill made a resurgence along her spine, and she felt herself shiver as it crawled insect-like around the back of her neck.

She allowed the drapes to fall back into place, then wandered over to the bed and crawled onto it atop the thin comforter. Lying diagonally across the mattress, she yanked a pillow from beneath the covers and tucked it behind her head, then tried to relax. She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. The room smelled of old furniture polish and stale air, the latter issuing on a warm draft from the heating unit on the exterior wall. If the parking lot could be taken at face value, she was the only guest staying at the motel tonight. If the odors were any indication, she may well be the only guest they’d had for quite some time.

She slowly opened her eyes, then lifted her hand, which was still wrapped around her cell. As she did so, she allowed her thumb to punch in a speed dial code via little more than muscle memory.

The speaker trilled into her ear twice, then was replaced by a voice.

“Hey…” Ben said.

“Hey,” Constance replied, her voice soft and audibly tired.

“Bad day?” he asked.

“I’ve had better.”

“Yeah, ain’t we all…” Ben agreed.

Through the phone Constance could hear noise in the background, ranging from voices to music to the unidentifiable. “Where are you?”

“Double D’s,” he told her. “Grabbin’ a pizza and some beers with a coupl’a other coppers.”

“Oh… I’m sorry… I should probably let you go then…”

“No, no…” he objected. “Just hang on a sec.”

There was some rustling, a few muted voices, and then more rustling. A minute later, his voice came back on the line without the added soundtrack behind it.

“There…” he said. “That’s better.”

“What is?” she asked.

“Just stepped outside ta’ get away from all the noise. So… You want me ta’ talk dirty to ya’ or somethin’?”

“Not tonight.”

“Okay, so ya’ wanna talk dirty ta’ me instead? I’m good with that…”

“Ben…”

“Hey… Just tryin’ ta’ help ya’ feel better, hon.”

“I know…” she sighed.

“So? What’s up? I’m listenin’…”

“I’m not really sure to be honest,” she told him. “This case is a fucking trainwreck.”

“Whoa…” Ben replied. “If it’s gettin’ an f-bomb outta you then I’d say so…”

“Sorry…”

“S’okay. It’s kinda sexy.”

She half-snorted. “Only you would think that.”

“I dunno,” he replied. “There’re guys out there that’d pay for it. But that’s a whole ‘nother story… So, really… What’s goin’ on now?”

“Remember I was telling you about the holes in the case file this morning?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, they aren’t filling in. In fact, they’re getting bigger.”

“How so?”

“Well, for one thing I finally managed to get in touch with one of the prior assigned agents. Everything was fine until I told him I was calling about this particular case, and then he just completely blew me off.”

Ben grunted out a low harrumph, paused, and then said, “I know ya’ don’t wanna hear it, but like I said earlier, sounds like a dirty cop in there somewhere. Somebody’s coverin’ up somethin’.”

“I know,” Constance answered with a resigned sigh. “Unfortunately, I think you’re probably right, but I don’t know what or why. This whole thing is peculiar enough as it is without a conspiracy thrown in on top of it.”

“Get anything outta the interview today?” he prodded.

“Just more questions, I’m afraid,” she replied. “Merrie Callahan is older than me chronologically, but in her mind she’s still a ten-year-old girl living in nineteen seventy-five.”

“That’s kinda fucked up.”

“I know. And it gets worse. Apparently, she falls into a catatonic state every year on the anniversary of her abduction. She comes out of it a few days later, on the anniversary of her escape, and it’s as if her clock has reset and she starts living the year over again.”

“Jeezus…” Ben breathed. “That’s a little off the charts. Maybe ya’ oughta call Helen an’ get her input on this.”

Helen Storm was Ben’s older sister. She was also an accomplished psychologist who occasionally consulted on criminal cases. Constance had actually worked with her a number of times before. It never hurt to have a network of contacts outside the bureau just in case you needed a fresh perspective on something.

“Yeah…” she agreed. “I’ve been thinking that myself.”

After making the comment she fell quiet, simply listening to him breathe on the other end of the line. She hadn’t really been expecting him to have any answers when she called. In fact, she wasn’t even certain that she’d really dialed him up to be her sounding board at all. Right now, she just needed to know he was there.

After what seemed like a solid minute had passed with neither of them saying a word, Ben broke the silence. “Somethin’ else is botherin’ you, I can tell. What is it?”

“It’s really nothing,” she told him.

“You’re lyin’.”

She was. She thought about it for a moment then sighed heavily. “You’re right… I am… But it’s just kind of silly.”

“Yeah, so tell me anyway.”

“Okay… We went by the crime scene late this afternoon… It’s this old, abandoned house at the end of a street out on the edge of town.”

“Yeah…” he said. “Find anything helpful, or just more questions again?”

“That’s just it,” she explained. “We never even went in. There’s no electricity and it was late. We were getting ready and the sheriff’s flashlight was dead.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So…” she answered, then paused.

“What is it?” Ben pressed.

“We had another flashlight, but I called it off and decided not to go in.”

“Why?”

“Honestly? I was spooked.”

“You, spooked? I find that one hard ta’ believe.”

“I’m serious, Ben,” she told him. “It was a weird feeling… I don’t know for sure exactly what…but it really did spook me. I felt like a rookie agent… See… I told you it was silly.”

“Not really,” he suggested. “Maybe there’s somethin’ to it.”

“I don’t know,” she grumbled. “Maybe I’m just overtired. The SAC called me in too early for words this morning. I haven’t actually had much sleep.”

“Yeah, well ya’ do sound like you’re draggin’.”

“I am. Maybe I should let you go and turn in early. The sheriff is coming by to pick me up in the morning, so we can go back out to the scene. Hopefully I won’t freeze up this time.”

“Yeah,” he grunted. “But don’t ignore your gut.”

“I won’t.”

“I’m not kiddin’, Constance.”

“I know you aren’t.”

“Okay… Talk to ya’ tomorrow?”

“Probably,” she said. “I’ll call when I get a chance.”

“Okay. Sleep tight.”

“Enjoy your pizza.”

Constance stabbed the END button to terminate the call. The ibuprofen hadn’t had a chance to kick in just yet, so her head was still aching, but at least it wasn’t unbearable. She held the phone

up to check the time. The digits on the screen showed that it was pushing 5:30.

As she started to lower her hand she caught a dim flash and focused on it. Her pearlescent pink nails were shining in the light from the small lamp on the side table. Laying the cell phone aside, she held up both hands and splayed out her fingers. As she gazed at the retro manicure she felt herself smile, but only for a brief instant before the corners of her mouth bent into a deep frown.

Given what Sheriff Carmichael had told her earlier, Merrie Callahan had fallen into catatonia by now. Constance couldn’t help but imagine the abject fear that was likely going through her tortured mind at this very moment, and it turned her stomach sour. As she lay there in silence, unable to think of anything else, she could taste the acrid tang of bile on the back of her tongue.

CHAPTER 14

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7:32 A.M. – December 23, 2010

Greenleaf Motel

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

Constance finished threading her holster onto her belt and then worked the end of the flat strap through the remaining loops on her blue jeans. As she pulled the leather tight to buckle it, the corner of her P226’s slide momentarily jabbed into her side and she winced. What little sleep she’d finally managed in the early hours of the morning had apparently been spent rolled over on top of her cell phone. Between the hard plastic rectangle and the unforgiving mattress, she now had a tender spot in exactly the wrong place, given that she preferred a high-ride FLETCH holster for her sidearm. She lifted her layered shirts and had another look. The partial outline of the phone was still visible on her skin, and it was definitely going to bruise.

“Oh well,” she muttered aloud as she pulled the garments back down and straightened them. “I’ve had worse.”

Her voice sounded rough, even to her own ears.

She twisted slowly at the waist, stretching. Halfway through the motion her back popped in a way she wasn’t entirely sure it was supposed to. A massage was definitely going to be in order once she was back home. Probably professional, because whenever she let Ben do it, things tended to take a radically different course. The detour was certainly therapeutic in its own way, but not what she was after at the moment.

Of course, that could always change.

Constance walked to the back of the room and inspected herself in the streaked mirror over the sink. She had actually applied a little more makeup than usual in an attempt to hide the bags under her eyes. Judging from the face staring back at her, the attempt had failed miserably, but she didn’t feel up to taking another run at it. She would just have to look as tired as she felt.

A quick glance at her watch told her that Sheriff Carmichael wasn’t due for another twenty minutes or so. She pondered whether she should just park herself in a chair or take a walk up to the motel office in search of caffeine. Since there was no coffeepot in the room, she’d started her day with a severely travel-worn packet of instant decaf that she had found in her suitcase and prepared with lukewarm water from the tap. As expected, it definitely wasn’t cutting it in the waking up department.

She let out a heavy sigh, then donned her coat and stuffed her cell, wallet, and room key into the pockets. She definitely needed something, so if the office didn’t have coffee, then maybe she’d grab a soda from the machine. She was just stepping out into the frosty air as the sheriff was pulling into a parking space nearby.

She gave him a quick wave, then checked her door to be sure it was locked. Stepping off the sidewalk and skirting around the nose of her own vehicle, she drew up alongside the cruiser and climbed in.

“You’re early,” she said.

“Yeah. Bad habit of mine,” Skip replied, then pointed toward the floorboard on the passenger side. “That thermos there next to your left foot is full of coffee. It’s fresh.”

“You read my mind,” she replied with an almost thankful tone in her voice. Shifting in the seat, she leaned forward and reached for the dinged, gray metal cylinder.

“I just figured Artie still hasn’t put any coffeepots in the rooms,” he told her.

“You figured correctly.”

“Not surprising, the cheap old coot. Go on ahead and use the cap,” he offered. “It’s clean, and I already had my fill at home.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

“Oh yeah, and it’s just black. Hope that’ll do.”

“That’s fine. Right now I don’t care, as long as it’s hot and has caffeine.”

Skip was sitting slightly twisted in his seat, the back of his shoulder resting against the inner driver’s side door and his left hand lazily hooked onto the top of the steering wheel. Reaching up with his right hand, he used his thumb and forefinger to smooth down his mustache while regarding her quietly. After a few heartbeats had thumped by, he asked, “So… About an hour’n a half? Maybe two?”

“What?” Constance asked while twisting the inner cap back onto the top of the thermos she was now squeezing between her knees.

“Sleep,” he said. “No offense, young lady, but you look like crap.”

She took a sip of the freshly poured java, then nodded. “Oh… Yeah… About two, I think. Which makes a total of maybe six in the past two days. Last night I just couldn’t stop thinking about…”

“Yeah, I know,” he agreed as her voice trailed off. “That’s not all that unusual. Oh, and trust me, I wasn’t trying to insult you. I know I look like crap too. Three fingers of bourbon and a sleeping pill didn’t do me much good last night either. Never does this time of year.”

“Yeah,” was all Constance could think of to say in that moment. She took another sip of the hot brew, then stared thoughtfully at the thick fingers of steam rising from the metal cup. “Have you checked on her this morning?”

“Yep… Always do.”

“How is she?”

“On the outside, just like I said: starin’ off into space.” He paused and drew in a deep breath. “On the inside, I’m afraid nobody really knows what’s goin’ on except her. And since there’s not a damn thing I can do to fix it, I try not to think about it too much… Hard not to, though… Guess you found that out last night.”

Once again, words failed her. “Yeah.”

“So, do you want to stop over at That Place and grab breakfast first?”

She shook her head. “No. I’ll grab something later.”

“Okay… Well, go on then. Buckle up,” the sheriff instructed with a wave of his hand, then shifted around in his seat and levered the cruiser into reverse. He cast his gaze over his shoulder and began to back the vehicle out of its parking space as he added, “We’ve got police work to do.”


IN the fresh light of morning, the house at 632 Evergreen Lane on the north side of Hulis Township was still a simple one and one-h


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alf story bungalow, sitting on an average-sized lot, with a bare-branched, somewhat malformed pin oak tree rising out of the front yard. The white paint on the clapboard siding was still dull and peeling, and the gutter was still separated from the fascia on the left front corner; and it was still held up only by the grace of the downspout that was barely clinging to the wall itself. And the weathered plywood was still covering the windows.

However, now the old dormant tree looked like nothing more than an old dormant tree. The house looked like nothing more than an old abandoned house, and the plywood looked like nothing more than what it was-weathered plywood covering windows.

And just as the light had washed away the eerie shadows, it also revealed a few other salient issues, such as the glass missing from the storm door, some absent shingles, and a desperate need for tuck pointing on the brick chimney.

However, the one thing that truly stood out to Constance was that in this light, the house gave no outward indication of the horrors that had occurred inside over the years. Still, even that fact couldn’t keep the uncomfortable prickling sensation from crawling across the back of her neck once again.

They had pulled in and parked behind a patrol car that was already in front of the house. After climbing out of his own cruiser, the sheriff ambled over to the driver’s side of the first vehicle while Constance waited in the yard. The deputy inside rolled down her window as he approached.

“Morning, Skip,” she said.

“Mornin’, Mel,” he replied. “Thought Johnson was supposed to relieve you around seven?”

“Clovis radioed. His kid’s sick and he’s running late,” she replied.

“Ahh, okay,” he grunted. “Didn’t know. Haven’t been by the office yet this morning. So, all quiet I guess?”

“Just like always,” Mel replied then nodded toward the yard where Constance was standing. “That the Fed? Clovis said they sent another new one this time.”

He rested an arm on top of the car and leaned in a bit closer, lowering his voice. “Yeah. Gotta do the annual tour.”

“Think she’ll figure it out?”

“Guess we’ll see. Not holdin’ my breath, but I gotta say, she’s different from the others. So… Maybe…”

“Different how?”

He shrugged with his eyebrows and continued to keep his voice low. “Just somethin’ about her seems a little driven.”

Mel glanced toward Constance, who was standing in the center of the yard with her back to them as she visually inspected the exterior of the house. Turning back to Skip she said, “So… Have you told her anything?”

Carmichael gave his head a small shake. “Just the official spiel, like always.”

“But if she’s really different-” Mel began.

He cut her off. “Different doesn’t mean she’ll believe… Nope… Better to just let things take their course…”

The deputy nodded. “I’m sure you’re right.”

“Believe me, I know how you feel, Mel,” Skip offered in a fatherly tone. “It sure wouldn’t hurt my feelings to get an answer to all this either… Just don’t wanna get too hopeful, you know?”

“Yeah, Skip. I know.”

He shrugged, then straightened his posture and hitched up his belt. After repositioning the flashlight he was carrying tucked under his armpit, he nodded toward the house. When he spoke, he allowed his voice to return to a normal volume. “I expect we’re gonna be here for a bit. Why don’t you go grab some breakfast, and maybe Johnson’ll be in by the time we’re done, and that way you can go home.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Mel replied, reaching for the steering column and cranking the engine on the patrol car. “Thanks, Skip. I’ll swing back by in a bit, unless I hear from you or Clovis.”

“Sounds good.”

The sheriff took a step back and waited for the car to drive off before meandering over to join Constance on the overgrown concrete walkway somewhere near the center of the yard.

“Everything okay?” she asked as he drew up alongside her.

“Yeah, nothing earth shattering,” he grunted as they began walking toward the house. “Got a deputy with a sick kid. Might mean rearranging some schedules.”

She nodded. “Sorry I didn’t introduce myself to the deputy. I’m just not feeling overly social this morning.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he replied, motioning for her to go ahead up the stairs. “All she’s interested in right now is hitting the sack.”

“I can imagine.”

“I see you took my advice,” Skip said, nodding toward the porch in front of Constance as he stepped up and dug a hand into his coat pocket.

“What? Oh…” Constance replied, glancing down at the running shoes that were laced onto her feet. Looking back up, she cocked her head to the side. “No offense, Skip, but you seem to have an odd preoccupation with my footwear.”

“I just notice things is all,” he told her with a shrug. He pulled out a key ring, then clucking his tongue, he waved it toward her like a pointer. “For instance, the fact that you also have a goose egg on the back of your head, probably from hitting it against the desk in your room last night when you were plugging in your laptop computer to the Internet. Plus you’re expecting a call from someone and it’s starting to bother you that he hasn’t called yet.”

She cocked an eyebrow and stared at him.

He answered the unspoken question, continuing to gesture with the keys. “You keep reaching up to touch a spot on the back of your head and then you wince. You probably don’t even realize you’re doing it. You’re a federal cop on a case, so I’m just about positive you’re dragging a laptop computer around. Greenleaf Motel doesn’t do Wi-Fi because Artie’s too cheap to buy the equipment, and the jack for the wired connection is under the desks in the rooms. Hell, the only reason he has wired connections is because his son’s an electronics guy and he did it for free with some surplus from other jobs. So if I had to guess I’d say you came up too soon and bang, there you go. Goose egg.”

He pointed toward her right coat pocket and continued. “As far as the call goes, you checked your cell phone four times on the way over here and at least twice while I was talking to Deputy Slozar. Either you have a fascination with clocks, or your waiting for a call, or maybe a text.”

“Okay. So how do you know it’s a he I’m waiting for?”

“Educated guess. I’ve told you, this isn’t my first rodeo. Every one of your predecessors called their predecessor about this case. And every one of ‘em was all antsy waitin’ for a call back. Last agent on this was Drew, and he’s a ‘he,’ best I could figure. My guess is that’s who you’re waitin’ on to call. Either that or a boyfriend. Maybe husband, but I doubt it because you don’t have a ring or show any signs of having worn one. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe you go the other way or somethin’, which is none of my business.”

“If I did, I have a feeling you probably would have already figured it out,” Constance said.

“Yeah, probably,” he returned.

She sighed. “Uncanny. That’s all I have to say.”

“Nope. I just pay attention is all.”

“Okay. Then I guess it would be uncanny if you could tell me what I ate for dinner last night,” she joked.

“Cobb salad with ranch dressing. In your room at the motel.”

She shot him an alarmed, wide-eyed stare and took a visible step back, tensing her posture.

“Keep it holstered, Constance,” the sheriff half snorted. “I’m not spying on you. Stella told me your to-go order this morning when I stopped in to get the thermos filled.”

“Why would she do that?”

“Because you’re a stranger in town and she’s a damn gossip that won’t shut up to save her life, that’s why,” he explained.

“Ahh,” she nodded. “After her call to the retirement home yesterday I should have guessed that.”

“Yeah, you should’ve, but I wasn’t going to say it.”

She ignored the gibe. “Well, at least now I know you aren’t just a dirty old man with a shoe fetish.”

“Me, no, but since you brought it up, Ed Ruble over at the hardware store on Main? Now he has himself a pretty serious thing for ladies’ shoes.”

Constance shook her head and raised an eyebrow. “Stella again?”

“Nope. Figured that one out on my own. Easy enough to do.”

“I’m not sure I even want to know how.”

“Like I said, I notice things. It’s my job to.”

“It’s still uncanny.”

“Whatever. Anyhow, as far as Ed goes, honestly he’s harmless. But while you’re in town you might want to avoid him if that sorta thing makes you uncomfortable.”

“Well, I don’t think I’ll have any need for a trip to the hardware store, but it’s okay. I’ve got some experience with men who have shoe fetishes, so nothing to worry about.”

“Well I guess we’re even then.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m not sure I want to know about how you’ve got experience with that,” he replied.

Without further comment, Carmichael turned and shoved a key into the lock. After giving it a twist, he depressed the latch beneath the deadbolt and pushed the now unsecured door inward. Stepping back, he gestured toward the opening. “Ladies first.”

Constance looked past him and trained her eyes on the gaping maw that was pretending to be a doorway. The bizarre conversation had momentarily taken her mind off the chill in her spine, but the sensation had never actually left. Now her thoughts returned to it, and she could feel the gooseflesh rippling at the base of her neck. Ben had told her to trust her gut, but she wasn’t so sure this was her gut talking. Of course, she also couldn’t say that it wasn’t. All she knew for certain was that she was operating on even less sleep now than she had been before, so exhaustion could still be playing a role.

At least this time she wasn’t letting it spook her-well, not completely, anyway.

She nodded then stepped across the threshold and into the dark front room. Outside it was overcast, just as it had been the day before, but at least the sun was climbing behind the clouds instead of falling below the horizon. Even so, only a dim, gray light spilled in, and it brought an eerie illumination to the interior.

Sheriff Carmichael followed her through and left the door hanging wide open so that they could see. He pulled the five-cell flashlight from beneath his armpit and switched it on. The yellow-white beam formed a bright pool on the floor, casting an ever-softening glow out from the center as he twisted the lens to adjust it wider.

“A few years back there was talk of tearin’ this old place down,” he offered. “Sorta been wishin’ they had ever since.”

“I assume it has been vacant for a good while?” Constance asked, glancing around at the empty walls and scuffed hardwood floor.

“Coming up on about seven years, give or take,” he replied. “Like I said, it has been off and on. It was empty back in seventy-five, as you already know, and what happened didn’t exactly help its value. Someone did finally buy it around seventy-seven for next to nothin’, or so I heard. I was in KC by then. They fixed it up a bit.” He shone the light along the floor, then through an arched doorway and toward the back of the house. “Re-did the kitchen, tore off the old back porch. Normal stuff.” He played the beam around a bit so she could get the lay of the floor plan. “Those folks lived here awhile, then moved. Don’t know why. After that it changed hands a couple more times. Last owner was actually living here when the first body showed up seven years ago. Well, I guess in a couple of days it’ll be eight years…”

She turned toward the sheriff. “That wasn’t in the file. I assume that owner was investigated?”

“Much as need be,” he replied. “Ida Smith. She was eighty-nine, and when she found the…well…what she found… Anyway, it didn’t do her heart much good, as you can imagine. She never was the same after that. Kinda went downhill fast, then she passed away about eight months later. Place has been empty ever since.”

“Well, that definitely rules her out.”

“Yeah, I’d say so.”

“Who owns it now?”

“Hulis, pretty much. Ida didn’t have any family left to speak of. Town took it over. Tried to sell it, but after the second body showed up, there wasn’t much interest, as you can guess. So, they just boarded it up.”

“Why haven’t they just torn it down?”

He snorted. “Beats the hell outta me. But I’ve got nothin’ to say about it. That’s all the town council.”

“Well, it actually looks like it’s in decent shape for sitting vacant as long as it has,” Constance observed.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” he sighed. “Could use some work, but it’s still standin’. Sometimes when I drive by here it seems like the place is just mocking all of us. I know that sounds kinda crazy. It’s just a damned old house.”

“With a seriously damned history,” she offered.

“Yeah…it’s got one of those all right. But it’s still an inanimate object.”

“What happened to it being haunted?” Constance asked. “I thought I was the skeptic in this crowd?”

“You mean the skeptic who’s ‘seen stranger things’?” he quipped, tossing her comment from the night before back at her.

“Seeing isn’t necessarily believing,” she replied. “Not always, anyway.”

He fell silent for a moment, then huffed, “Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, what I said yesterday about the house being haunted… That was just talk. I don’t really buy into any of that supernatural crap.”

Constance thought back to some of the cases she’d worked in the past. She wasn’t going to admit it-especially now-but her skepticism was as much a hopeful optimism as anything else. Like he had just reminded her, she’d seen some pretty strange things, and there were a few she still had to take purely on faith.

Without realizing it, she muttered quietly to herself, “I guess you just never know…”

“What’s that?”

“Nothing,” she answered, shaking her head. “Just thinking out loud.”

“Yeah. I’ve got a daughter does that. Makes me nuts.”

Constance nudged the conversation back to the particulars of the case. “Is there a back entrance to the house?”

“Yeah, right off the kitchen. Locked up tight. Never been any sign of forced entry.”

“Maybe the killer somehow has a key?”

“Locks have been changed four times. Three of ‘em I did myself. Finally just gave up. So, unless the killer is me…”

“Are you?” she asked.

He snorted. “Do you think I’d tell you if I was?”

“With you, Skip, I’m not so sure…” Constance wasn’t usually one for gallows humor, but Ben had rubbed off on her through the years, and sometimes it would leak out unexpectedly.

Skip turned and played the flashlight up just far enough to illuminate the smirk on her face. He snorted again. “I see that coffee is starting to kick in.”

“Sorry,” she apologized.

“Don’t be. It comes with the job.”

She returned to the subject at hand. “Any other ingress or egress?”

“Windows would be about it, but they’ve never been disturbed that we can tell,” he told her.

“The killer has to get in and out somehow.”

“Yeah, can’t argue there,” he grunted, playing the flashlight around in the darkness. A moment later he quipped, “When you figure it out, tell me, okay? Because this’n has me stumped.”

“With you that’s hard to imagine.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. There was no hubris in his voice, just sincere confusion at why he didn’t see the answer to this riddle the same way he saw everything else.

“Well, that’s why I’m here,” she replied.

“Yeah, well no offense, but you’re the fifth Fed to tell me that.”

“So…” Constance said, allowing the flat commentary to go without rebuttal. “As I understand it, the bodies are always found in the basement, correct?”

“Yeah, what’s left of them anyway,” Sheriff Carmichael replied, panning the flashlight to the right side of the archway. “Stairs are just over there.”

CHAPTER 15

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Hollow echoes came a half-beat behind each footstep that fell upon the wooden plank treads of the basement staircase. The dull sounds resonated from the concrete walls below, each lonely thud fading away to make room for the next. The rhythmic noise was an audible indicator of the emptiness contained within the subterranean room.

Armed with a flashlight, Sheriff Carmichael had led the way for a change, with Special Agent Mandalay close behind. A small amount of the dim light from the still open front door was filtering into the stairwell behind her. The muted illumination wasn’t at all obvious while she kept her gaze forward as they descended. In fact, she didn’t even notice it until a gust of wind caught the loose screen door outside and knocked it hard against the side of the house, prompting her to stop midway down the steep staircase and glance back up over her shoulder. The basement doorway above her was filled with dull light, appearing as a dim, rectangular panel of gray floating in a black void. When she exhaled, the frosty cloud of her breath bloomed in its faint glow, briefly hovering before her like a translucent apparition, only to disappear in less than a blink.

With a quick shudder, she turned and continued downward, following the bobbing pool of brightness from the flashlight in Sheriff Carmichael’s hand. Her running shoes thumped a significantly lighter beat against the stairs than his harder-soled clomps. Constance heard him let out a heavy grunt, which was then followed by the sound of his shoes against concrete, as he arrived at the bottom and stepped down to the floor below.

“Watch yourself,” he told her, moving off to the side, but keeping the flashlight aimed at the last stair for her. “That one’s a bit to the high side.”

She heeded his warning and held onto the loose handrail as she stepped down from the last tread. He hadn’t been exaggerating. If anything, he’d been conservative in his assessment. The final step was akin to taking two at once. She felt his hand on her upper arm as she pitched forward, her foot searching for the floor. She appreciated the help.

“Thanks,” she said.

“It can be an unwelcome surprise if you don’t know it’s there,” he replied.

“Spoken from experience?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

Once he was certain she was on even footing, Skip swung the flashlight around the large, squarish room to get his bearings.

By now, Constance’s eyes had mostly adjusted to the muted darkness. She could make out the coarse shapes of what little remained in the abandoned basement.

As she glanced around, she could see that there were small, glass block windows at the top edges of the walls, spaced at roughly even intervals. A small amount of the gray daylight was leaking through them, but not as much as one would expect. She had noticed the rusted upper lips of the galvanized window-wells protruding just above the ground when they first approached the house, but she had not looked down into them. Now that they were inside she could see that they must be filled with leaves and other debris. A by-product of Mother Nature combined with the past seven years of cyclical neglect visited upon the property.

From their position at the bottom of the stairs, to the left she spied the squat hulk of an antiquated furnace lurking in the darkness. It appeared as though a maintenance panel was missing, which left a contrasting rectangular hole on its front. In a peculiar sense, it looked much like a huge, gaping mouth at the bottom of an oblong face. Shadowy round metal ductwork branched out from the side of the unit, like fat arms extending upward until they disappeared into the rafters above. Once a source of heat, viewed at this angle it was now a cold, basement-dwelling monster, reaching for the upper floors in order to drag the unsuspecting into its hungry mouth.

Whether it was the exhaustion or something else entirely, Constance wasn’t sure, but for some reason this house had a bizarre way of becoming anthropomorphized visions in her brain. She shook her head and blinked as a gut response to the hallucination being produced by her uncharacteristically rampant imagination. But, was it just her imagination? The shiver along her spine made her wonder. If anything, it was just as bad now as it had been the previous evening, maybe even worse.

Sheriff Carmichael noticed the motion and brought the flashlight up in her direction. “You okay?”

She nodded and lied. “Just a cobweb, I think.”

“Yeah. Plenty of those down here, that’s for sure.”

He swung the flashlight back down and adjusted the beam on as wide as it would go and still be effective, then played it slowly around the basement to reveal those things that were still hiding in shadows. Just beyond the furnace-that now looked like nothing more than what it really was-stood a dilapidated water heater in the middle of a large rust stain that spread outward from it on the floor. Along the walls, seeping cracks flanked by dark mold became immediately evident in the illuminated swath. Those certainly accounted for the damp, musty smell that permeated the cold air.

“Old coal chute,” Skip said, directing the light at a single point for a moment. The highlighted area was covered in the same peeling, off-white paint as the rest of the walls, but a pattern of bricks and mortar seams were evident beneath. “It was bricked up even back in seventy-five, so no way in through there.”

He began panning again and the beam of light eventually fell across a vertical column rising upward from the centerline of the basement to bear the load of the structure above. Several feet to the right, directly in front of them and against the side of the staircase Constance could see the shadow of its twin.

Skip finished the slow arc and then waved the beam back toward the center of the room and mused aloud in a sad tone, “Hasn’t changed…”

“Stands to reason,” Constance offered. “If the house has been vacant for seven years.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. His voice still seemed strained. “But I mean it hasn’t changed since seventy-five.”

She didn’t respond to the explanation. She really didn’t know how.

After a moment he tilted the beam downward and began walking slowly forward on a direct line between the support columns. She followed.

“Right over here,” he finally said, playing the light across the floor in front of them.

The yellow swath of illumination revealed an oblong outline chalked on the concrete. A foot or so away was a much smaller outline, roughly perpendicular to the first. Dark stains colored portions of the floor within the two shapes, spreading outward in haphazard flows, as if randomly spilled with no regard for the lines themselves. Similar dark splotches were heavily splattered on the wall nearby.

“And over there,” the sheriff offered, sliding the light to the corner a few feet away, where a basketball-sized circle was drawn. It too, bore a dark stain beneath.

“And over there,” he continued, again aiming the beam toward a location apart from the others. This one looked like the outline of a giant, disproportionate boomerang.

“Torso and upper right arm,” Carmichael announced, panning the light back to the first location. Moving it rapidly to the second spot he added, “Head.” Aiming at the third he said, “Left calf and most of the thigh.” Waving the light slowly around to reveal other outlines, he hesitated for a moment at each and named them off one by one, “Left arm and hand; right forearm; right calf, thigh, and foot; left foot; right hand. And…well…that’s pretty much it.”

“And the body parts are dumped exactly the same way, every year?” Constance remarked as much as asked.

He played the beam slowly over the blood-stained wall. “They aren’t just dumped. It happens right here.”

“Yet the killer gets away?”

“That’s the mystery,” Sheriff Carmichael replied. He swung the flashlight back and forth again, rapidly illuminating each of the spots in succession. “But to answer your first question: yep. Exactly the same every year. All seven victims dismembered the same way, left in exactly the same position, every single time. We don’t even bother to clean up the outlines anymore.”

“Don’t you mean eight victims?” Constance asked.

He grumbled his response. “Not yet. Not until Christmas Day anyway.”

“I mean John Horace Colson,” she explained. “Aren’t the seven recent victims positioned in exactly the same way he was found dismembered in nineteen seventy-five?”

“Yes, they are, Special Agent Mandalay,” he spat, adopting the formal tone he’d used before when he wanted to stress a point. “But you need to bear in mind that John Colson was a monster. Merrie Callahan was the victim, not him.”

“I agree, Merrie was definitely a victim. But, whether you and I think it’s right or not, legally, Colson was too.”

“Bullshit.”

“It’s really just semantics.”

“Well, you can keep your semantics.” The words came as a growl. He had moved a step beyond cold formality and was now toeing a line called anger.

Unfortunately, his growing flare was igniting hers as well, and it was clear in her voice as she mimicked his sudden conventionalism. “Semantics aside, Sheriff Carmichael, I think we can agree the connection between the murders is more than obvious.”

“I’m not a rookie, Special Agent. What’s your point?”

“My point is that you aren’t looking at this crime objectively.”

“I never claimed to be,” he replied, his voice even sharper than before. “You’re a smart girl; I thought you’d figured that out by now.”

Constance felt herself bristle at the condescending remark and immediately opened her mouth to fire back a rebuttal. However, before she released the volley, her training kicked in to override her emotions. She didn’t know what had sparked this sudden escalation of tempers between them, but she knew it wasn’t productive, and it needed to end right now.

She drew in a deep breath, then forced her tone to remain calm and even. “Skip…” she began. “I’m not trying to be adversarial here. I’m just-”

“You sure as hell could’ve fooled me,” he snapped, truncating her sentence before she could finish. His voice rose as he launched into a short-lived tirade, “Goddammed know-it-all Feds. You’re all the same… Coming in here uninvited and placing blame where it doesn’t belong… Screw the whole lot of ya’…”

Constance felt heat radiate from her cheeks as her face flushed, but she continued to bite back her temper and held her tongue. Conflict resolution wasn’t an easy task in the first place, even when you were the detached outsider. It was much harder when you were firmly entrenched in your own side of the argument.

“Have you seen enough?” Carmichael demanded on the heels of his outburst. “Are we done here?”

“Yes,” Constance replied as calmly as she could manage. “I think we are.”

He turned and started for the stairs. “Come on then. I’ll drop you off back at the Greenleaf.”

“Actually, why don’t we just go to your office,” she said as she turned to follow. “I’d like to have a look at the original case file. If you still have it, that is.”

Skip didn’t answer. He simply kept walking, then stomped up the stairs, flashlight in hand, leaving her to negotiate the uneven bottom double-step alone and in the dark.


CONSTANCE glanced over the top edge of the thirty-five-year-old police report as a hand slid an unmarked, cardboard burger carton across the break room table and brought it to rest in front of her. The carton was soon followed by a plastic fork and then by a thick-walled, stoneware mug that had wisps of steam wafting slowly up from the coffee it contained.

In the seconds following the appearance of the items, there ensued a balloon of silence that was slowly expanding to fill the room. It finally popped when Skip cleared his throat and said, “Hope you like cranberry-mince pie. It’s all they had over there this morning.”

“Peace offering?” She asked without looking up from the file.

“Works with my daughters,” he grunted. “Not so much with my wife, but with the girls it does…most of the time, anyway. And, since you remind me a lot of my oldest, I figure I might have a fifty-fifty shot…”

Constance gave in and laid the open file on the table, then looked up at him with a curious expression. “Why just fifty-fifty?”

“Because my oldest takes after her mother.”

“I see… But pie? For breakfast?”

“Think of it as a doughnut you have to eat with a fork.”

She arched her eyebrows and nodded. “Never thought of it that way.”

“So…” he said after a measured pause. “Is it working?”

She chuckled as she quipped in return, “I guess that all depends on how good the pie is.”

“Yeah. You’re definitely a lot like my oldest,” Skip replied. He dropped a second carton on the table, then pulled up a chair and parked himself across from her. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. I know I was kind of a jackass back there.”

“Kind of?”

“Okay, I was a complete jackass,” he replied.

“Apology accepted,” she said with a quick nod. “And I should say that I’m sorry if I offended you with my observations on this case. I realize that what happened with Merrie is a touchy subject for you and everyone else in this town for that matter. I truly wasn’t trying to be insensitive to that fact.


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“I know you weren’t. You’re just following the leads like you’re supposed to. Truth is, I should’ve warned you up front.”

“About?”

“Me… That house…” he huffed, then paused, leaving a pregnant question mark hanging in the air. He thumbed the tab on his box and opened the hinged lid to reveal a wide slice of homemade pie that had been accessorized with a huge dollop of whipped cream. He stared at it for a moment, then picked up his own fork; but instead of digging in, he waved the utensil through the air and proceeded to fill in the blank he had left. “This sort of thing has happened before. More than once. You can ask your Fed buddies about it. I just don’t do well in that house. Too many bad memories, I guess… And just more gettin’ made.”

“I think I can understand that. Between the painful memories and the frustration you must feel with this case, I’m sure it can’t be easy on you.”

He bobbed his head in agreement. “Not so much, that’s the truth. Most memories dull with time. Eventually they fade enough that they get easier to deal with…but not this one. It just gets harder for me every year. Still, that was no cause for me to take it out on you.”

“Would it help if I confessed something?” Constance asked.

“What’s that?”

“Being in that house was getting to me too. I know that might sound crazy, especially since I don’t have the history with it that you have.” She paused, then shrugged and added, “To be honest, I was actually even a little spooked by it yesterday. I hate to admit it, but I was sort of relieved when your flashlight didn’t work.”

“Hard for me to imagine you being spooked by much of anything,” he replied, then puckered his lips into a thoughtful frown and offered, “I guess I was too wrapped up in myself to notice. Sorry.”

“What was that you said earlier? ‘Now we’re even’?”

“How’s that?”

“It’s hard for me to imagine you not noticing something.”

“It happens,” he replied, a half chuckle following the words. “As a matter of fact, that’s when I usually end up buying somebody a piece of pie. Oh…how’s your shin, by the way?”

Obviously he hadn’t missed the fact that she’d stumbled over that bottom stair when he stormed off and left her standing in the dark.

“Sore,” she answered. “And I’m sure there’s a bruise on the way, so I doubt I’ll be winning any sexy legs contests in the near future.”

“Maybe not, but from the language I heard coming up the stairs I’d sure put money on you to win a cussin’ contest.”

CHAPTER 16

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4:26 P.M. – December 23, 2010

Greenleaf Motel

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

Constance straightened her posture, then interlaced her fingers behind her neck and arched her back as she stretched. She held the position for several seconds before unclasping her hands and slowly reaching toward the ceiling. She heard a pop from her left shoulder and rotated it carefully, then made another mental note about that massage when she was finally back home in Saint Louis.

Finally, she relaxed and allowed her arms to drop to her sides as her back unbowed. Then she closed her eyes and slowly rolled her head in a circle, first left, then right, then left again. When she was finished working the muscles in her neck, she glanced at her watch, then at the paper-strewn bed. She’d been hunched over for better than two hours this time, so she definitely needed a break.

She sucked in a deep breath, then exhaled slowly, shaking her arms and rocking her hips as she danced in place to get her circulation going. It seemed a bit chilly, so she turned away from the bed and wandered over to the wide heater unit that was mounted through the wall beneath the window of her motel room. It wasn’t pushing any air at the moment, so she bent over and inched the temperature control dial up another notch. It kicked on immediately.

Straightening up, she reached out and pulled back the edge of the dark burgundy insulated drapes that covered the smudged panes, and then peered out through the gap. On the other side of the glass, it was reaching the cusp of darkness. The last throes of what little sunlight had been managing to penetrate the low clouds were throwing themselves against the coming night in a futile suicide assault. However, the dirty blue-gray shadows were winning, just as they always would.

In the dimness she could see that a light snow was still falling, the same as it had been since mid afternoon. Something on the order of an inch had accumulated so far-maybe even a bit more. What she’d been able to tune in earlier on the two-decades-old television had told her that it would be picking up the pace, and there would likely be three to five more on the ground by morning, at least. Sometime around midday tomorrow the weather system was supposed to finally taper off to flurries, leaving another day of overcast skies and an added blast of bitter cold slipping in from the northwest.

It looked like it would definitely be a white Christmas for northern Missouri, not that anyone here in Hulis would be celebrating. Except for Merrie, of course.

Constance felt a sudden chill run the length of her spine, and she shivered.

Out of instinct, she rested the heel of her palm on the butt of her Sig Sauer. Her index finger was extended, and the others were curled lightly over the grip, while her thumb hovered against the quick release. As she leaned in toward the window and twisted to scan the rest of the parking lot, the edge of her hand pressed against her side, sending a brief but sharp pain through the cell-phone bruise. She winced and adjusted her torso a bit, but left her hand resting on her sidearm.

She didn’t consciously believe that she was being watched, but she was still on edge. This wasn’t the first odd chill she’d felt since returning to her room, and it wasn’t because of the heater. While she was at the house on Evergreen Lane, she could almost understand it. Not without some question as to why, of course, but at least it made some kind of sense for it to happen there and then. Here and now, it didn’t.

Her being spooked was unusual enough in itself, but for it to carry over like this was just unheard of. After all, she worked cases on a regular basis with Rowan Gant, a paranormal consultant for the Saint Louis police and the FBI as well. She had been witness to some truly inexplicable things during some unbelievably bizarre cases, so this shouldn’t be a big deal at all.

However, what she was really accustomed to was Rowan’s preternatural cognition, not her own; that was because she didn’t have any. Maybe she’d get a gut feeling here and there, but nothing like he had. He was the supernatural member of the team, not her. She was the skeptic and sometimes his official handler during investigations, but that was all. Yes, she made it a point to remain open minded; however, she was still a rationalist. And, as much as she liked Rowan, she simply wasn’t in a big hurry for his mysticism to start rubbing off on her.

Of course, the more she thought about it, the more she had to admit that all of the exceptional observations being made by Sheriff Carmichael probably weren’t helping her anxiety either. They were certainly nothing inexplicable-as he had proven with his explanations-but they were peculiar nonetheless. As benign as the curmudgeonly old cop seemed on the surface, she still wasn’t sure quite what to make of him. In fact, she had a strange feeling that he was hiding something from her. She didn’t know exactly what it was, but she felt positive that she wasn’t getting the whole story from him.

One thing she did know for certain, however, was that, explicable or not, being the focus of such intimately detailed perceptions coming from someone she really didn’t know was just plain creepy-on too many levels.

Constance let out a heavy sigh and glanced back over her shoulder at the bed. Papers were arranged all across the comforter in semi-organized stacks sorted by dates, case numbers, and in many instances, obvious connections.

Following Sheriff Carmichael’s instructions, Clovis had photocopied the original Merrie Callahan-John Colson case file for her, as well as those pertaining to the seven copycat murders. While they were definitely more complete than the FBI’s own documentation, so far they hadn’t furnished any real answers. If anything, they had created a whole host of new questions after she had been through them the first time. The list of queries had only grown upon the second run through. At this point, she was almost afraid to go for a third pass for fear of becoming even more confused.

A flicker caught the corner of her eye, so she turned back to the window. The lights outside each of the rooms had apparently clicked on via timer or sensor. The strange juxtaposition between the falling darkness and the soft glow of backlighting turned the window into a translucent mirror. The reflection staring back at her was drawn and expressionless. She knew she should really just try to get some sleep, but she was afraid that at this point she was too exhausted for that to happen. She’d crashed straight through that barrier and was now running on adrenalin and caffeine. She knew all too well that couldn’t go on forever.

She sighed, then focused her gaze past the tired face in the glass, and stared out across the parking lot once again. As she was allowing herself to be mesmerized by the falling snow, a soft ding combined with a rapid clatter sounded from the desk a few feet away. She turned her head in time to see her cell phone vibrate toward the edge, then stop, still safely inches from the precipice. She allowed the drapery to fall back into place then padded over to the desk and picked up the device.

The display read, “1 New Text Message.”

She thumbed over to the text folder and opened it. The sender ID for the message that had just arrived was blank, but it was tagged urgent. Constance pursed her lips and sighed. Probably a SPAM text. She’d received them before, but just to be sure, she highlighted it and pressed ‘OK’.

The message read, “CK PRSNL EML”

She scrunched her brow and frowned as she dropped herself into the desk chair and laid the phone aside. A pair of finessed jiggles and a re-orientation of the Gideon’s Bible later, she managed to hang on to a solid Internet connection and proceeded to download her personal email.

The window on the screen filled slowly with line after line of electronic communiques. She didn’t have to spend any time sorting through them, though, as one stood out immediately. Tagged URGENT, with a blank field for both the sender and subject header, it was highlighted in red. However, what made it even more prominent was that it appeared at the bottom of the list, because whoever was behind it had set the date of the email to 12/25/1975. She knew it wasn’t unusual for spammers to use bogus dates in order to get your attention, but the choice of these digits seemed to be more than mere coincidence.

She dragged the tip of her finger across the touch-pad to highlight the email, then gave it a quick double tap. A new window opened on cue. The body of the electronic communication was simply, “HEAVY SYMBOLISM OF THE SEASON. MERRY XMAS.” Below the body was an attached file, the name of which was a series of seemingly random letters and numbers.

Constance drew her finger around in a circle on the touch-pad, making the cursor slowly orbit the file name on the attachment bar along the bottom of the email window. Pausing, she picked up her cell phone and scrolled the text message onto the screen again. Nothing helpful. Just “CK PRSNL EML.”

Looking back at the computer screen, she rested her finger on the touchpad and began to circle the cursor around the attachment again. Last minute assignments, documentation missing from a case file, cold shoulders from colleagues, weird houses, strange rural cops with something to hide, and now this… Things were turning a little too cloak and dagger for her liking. Office politics were bad enough, but this seemed like something more.

She stopped and picked up the cell phone again. She thumbed through the numbers in the personal phone book until she reached the entry belonging to her SAC. Something was definitely wrong here, and as much as she hated the idea, she feared some of her fellow agents might be involved. As she highlighted the number and allowed her thumb to hover above the TALK button, she once again took notice of the pearlescent pink manicure that graced her nails courtesy of Merrie.

She brought her free hand up and inspected the lacquered tips of her fingers. Sheriff Carmichael’s stern remark from the previous day echoed inside her head. “ I’ll do whatever it takes to protect our little girl… So will anyone else here in Hulis. And just so you know, that’s not a threat, sugar; it’s a promise.”

The words definitely weren’t empty. There had been something in his tone that told her as much. And for some reason, at this very moment she was feeling just as protective of Merrie Callahan as any actual resident of the town, including Carmichael.

Constance chewed on her lip for a moment, then looked back at the cell phone in her hand. Shifting her thumb, she dropped it down on the END button and cleared it back to the home screen without making the call. Laying it aside, she returned her attention to the notebook computer and slid the cursor over the top of the file, then quickly tapped twice on the touch-pad.

As it opened, her anti-virus software blipped onto the screen, announced that the file was clean, and allowed it to open. She heard the disk drive whirring, then the installed media player automatically loaded. A few scant seconds later, Burl Ives was belting out Silver and Gold from the built-in speakers.

Constance stared at it for a handful of seconds, then puffed out an annoyed sigh and fell against the back of the chair. A damn Christmas song. What kind of a joke was this? Did the email even have anything to do with this case? Maybe she was starting to have hallucinations brought on by the exhaustion, and her brain was just leaping to conclusions that it wouldn’t otherwise. Maybe the email was just a greeting from a friend who was playing with her, and that was all. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“But what about that date?” she mumbled, thinking aloud.

She checked it again. Then she double-checked herself just to be sure. It still read “12/25/1975”, and that just couldn’t be a coincidence.

She slid her fingers up through her hair and brought her hands to rest on the back of her head. The knot where she dinged her scalp was still tender, but she didn’t care at this point. She simply held on as her chin drifted toward her chest. Then she let loose with another sigh.

Maybe the date really was just a bizarre fluke. Could it be that she was reading too much into all of this? Not just the date on the email, but everything?

“ Lex parsimoniae, Constance…” she mumbled aloud. “ Lex parsimoniae deus damnat…”

The law of parsimony. Occam’s Razor. She needed to step back, look at the simple explanations first, and then work her way forward from there. Don’t make it complicated unless it proves itself to be so. She was allowing the fact that she was feeling spooked to turn some clerical oversights, a conversation with a jerk agent, and a hyper-observant small-town sheriff into a rampant conspiracy theory of her own making.

She knew better than this.

She knew she knew better than this.

She closed her eyes and contemplated her faulty reasoning. Burl Ives was continuing to croon in her ears, but she wasn’t really paying attention. However, her internal focus on self-recrimination was diverted by an unexpected noise.

She listened closely, and then it repeated. Her stomach was rumbling. No big surprise. Except for the slice of “apology pie” from the sheriff, she hadn’t eaten at all today.

Maybe that would help. She knew from experience that you could think much better with something in your stomach, so she did a quick mental inventory. There were some emergency energy bars stashed in her suitcase; she knew that for sure. She never traveled without them. There should also be a military surplus MRE in there too. She always kept one in her “go kit,” because you just never knew where you would end up, or if you’d have access to food when you needed it.

Her gut gave another low growl. It was telling her that an energy bar wasn’t going to do the trick. It wanted something more substantial, but the MRE didn’t sound very inviting. You could easily live on one for two or three days if you rationed it out. That’s what they were designed to accomplish. However, whether or not your taste buds would survive was a different story entirely. Besides, tomorrow was Christmas Eve and she was going to be stuck on surveillance here in Hulis. Those vitamin-enriched, preservative-laden military rations could very well end up being her Christmas dinner, as unappetizing a thought as it was.

Surely something was still open. It was dark outside, but it was still relatively early. She should probably head out now before the snow became too thick, not to mention that this was a small town. They probably rolled up the sidewalks right after the evening news.

Her stomach issued yet another gurgling pang, so she decided to give in. She didn’t recall hearing the end of the song, but Burl had finally stopped singing to her about silver and gold decorations, so now was as good a time as any to just get out and clear her head.

“You need a vacation,” she told herself aloud as she sighed, then dropped her hands, lifted her face, and opened her eyes.

That was when she saw it.

The media player was paused, and in the center of the screen was a small, rectangular window. Inside its borders was a winking cursor, and above it a string of text that said, “ENTER ENCRYPTION KEY.”

She blinked just to be sure and then continued staring at the screen. Maybe Occam’s Razor was a little dull this time after all. Now she just had to figure out what the encryption key was.

Behind the newly opened window she could see the original email. The text still read, “HEAVY SYMBOLISM OF THE SEASON. MERRY XMAS.”

She was sure that was a hint, but at the moment it wasn’t much help.

She reached out and rested her fingertips on the home row of the keyboard, keeping her touch light. She thought about the tune that had played when the file opened and then tapped out SILVERAN; however, the DGOLD wouldn’t fit. The field was only allowing eight characters, so the song title probably wasn’t it. It was too easy, anyway. She backspaced and pondered some more. A pair of false starts later she typed in SLVRGOLD. Maybe too easy was where she needed to start. After a bit of trepidation washed over her, she hit enter.

The small window flashed quickly, then the words “INCORRECT KEY!” winked at her in bright red. The rectangular window disappeared and she heard the computer hard drive spin up. Panic rushed in to fill her chest as she imagined the file erasing itself. She considered thumbing the power switch to stop it, but hesitated as the storage device whirred back to silence. After several tense seconds, the prompt returned, “ENTER ENCRYPTION KEY.”

Constance allowed a relieved sigh to flow out of her lungs.

She stared awhile longer, then in a moment of inspiration typed “BURLIVES” and tapped enter.

The laptop whirred, the window flashed, and then once again it displayed the winking red “INCORRECT KEY!”

Disheartened, she sat back in the chair and glared at the screen. After several minutes of staring, she retrieved a flash drive from her laptop case and made a backup copy of the file, mutely cursing herself for not having done so at the outset. Then she stood up, stuffed it into her pocket, and shrugged into her coat. Then after stuffing her feet into her running shoes, she dug out a handful of change from her purse and headed for the door. There was a soda machine close to the motel office, and if this turned into a long night she would be in desperate need of more caffeine. Besides, it was really looking like she’d be having an energy bar for dinner after all, and she’d have to have something to wash it down.


BOTH the wind and the snow had picked up, and even though she was walking beneath an overhang, Constance was forced to turn up her collar and shield her face as she trudged through what was now easily two inches of accumulation on the sidewalk. The movement was welcome though. Even after stretching she was still a bit stiff and definitely needed to move around.

She felt a slight twinge in her dinged shin as she walked, but ignored it. Between the back of her head, her side, and now her leg, she had literally taken a beating while working this case and didn’t even have a suspect yet. Something seemed terribly wrong with that picture.

Having gone as far as she could on the sidewalk, she ventured out from beneath the overhang. Snow swirled on brief gusts and pelted her face as she crossed the parking lot of the blocky U-shaped motel. She couldn’t help but notice that her car was still the only one occupying the otherwise empty expanse of snow-covered asphalt. She began to hurry as the wind rose again and sent a sharp knife of cold inside the loose folds of her coat. Half jogging, she continued the rest of the way across, then followed the VENDING sign and ducked into the small service corridor behind the office.

Finally out of the weather for a moment, she shook off the excess snow, then dug in her pocket for the handful of change. As she stood there in front of the machine feeding quarters into the slot, she mulled over the text of the email.

“Heavy symbolism of the season. Merry Xmas,” she mumbled to herself as she made her selection.

A can of cola audibly clunked its way along inside the humming machine and then thumped into the tray below. She pulled it out and stuffed it into her coat pocket, then began feeding more coins into the slot.

“Heavy symbolism of the season. Merry Xmas… Santa Claus? No. Ten. Too many letters… Yule Log? Seven. Not enough…”

She pressed the button and another soft drink clunked, rattled, and finally thumped as it arrived in the tray. Again, she stuffed it into her pocket and started shoving more quarters into the machine. It could be a long night and she wanted this to be her only trip out into the storm.

She sighed and shook her head. Whoever sent this bizarre file wasn’t making it easy, which either meant the information was extremely sensitive and probably even classified above her grade…or maybe they were just screwing with her. She wasn’t quite sure which option she wanted it to be. The implications that came with the former weren’t very good, and the latter would just piss her off. That wasn’t good either.

She was reaching out to punch the illuminated cola button for a third time when she heard a man’s voice. Speaking in a harsh whisper from what seemed mere inches away from her ear he said, “ It would be your fault that I would have to kill them.”

He was so close that she could feel the moist heat of his breath against her skin. A sharp melange of cigarettes, peppermint, and mothballs invaded her nostrils, making her eyes water and eliciting an involuntary gag in the back of her throat.

Constance’s heretofore preoccupied mind shifted immediately into fight or flight. She knew the service corridor was a dead end and the voice had come from her right, which was between her and the exit. Flight was out of the question, so fight it would have to be. Falling back on training and muscle memory she began her mental count.

Three: Move.

She sidestepped, taking herself in the direction opposite that of the voice.

Two: Draw.

Halfway through the step, metal tinkled bright noises into the night air as the handful of change landed in a sudden shower against the cold concrete. Even before the coins struck, her arm was sliding smoothly along her side, her now empty hand catching the front of her coat and pulling it back in a single motion. Three fingers wrapped comfortably around the grip of her Sig Sauer and her thumb slapped against the release. With that accomplished, she pulled hard, lifting and rotating the weapon on the axis of her wrist, index finger slipping in through the trigger guard. If absolutely necessary she could now fire from the hip.

One: Aim.

She completed her sidestepping turn as her right arm began to straighten, pushing up and forward. Simultaneously her left arm lifted as well, elbow cocked and held close into her side; wrist locked and palm cupped over her right hand’s firm grasp on the butt of the P226. Completing the forward push and locking her right arm straight, she kept a rearward pressure with her left, ending the motion in a textbook Chapman stance, her finger resting on the trigger.

Her heart was racing in her chest as she sighted along the carbon steel slide of the. 40 caliber handgun. She felt as if she was moving in slow motion, but in reality it had taken just under four seconds from the moment she had let go of the coins until she was fully into her defensive posture. However, she knew full well that it took less than a second to squeeze a trigger, and she could very easily have already been dead.

Of course, that was if the man behind the voice was armed, or in this case, even there. At the moment, she was staring straight ahead, locked in a tight stance, with her weapon aimed at absolutely nothing.

Snow was blowing past the opening of the service corridor, just a few feet away. Other than that she saw only the empty parking lot, and from this angle, two of the room doors on the other side of the motel.

“Federal Officer!” She called out, holding her position. “Show yourself!”

The only answer was a soft moan of the wind as it whipped tumbling white flakes through the pale yellowish lights that were spilling out into the parking lot. Her heart continued to pound against her ribcage as she began to move forward. In four measured steps she was standing right at the edge of the opening.

Cocking both arms close in to her body she hugged the left wall and carefully peeked out toward the back of the complex. Seeing no one, she took a partial fifth step, quickly twisting first to the left, then back to the right. Her eyes were wide open, even against the sting of the wind, and her firearm was held firmly in a close quarters firing position.

Still nothing.

She stepped fully out from her cover position and scanned the parking lot. Other than the blowing snow, there was no motion at all. She looked down at the white blanket covering the ground. Besides her own, there wasn’t a single footprint to be seen.

No scuffs.

No trails.

No impressions at all.

Nothing.

She shifted from tight, shallow breaths to a slow, deep inhale as she started allowing herself to relax. Unlocking her arms, she lowered the weapon and slipped it back into the high-ride holster on her belt. After popping the thumb break into place she stumbled back a pair of steps and pressed herself against the cold brick wall. She swallowed hard and then let out a heavy sigh.

This had gone too far. Now she was hearing voices and even smelling odors that weren’t even there. That was Rowan’s thing, not hers. She didn’t talk to ghosts. He did.

This had to be her overtaxed mind playing tricks on her: exhaustion induced hallucinations, and that was a very bad thing. She was no longer just tired and spooked; she was paranoid and reckless, which made her a danger to herself and everyone around her. This simply wouldn’t do, and Constance knew it. She reached up and rubbed her forehead, then closed her eyes and tried to swallow again, but her throat was too tight, and her mouth had gone dry.

A half minute later when her heart rate began to taper back to normal, she pushed away from the wall and stepped back along the service corridor. Hands shaking, she knelt down and picked up the dropped coins that were obvious and shining in the dim light but didn’t waste time searching for latent escapees; she was having a hard enough time as it was. Finally, she stood and punched the cola button before feeding more freshly chilled quarters into the slot on the vending machine’s face.

Both pockets and the crook of her arm full of cans, she headed back to her room. After arranging the soft drinks in the sink, she scooped snow from the hood of her car into the small, plastic ice bucket and poured it in on top of them. It took five full scoops before she was satisfied.

Once finished with that task, she locked the door, threw the security bar, and shrugged out of her coat. Kicking off her shoes, she padded around the bed, methodically gathering the sorted piles of case reports and supporting documentation, then moving them over to the top of the long dresser, keeping them organized as best she could.

Finally, she dug out her travel alarm and set it for midnight. The mystery of the Christmas song was going to have to wait a few hours. If she didn’t get some sleep right away, she was going to hurt someone, or worse-shoot someone dead. She had just proven that possib


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ility to herself in spades.

She didn’t bother to undress. She simply crawled onto the bed then pulled the rumpled comforter up around her shoulders and hugged herself as tightly as she could. As she lay there, she didn’t even try to rationalize to herself why she was leaving the lights on. She was too tired to deny her fear. It was easier to simply embrace the emotion and make it hers.

It was just pushing 5:30 in the evening when Constance finally gave in to her jittery exhaustion, and consciousness skulked away into the shadows. She fell into a tortured sleep that was filled with a painful nightmare. The terror playing out in her mind was stark-the images a contrasty black and white, save for the red suit worn by the faceless man.

And then there were the vile, horrible things he was doing to her, over and over again. No matter how much she begged, he wouldn’t stop. He just kept telling her, “ It would be your fault that I would have to kill them…”

While she tossed and whimpered through her slumber, across the room on the desk sat the notebook computer. Its cursor was still winking patiently below the words, “ENTER ENCRYPTION KEY.”

C HAPTER 17

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7:01 A.M. – December 24, 2010

Greenleaf Motel

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

Constance stood beneath the sputtering jets of the partially calcified showerhead and soaked in the warmth it was raining down upon her. She would have actually been willing to settle for a temperature that wouldn’t blister her skin, or send her into instant hypothermia-either one-but somehow she’d had a stroke of luck. With some accidental finessing she had fine-tuned the stream of water to a cozy in-between. Given that the day before the shower control had seemed to have only two settings-those being freeze and scald-she wasn’t going to complain.

She finished rinsing the conditioner from her hair, then turned in place and allowed the running water to splash across her shoulders, sending a cascading sheet of the warmth down her back. The uneven drumming of the spray actually felt soothing to her sore muscles. Closing her eyes, she relaxed and soon began to drift. Floating somewhere in that comfortable void between sleep and wake, she felt herself falling and jerked upright with a sudden start. In her struggle for balance she reached out and placed her palm against the tile wall to steady herself.

She had slept right through the alarm clock when it started chirping at midnight. That is, if what she had been doing could actually be called sleep. She wasn’t so sure, especially since she was nodding off now. She had finally awakened a little past 2 A.M., tangled in the comforter, and hanging upside down off the side of the bed with her cheek mashed against the scratchy carpeting. She assumed the uncomfortable position was what had finally rousted her from an unconscious state. Of course, the way she felt right now she might well have been lying like that for hours.

Her clothing and hair had been damp with sweat. Her mouth had been dry. Her muscles had seemed weak, and her body had been achy. It still was, in fact. All in all, she felt pretty much as if she had just burned out a high fever.

At first, that’s exactly what she thought might have happened. The sudden onset of a short-lived virus wasn’t out of the question, especially in the face of exhaustion, and it would certainly explain quite a bit. For one thing, there was her uncharacteristic anxiety. If she had been coming down with something, then that might be a reason for her addled emotional hypersensitivity. Then there was that strange voice she’d heard, which was obviously a hallucination. And then there was the nightmare about the man in the red suit, something that could very easily have been a fever-induced dump of her subconscious given the imagery associated with the investigation at hand.

But then there was that bizarre email and the even more perplexing attachment it bore. She had made it a point to check on that as soon as she managed to untangle herself from the bed. Much to her chagrin, it was still there. If she’d had a choice, she would have preferred that it be a figment of her imagination as well. This case didn’t need any more weird complications than it already had.

However, her wish for that vexation to disappear had not kept her from almost immediately parking herself at the desk and staring at the screen while trying once again to solve the bizarre riddle. That was almost five hours, three somewhat chilled cans of soda, and one high-energy, caramel-peanut-butter protein bar ago. Not to mention, countless note pages filled with the scribbled strings of characters she had attempted. Unfortunately, none of them garnered anything other than the same old result: INCORRECT KEY!

She knew there had to be something about the puzzling clue she was missing. It was most likely painfully obvious too, since that’s how riddles always seemed to work. But for the time being, her weary brain had reached a dead end.

She had finally decided it was time to step away from the computer for a while. Clear her head. Find a different perspective. Maybe even get something a little more substantial into her stomach.

But, then she saw herself in the mirror. At the sight, she thought about just climbing back into bed, but her stomach was putting up a noisy protest. Food definitely couldn’t hurt. She’d been running close to empty for too long. However, she was definitely not going out in public until she cleaned herself up.

Letting out a resigned sigh, Constance pulled aside the thin, plastic curtain and reluctantly stepped out onto the bathmat, then she reached back into the shower and turned off the water. She wanted to stay in there forever, but she knew that wasn’t going to accomplish a thing. She still had seven murders to solve, and an eighth that would be happening in less than twenty-four hours if she didn’t.

Now that she was no longer enveloped in the warm water, the air in the small room felt sharply cool against her wet skin. She stood there for a moment, almost completely still, simply allowing the moisture to drip to the floor and the contrast in temperature to shock her out of the lull of relaxation.

Maybe some of the edge was gone from her physical exhaustion; she still felt like she could sleep for two days straight. Unfortunately, the long shower had gone a long way toward reinforcing that desire. The pervasive tiredness was still trying to pull her under, and according to what she’d seen in the mirror earlier, her face was showing it. However, it seemed that some of the eight plus hours of wrestling with the comforter had helped a little, because her mind actually seemed to be clearing-for the moment, at least. How long it would stay that way was the big question.

After a deep yawn and a few purposeful deep breaths, she forced herself to pull down a fresh towel from the bent wire rack hanging on the wall over the back of the toilet. As she began to dry herself, her eyes briefly fell upon her unholstered semi-automatic pistol resting atop a folded hand towel she had laid across the cracked lid of the stool’s porcelain tank.

She was sure of one thing. Whatever sleep she might have managed definitely hadn’t been enough to quell her paranoia. Whether warranted or not, it was still firmly entrenched in her gut, and that could turn into a serious problem.

If it hadn’t already…


PLOWING parking lots apparently wasn’t a high priority in Hulis, especially not at a motel with only one paying guest and an owner who was rumored to be a cheapskate. After pushing out her door and trudging through the drifts, Constance checked with the office and discovered that a relative of the owner was supposed to be taking care of snow removal sometime today.

Maybe.

Since the aforementioned relative was doing the job as a favor, the owner didn’t know exactly when, or even for sure if it would be happening. Unfortunately, that was the best he could do, because everyone else wanted money to plow the lot.

Constance reminded him why she was here and that she would definitely need to use her car later in the day, which meant she had to be able to actually drive it off the parking lot. He simply gave her his non-committal answer once again. Frustrated with the circular conversation, she gave up and headed back out into the cold, firmly convinced that the cheapskate rumor had now been officially promoted to undeniable fact.

She was already out the door when she realized that she had forgotten to ask him whether he knew offhand if That Place was open today. She considered turning around and going back in but decided she really wasn’t in the mood to deal with him again right now. Besides, he’d probably charge her for the answer. She thought about returning to her room so that she could look up their number and give them a call but abandoned that idea as well. The motel wasn’t all that far from the center of town. Just a few blocks in fact, and since she’d missed her morning workouts for three days now, the exercise would do her good. Maybe it would even help to wake her up and clear her head some more.

Given the dim view of the holidays that was pervasive around Hulis, she had a feeling they would be open for business, even though it was Christmas Eve day. If she was wrong and they were closed, she could just turn around and walk back to the motel. There was, after all, still an MRE in her suitcase and plenty of paper that she needed to go over for a third time. Not to mention a confusing riddle that was waiting for an answer.

After readjusting her scarf and donning her gloves, Constance set out on the short trek. In front of the motel she waited while a lone, four-door sedan rolled slowly by, carefully negotiating the plowed but still snowy street. Once clear, she crossed and aimed herself toward the center of town.


EVEN at a distance of less than twenty-five yards away, Constance couldn’t really see into the diner all that well due to the fogged windows. However, that in itself was a good sign, not to mention several cars were parked in the diagonal spaces out front.

A minute later when she reached the end of the shoveled sidewalk outside That Place, she could see the open sign and detect movement beyond the hoary condensation. She stomped her feet a few times, knocking off the excess snow her shoes had collected, then opened the door and went in. The warm interior of the diner felt good, and the intertwined aromas of eggs, bacon, and just food in general made her stomach gurgle with anticipation.

Even with the added labor of hiking around drifts and when necessary through a half foot of freshly fallen snow, the distance she had walked was only a fraction of her normal morning run. However, you couldn’t convince her legs of that fact. They were already feeling rubbery before she was within sight of the diner. By the time she arrived they were numb. Of course, the temperature hadn’t helped in that department.

The leading edge of the predicted arctic front was already hitting the town, and the breeze it carried had sharp teeth. The exposed areas of her cheeks bore the weather-reddened bite marks to prove it.

Constance peeled off her gloves and scarf, stuffing them into pockets, then pulled off her coat. As she perched herself on one of the vinyl-topped stools at the lunch counter, she draped the heavy outer garment across her lap in a bid to warm her frozen legs. Snatching up a folded paper menu, she looked it over while her stomach serenaded her yet again.

That Place was far busier than it had been the last time she’d visited. It wasn’t at capacity, but she counted nearly one-dozen customers with a single quick glance. She had positioned herself at the empty end of the U-shaped counter, the farthest position away from any of the other patrons. She already knew they weren’t overly excited about her presence here in town-or so she’d been told. Thus far the receptions she’d received seemed to support that, so why make them any more uncomfortable. Besides, as it happened, she wasn’t feeling particularly social at the moment either, so she broke one of her own rules and sat with her back to the door. She was too tired and hungry to worry about it.

It was only a few moments before Stella came over and asked, “Coffee?”

Constance gave her an animated nod. “Yes, please.”

“Regular?”

“Absolutely.”

The girl’s demeanor was suitably cordial, but her body language was patently guarded, much as she had been the times before. Once she had filled a mug and placed it in front of the federal agent she said, “What can I get you?”

Constance shot a last glance at the menu then placed it to the side and said, “How about a short stack, and two eggs on the side. Scrambled.”

“Do you want bacon or sausage with that?” Stella asked, her words flat and automatic.

“Do you have turkey bacon?” Constance replied.

“No ma’am, just real bacon.”

She started to decline then felt her stomach rumble. “That’s fine. Bacon sounds good. Do you have any grapefruit juice?”

Stella shook her head. “Just orange or cranberry.”

Strike two. Constance mulled it over for a second, then nodded. She preferred grapefruit and would normally just skip juice if it wasn’t available, but she also knew her kidneys were probably screaming for something besides coffee and cola. “Okay. Cranberry will work. And a large water.”

“Okay. I’ll have that out in just a couple of minutes.”

Once Stella had started toward the doors at the back of the lunch counter, Constance set about doctoring her java. Two sugars, one creamer, as usual, unless Ben was responsible for making it, of course. You simply couldn’t resuscitate his coffee, no matter what you dumped into it. She’d already tried more time than she could count. It was a lost cause.

She glanced at her watch. Almost 8:30. Ben had been planning to take the day off since they were supposed to be spending it together. She’d try him after breakfast. Maybe he could help her with that bizarre holiday riddle, and a friendly voice definitely wouldn’t be unwelcome either.

The murmur of unintelligible conversations between patrons provided a dull base rhythm for the kitchen noises issuing at odd intervals from beyond the cafe doors at the back of the small restaurant. Punctuating the muddy soundtrack came the sudden clang and grind of an old, mechanical cash register. Constance looked up to see a diner paying his bill, and after he exchanged a pleasantry or two with Stella he waved to some of the other customers and started for the door. When he hooked around the end of the counter he glanced at Constance, his lips stitched together in a thin frown. When their eyes accidentally met, he gave her a curt nod. The motion was tense, as if it was something he didn’t want to do, but because custom dictated it so, he had no choice. She returned the gesture and focused her attention back on her coffee.

A moment later, a bell pealed out a metallic jangle, and a stiff blast of icy wind immediately groped at her back. She could feel the uncomfortable massage of its chilled fingers even through her heavy sweatshirt and the insulated crew top she was wearing underneath.

She gave a slight shudder as she hunched forward, trying to escape the gust, then finished stirring her coffee and laid the spoon aside on a napkin. She cupped her hands around the mug and huddled over it, allowing its warmth to soak into her palms. The brass bell finally rattled a second time as the door swung shut, ending the unwanted touch of Old Man Winter.

However, the reprieve didn’t seem to last.

She didn’t hear the man at first. In fact, she felt his presence and then she smelled him. A deep chill was radiating outward from his coat, just as it would from a block of dry ice. It expanded through the air between them and brushed against her cheek. With it came the unmistakable scent of spicy aftershave. It reminded her of something she used to give to her grandfathers for Christmas when she was a little girl.

She had just lifted her cup and was taking a sip of her coffee when the man slipped onto the stool at her right side. Even though there were several others available, he had chosen the one immediately next to hers. She heard him shifting on his seat, and then his upper arm briefly pressed against her own. However, it was not as if it were an accidental brush. It lingered there just long enough that it seemed almost deliberate.

She immediately tensed and her mind began ticking through the options.

Her first inclination was to fire off a sarcastic volley, asking if she was in his way. However, she thought better of it before the words escaped. She needed to keep her foul mood contained, especially given her pariah status among the people of Hulis already. Barking at one of them certainly wouldn’t gain her any friends.

Of course, since she was an outsider, that also narrowed the field a bit too. The only person she could think of off the top of her head who would purposely sit next to her was Sheriff Carmichael. Since the sheriff’s department was across the street, he seemed a likely candidate. All except for the fact that he was a cop and an unnaturally observant one at that. She was absolutely certain he would realize that placing himself in such close proximity on the side she carried her weapon would make her painfully uneasy. She couldn’t fathom him doing such a thing, unless for some odd reason making her uncomfortable was his intent.

No. It probably wasn’t the sheriff. The reality was that not everyone had social skills. The clod next to her was probably completely oblivious to his faux pas, and she was just letting the grumpiness and paranoia override her brain.

She finished sipping and lowered the mug back to the counter, then swiveled the stool a few inches while carefully repositioning herself to the left side of the seat. She finally stole a quick glance at the man, and as she had surmised, he was not Sheriff Carmichael. However, his face was vaguely familiar. She just couldn’t immediately place where she had seen it.

He looked to be approximately the same age as the sheriff, maybe a few years older, but it was hard to tell. He was gaunt, clean-shaven and had angular features. Wire rimmed glasses sat on the bridge of his nose. His hair was trimmed short in an outdated style that reminded her of pictures she had seen of her father when he was a boy. It was predominantly gray, although dark brown strands were still visible throughout.

The man was tastefully attired in a dark, heavy topcoat over a starched white shirt, tie, and what appeared to be a charcoal gray suit. As far as appearances went, he looked harmless enough. However, looks aren’t everything, and she knew it.

After several heartbeats, he said quietly, “Good morning, Special Agent Mandalay.”

Constance hated surprises. In fact, they were one of the very reasons she hated sitting with her back to the door.

CHAPTER 18

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Constance didn’t recognize his voice.

It actually sounded deeper than she would have expected based on her quick glance at him, but not unnaturally so. In a very real sense it came across as calm and soothing, carrying with it the underlying strength and even tone of a practiced orator. However, while the words were clearly audible to her, he was keeping his volume low. It was apparent that he wasn’t interested in being overheard by anyone else in the establishment.

She forced herself not to outwardly react. His address made it plain that he knew exactly who she was, which put her at a disadvantage. Of course, this was a small town, and word traveled fast, especially where it concerned her. She’d already witnessed the grapevine in action more than once.

She turned her gaze back in his direction, this time allowing it to linger. She noticed immediately that he wasn’t looking at her. Instead, his attention seemed fully occupied by his own hands. His eyes remained fixed on the counter in front of him where he was carefully sorting the blue, yellow, and pink artificial sweetener packets that were nestled in a rectangular plastic container.

Never breaking his focus on the compulsive task he added, “It’s particularly cold out there today, isn’t it?”

Obviously he was intent on starting a conversation with her. Playing along for the moment, without missing a beat she replied. “Yes, sir, it is.”

“Unfortunate that Arthur is such a miser when it comes to the motel,” he continued, voice still low. “In this weather I’m sure that was an unpleasant walk for you.”

A hot flush of alarm washed over Constance. She was willing to accept that he might know her name and recognize her on sight based on town gossip. However, that last comment was a different story entirely. While it could simply be an assumption based on the motel owner’s reputation, it had been delivered with too much confidence and familiarity for her liking.

Holding her ground, keeping her voice steady and matching his volume, she decided to do a bit of fishing. “Who told you I walked?”

“Nobody, Special Agent,” he replied; then with a matter-of-fact shrug added, “I’ve been watching you ever since you arrived in town.”

When she dropped her line in the water, she hadn’t really expected to get a strike that hard or that quickly. As signs go, she wasn’t sure whether to consider that one good or bad.

Feigning nonchalance, she slipped her coat from her lap and laid it across the stool to her left, freeing up her legs in the event she needed to move quickly.

Slowly, she pivoted the rotating seat a little more, angling her knees toward him and bringing her sidearm farther away. She had no idea what was going on here, but she knew for sure she didn’t like what his admission implied. However, it now appeared that her heretofore inexplicable paranoia might well be justified. Unfortunately, she would have to take solace in that fact later.

For the moment, she didn’t think he was going to do anything right here in the middle of the diner, even if he was intent on harming her in some way. However, you could never really predict what a crazy person might do. Stalking a federal agent and then openly confessing that fact to the agent in question didn’t strike her as the actions of someone with all of their screws securely tightened. Besides, like Ben was fond of saying, “Better safe than dead.”

“Watching me…” Constance repeated, following the words with a measured breath. “Mind if I ask why?”

“I have my reasons.”

“I see. And, you obviously know that I work for the FBI.”

“Of course.”

She clucked her tongue then offered up a legal factoid, “So, do you also know that per Missouri revised statute five sixty-five point two twenty-five, everything you’ve just said gives me probable cause to arrest you for the crime of stalking?”

The man chuckled lightly. He appeared to be genuinely amused by the comment. “I’m not stalking you, Special Agent,” he told her.

“You and the law obviously have different definitions then, Mister…?” She let the honorific hang in the air between them.

“My name isn’t important,” he replied.

“You aren’t helping your case any,” she told him.

“I’ve simply been waiting for an opportunity to speak with you.”

“Well,” she said after a handful of empty seconds ticked by. “I’m pretty sure that’s what we are doing right now, but I have to be honest-I’m not terribly inclined to continue.”

“I hope that you will reconsider and listen to what I have to say.”

This peculiar old man was starting to wear on her already raw nerves, but she really didn’t want to create a scene here in the diner unless she had no choice. As long as he was keeping his hands to himself and not making any sudden moves, she figured she would play along. Maybe in a few more moves she could suss out his end game and know whether to arrest him or call the nearest mental hospital to see if they had an escapee.

After a short pause she responded. “Give me a reason to. I really don’t care for the cloak and dagger approach, so let’s start with a name.”

“All right then,” he replied. He gave a slight nod but still didn’t look up from the perfectly organized sweetener packets. “Call me Ed.”

She turned the name over inside her brain. It rang a bell, but the note was a little off key, so she couldn’t yet name the tune. “Okay, Ed,” she replied. “That’s a little better. Now, obviously you have my undivided attention-for the moment. I’d say now is your chance to talk.”

“Not here,” he said.

“Funny,” she replied. “Why did I have a strange feeling you were going to say that?”

“I was hoping that we could have a discussion somewhere more private,” he offered, ignoring her observation.

Constance took a sip of her coffee but kept her eyes on him over the rim of her cup. After placing it back on the counter she said, “And when you say private, is there someplace specific you have in mind?”

“We could go back to your room at the Greenleaf. My car is right outside.”

Constance raised an eyebrow and snorted involuntarily as she fought to stifle a sharp chuckle. There were “holster sniffers” everywhere, so why not here? She’d had plenty of men-and even a few women-with rampant law enforcement fetishes try to pick her up over the years, but she had to admit this was a new and different approach. She took a moment to process what he had just said, but no matter how she looked at it, the question that came to her lips was the same. Finally, keeping her voice low she asked, “I’m sorry, but are you propositioning me?”

“Not in the way you assume,” he replied, voice even and devoid of any real emotion. The words were simply a statement of fact.

She continued to roll his name around in her head, assuming for the moment that he wasn’t lying. There was something about it that was bothering her. She usually had excellent recall, but maybe her spell of clear headedness had come to an end, and the exhaustion was taking over again.

She watched him in silence, pondering the information that lay somewhere just beyond her grasp. He, however, still hadn’t looked up at her. His eyes remained focused on the sweetener packets. He had long since completed sorting them, but he would still occasionally reach out and adjust one, then another. Apparently they weren’t exactly right in his estimation, which told her he definitely had more than just a mild touch of OCD.

Obsessive…

Obsession…

Fixation…

Fetish…

The words collided with his name as they tumbled through her thoughts. The resulting clash sparked a connection and the memory was recalled.

She cocked her head to the side and said, “You own the hardware store, right?”

“No, Special Agent, I do not,” he replied.

The answer wasn’t what she had expected to hear. Adding up the stalking, the name he’d given, the OCD, and his veiled proposition, she had concluded he was Ed Ruble, the hardware store owner with the shoe fetish Sheriff Carmichael had warned her about.

While Constance was still pondering the blind alley she’d just followed, Stella appeared on the opposite side of the counter and placed a short cranberry juice and glass of water in front of her.

“Sorry about the wait,” the waitress apologized. With a bit more cheer than she’d displayed earlier she turned to the man next to Constance and said, “Good Morning, Pastor Reese. Your usual?”

He replied, “Good morning, Stella. Yes. Thank you.”

“Be right back,” she told him.

Stella hurried to the other end of the counter, then returned with a fresh mug of java for the pastor. She shot him a quick smile, even though he never really looked up, and then she was off again to attend to other patrons.

Once she was out of earshot, Constance said, “Pastor Reese… Well…at least now I know your real name.”

“Ed is my real name,” he returned.

“Your whole real name then,” she told him. “Listen, I don’t know what your game is here, but I’m not playing. And, just so we’re on the same page, I don’t make a habit of taking strange men to my motel room.”

“I assure you, Special Agent Mandalay, I don’t have a game, as you put it. All I want to do is talk.”

“But apparently you do have some kind of proposition for me.”

“Yes. For us both.”

“Well, Pastor, if you’re looking to save my soul, I’ve already heard the sales pitch, so you’re wasting your time.”

“Yes. I am hoping to save your soul,” the Pastor replied. “But not in the sense you might imagine.”

He carefully plucked a yellow packet from the freshly arranged cube, then holding the edge pinched between his thumb and forefinger, flicked it three times with the index finger of his other hand. After that, he meticulously folded a crease in the top edge. Constance watched in silence as he proceeded to tear the packet along the crease with the same painstaking precision, then carefully poured the contents into his coffee. After laying


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the empty packet aside, he picked up his spoon and stirred the brew first three times clockwise, then three times counterclockwise. After that, he tapped the spoon a trio of times on the edge of the mug, and then balanced it with practiced ease across the rim, perfectly perpendicular to the handle. Sitting back, he folded his hands in front of himself on the counter and simply stared at it.

Constance’s brain was on a roll and decided to take another shot at connect-the-dots. As she watched the pastor, she flashed back to the day she arrived in town when she and Carmichael had sat in almost this exact spot, talking about Merrie Callahan’s 1975 abduction case. There had been a lone patron at the far end of the counter that day, contemplating a coffee cup with his hands folded in front of him. Now she knew where she had seen the pastor before.

“Great…” She thought to herself. “Here I am in small town hell on Christmas Eve with Sheriff Sherlock, haunted houses, a cheap motel, no sleep, weird emails, and now an OCD preacher who’s stalking me. What did I do this year that was so bad?”

Out of curiosity she decided to press him on his last comment. “Well, since you seem to have an inside scoop on my thoughts, then why don’t you tell me what it is that I’m imagining.”

“As I said, not here,” he replied. “What we need to discuss is too sensitive.”

“I don’t see how saving my soul is all that sensitive, Pastor. I’ve got nothing to hide.”

“I, however, have certain information…”

“Information…” Constance repeated the word, allowing the final syllable to linger and eventually become a question in its own right.

“Yes, information,” was all he said.

“Information about what?”

“Why you are here.”

She regarded him carefully for a moment, then dropped her voice another notch. “Are you telling me that you have information about the murders I’m investigating?”

For the first time since their conversation began, he raised his head. He cast a somewhat furtive look to the side, glanced quickly toward her, then returned his gaze to the coffee mug. “Yes. In a manner of speaking.”

“Well, either you do or you don’t,” she told him. “Which is it?”

He finally turned slowly and stared back at her, then said, “It’s somewhat complicated, Special Agent.”

She had to admit that now her curiosity was piqued even more. At the moment, she would certainly welcome a solid lead on this case that didn’t just create more questions, or have her hearing voices and drawing her weapon on errant snowflakes. However, something didn’t seem quite right about the man. The obvious OCD issues notwithstanding, there was something else definitely off-kilter with him, so she still wasn’t convinced that he didn’t have an ulterior motive in mind, and she couldn’t ignore that fact.

Of course, maybe that was just her paranoia talking again. He was a pastor, after all; but then again, that really didn’t matter. Alden Forth had been a minister too, and he killed at least eleven prostitutes in the Denver area over a period of seven years before he was finally caught. Titles didn’t make you innocent. They just gave you something to hide behind if you weren’t.

“Do you have information about these murders, or don’t you?” Constance asked.

“I told you…it’s complicated.”

“Then let’s go across the street to the sheriff’s office,” she suggested. “We can un-complicate it there.”

He didn’t seem agitated by her suggestion, but his objection was succinct. “No.”

“Why not?”

“I am here to help you, not Sheriff Carmichael.”

“In case you missed it, we’re all on the same team.”

“Perhaps, but there is no longer any hope for his soul.”

“I see,” she said with a patronizing nod. “Well, I’ve already told you my soul is just fine the way it is, so I don’t think there’s any hope for mine, either.”

“Special Agent Mandalay, please listen to me. I really think we should go back to your room at the Greenleaf now.”

“I’m confused,” she replied. “You obviously know where I’m staying. If it’s so important that we talk there, then why did you wait until I was here to contact me?”

“Because I needed to be sure.”

“About what?”

“That you were alone.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m still not following you.”

He answered with, “We should go back to your room now.”

She was no longer second-guessing herself. Considering the weird circular conversation thus far, Constance had lost any miniscule amount of faith she might have had in the possibility of an actual lead coming from him. Like the conversation, she had come back around to her original assessment that he was hitting on her, or maybe that he was just a serial confessor or conspiracy theorist. Whichever it was, she was firmly convinced that she had a nutcase on her hands.

“We really should go back to your room now,” the pastor insisted again when she didn’t reply to him immediately. This time his voice was beginning to show the first hints of agitation, and that wasn’t good. When dealing with crazy, you never knew how quickly something like that might escalate.

Constance sent her gaze on a quick roam around the diner. The closest person appeared to be six or seven stools away, down the left side of the counter. On the right, the closest was probably seven or eight away. At the moment everyone appeared to be engaged in their own conversations and not paying a bit of attention to the two of them here at the far end. That was good. There weren’t any other outside influences to antagonize him, and she had a bit of a buffer zone if things suddenly went south and he became physical. However, her hope was to defuse this before it could ever go that far. Talking down a whack job was the last thing she felt up to doing right now, but there were innocent bystanders in the diner and she was on deck, like it or not. She knew the first thing she needed to do was get him out of here and isolated, in case things fell apart and started to turn ugly.

She centered her gaze back on the man and saw that he was mimicking her scan of the room. When he finished, he sighed, then leaned in toward her, “ Yes. I see him, just as you do. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”

Constance hated hearing that. It seemed like every time she dealt with someone who started spouting scripture in a literal sense, people died.

“Tell you what,” she offered. “Just let me put on my coat and we can go.”

“Yes,” he said. “That would be good.” He glanced about once again and gave a slight nod, as if to implicate everyone else in the room. Then he whispered, “And that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.”

“That’s from the Bible, right?” Constance asked, trying to keep him engaged so that he remained focused on her.

“Yes. Second Timothy, chapter two, verse twenty-six,” he replied.

“I’d like to hear more. Just let me get my coat and we can go.”

She kept her eyes on him while reaching back with her left hand and grasping the heavy outer garment. Without warning he reached over and clamped his own hand tightly around her right wrist and pulled, lifting her hand up toward his face.

Without even thinking Constance rotated her forearm and flexed her elbow hard inward while twisting her upper torso. Her wrist instantly snapped free between the weak point where his thumb met the tips of his fingers, and she pulled away. All of her instinct and training dictated that she should follow through and subdue the threat, but she managed to stop herself just short of bringing her left fist around and taking him to the floor. Her hand, however, was tightly clenched; arm cocked and ready to fly.

He sat motionless, his gaze following her right hand as she drew it back. He seemed transfixed by her pink polished fingernails. The look in his eyes was a queer mixture of sadness and terror.

“Too late,” he muttered, then looked up at her and raised his voice. “I’m too late. Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me! ”

This was definitely not going according to plan, but then she knew better than to have expected it to. She couldn’t help but notice that the scuffle had now caught the attention of the rest of the patrons in the diner. Conversations had stopped instantly, bringing a newfound quiet to the room. Within the scope of her peripheral vision she could see that several people were now aiming glances toward the end of the lunch counter where the two of them were sitting.

“Calm down,” Constance instructed the pastor, staying focused on him and watching for any threatening movement. “Everything is okay. Just calm down.”

He shook his head, then exclaimed, “And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light.”

With that, the man turned and slowly panned his stare around the room at the rest of the people. Their faces wore expressions that wavered between embarrassment and sorrow. He cleared his throat then dropped his gaze back down to the coffee cup sculpture he had created earlier.

“That’s good… Let’s just stay calm,” Constance told him again. “Everything is okay. We can go talk just like you wanted, okay?”

In reality, she was worried that what had just happened was a minor squall and that his sudden passive state might be the calm before the storm.

“No, Special Agent Mandalay,” he replied quietly. “I’m afraid it’s too late for that… I’m too late…” When he finished speaking he reached up and slipped his hand inside the folds of his topcoat.

“Whoa,” Constance said, her right hand automatically sliding back and easily pulling the bottom of her sweatshirt up to clear her weapon. Her left came forward toward him. “Why don’t you just pull your hand out slowly, and keep both of them where I can see them, okay?”

“No need to worry, Special Agent,” he replied softly. “I am merely reaching for my wallet.” Pastor Reese withdrew his hand from his coat, slowly as he had been instructed, and just like he’d said, it was filled with a black leather rectangle.

As he started unfolding the checkbook style wallet, Stella arrived, looking somewhat embarrassed. She settled a plate of pancakes onto the counter and then put a smaller dish containing eggs and bacon alongside. She glanced at Constance, then at the man.

“Put your money away, Pastor,” she told him. “You know the coffee is always on the house for you.”

He ignored her and withdrew a twenty-dollar bill, which he then placed next to his cup while saying, “This should cover Special Agent Mandalay’s breakfast. Keep the change for yourself, Stella.”

Constance began to object. “I’m afraid that…”

“I insist,” he replied, cutting her off. Then he brought his eyes up to meet hers once again. A look of apology creased his features, and when he spoke his voice was filled with what sounded to be sincere compassion. “ When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it… I’m sorry I was too late to save you, Special Agent Mandalay… So very sorry…”

He fell silent again as he carefully placed the wallet back inside his coat. Then, turning deliberately on the stool, he stood up and walked to the door. Once there, he looked back, and as if nothing had transpired, he smiled, then called out, “Merry Christmas, everyone.”

With that, he left. The bell above the entrance rang out a double chime as the door opened and then closed in his wake. Constance stood and stepped over to the doors, watching him through an unfogged section of the glass. He climbed into a familiar looking four-door sedan, then slowly backed it out and drove away.

When she turned and came back to the counter, Stella was still there. The waitress shook her head and looked at her with what actually seemed like mild compassion for a change.

“I’m sorry about that,” Stella apologized. “I’ve never seen him get so worked up. He usually just recites a few Bible verses and then goes on his way. He doesn’t really bother anyone. We’re all sorta used to it.”

Constance shook her head. “I guess I’m just the lucky one.”

Stella continued, “He’s harmless. I really think he’s just lonely.”

“What about his congregation?”

“He doesn’t have one.”

Constance shot her a puzzle look. “You mean nobody at all comes to his church?”

“Oh, he doesn’t have a church, ma’am. He’s not even a real minister.”

CHAPTER 19

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Constance pulled the double layer of wool scarf down from her face while she waited at the front counter. She’d only had to walk a short distance across the street to get from the diner to the sheriff’s office, but the icy wind already seemed to be more brutal than it had been just an hour ago.

Clovis looked up when she came in, making eye contact and nodding to acknowledge her presence. She was currently occupied with the phone pressed up against her ear.

“Yes, yes I know,” she said into the handset. She listened for a minute, then looked up at Constance again and made a quick motion with her hand to indicate that the person at the other end of the line was a rambling talker. Eventually, she said, “Okay… Well, thanks so much for letting me know… I’ll send someone over to check… Yes… Yes… I will… You too… Bye…”

Once she had managed to hang up the phone she let out a quick sigh and shook her head, then turned her attention to the counter. “Good morning, Special Agent Mandalay. Sorry about that.” Her tone was businesslike, but she came across somewhat less standoffish than she had on the first day they’d met.

“No problem,” Constance replied. “Good morning, Clovis.”

“What can I do for you today?” the woman asked.

Constance looked past her to the darkened office windows on the back wall of the room. “I take it Sheriff Carmichael isn’t in yet today?”

“Been here and gone already,” Clovis answered. “He started early because of the snow. He’s out running a few errands right now.”

“Do you happen to know when he will be back?”

The woman shook her head. “Not for sure, but I can try to get him on the radio if you’d like.”

“Hmm…” Constance hummed thoughtfully for a moment before shaking her head and saying, “No, that’s okay. I just wanted to check in with him about the surveillance tonight.”

She nodded. “He mentioned that before he left.”

“To be honest, I’ve actually got a few things I need to take care of myself, so I’ll be tied up all day,” Constance told her. “When you speak to him, could you do me a favor and just let him know that I’ll meet up with him here this evening?”

“Sure, I can do that. Any particular time, or does he already know?”

The petite federal agent clucked her tongue then grimaced. “I’m not exactly sure on that just yet.”

“That’s okay,” Clovis replied. She glanced over her shoulder. When she looked back, her lips had arched into a tight frown, and it seemed as if the color had drained from her cheeks. The pained expression that resulted easily tacked ten years onto her face. With a heavy sigh she said, “It’s Christmas Eve. He’ll be right here waiting. He always is.”

“Yeah…” Constance muttered, not quite sure what else to say. “I imagine he is.”

Clovis fiddled with her hands for a moment, looking down at them as if lost in thought. Her face eventually began to soften, allowing a blush of life to return. Finally, she looked up and asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you, Special Agent Mandalay?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Constance replied, giving her gloved fingers a soft drum on the edge of the counter. “Thank you very much though.”

“No problem at all. Stay warm out there.”

“I’m definitely trying.” Constance reached up and began tugging at her scarf in order to pull it back around her face. She was just hooking it over the bridge of her nose when she furrowed her brow and pulled the fabric back down. “You know, there might be one other thing you can help me with…”

“Pastor Reese?” Clovis replied.

Constance froze for a second and cocked a questioning eyebrow, but her brain was already doing the math. “Ahh… That was Stella on the phone when I walked in…”

Clovis nodded.

“That was quick, but then I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised,” Constance said.

“She saw you walking over here and wanted to make sure we knew what had happened in case you were going to file a complaint.”

“Well… An official complaint really wasn’t my plan. If it was I would have arrested him myself.

“I actually told her that.”

Constance canted her head to the side. “Although, it might bear mentioning that he did voluntarily confess to stalking me.”

Clovis gave her another nod. “I’m sure. If it’s any consolation, it’s not the first time. He followed all of the other FBI agents too.”

“Really…” Constance allowed her voice to trail off as her brow dipped and creased of its own volition. Here was yet another thing that hadn’t been mentioned in the official case file. “Were there any altercations?”

“None that I’m aware of,” she replied. “I know that he did speak to each of them, but that was about it as far as I know. From what Stella said he was quite a bit more wound up with you. Sort of pushy.”

“Just a bit…” Constance said with a nod. “Maybe he didn’t perceive me as intimidating since I’m female, so he thought he could get away with it.”

“I suppose that could be,” Clovis replied, pausing for a moment before adding, “Honestly, he’s harmless. He’s just addled in the head. Has been for years. He goes off his medication now and then, but he’s never hurt or threatened anyone.”

“I see…” Constance cocked her head to the side as she digested the new information. “So what’s the problem? Some sort of dementia?”

“Seems like it. Nobody’s really sure. One day he just snapped, more or less. He spent some time in the hospital over in Mais…” she shrugged. “Poor man. He never recovered from it. His wife couldn’t take it. She tried for a while, but she finally divorced him and moved away.”

“Does he have anyone to take care of him?”

“Us,” Clovis returned, making a small sweep with her hand. “That’s the other reason Stella called. To let us know he’s probably skipped some pills again.”

“One of the many hidden advantages of living in a small town, I suppose,” Constance mused.

“We do try to look out for one another,” Clovis agreed. “We’ll probably send Mel over to his house to check on him like usual. She seems to have a way with him when he’s off his medication.”

“That’s good… So…what else can you tell me about him? Stella said he’s not even a real minister.”

“She’s right, he’s not…” She paused and gave a halfhearted shrug. “Well, not that we know of, anyway. He’s lived here all his life and nobody in Hulis has any recollection of him even going to church, much less becoming an ordained minister of any sort.”

“Well, he’s apparently spent some time studying the Bible,” Constance offered. “He was quoting verses to me.”

Clovis nodded. “Let me guess, they all had to do with Satan.”

“Yes. They did. I suppose that’s not unique, then.”

“Not really. That’s what he does. When he’s been off his pills for a while, he gets convinced that everyone here is possessed by the devil himself.”

“Any idea why?”

“Don’t know. Like I said, he’s addled. He has been for years now.”

“Well, thanks for filling me in; I appreciate it.”

“No problem, Agent Mandalay. Thank you for being so understanding about this. I really don’t think he’ll be bothering you again.”

The wind was at Constance’s back during her return walk to the Greenleaf Motel. However, that didn’t keep it from stinging the exposed portions of her cheeks, because she couldn’t stop casting a wary eye over her shoulder.

Something about Clovis’s explanation regarding Pastor Reese wasn’t sitting well with her. She didn’t think the woman was necessarily lying about anything she had said, but something down in her gut was telling her that there was more to the story.

The truth was, it seemed like everyone in this town was hiding something. Except maybe for Merrie Callahan, but at the moment-for reasons Constance didn’t even want to imagine-she wasn’t talking either.

CHAPTER 20

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10:06 A.M. – December 24, 2010

Greenleaf Motel

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

“Mmnnmm…Yemm…Thizizstrrmmm…” The mumbled mish-mash of syllables issuing from the cell phone sounded like the owner of the voice was still firmly attached to his pillow. As it happened, there was a very good reason for that.

He was.

Constance felt a rush of envy well up in her chest as Ben’s barely intelligible greeting flowed into her ear.

She wanted sleep.

She desperately needed sleep.

But here he was getting the sleep instead of her, and illogical as she knew it was, that just made her resentment grow. The monster’s eyes turned from green to red as the jealousy began to quickly morph through dangerous phases. An instant later it had become a quick burst of anger that escaped the bonds of discretion.

“Dammit, it’s already after ten,” Constance barked into her cell phone. Playful was definitely not an accurate description of her tone. “Get your ass out of bed!”

“Whoa…” Ben grumbled in return, his voice sounding far more alert this time. “Merry fuckin’ Christmas to you too…”

Constance emptied her lungs with a violent exhale, then sat down hard on the corner of her ravaged motel bed. It didn’t give much, so she groaned as the unexpected thud sent a dull ache shooting up her spine and radiating out through the muscles of her back. Pitching slowly forward at the waist, she rested her free elbow on her knee then dropped her forehead into her palm. Taking in a deep breath, she started gently massaging her temples with her thumb and fingers.

“You okay?” Ben’s concerned voice rolled out of the cell phone speaker after a lengthy pause.

“Yeah… I’m fine,” she murmured. “I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”

He was definitely awake now. “I forgive ya’. I’m sure I prob’ly deserved it for somethin’ else. Sure you’re okay? I was sorta expectin’ ta’ hear from ya’ last night.”

“Yeah, sorry about that too. I got a little sidetracked.”

“I can relate. Been there… So…who pissed in your cornflakes this mornin’? Besides me, I mean.”

“Actually, I had to start a list,” she replied. “Unfortunately, I also had to put myself at the top of it.”

“Ouch. Been there too. I hate when that happens.”

“Yeah,” she agreed. “Me too.”

“Wanna talk about it?” he asked.

“Yes… No…” she stammered. “I just don’t really know…”

“Okay… That’s a start I guess,” he said. “You sleep okay? You sound like crap on a stick.”

“Thanks.” Her reply was liberally frosted with sarcasm.

“Just bein’ honest.”

“Yeah, I know…” she said. “Truth is, not really. I got some, but not nearly enough.”

“Guess that’d explain the nasty ‘tude, huh?”

“Don’t press your luck, buddy. I’m not over being jealous that you were still in bed when I called.”

“Yeah… My bad. I shoulda known better’n ta’ sleep,” he fired back a sardonic volley of his own.

“Touche.”

“All right, so you ain’t sleepin’. Are ya’ at least eatin’ okay?”

Constance pulled the phone away from her ear and made a face at it. Then she tucked it back up beneath her hair and said, “What are you this morning? My mother?”

“Well, technically speakin’, I’m damn near old enough to be your dad.”

“Not a good visual, dear. Especially not if you ever want sex again,” she groaned.

“Noted,” he replied.

“But to answer your question, I just had pancakes and eggs.”

“Pancakes and eggs, at the same meal? You? When’s the last time you ate?”

“I just told you.”

“You know what I mean.” He didn’t sound amused.

“It’s not important.”

“Dammit, Constance…” he grumbled. “For someone who’s so friggin’ health conscious you sure have problems takin’ care of yourself.”

“Not always… Can we change the subject please?”

“Yeah… Whatever… So since you’re on the phone, I gotta assume you’re still stuck in Whoville?”

“Hulis.”

“Yeah, there.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Didn’t you say that’s about four hours north or somethin’ like that?”

“Give or take.”

“Well, I’m off today,” he said, an audible shrug in his voice. “Want me ta’ drive up? Betchya’ I could make it in three. Maybe two’n-uh half if you tell me you’re wearin’ somethin’ sexy.”

“Dammit, I’m working a case here, Ben!” she snapped, then sighed a quiet, “I’m sorry… Again…”

He huffed out a breath and grunted. “You don’t just need sleep, hon. Ya’ sound like you could use a few rounds with a punchin’ bag.”

She snorted. “Are you offering?”

“Pretty sure I just did.”

“Yeah, I guess you did, didn’t you…”

Constance slid her hand up through her hair and scratched the back of her scalp absently. She grimaced and pulled away when her fingers ventured too close to the residual soreness from her incident with the desk.

She could hear an occasional clunk or rustle at the other end of the line, which meant Ben was now out of bed and moving around. A few moments later he started mumbling curses, vocally naming the coffee pot as the object of his current disdain.

After countless heartbeats with nothing being said, Ben spoke up. “Talk ta’ me, Constance. What’s goin’ on?”

He opened the door and all she had to do was step through. For all his faults in the relationship department, Ben still had his moments. Of course, listening wasn’t always one of them, unless you caught him at just the right time or you were talking about a case. It didn’t take ESP for him to figure out the latter was why she had called.

She sucked in a deep breath and thought about unloading on him. All of it-the house, the voice, the dream, Merrie-everything she could think of that was bothering her. But she didn’t really believe that would do either of them any good. In fact, it would probably be worse, because in the end she’d still have all the problems, and he would be worrying. Besides, she actually had a specific reason for making this call, so she needed to stay focused on that.

“I need a favor,” she said. “Three, actually.”

“Okay, shoot.”

“First, I want you to run a background check on someone for me. His name is Ed Reese.”

“Hang on,” he grunted. “Lemme get somethin’ ta’ write with…” After a bit of rustling he mumbled, “Ed… Reese… Okay, got it. Any other info you can give me on ‘im?”

“Not much,” she replied. “He goes by Pastor Ed Reese, but nobody in town recalls him ever becoming ordained.”

“Hell, you can do it online these days,” he grunted.

“True,” she agreed. “He’s apparently lived in Hulis his whole life…”

“Hugh Liss… Spell it.”

“H-U-L-I-S.”

“Got it.”

“He looks to be in his mid to late sixties. About five-ten to six foot, one-seventy to one-eighty… Hair is mostly gray with some dark brown in it. Brown eyes. Wears glasses. No real distinguishing marks to speak of, that were visible anyway.”

There was a pause while he made notes. Finally he said, “Okay, got that…”

“I managed to find out that he’s divorced, and at some point in his adult life he had some sort of severe mental breakdown. This was several years ago; not sure how long though. He supposedly spent some time in the hospital; also not sure of a timeframe on that either. He’s supposedly still on psych meds, so apparently he’s still under a doctor’s care.”

Ben sighed. “Yeah, well all that’s gonna be hidin’ behind HIPAA unless there’s a damn good reason to know and a really specific warrant.”

“I know.”

“Just for drill, got any idea which hospital? I mean, ya’ just never know who might be stupid enough ta’ talk.”

“Yeah, exactly. Well, all I know is that it was in Mais, Missouri. That’s M-A-I-S. It’s bigger than Hulis, but it’s not a huge city, so I doubt there are more than a couple of hospitals there.”

“Okay… Anything else?”

“Yeah, he drives an older model, black Crown Vic. Plate was obscured and I only caught a quick glimpse of it, but it was a Missouri tag, and I’m pretty sure it started with a G.” Without pause she began thinking aloud. “As to a year, let me see… The rear plate mount wasn’t up on the trunk, so it was pre-ninety-five… But the body style was definitely rounded, so it’s at least a ninety-two. Come to think of it, it also had a front grille, so I’d have to say ninety-three or four. That should at least help narrow it down some.”

“Showoff…” Ben muttered.

She ignored the gibe and added, “Of course, I don’t know for sure if it’s registered to him or someone else. My guess would be him though.”

“That it?”

“Afraid so.”

“No prob; it’s more than I’d get from someone on the street… Okay… So what’s the story? You think maybe this guy’s good for the murders?”

She shook her head out of


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reflex. “I have no idea. He contacted me this morning and said he had information about the case, but never got around to actually telling me. He sort of freaked out, recited some Bible verses, then took off.”

“Wunnerful… Sounds like maybe he’s just a wingnut.”

“That crossed my mind, trust me. And you’re right; he probably is. But I still need to check him out.”

“Yeah, I hear ya’… So whaddabout the local coppers?” he suggested. “Surely they know somethin’ about ‘im, especially if he’s a nutjob.”

“That’s just it; I think they do, but they aren’t really sharing.”

“Hmph,” Ben grunted. “So Sherlock ain’t playin’ so nice, huh?”

“I wouldn’t say that exactly. He’s not bad, to be honest,” she replied. “I actually like the man, and he seems to be a really good cop. But I definitely feel like he’s holding something back.”

“Gut?”

“Yeah.”

“Gotta trust it.”

“That’s what I’m doing. Of course, I suppose he could be playing it close to the vest because I’m the fifth agent that’s been sent out here on this case, and from what I’ve seen, he hasn’t received much help from the bureau so far. Based on what he’s said, I know for a fact there are some serious trust issues for him where the FBI is concerned.”

“Yeah… Maybe…” he huffed. “Doesn’t justify holdin’ out on ya’, though. He should know that.”

“So are you the pot or the kettle? Seems to me we did that dance ourselves once upon a time.”

“Uh-huh…” he grunted again. “Don’t remind me. I think I’ve paid my dues on that one.” After a short pause he spoke up again. “So, ya’ said ya’ wanted three favors?”

“Yes. The next thing is could you run an NCIC query on Merrie Frances Callahan, and John Horace Colson. Specifically what I’m looking for would be any case information regarding Merrie’s abduction on December twenty-second, nineteen seventy-five, and Colson’s subsequent death on the twenty-fifth.”

“I can do that,” he said. “But ya’know if the paper you’re holdin’ is already incomplete on a case that old, I really doubt there’ll be anything in the database.”

“Agreed, but I’d like to know for sure.”

“And number three?”

“I’d like for you to get me whatever you can on Sheriff Addison Carmichael.”

“Thought you said you liked ol’ Sheriff Sherlock? Second guessin’ yourself now, are ya’?”

“Just trusting my gut. I really don’t think he’s dirty, but… Well… You know. I’d just like to have some background so I can cover all the bases.”

“Yeah, can’t hurt.”

“He’s been the sheriff here for at least the last seven years. And, he was a deputy here back in seventy-five…”

“Okay, got it…”

“Somewhere in between he was with the KCPD. Made detective from what I’ve picked up in conversation.”

“KC Missouri or KC Kansas?”

“I’d assume Missouri, but I’m not sure.”

“No prob; I’ll figure it out.”

“Thanks. I owe you.”

“Yeah… We can talk about that later. Okay… Well, I’m sure you knew this was comin’, so here it is, the sixty-four-kay question. You’re a Feeb. You’ve got better resources than the metropolitan PD. Why’re ya’ callin’ me ta’ do this? Forget ta’ take your computer with ya’?”

“That’s the other thing I should mention,” she sighed. “I sort of need you to keep all this under the radar. In fact, it would be best if you could get someone else to pull the NCIC info, so your name isn’t on it since you can be connected back to me.” A thick silence fell in the wake of her words. She took several measured breaths as she waited for a response, then finally gave in and said, “Ben? Are you still there?”

His voice flat, he responded, “Yeah… I had a feelin’ that’s what you were gonna say. Jeezus… What the hell’ve you stepped in up there, hon?”

“I don’t know yet,” she admitted. “But I’m pretty sure the sheriff isn’t the only one holding out on me.”

“Feeb central?”

“Possibly. I don’t know. I just don’t want any red flags popping up until I’m sure, so if you could mask the queries somehow that would help. I just definitely don’t want them coming from my computer with my ID.”

“Okay, tell me exactly where you’re stayin’,” he said. “I’m on my way.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m comin’ up there.”

“No,” she objected. “I need you to stay right where you are and do that background check for me.”

“Constance, think about it. You’re in the middle of north fuckin’ nowhere, workin’ a jacked up serial case, and now you’re tellin’ me your own people might be coverin’ somethin’ up. You need backup, hon, and you need it yesterday.”

His reaction wasn’t wholly unexpected, and it made her glad she’d held back on the emotional information dump. If she’d told him about the anonymous email and texts, or especially the incident at the soda machine last night, he would probably already be halfway here. There were times when it was cute that he wanted to come to her rescue, but this wasn’t one of them.

“Don’t overreact, Ben. I appreciate your concern-really I do-but I can take care of myself.”

“I know you can, but this could be different.”

“I’m a big girl, Ben. With a badge and a gun and bullets and everything.”

“I just dunno… What if-”

She cut him off. “I can take care of myself. Think about it… I took you to the mat, didn’t I?”

“Two outta three falls.”

“Well?”

“It’s that one outta the three that worries me, hon.”

“I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I let you win that time. I didn’t want you to feel totally emasculated by a woman who’s more than a foot shorter than you.”

“Dammit, I’m serious, Constance.”

She puffed her cheeks as she blew out a protracted breath, then answered, “I know you are. But I’m serious too. I can take care of myself and you know it. Besides… This is all just speculation at this point. I’m not even sure there’s a cover-up, but even if there is, there have been too many agents involved before me, and they’re all still alive and kicking. If there’s a danger in this, it will most likely be to my career, not my life.”

“Jeezus…” he moaned. “I still don’t like it. Not at all.”

“Don’t worry so much,” she appealed. “Just see what info you can get for me. Maybe then I’ll know where I stand.”

“Yeah… Okay… Let me make some calls. I dunno how quick this is gonna happen with it bein’ a holiday, especially if I gotta fly low. I’m prob’ly gonna hafta call in some markers.”

“I understand. But the sooner the better.”

“Yeah… Always is.”

“Okay… Well, I have some leads to follow up, and then I need to try to grab a nap. We’re staking out the repeat crime scene tonight,” she said.

Ben huffed out a sympathetic sounding snort. “Hell of a way ta’ spend Christmas Eve.”

“Tell me about it,” Constance agreed.

“How late can I call ya’ back? Don’t wanna interfere.”

“You’re probably good up till ten.”

“Gotcha.”

“I’ll try to check in later if I don’t hear from you first.”

“You’d better,” he returned. “Ya’ got Kevlar with ya’?”

“Of course. It’s out in my trunk.”

“Damn lotta good it’s doin’ ya’ in there,” he spat.

“Don’t worry so much.”

“Get the vest outta the trunk and wear it, hear me?”

“I will.”

“And watch your back, okay?”

She sighed. “Stop worrying… I need to go… Later…”

“Yeah… Later…”

Constance started to pull the phone away from her ear then pressed it back up and said, “Oh… Wait… Are you still there?”

She heard a quick fumble then his voice came back on the line, a bit of sudden concern evident in the tone. “Yeah, I’m here, what is it?”

“Nothing really important. I just have a weird question. Kind of a riddle someone asked me,” she explained. “What would you say is ‘heavy symbolism of the Christmas season’?”

She lied about the importance. She was already asking him to do enough, but if the searches set off any flags, he shouldn’t be the one to take the heat; it would come down on her. However, she had no idea what was in that hidden file or from whom it had come. If it turned out that it was something she wasn’t supposed to be seeing, then it was definitely not something Ben should know about. She wanted to keep that brand of trouble contained to herself if possible. Besides, she didn’t need him rushing up here to save her right now.

“Heavy?” he snorted. “That’s easy. My Lieutenant’s wife’s godawful homemade fruitcake.”

CHAPTER 21

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After thumbing the ‘end’ button on her cell, Constance quietly stared across the narrow space between where she was sitting on the corner of the bed and the desk that was positioned against the opposite wall. Her notebook computer sat there waiting, the screen empty and dark at the moment because the unit had finally dropped into standby mode due to inactivity. It mimicked her blank stare, patiently awaiting a key press or even a quick tap on the touch pad to bring it to life. While it was only a few feet away in physical distance, for all the bad luck she’d had with cracking the encryption key thus far, the gulf might as well have been countless miles.

And now that she had reached out for help, all Ben had to offer was “fruitcake.”

That was definitely one she hadn’t tried. But then, it had nine characters, not eight. Not to mention it really didn’t jibe with the theme of the song to which the mysterious file was attached. Things like silver and gold decorations, shepherds, kings, and all of the other associated religious myth surrounding the Christmas holiday. She had exhausted those clues to the best of her ability, using kludged together pieces of the lyrics, and even going so far as to try various permutations of-and words from-“The Christmas Story” in the books of Matthew and Luke, but she still had no luck. She was pretty sure she had tried all of the secular options even remotely related to the song by now as well-all of them that she could think of, anyway.

She could probably have given him some guidance by throwing the song out there too, but doing so might have led to questions, and it wasn’t easy for her to lie to him. In the long run, the less he knew about that segment of this debacle, the better. Besides, the song was really just a delivery vehicle. There was nothing to say it was absolutely connected to the answer. That was just a guess on her part.

She muttered, “But fruitcake? Yeah…right,” and then she shook her head and sighed.

After a handful of minutes spent staring off into space, she stood and deposited her cell phone onto the desk next to the computer, then proceeded to make the bed. She had placed a standing “do not disturb” request with the office when she’d checked in, as was her SOP while working. It was just safer for everyone concerned that way.

Before heading out for breakfast, she had tucked all of the carefully sorted reports into her suitcase, out of sight, just in case the housekeeper didn’t get the message about the DND or the wind took off with the door hanger. None of the information she currently had was sensitive, otherwise she would have taken it with her. However, being not sensitive didn’t necessarily make any of it fit for public consumption either.

She dug out the semi-ordered stack of paper and began systematically arranging the different parcels of documents atop the now mostly smoothed comforter. She had no idea what a third run through was going to do for her at this point, other than confuse the issue more, of course. Nothing at all seemed to add up where any of these murders were concerned. A locked, empty house with no forced entry. Not only that, a locked, empty house with no forced entry and cops watching it inside and out. But like magic, out of nowhere, a body appears-or parts of one, to be more accurate.

Magic. That’s exactly how it seemed.

The thought made Constance recall an old trick her brother used to do back when they were kids. He used a prop called a Lippincott Box, and he would make a borrowed coin or ring disappear from a handkerchief and then reappear inside the locked container, right in front of your nose, much to the amazement of family and friends.

Looking at the individual reports now, it was as if the house on Evergreen Lane was itself a giant Lippincott Box and the killer a stage magician doing one show per year for a very select audience. The only problem was that the victims weren’t inanimate objects, and there was more going on behind the scenes than simple sleight of hand.

There was another puzzle within a puzzle too-the victims themselves. There were seven men dead and not a single ID made on any of them in all these years. Except for the external genitalia, all of their body parts were accounted for, meaning they had to have fingerprints and dental impressions-or they should. That was something else sorely lacking from any of the files. No autopsy reports, no ten-print cards, and not even a close-up photo of any of the faces. Why?

It just didn’t make sense. Especially with the bureau involved. This wasn’t shoddy investigative work; this was deliberate. More than that, it was a manufactured nightmare with strings attached, because someone else was going to die if she didn’t wake up and figure it out.

She was feeling like she’d been told to go sit in the corner and play solitaire and to not come out until she’d won; but as some kind of sick joke she had been handed an incomplete deck of cards to use. For all intents and purposes, that was exactly her situation. The SAC had to have known what she was up against, and moreover what was not in that envelope when he handed it to her. Then there was the fact that this assignment had possibly come out of DC, with her name at or near the top of the short list.

The more she thought about it, the angrier she became. Why her? Why was she being set up to fail, and why had the same been done to the other agents before her? What were their sins that had landed them in this hell? But more importantly, what had they discovered that they were now complicit in hiding?

Her mind raced through scenarios, none of which made any more sense than the files from which she was working. Why they had been redacted by the process of apparently deliberate-and definitely egregious-omission was obviously a part of this mystery. One thing that kept coming back around was her bizarre phone conversation with Agent Keene.

What was it that he’d told her? ‘Call him after Christmas Day if she still had any questions but that he didn’t expect to be hearing from her… Not about this case anyway?’

What kind of sense did that make? It certainly sounded as if he knew something but wasn’t about to spill it. If there was a brass ring out there, and he and the other agents had grabbed it, why wasn’t this case solved? Why was she here now? And why was there almost certainly going to be another body cooling in the morgue if they had already found an answer to this puzzle?

She sighed and stepped back from the bed, slipping her fingers up through her loose hair, pushing it away from her face, and holding it atop her head. Staring at the piles of useless paper was just giving her a headache. She’d only been at it for a few minutes, but she was already dying for a break.

She gave in to that desire. With a sigh she wandered over to her suitcase and dug out the bottle of ibuprofen. Then, she opened a warm soda and washed down a pair of the caplets with a quick swig from the can. She knew she should probably just lie down and try to nap as much as she could. It was going to be a very long night in a very creepy house, and she needed to be clear-headed and alert. Wearing herself down even more by chasing her tail wasn’t going to help accomplish that at all.

She started to take another drink, then stopped herself, held the soda can in front of her face, and glared at it, her mouth twisting into a thoughtful frown. Continuing to pour caffeine into her system wasn’t going to do her much good either. Shaking her head, she dumped the can into the sink, then walked over to the desk and sat down. Hopefully the ibuprofen would start kicking in soon, and she could relax. However, until that happened, she wasn’t going to be able to even think about sleeping. While she waited for the marriage of human biology and pharmaceutical chemistry to be consummated, she could pass the time checking her email. Maybe when she was finished with that, the pain would be dulled, and she would feel up to cleaning the papers off the bed again.

She reached out and thumped her middle finger on the touchpad, causing the slowly winking amber light on the front edge of the notebook computer to hiccup mid-flash and then glow solid blue. There was a soft whirr, the screen flickered for a second, and then it flared to life. Staring back at her was the box with the taunting prompt: ENTER ENCRYPTION KEY.

Constance skated her finger over the pad, pulling the arrow-shaped cursor down to the task bar, then started to click herself over to the email client. Her finger hovered over the button, hesitating as she continued to stare at the leering box in the center of the screen.

“Oh, what the hell…” she muttered, then shifted forward in the chair and moved her fingers up to the home row of the keyboard.

The prompt was still winking in the encryption field, so with a quick series of taps she spelled out “FRUITCAK” and dropped the fifth digit of her right hand down on the enter key with a heavy finality. The system whirred, flickered, and then as she’d seen countless times before, it announced: INCORRECT KEY!

“Yeah, figured as much…” she mumbled.

She started to drag her finger across the pad once again but stopped. Pursing her lips, she creased her forehead and slitted her eyes for a moment. Reaching forward, she allowed her fingers to stab the alphanumerics once again. This time she keyed in “FRUITC8K.”

She stared at the eight simple characters for a moment, then stiffened her index finger and drove it down with a deliberate stab against the return key. Falling slowly back in the chair as the screen winked and the hard drive whirred, she frowned at the computer and waited for the inevitable error message.

The drive continued to spin, and the backlit LCD panel flickered as the computer clunked through the hackneyed routine. Five seconds passed, then ten. After fifteen, Constance raised an eyebrow and started to sit forward. At twenty-five, the installed reader software was opening. At thirty, it had maximized to fill the display, and a document was in the process of loading.

Judging from the progress on the status bar, it was sizeable.


AFTER a while, you discover that darkness isn’t really what you think it is.

You get used to it. And when you do, it stops being the absence of light. In a way, it becomes its own kind of illumination-a mix of blue, and black, and gray, with shapes and shadows everywhere. There are things you can see, and things you can feel, and things that you just somehow know.

That’s what darkness really is.

Of course, the getting used to it part doesn’t happen right away. Accepting the darkness for what it is takes some time. Constance didn’t know how long a span that happened to be, but since the world around her was a mix of blue, and black, and gray with shapes and shadows everywhere, she knew she must have been in the darkness for at least that long. But to tell the truth, she really couldn’t be sure, because in a peculiar way, it seemed like it had been much longer, and it seemed like it had been no time at all.

A terrible noise pierced Constance’s skull and she pressed her palms tight against her ears, squeezing her eyes closed to shut out the brilliant darkness. Now the sound of her own breathing became loud and inescapable, trapped behind her hands to echo inside her head.

She waited.

The terrible noise, blunted only slightly by her hands, reverberated against her again. She steeled herself in fearful anticipation of the next blast, but it didn’t come.

Now only the sounds of her breaths filled her ears.

She let go and drifted.

Constance was so cold that her skin was numb, but that didn’t stop the pain. It couldn’t. Not on the inside, and that’s where she felt it most. Her body was aching in ways she had never known before, even during her time at Quantico. Back during those first few weeks of physical training at the academy, more than once she’d been certain she was going to die. But this wasn’t like that at all. This was worse. And it was different.

It wasn’t just physical.

It was beyond merely that. It was a violating kind of ache that never ended. It pulsed straight through her core, making her want to vomit. In fact, her mouth tasted sour, so she wondered if she already had but that she’d simply forgotten.

The terrible noise came again, loud and urgent. Behind it was a strange rattle. She reached to press her hands against her ears again, but the noise was too quick for her. It rang out and penetrated her skull with its violent sound. The rattle forced her to clench her teeth as it filled her head with a disharmonic chord.

Then silence… And the silence continued.

Constance sighed. The ache seemed to be gone now, but it had left a phantom in its stead. While the pain itself had faded, the violation remained, and the bitter taste of bile still survived on the back of her tongue.

The silence shattered like crystal.

The terrible noise bit into her brain, forcing a familiar pattern to form. Sharp notes escalated in front of a hard plastic chitter. Midway through the awful chime a loud clatter joined in, followed almost immediately by a dull thud.

Then the terrible noise sounded again and again.

Constance came awake with a start, snapping her eyes open and sucking in a quick breath. It was a mix of blue, and black, and gray with shapes and shadows everywhere throughout the room, but the shapes and shadows were different than her recent memory. Or was that memory just a dream? She blinked and exhaled hard, fighting to push away the fog that was clouding her head.

The urgent peal of her cell phone tore a wide swath through the quiet once again. She breathed in, then exhaled with a deep groan as she rolled over and reached for the nightstand, fumbling through the shadows for the screaming device. Her hand came up empty. She shifted then pushed up on her elbow and groped some more, sending her eyes along with her hand to go searching in the blue and the black and the gray. Still nothing.

She yawned and then cleared her throat. The fog was starting to lift, and she vaguely recalled a clatter and thud. Rolling forward onto her stomach, she thrust her arm over the side of the bed and pawed the carpet below. It was rough and cold. She was ready to give up when her fingers brushed against something hard. She wrapped her hand around it and then rolled over onto her back.

The device had fallen silent. She cleared her throat again and swallowed hard. Her throat was dry and her mouth not much better. Trying to will away the remnants of sleep, she held the phone up and aimed her bleary eyes at its glowing display.

It read: 5 MISSED CALLS.

She started to thumb over to the lists when it began to bleat out a familiar ringtone once again. She pressed the answer button, cutting off the tune, then lazily pushed the device up against her ear.

“Yeah, Ben…” she answered; her voice was as thin and arid as her throat.

“Constance?” Ben’s concern was wrapped tightly around the words that issued from the speaker. “You okay?

She coughed, then cleared her throat a third time. It didn’t really help. “Yeah…” she croaked. “I’m fine…”

“I wake you up?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Sorry…” he replied, although it was relief that threaded through his voice. “When ya’ didn’t answer right away I started ta’ get a little worried.”

“Like you needed another excuse,” she mumbled.

“Sue me.”

“Too much trouble,” she replied, her words quiet and lazy. “What time is it anyway?”

“‘Bout ten after five.”

Her heart thumped and she rolled her eyes quickly around the shadowy room. “In the evening, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Good,” she breathed.

“When’d ya’ finally crash?”

“Around three.”

“That ain’t much sleep. Wanna just call me back later when ya’ get up?”

“No…” she grumbled, pushing herself up and swinging her legs over the side of the bed. “Getting up now. My alarm is set to go off in another few minutes anyway.”

Just across from her the heater was blowing, but the room still felt cold. She stood up and padded over to it, then checked the controls. The dial was already set to high; however, lukewarm air was all that seemed to be pushing up from the vent. She positioned herself in front of it anyway, stretching in an attempt to loosen a few kinks.

She turned slowly and allowed the air to blow up across her back as well. It really didn’t help much. After a moment she gave up trying to get warm, wandered over to the door, and flipped the light switch. A soft glow filled the room, but to her it seemed as bright as the sun, so she squinted against the onslaught.

“You still there?” Ben asked.

“Yeah… I’m here…” she replied, her voice still a tired mumble. “Just trying to wake up.”

“You’re pushin’ yourself too hard, hon,” Ben told her. “You really should’ve hit the sack when we got off the phone this mornin’.”

She stretched again, letting out a semi-satisfied groan, then admonished, “Stop being such a mother hen. I had something I had to follow up on. You know how it works.”

“Yeah, I do…” he replied. “But did it get ya’ anywhere?”

She glanced over at her notebook computer. It was in standby mode once again, screen dark and power light slowly winking its amber glow. He had asked her a fair question; however, she honestly didn’t have a solid answer.

“Not sure yet,” she breathed softly as her mind began to wander. “Right now I’m still trying to connect the dots.”

“Prob’ly be easier if ya’ had some more rest.”

She didn’t reply because she had stopped paying attention to him. While still holding the phone to her ear she stepped over to the desk and tapped the computer keyboard. The machine whirred back to life as she watched. A moment later when the display clicked on, the multi-page document was staring back at her. She had saved the unencrypted version to her flash drive as soon as it was done loading this morning, but she found some solace in the fact that the original had not inexplicably disappeared while she slept.

“Yo… Earth ta’ Constance…” Ben finally said.

She mumbled, “What?”

“You fallin’ asleep on me or somethin’?”

“Or something…” she replied quietly, still staring at the embedded photos on the document.

“Wanna share?” he asked.

Her tone remained distant. “No… Not right now.”

“Ya’know, I really think maybe ya’ need ta’ go back ta’ bed.”

She snapped, “How about I rag on you the next time you’re working a case and running on nothing but coffee and cold, three-day-old pizza?”

“Fine, have it your way,” he conceded. “I didn’t call ya’ ta’ have an argument anyway.”

“Sorry,” she sighed. “I know you’re worried about me, but I’m definitely just not in the mood for the mothering, okay?”

“Yeah, I sorta got that,” he sighed, then gingerly added, “Ya’know, just for the record, your mood is kinda why I’m so worried. Ya’ don’t usually get like this.”

“Yeah…” she agreed. “I know.”

“Okay, that’s the last I’m gonna say about it… So listen, I’m callin’ ‘cause I ran your stuff for ya’.”

“Were you able to keep it off the books?”

“Flew as low as I could,” he told her. “I owe an acquaintance out in KC a bottl’a bourbon. The really good shit.”

“For what?”

“Well, it is Christmas Eve ya’know… Gettin’ things done on the sly wasn’t exactly easy.”

“This acquaintance a badge?” she asked.

He snorted. “Trust me, you’re better off not knowin’.”

“Yeah, okay. I get it,” she said, then thought silently to herself, Aren’t we a pair, trying to protect each other… Playing out our own version of the Gift of the Magi.

Ben added, “Oh, by the way, you’re payin’ for the bourbon, just so ya’ know.”

“Am I getting my money’s worth?” she asked.

“Guess it depends,” he told her. “Number one, your buddy the sheriff is damn near a fuckin’ Boy Scout.”

“That good, huh?”

“Yeah. Just about as clean as they come. Did twenty-four years with the KCPD, Missouri by the way… Fifteen of those were as a detective, and ten of those were spent heading up a child predator task force.”

Her mind wandered for a moment to the file attached to the cryptic email and what it had contained, but she decided it would be better to keep the information to herself for the moment. Instead she replied, “Given the history, I can easily see that. Merrie Callahan’s abduction was likely the truly defining moment in his career.”

“No shit… Well, he had a hell of a clearance rate on cases too, so I see what ya’ mean about the whole Sherlock thing. He was directly responsible for putting away a whole lotta seriously sick fucks… On top of that he received several honors…boatload of commendations… Oh, and never fired his service weapon in the line of duty.”

“Lucky bastard…” Constance brea


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thed.

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Ben agreed. “Anyway, married to Kathy Carmichael, three daughters, blah, blah, blah. Normal stuff, nothin’ spectacular. Retired from KCPD, hung out there for a while and did some consulting for the task force, then moved back ta’ Hulis in oh-two. Elected sheriff oh-three in a special election ta’ fill the vacated post, and that’s where he’s been ever since. Re-elected oh-four and oh-eight.”

“Two-Thousand Three was when the first murder occurred,” Constance announced.

“So you thinkin’ it’s him? He’d have the inside info, and he’d know how ta’ cover shit up.”

“Yeah, that’s true…but…no…” she replied, drawing out the word and ending it with a fat pause. “I’ll admit it’s a weird coincidence, that’s for sure.”

“Well, there was one other thing that showed up,” Ben said. “Don’t know if it means anything.”

“What’s that?”

“In oh-four someone from the FBI recommended Sheriff Sherlock be put on administrative leave pending a psych eval.”

“Who?”

“Dunno. Paper trail’s thin as one-ply. Lucky it showed up at all ta’ be honest. Seems that it came outta your office in Saint Louis though.”

“Curious,” she muttered. “Well apparently they didn’t find anything, or he wouldn’t still be sheriff in this county, or anywhere else for that matter.”

“Nope. Nothin’. Passed with flyin’ colors. But ya’know, it still might make ya’ wanna rethink your position on this guy.”

Constance quietly considered his point, then finally said, “No. I just really can’t see it, unless he’s got me completely snowed.”

“Well, don’t turn your back on ‘im, okay?”

“Don’t worry. What else?”

“Well, that’s it for him. There was nothin’ on Merrie Callahan at all. And the only thing I could find on Colson was his record prior ta seventy-five and his time served at Gumbo. Real sick fuck, that one.”

“You won’t get any argument from me,” she replied. “But I already have all that info.”

“Well, then that was a bust.”

“I figured it would be. Just needed to check. What about Reese? Anything?

“Actually, yeah. The pastor is a different story.”

“What did you find?”

“Well, he’s clean as far as an NCIC search…”

“I guess I’m not surprised by that,” she grumbled.

“But like I said, I still managed to dig up somethin’. Just for the hell of it I had a genealogist friend of mine pull a court records search on divorces in Missouri. Took a bit of siftin’ after the fact since I told ‘im to shotgun it so it’d be less conspicuous, but he found your guy,” he explained. There was a quick shuffle of paper at the other end of the line, then he said, “Wanda Corinne Reese versus Edgar Virgil Reese, dissolution of marriage. Filed and final in seventy-seven.”

“Seventy-seven…” Constance expressed her thoughts aloud. “Okay, so based on what I was told his mental breakdown occurred prior to the divorce, so it had to have happened before seventy-seven then…”

“Yeah…well while I was lookin’ I accidentally ran across somethin’ else. Not sure if it’s important or not, but turns out that from seventy-three till early seventy-six, Pastor Edgar Reese was Deputy Sheriff Edgar Reese.”

“You’re right… That is interesting,” she said. “Did he quit or was he fired?”

“There was a hearing, but I couldn’t get details. Might have been a psych eval or somethin’.”

“How early in seventy-six?” Constance asked.

There was a sound of paper rustling as Ben checked his notes. “Says here his service to the citizens of Hulis ended mid-January.”

“That’s not long after the Merrie Callahan abduction.”

“Yeah,” he grunted. “Like I said, don’t know if it means anything, but it seems a little hinky ta’ me. I mean, it’s a small town and he almost had ta’ be involved in the investigation back in seventy-five. If these murders are some kinda copycat, maybe he actually does know somethin’. Hell, maybe he’s actually your guy. Ya’ already know he’s a wingnut.”

Constance thought about the new information for a moment, then brought her free hand up and stared at her nails, remembering Reese’s seeming agitation over them earlier in the day. Still gazing at the disco pink lacquer she breathed, “It definitely makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”

Just under an hour later, Constance was out the door and on her way to the sheriff’s office. Fortunately, at some point while she was sleeping, the lot had been at least partially plowed, so she wasn’t going to be faced with another frigid stroll. Good thing too, because strapping herself into an ice-cold bulletproof vest had been a rude enough awakening as far as she was concerned.

“My life upon this globe, is very brief,” replied the Ghost. “It ends tonight.”

- The Ghost of Christmas Present

CHAPTER 22

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6:38 P.M. – December 24, 2010

Sheriff’s Department

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

“Was wonderin’ when you’d show up,” Sheriff Carmichael said as Constance dragged in through the door of his office and then without a single word parked herself in the straight-backed chair across from him.

He waited while she settled herself, absently inspecting the worn point on the number two pencil he held threaded through his fingers. After a quick frown he tossed it atop the folded newspaper on the desk in front of him, abandoning the crossword puzzle he had been half-heartedly working, and focused his attention on the petite federal agent.

“I left a message for you with Clovis this morning,” she eventually replied, her voice hoarse and emotionless.

“Yeah, she told me.”

“Sorry. I was following up some leads. She said you’d be here anyway.”

He nodded. “Well, that’s true enough… So…leads, huh? I could go for some good news. Find anything you wanna share?”

Constance didn’t answer immediately. The information in the recently cracked electronic document had only served to add a whole new layer of complexity to this case, raising more questions instead of giving answers to those that had already plagued the investigation for years. Since she didn’t know exactly what Carmichael was keeping from her, it seemed prudent to play some things close to the vest for the moment, and the contents of that document were chief among them. However, there definitely was one thing she wanted to discuss with him.

She shook her head. “Nothing solid. Although, I’m a bit curious about Edgar Reese.”

He simply nodded and sighed. “Yeah, I sort of figured you might be. Clovis said you had the annual run in with him this morning.”

“You could say that,” she replied. “He claimed to have information about the murders.”

“Yep,” he nodded, snorting out a chuckle. “I’m sure he did. He’s used that line on every Fed so far. No reason you should be any different.”

“That’s what Clovis was saying. What she didn’t tell me though, was that he was a deputy sheriff here back in seventy-five.”

“I doubt she thought it was important. Truth is, in the grand scheme it really isn’t.”

Her retort was matter-of-fact. “Well, truth is, I’m not sure I agree with that assessment.”

Skip gave her a nod, then adopted his formal tone. “Okay, Special Agent Mandalay, I can see we need to clear this up. So, here you go… Edgar Reese was a deputy sheriff here in nineteen seventy-five. He came on a little more than a year before I did. Now, what else would you like to know?”

“How involved was he in the Colson investigation? For instance, was he ever at the original crime scene?”

“This is a small department, Constance. Wasn’t really all that much bigger then, so to answer your question, yes, he was. We all were. Problem is, Edgar didn’t deal with it so good, and he hasn’t been right in the head since. I’m sure you had to notice that.”

“Of course, but if he-”

“Look,” he interrupted. “Let’s just cut to the chase. I’ve had this conversation more than a few times before, so I’m pretty sure I know where you’re heading with it. Why don’t you let me save us both some trouble… Yes, we’ve looked at him for the murders, and he alibis out.”

“Okay, so what’s his alibi, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Don’t mind at all,” Skip replied. “For the past thirty years, every Christmas Eve, Edgar has driven himself over to Mais and checked himself into the hospital psych ward. That’s where he is now. Matter of fact, I got the call from them about two hours ago.”

“So they call you?”

“Yeah, I asked ‘em to. Just to be sure every year, not that it matters. It’s really more of a peace of mind thing. Anyway, he’ll be there for seventy-two hours, and then he’ll come home, medicated and a little less flaky for a while. Point is, every year he’s pretty much under lock and key until well after the annual murder…”

She shook her head and chewed at her lip for a moment. “Mind if I ask why this wasn’t in any of your reports?”

“Honestly, I figure Edgar’s had it pretty rough what with his breakdown and his marriage falling apart like it did. Not to mention losing his job and becoming the town fool… He makes enough trouble for himself without my help, trust me. I believe you had first hand experience with that this morning.” He shrugged. “I just didn’t want to add to it. Besides, he always comes to you Feds with his claim, not me. I’d say a better question would be, why isn’t it in any of your reports?”

She let out a soft harrumph. “You’re right, Skip. That’s an excellent question. I wish I had an answer for both of us.”

“I hear you,” he replied, then gave her an apologetic look. “Sorry I torpedoed your theory.”

“That’s okay. I guess I really expected you to.” She pursed her lips and stared blankly into space. “He’s a bit too obvious as a suspect for you to have missed him.”

“True,” Skip agreed. He watched her quietly for a moment, then cleared his throat and said, “So…speaking of reports, let me ask you a question: What did Edgar tell you?”

Constance shook her head. “Nothing, really. He insisted on going to my motel room, but when I suggested we come here instead, he became agitated. Then he just rattled off some Bible verses about the devil being among us.”

“Nothing else?”

“No. Why?”

“That’s different…” he mumbled, not answering.

“What is?” Constance pressed.

“Well, the scripture quoting is normal for him, but in the past he’s always explained it to you Feds. You see, he believes Merrie is the embodiment of Satan and that everyone in town is possessed by her.”

“Which explains why he always goes to an outsider.”

“Pretty much.”

Constance curled her fingers in and looked down at her hand. “I wonder if that might also explain why he seemed to really lose it when he saw my manicure.”

“Yeah,” he grunted thoughtfully. “None of your colleagues had that, but just about every woman in town has had a Merrie manicure at one time or another, so it’s a connection he’d definitely make. I expect after seeing one on you, he probably believes that you’re possessed just like the rest of us. Probably also why he didn’t bother to tell you anything more.”

“Do you have any idea where he came up with this notion about her?”

“You mean besides him being crazier than a shithouse rat?” he replied. “It was what she did to Colson with that axe. He came from a pretty strict religious family, so I guess when he snapped, his brain just rationalized things the only way it knew how. Like I said, he didn’t handle what he saw that morning so good. Fact is Sheriff Morton had to send him home before we ever finished processing the scene. After that he was on administrative leave for a while, but he never came back to the job.”

“And he never recovered…” Constance added.

“Not really,” Skip agreed. “From what I hear, he wasn’t so bad for a good while there. When these new murders started though… Well…he kind of went off the deep end all over again.”

“Triggering stressor.”

“Yep. So…got anything else?”

“Like I said, nothing solid.” She gave her head a small shake to punctuate the answer.

“Anything you wanna talk out? I’m happy to be a sounding board if you want.”

“Not just yet.”

“Too bad. I wouldn’t mind hearing a fresh theory or two, believe me.”

Constance sighed, but didn’t say anything in return. Carmichael didn’t seem to have a problem with parceling out information if the right question was asked-or button pushed. Unfortunately, they both knew the information on Edgar was something he should have volunteered at the outset, even if he was trying to protect the reputation of an innocent man with mental problems. The background check Ben had run may have painted him as an exemplary cop and upstanding citizen, but there was definitely something else going on behind that facade. She just hoped her instinct about him was correct and whatever he was hiding had a benign intent and reasonable explanation.

Skip rocked back in his old, wheeled desk chair and brushed his fingers through his mustache as he looked her over. After a thoughtful pause, he rubbed his chin then nodded in her direction. “Since we’re on the subject of Beelzebub, you look like you drove through hell and stopped too long to admire the view, young lady…” Raising an eyebrow he added, “No offense meant, of course.”

“None taken,” she replied. “Honestly, that pretty much sums up exactly how I feel at the moment.”

He tilted forward in the seat and rested his arms on the desk. Peering at her with an expression of fatherly concern, he asked, “You get any sleep at all last night, Constance?”

“Actually, Skip,” she said, pausing for a second before saying, “Not much. I took a nap this afternoon, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d call restful, either.”

“Let me guess: about three?”

“No, let me guess, Sherlock,” she returned, sarcasm thick in her gravelly voice. “The bags under my eyes are just the perfect shade and the creases still in my face from the pillow add up to three or something like that…”

He shook his head, the concern still in his face. “No, sugar, that one was just a guess. Three in the afternoon was right about the time I took my nap thirty-five years ago. Wasn’t a very restful one for me either, as I recall. Bad nightmares. Just looking at you tells me you’re on the same wavelength I was back then… And still am, I guess.”

“Sorry,” she mumbled. “I guess I’m just…”

“Don’t worry about it,” he told her. “It’s Christmas Eve, you’re away from your loved ones, and you’re stuck in the middle of an investigation I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It’s bound to get to you.”

“It’s my job.”

“Doesn’t make it any easier.”

“Not to mention that I’m supposed to remain objective.”

He shook his head and snorted. “You and I both know that doesn’t always happen. Especially with something like this. When a child is involved it changes everything.”

“Except the problem is, this is supposed to be about seven brutal homicides over as many years. Not about Merrie and what happened to her in nineteen seventy-five.”

“Yeah,” he grunted. “Well… You might want to tell that to the killer when you catch up to him because I don’t think he got the memo.”

She sighed. “Yeah… I know.”

Sheriff Carmichael silently regarded the sullen FBI agent for a moment then asked, “You eat yet?”

“This morning.”

“I meant dinner.”

She shook her head. “No. My stomach really isn’t up to it.”

“Yeah, I get that too,” he replied. “But since you’re dead set on sitting in that house all night waiting for this sonofabitch, you’re probably gonna need something to keep you going.”

“I’ll eat tomorrow.”

“Tonight, tomorrow, I don’t care,” he replied. “Either way, my wife fixed you up a care package just in case. It’s not a lot. Just a couple of sandwiches and a thermos of coffee, but I have to say, Kathy does make a mean egg salad sandwich.”

“I appreciate it,” Constance told him. “Please thank her for me.”

“I’ll do that,” he agreed. “So…you want to just sit for a while, or are you ready to head on over?”

“Let’s just go. I’d like to have another look at the basement, and the sooner I’m in place the less chance there is to spook our subject.”

“Your call,” he said with a nod. “Been down this road before. I really doubt it’s going to matter one way or the other. Let me go ahead and put some fresh batteries in a flashlight for you.”

“I’ve got mine, thanks,” she told him.

“Okay, good. Then I’ll just grab you a radio that’s got a full charge on it, then I’ll run you on over there.”

“Oh, just one other thing,” Constance said as he was pushing back from the desk.

“What’s that?”

“I’d like to borrow a hammer if you have one handy.”

C HAPTER 23

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7:57 P.M. – December 24, 2010

632 Evergreen Lane

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

Constance listened closely, but all she heard was a metallic clank meshed tightly together with a dull thud.

She took a sideways step, still holding the tire iron up over her head. Skip didn’t have a hammer as she’d asked, but this would do. She really just needed something she could use to bang on the walls.

She remained quiet, and focused. Cocking her head slightly, she drew her arm back and brought it forward with a measured amount of force. When the business end of the angled metal struck, it sent a jarring vibration down her arm and straight into her shoulder.

Again, clank-thud was all she heard.

She continued working her way downward, tapping slowly but forcefully from the top of the basement wall until she reached the footing. With each strike, the same solid noise filled her ears again and again.

She had already made the full circuit of the subterranean room twice. Deputy Slozar was close on her heels, beaming a powerful flashlight wherever she requested. As they slowly walked the perimeter, Constance had pressed her leather-gloved hand against the rough concrete walls while systematically hammering the metal tire tool at somewhat evenly spaced points, listening intently for any evidence of a hollow echo on the other side. She had paid particular attention to the bricked up coal chute, but even there, all that ever met her ears was a metal ping married to a dense thump. There was no hidden passage behind these walls, only solid earth.

At this point, she was relatively certain that not a single inch of the basement had gone without being fully inspected by sight, sound, and touch. The glass block windows were mortared in, solid and almost fully covered by debris from the outside. The remains of the old furnace were immovable. There was nothing behind them or in them, and the area below the stairs was also free and clear. There was no place to hide, and the only ingress or egress was from the upper floor. The only other thing she could imagine doing was to have a forensics team search the yard around the structure using ground-penetrating radar, but she knew that wasn’t about to happen.

Constance lowered the tire tool carefully to her side then let loose with a heavy sigh. Her breath formed a jet of cloudy frost in the wide beam of the flashlight.

Deputy Slozar cleared her throat and then with a bit of trepidation offered, “This has all been checked before, ma’am.”

Ma’am… Great… Like I don’t already feel old enough at the moment, Constance thought. However, what she said was, “I know it has, Deputy. This is really just to satisfy my own curiosity…”

Several languid seconds passed before the young woman spoke up again. “So…how do you think he does it, ma’am? Gets in without us ever seeing him, I mean…”

“That’s one of the things I’m here to find out,” Constance replied, then looked over at the deputy. The uniformed woman’s face was faintly visible in the unfocused residual glow from the flashlight. Not only did she look painfully young, but at the moment she also looked as though she was bordering on terrified. It was hard for Mandalay to blame her though, given what this house seemed to do to people who spent too much time within its walls. There was also the fact that her own stomach was filled with a healthy swarm of butterflies, but she thought it better to keep that fact to herself.

“How long have you been a deputy for Sheriff Carmichael?” Constance asked.

“Three years, ma’am.”

“So then this isn’t the first time you’ve been through this ordeal with him.”

“No, ma’am, it isn’t.”

Constance gave her a knowing nod and breathed, “But it just never gets any easier, does it?”

“No, ma’am.”

Constance waited a beat, then clucked her tongue and said, “So how do you think he does it, Deputy?”

“Ma’am?”

“I’m asking your opinion. I’m open to theories if you have one.”

“No, ma’am, I don’t,” she replied.

“Then I guess we’re both in the same boat.”

“I suppose so, ma’am.”

Do me a favor, Deputy Slozar,” Constance said. “Stop calling me ma’am.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Constance gave her head a small shake but let the slip go without further comment. Were it not for the gravity of the horrors that had occurred here-and were likely to occur again very soon-the young woman’s unconscious habit would have been almost comical.

Turning, Mandalay began to wander slowly across the basement. The deputy stayed close behind, flashlight aimed forward to illuminate her path. When she reached what she thought was roughly the center, Constance stopped and waited.

“Turn off the flashlight, please,” she instructed.

Confusion and fear were both thick in the young officer’s voice when she stammered her reply. “Off, ma’am?”

“Yes, Deputy. Off,” she said. “And then just stand still if you would.”

The young woman fumbled with the black, metal cylinder for a moment, then the light finally extinguished. Constance listened intently once again, but this time she wasn’t really sure what she was trying to hear.

The first thing she noticed was the whooshing sound of her own blood echoing in her ears as her pulse began to race. Behind that came the thin rasping of her shallow breaths. She stared into the darkness, physically seeing nothing, but in her mind, she allowed it to become the tangle of blue, black, and gray from her nightmare.

While she stood there motionless, the seconds ticked past, turning into a full minute and starting into another. Since there had been no sunshine to speak of over the past two days, the house hadn’t soaked up any warmth. Therefore, even below grade here in the basement, the frostbitten night seeped in with its relentless chill. By all accounts, this was pretty much just how it had been on this same night in nineteen seventy-five. Merrie Callahan had likely spent untold fearful hours down here in the frigid darkness, alone except for that terrible drunken monster who would come down those stairs and brutalize her on his sickening whims. It was a miracle she had survived… A Christmas miracle… As trite as the phrase seemed, Constance couldn’t help but allow it to dominate her thoughts.

She felt an unnatural chill ripple along her spine and wondered silently if it was merely a physiological reaction to the cliche, or if in some bizarre way, Merrie Frances Callahan was here with her right now.

“Talk to me, Merrie…” The words came out of her mouth as an almost involuntary whisper.

Deputy Slozar cleared her throat and muttered an uncomfortable, “Umm, what was that, ma’am?”

Before Constance could answer, Skip’s voice echoed from the doorway above as a tight shaft of light was aimed down the stairs. “Mel? Constance? You two okay down there?”

“We’re fine,” Constance called out, breaking out of her sudden melancholy. “I was just checking something.”

As he descended the top few stairs, the hard sound of the sheriff’s shoe soles against the wooden planks echoed from the basement walls. The noise sent a fresh chill along Mandalay’s backbone and set the swarm of butterflies in her gut to flight.

How many times had Merrie heard that sound and tried to hide from the pain and horror she knew it was bringing? She wondered silently.

A moment later she was bathed in a yellowish swath as Skip crouched down with a grunt and shone his light between the uprights of the wobbly handrail.

“Find something?” he asked.

“No,” Constance replied, shaking her head and squinting against the light. “It’s all clear.”

“Same thing up on the main floor,” he replied, quickly shifting the beam so that it was no longer aimed into their faces. “Johnson’s checking the attic like you asked.”

“Go ahead and turn your flashlight back on,” Constance said to the deputy next to her.

The business end of the cylinder in the woman’s hand blazed to life before the last syllable had tumbled from the FBI agent’s mouth. Slozar’s thumb had probably been pressed tightly against the button the entire time.

“Done down here?” Skip asked.

“Yeah, we’re coming up,” Constance replied.

He swung his own flashlight’s beam toward the bottom of the staircase. “Watch that first one.”

Constance felt a sharp twinge in her bruised shin and said, “Yeah. I remember…”


CONSTANCE aimed her gaze down the hallway, staring along the flashlight’s yellow beam to check the scope of her view. The corridor emptied into a room at the far end of the structure, and the light splashed an amoeba-like puddle on the moderately distant wall. Even through the streaked, multi-year patina of dirt, the glass panes of the old wooden sash window bloomed with shiny glare points as the light struck them. On just the other side of the glass she could make out the wide grain of age-grayed plywood boarding it over from the outside, just like every other window in the house.

Sheriff Carmichael panned the beam back along the hallway. There were two doors on the right side and one on the left. The latter was the one that most concerned Constance, because it opened onto the stairs that took you down into the basement where everything was supposed to happen.

As the sheriff turned his hand, dragging the shaft of light along the wall, an archway was revealed on the right hand side as well. It was much closer to them and led into the front room. The only other way into the house was through the back door, which was here in the kitchen with them.

Unless the killer was a certified genius that had figured out the secret to matter teleportation, he-or she-had no way in or out of the basement without crossing through Constance’s line of sight. That was exactly how she wanted it.

Skip shone the beam around the kitchen then held it so that its glow dimly illuminated them both. With a shake of his head he harrumphed. “Best seat in the house, I guess.”

“Seems to be,” Constance replied.

“You sure you don’t want company? I’m happy to stay, or I can pull Slozar back in with you.”

Constance replied. “No offense, but I don’t think Deputy Slozar has the constitution for this.”

“Yeah,” he grunted. “She’s a good kid, but you’re right. Like I said though, I can stay.”

“I’ll be fine,” she told him.

“You’re sure?” He pressed.

Constance wondered why he seemed so intent on her not being alone in the house but decided not to ask. She had a sneaking suspicion she wouldn’t get a straight answer even if she did pose the question.

“Positive,” she expressed, adding a bit of sternness to her voice. “I’d really prefer you and your deputies keep everything covered from the outside.”

He waited a beat before saying anything, as if he were calculating a different approach. But when he finally spoke-though reluctance was still apparent in his tone-he stopped pushing.

“We always do,” he said. “And we always see the same thing, which is a whole lot of nothing.”

“The killer has to get in here somehow, Skip. So does the victim for that matter.”

“Yeah, that’s true. But I’ve said it before, I’ll be damned if I know how.”

“Hopefully I can figure that out,” she replied.

“Good luck with that,” he grunted. “No offense, but you aren’t the first Fed to say that to me.”

“Well, maybe I’ll be the last.”

He let out a patronizing half-chuckle. “Heard that one before too.”

“You have a better idea?” she snipped.

Skip shook his head. “No, Constance, I don’t. And don’t take what I said personally. I’m just not getting my hopes up. I’ve been let down too many times.”

She softened a bit. “Okay… Well then, it looks like I’m all set. I suppose everyone should get into position.”

“You realize it’s probably not even nine o’clock yet, right?”

Constance pushed back her coat sleeve and checked her watch. “You’re correct, it’s eight thirty-two.”

He snorted. “Okay, have it your way, sugar. But I’ll tell you the same thing I told all the other G-men. You’ve got a long damn night ahead of you. I speak from experience.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“I’m trying to tell you that this is gonna happen whether you sit here all night, or you walk in ten minutes before. Whether you’re quiet as a church mouse, or having a pa


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rty. It always does.”

“I understood what you meant, Skip.”

He looked at her and absently combed his mustache before giving his head a shake. “Yep. Stubborn as all hell, just like my oldest.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Yeah… I kind of meant it that way…” he replied. “Okay… So, you’ve got your radio?”

“Yes,” she said, holding the device up in the light between them. “Already tested. We’ll do an hourly check-in unless something crops up in between. Sound good?”

“Yeah, it might keep you from getting too bored,” he said with a nod. Tilting his hand, he aimed the flashlight beam at the counter beside them and dipped his head toward it. The shaft of illumination fell across a brown paper bag and a gray metal thermos. “It’s not exactly catfish, Nehi, and RC, but there you go.”

“Excuse me… Not exactly what?”

“Yeah, I guess Brother Dave was a little before your time wasn’t he…” Skip said.

“I still don’t follow.”

“Forget it. Bad joke. Either way, what I was trying to say is there are a couple of egg salad sandwiches in the bag, and you’ve got coffee. Should hold you for a while.”

Constance reached over and snatched up the thermos bottle by its handle then held it out to him. “I appreciate the thought, but you’d better just go ahead and take the coffee with you.”

“You don’t want it?”

“Want it, yes, but it’s probably not a good idea,” she told him. “Like you said, it’s going to be a long night, and contrary to your metaphorical observations about me when we first met, I’m not really capable of writing my name in the snow.”

C HAPTER 24

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12:04 A.M. – December 25, 2010

632 Evergreen Lane

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

“Checking in,” Constance whispered. “All clear.”

She was holding the two-way close, with the microphone pickup just inches from her mouth. She knew she was probably being overly cautious, but so be it. There was an old saying about discretion, and while valor might not necessarily play a part in her current situation, in her mind stealth most certainly did.

She released the talk button and heard a quiet chirp, followed by a quick hiss of muted static. She had the volume on the device tweaked barely into the audible range, so she pushed it up closer to her ear and just listened since she was number one on this Hit Parade.

The ordered cascade for the hourly check-in began, and the reports burped from the speaker, just as they had three times before. Status was announced starting with her, then Deputy Johnson, then Deputy Broderick, and ending finally with Sheriff Carmichael. Each of the men outside relayed a message that echoed hers: “All clear.”

Although it was horribly dark, it wasn’t completely pitch-black on the main floor of the house. Not like it seemed in the basement. There were several now noticeable gaps in the boards covering the windows, so a small amount of light was seeping in here and there, coming from the not-too-distant streetlamps positioned along the lane outside. It wasn’t much light at all, but once her eyes had adjusted, it was enough that it allowed Constance to make out shadows and shapes. That was all she really needed to see for the moment. Of course, a pair of night vision goggles would have been nice under the circumstances, but you made do with what you had.

She gently settled the radio onto the counter next to her, close enough that she didn’t have to fumble for it. Then she folded her arms across her chest and cupped her hands around her elbows. Twisting slowly at the waist, first right, then left, she proceeded to tense her muscles then relax them through several slow repetitions as a way of stretching with an economy of movement. The last thing she needed was to stiffen up and get a muscle cramp.

Not quite four hours had passed since Skip had reluctantly left her alone here in the house. She still wasn’t exactly sure why he had seemed so nonplussed about the arrangement, but at least he had finally dropped the subject without too many objections. His pushing had certainly been enough to make her suspicious of his motive at the time, but the more she thought about it, the less she felt it was enough to elevate him to suspect status.

Especially after enduring those first two hours alone.

They had been the worst so far, at least where her nerves were concerned. Sitting by herself in the cold and dark wasn’t a completely new experience. She had worked surveillance under disagreeable conditions before, but the history behind this house wasn’t exactly your garden variety unpleasant. She knew her own imagination was responsible for the majority of the uneasiness, but she couldn’t help the feeling that Merrie had never really left this place. Maybe that was why Skip had wanted her to have company. He had to know those feelings and thoughts himself. After all, he had been dealing with this for far longer than she.

Constance felt a sudden involuntary contraction in the muscles of her jaw and knew immediately what was coming. She reached up with her hand and stifled the wide yawn as it began. While that first two hours might have been the worst on her nerves, each subsequent minute since then had been a bolus of pure boredom injected straight into her veins. Unfortunately, the tedium was building in her system, and that could easily allow her exhaustion to take over. She knew from all-too-recent experience where that could lead.

Shoving her hand into her coat pocket she dug around then pulled out a small plastic bottle of caffeine pills she had tucked in there earlier. She had forgotten about having them until she had set about digging her flashlight from out of the glove compartment of her car and come across the container. Although she kept the stimulant on hand for emergencies, she tended to put it out of her mind because she actually hated using it. Unfortunately, sometimes it was the only option available, and right now seemed to qualify as one of those “sometimes.” She carefully popped the cap on the bottle and held her palm over the opening as she tilted it. If she remembered the directions correctly, one of the caplets should be approximately the same as a strong cup of coffee. Considering how little sleep she’d had, that probably wasn’t enough. By feel, she used her thumb to work two of them into her hand, then went ahead and swallowed both of them just to be safe.

After recapping and stowing the bottle, she pulled out her cell phone. Christmas Eve had come and gone in a town where the holiday was avoided like the plague. That was just one more thing about all of this that didn’t feel right to her, even though she knew it was just her emotions talking. Still, she didn’t have to allow their disdain for the day to stop her from at least acknowledging it.

Cupping one hand over the display, she thumbed the keypad, sparking it to life. It seemed incredibly bright to her under the circumstances, so for a second she found herself almost squinting. She selected Text Message, and then Ben’s cell number. She was keeping her right hand ungloved, just in case she needed to draw her weapon, so with practiced dexterity, by the glow of the display, she rapidly keyed in, “MERRY CHRISTMAS. LOVE YOU, C.”

She chewed on her lip for a moment, staring down at the seemingly brilliant screen while still keeping an ear out for any noises other than the occasional moan of the wind outside, which had been prevalent all along. Her thumb hovered over the send button, gently caressing it then drawing back hesitantly before brushing against it again. After a moment, she shifted the digit over and tapped the back button to erase the words of affection, effectively reducing the message to a simple Christmas greeting with no expectations or strings. Only then did she finally hit SEND.

Constance watched as the display flashed “1 MESSAGE SENT,” then she shoved the cell back into her coat pocket. It was set to silent mode, so she resolved to check it later for a reply. Surely he was still up. He was like a big kid when it came to Christmas.

She noticed a dim afterimage brought on by the relative brightness of the LCD. It remained floating in her sightline no matter where she pointed her gaze. She blinked and then stared off into space, waiting for it to disappear as her eyes readjusted to the negligible illumination making it to the interior of the house. After thirty seconds or so, she was back to seeing blue-black shadows and shapes.

The caffeine pills she had downed would probably be kicking in soon. After all, she had taken them on an empty stomach, which was probably not the best of ideas, but it was sure to get them into her system quickly. She felt a gurgle flutter through her gut as her body made an attempt to inform her of its displeasure with the aforementioned emptiness.

Annoying as it was, Ben had been dead on the mark with his admonishment earlier in the day. She was pushing herself way too hard and ignoring her body when it told her as much. However, there were times when taking yourself beyond the limit was all part of the job. If she could make it through the next several hours, then she would finally be able to give in and let go. Until that time, however, she needed to stay focused on the task at hand, so since she was doing nothing other than playing the waiting game at the moment, heeding her stomach’s call might well be a good choice.

With a quiet sigh, Constance slowly reached over and found the paper bag of sandwiches. Plucking it off the counter she began to carefully unfold the top. Egg salad for Christmas dinner, not exactly her first choice.

Still, she had to admit, at least a sandwich should be easy to eat in the dark, and better yet, it wasn’t that MRE.

CHAPTER 25

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4:47 A.M. – December 25, 2010

632 Evergreen Lane

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

Sheriff Carmichael was correct. His wife did make a good egg salad sandwich. In fact, it was excellent. Constance wasn’t sure if she had reached that conclusion because it really was that superb or because she was starving. She supposed it could be a little of both.

Unfortunately, as good as it was, and even though she had eaten it almost five hours ago, the sandwich was still sitting heavy on her stomach. She knew it wasn’t the sandwich’s fault, of course. Most of the blame had to fall squarely on her growing anxiety. She had been waiting all night, and she knew that contrary to what a horror movie might depict, killing and dismembering someone with an axe wasn’t a trivial process. It wasn’t something that could be accomplished quickly. It required a little time and dedication to the task. Since there were only a few hours of darkness left to go before daybreak, she felt sure something should have happened by now.

What was left of the guilty burden for creating the brick in her stomach surely belonged to the half dozen caffeine pills she’d taken over a better than eight hour span. Of course, the lack of sleep they were working to combat certainly wasn’t helping her situation either, so she was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

More than one, when she really thought about it.

She was still sitting in the dark, perched on the kitchen counter just as she had been since Skip had left her here. After a while, the close-in stretching exercises had ceased to help much. She could almost feel her muscles seizing up, so she had switched tactics. Now, every fifteen minutes or so, she would slowly flex her knees and rotate her ankles, then stretch her arms to her sides and rotate her shoulders in shallow orbits while arching her back. The latter was the hardest part, given the constrictions of her Kevlar vest. At the very least the limited movement was keeping the circulation going. What she desperately wanted to do was stand up, really stretch, bend, twist, and walk around. She had been sitting still for far too long and she needed to loosen up. She was sure a bit of movement would do wonders for her stomach brick as well.

It would warm her up too.

While the house had started out like a deep-freeze, it seemed as though it only became worse as the night wore on. She could feel the prickly fingers of the coldness clawing at her joints with each passing hour. She was chilled all the way to the core, and she imagined that at this point the only things standing between her and hypothermia were the insulated undergarments beneath her layered clothing and coat, the Kevlar vest, and the thick wool socks on her feet.

Yes, moving around would definitely help.

But she had to stop thinking about it. Moving wasn’t an option right now, so dwelling on it just added to the torture. It was almost like having a really bad itch in a place you couldn’t reach.

Definitely, she had to focus her mind elsewhere. No matter what the sheriff had said, she was sticking to the stealth approach, and that meant sit here and moving as little as possible until it became necessary.

Focus, Constance, she thought. Stay on task.

She sent her eyes searching through the blue, black, and gray shadows, reassessing the status for the thousandth time. The back door was still secure; it hadn’t budged. The shadows in the hallway hadn’t changed, which told her the basement door was still closed, just as it had been all night. While the front door was well out of her view even if she had light, she hadn’t heard the hinges even creak, and all reports from the outside indicated the house was still secure. However, it couldn’t stay that way if this murder happened.

And, if and when the killer somehow managed to sneak past the eyes outside without being seen, and he was bold enough to come through the front, back, or even a window, he would still need to pass through the corridor in front of her to get downstairs. She had no intention of being duped, as had apparently been the case in the past. This was ending here, on her watch.

Constance still had the volume on her radio tweaked to just barely above a whisper, but that shouldn’t present an issue. It was still audible as long as it was next to her, and besides, for the most part it was so quiet in the house she could hear her own heart beating in her chest. She doubted she would miss a call if something went down outside.

She slowly lifted her arm, rolled it in close to her stomach, then slid her other hand over and pushed up her coat sleeve. Cupping her hand around her watch, she pressed a finger along the side. The dial instantly illuminated and glowed back at her. There were still a little over ten minutes left before the next radio check. Also, according to the calendar she’d referenced before leaving Skip’s office, sunrise was at 7:17. That meant only about two and one-half hours until it would start getting light out. Not much time. If something was going to happen, it would have to be very soon.

This whole operation was starting to look like a total bust. Of course, to hear Carmichael tell the story it was as if the body parts simply appeared out of nowhere, so for all she knew they were already down there in the basement, arranged and waiting to be found.

No, she thought. I don’t buy that. We must have spooked the killer this time…

She was still staring at the digits on her watch face as they clicked from 4:47 to 4:48.

That was when she heard the whimper.

At first, she wasn’t certain that she’d really heard anything at all. The wind had been making a habit of sighing and moaning whenever it blew through the trees outside. Now and then the radio had quietly popped or chirped from random interference or someone inadvertently keying up outside. She would always listen intently, but so far the events had amounted to nothing.

That’s probably what this was too. Nothing.

When she thought about it, what she had imagined to be a whimper had really been just a single thin peep, barely perceptible in an audible range at all. It could have easily been the tip of a blowing tree branch briefly scratching against the siding of the house. However, she had to admit that it sounded as if it was coming from somewhere inside, not outside. Of course, that was explained easily enough as well. It could have been a complaint coming from the countertop after having to support her weight in one spot for so long.

Still, Constance held her breath and even tried willing her heart to pause so that no other noise could interfere, then she cocked her head and waited to see if she could hear the sound again.

Nothing.

She continued to wait, listening intently to the silence.

When she could no longer hold her breath, she let it out in a slow, quiet stream, then shifted as carefully as she could. The countertop let out a single thin peep as she moved, and she softly sighed a measure of relief. There it was, and there was the source. No reason for alarm.

She settled back into her motionless state and tried to relax. However, that unreachable itch was back, and she was once again feeling a desperate need to move. With the way things seemed to be playing out, she was now starting to consider throwing caution to the wind and going for a complete change of position. Maybe even standing up for a while. Her right butt cheek was actually starting to go numb from the cold, or maybe from the lack of movement. In truth, it was probably a combination of the two.

Her heart was starting to settle from its sudden flutter brought on by the nothing noise. At least something good had come of it. The rush was leaving her feeling momentarily energized, and that wasn’t a bad thing. She drew in a deep breath, and thought about the sound, but more than that, her reaction to it.

“You’re imagining things… ” She mutely chastised herself. “ You’re sleep deprived… You’re hopped up on caffeine pills… You’re …”

The rest of the thought was unceremoniously truncated by an obviously male-sounding voice. However, it spoke no words. Its muted cry entered her ears as nothing more, and nothing less, than a surprised and pained yelp, coming up through the floor from the basement.

The adrenalin dump was instantaneous. Constance felt a hot flush come over her as every muscle in her body tensed. She immediately launched herself from the counter, her feet thudding hard against the floor. Stealth had now ceased to be important.

Her right hand went immediately to her Sig, thumb fluidly catching the quick release on the FLETCH holster as her fingers slipped firmly into position and she filled her hand with the weapon. She brought it up and reached back with her free hand, fumbling for a second before snatching the two-way from the counter.

Keying the radio, she yelled, “Backup! Backup NOW! There’s someone in the house!”

She didn’t wait for a reply. She dropped the radio, and it bounced from the edge of the countertop, then clattered across the floor. She was already in motion while pulling a small flashlight from her coat pocket. With a flick of her thumb it was on. Although her eyes had been adjusted to the dark, the powerful blue-white LED beam was now welcome as it bloomed to life.

Holding it upside down with the business end at the heel of her fist, she brought her left forearm up in front of her chest, projecting the swath of light outward. She rested her right wrist atop the other in a stable firing position, cocking her elbows in close as she aimed her eyes down the sights of her weapon. Advancing out of the kitchen she paused at the archway, glancing right to check the front door, fully expecting Sheriff Carmichael or one of his deputies to come bursting through.

No one did. Not from the front, nor from the back.

“Dammit!” she muttered. Maybe in her haste she hadn’t fully keyed up the radio. She shot a rapid glance over her shoulder at the device lying on the floor, but there was no time to turn around for it and call them again. A weaker, but still audible, gurgling half-scream came up from the floorboards beneath her feet, and it was followed by a sickening, wet sounding thump.

There was another soggy thump and then the ping of metal against concrete.

She needed to get to the basement right now.

Since she was wearing her vest, she prayed that if a deputy or the sheriff came through the door unexpectedly and fired without warning at whatever they saw moving, they’d stick to their training and go for center mass… Or preferably miss her entirely.

Taking the chance, she advanced quickly. In a half-dozen long steps, she moved down the hallway toward the basement door, crossed in front of it, then turned and reached for the doorknob with her left hand while keeping her Sig Sauer poised in firing position with her right. Grasping the round, brass handle with her fingers and thumb while palming the flashlight, she twisted.

It didn’t budge.

She rapidly stuffed the still-illuminated flashlight into her pocket, wrapped her hand fully back around the doorknob, gripping as tightly as she could, and tried again to twist it in either direction. It remained frozen and unyielding.

She suddenly recalled the last time she had been at the butcher shop while they were cutting meat on a block behind the counter and the sound of the cleaver hacking against flesh and bone. Then she remembered the metallic ping she’d created earlier, each time she had hammered the tire iron against concrete. Now, beyond the door, continuing at random intervals, she could hear the dull echoes of a hauntingly similar sickly thump and ping, and she found herself wanting to vomit.

In between it all was a high-pitched whimpering. The screams, however, were now gone.

She shouldered the door in an attempt to break it loose, managing to do little more than send a sharp pain running down her arm and across her back. Rocking backward with everything she could muster, she tried pulling at the door again, but it remained steadfastly in place and the knob still wouldn’t budge.

Stepping back, she braced herself and cocked her knee, driving her foot against the wooden barrier. There was a hard, hollow thump, but no movement at all, save for the jarring vibrations radiating into her joints. She threw another violent kick but met with the same result.

Panting hard, in a last ditch effort she backed up against the opposite wall and brought her sidearm to bear on the jamb where the handset met the frame. Just as she was about to squeeze the trigger, she heard a small shuffle then a quiet thump.

It was a different noise than before-measured and deliberate.

She relaxed her finger and listened.

The noises repeated in tandem. This time the shuffle was followed first by a light but still sharp thunk, then by a quieter and softer thump.

A pause; then they came again…

Another pause, and then shuffle, thunk, thump yet again… Moving audibly closer with each repetition.

Someone was coming up the stairs.

Constance glanced quickly to the right and then slid her back along the wall until she hit the casing around a doorframe. Taking a quick step to the right and then back, she moved into the empty doorway that was diagonally opposite of the basement entryway itself. The basement door should swing out and to her left. Whenever it finally opened, whoever was coming up the stairs would be standing directly in her line of fire.

The slow shuffle continued, followed by the sharp thunk and soft thump. Occasionally the odd rhythm was joined by the barest of a creak from the wooden stairs. Each time, the noises sounded closer, until finally they came to a halt immediately on the opposite side of the basement door. Constance watched on in the darkness, waiting.

Eventually, a slow click and scrape sounded as the old doorknob began to turn.

“FEDERAL AGENT!” She called out, her voice loud but still hoarse and rough. “STEP OUT SLOWLY WITH YOUR HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD! NOW!”

Constance kept her focus straight ahead, looking into the shadows with both eyes targeting down the sights of the Sig Sauer as she held it stiff-armed before her. The latch completely released with a languid pop, and she detected movement as the door itself slowly parted from the jamb.

A wisp of air, colder than the already frigid house, brushed against her cheek, startling in its intensity. Steeling herself, she sucked in a deep breath and repeated her previous instruction.

“STEP OUT SLOWLY WITH YOUR HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD!”

With a long, low creak, the door pivoted open on its hinges. She sucked in another breath and held it, visualizing in her mind the top of the stairwell as it had been when she had ascended it earlier. Leveling her arms in a straight-on isosceles stance, she targeted at a point where she estimated an average-sized man’s chest would be as he came up and through the opening.

Her aim was far too high.

As the door swung wide, she found herself staring at the dark silhouette of a much smaller figure. In fact, it seemed to be the size of a small child. Moving her weapon down and training it on the shadow she barked, “FEDERAL OFFICER! DON’T MOVE!”

The silhouette seemed to obey, remaining frozen in place. Leaving the Sig aimed squarely at the figure, Constance dug her left hand quickly into her pocket, withdrew the still burning flashlight and pointed it at the lower portion of the doorway.

Staring back at her, unblinking in the blue-white brilliance, was a freckle-faced girl of around ten-years-old. Her mop of chestnut hair was tangled and matted. She was smeared with filth, and obvious tracks could be seen where tears had once streamed down her cheeks, but had now gone dry. What she could see of the rest of the child’s bare skin was splattered with blood, bruises, open wounds, and festering cigarette burns. She was partially clad in the ripped shreds of a plaid school uniform.

Constance slowly lowered her weapon as she stared in disbelief, remembering Sheriff Carmichael’s description of Merrie Frances Callahan when he had discovered her on Christmas morning, 1975.

“Merrie?” she whispered.

The little girl continued staring back at her, glassy-eyed and silent. In a very real sense, it seemed that she wasn’t looking at Mandalay as much as she was looking through her. The child swiveled her head slowly from side to side, as if lost and searching for her bearings.

After a moment, in a weak, flat voice she simply said, “I lost one of my shoes.”

Constance looked down and noticed that the girl’s left foot was securely buckled into a patent-leather Mary Jane, but her right was completely bare. The pronouncement the girl had made didn’t seem as though it was directed at anyone. It was more like something said by a person suffering from traumatic shock. An overstatement of the obvious made for no other reason than the fact that it was something to focus upon.

Mandalay blinked hard then looked into the little girl’s face and whispered once again. “Merrie Callahan?”

The girl turned away from her without another word and shuffled slowly up the corridor. Constance stood dumbfounded for a moment as the utter insanity of what she was seeing seeped into her overtired brain.

Mandalay hesitated, following the child with only the flashlight and her eyes as her own state of shock washed over her. She watched silently as the girl turned the corner and disappeared through the archway into the front room.

CHAPTER 26

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Holstering her sidearm and latching the thumb break, Constance stepped into the hallway and followed after the girl. She pressed forward quickly, moving on automatic pilot as she jogged to her left and hooked through the archway. She played the beam of the flashlight around the room, but the child was nowhere to be seen. Directly ahead, the front door of the house was halfway open, allowing more light from the streetlamps to spill inward through the wide crack and mix with the beam of her flashlight.

Constance rushed to the door and pulled it wide. Beyond the opening was the front porch, and beyond that the yard. Near the center of that frozen expanse, the child was trudging forward through the snow, zombie-like but with what seemed a determined purpose.

Constance stepped quickly through the doorway and across the porch. Stumbling in her haste, she tripped her way down the snow-covered front steps, pitching forward in a clumsy fall. As she grasped for the railing to regain her balance, the small flashlight sprang from her hand and tumbled end-over-end through the air. When it came down several feet away, it disappeared into the mantle of white and created a muted glow just inches beneath the surface.

Pulling herself up, Mandalay regained her footing and jumped forward, abandoning the flashlight and taking the last two stairs as one. Then she began making her way through the sno


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w-covered yard, chasing after the child.

“Merrie!” she called to her again, increasing her stride to catch up. When she closed the short distance and came upon the girl, she reached out toward her shoulder.

As her fingers fell the last few inches toward the child, the sound of crunching snow filled her ears, underscoring a shouting male voice. All Constance managed to make out was the word, “NO!”

She was blindsided from the right by what felt like a linebacker slamming into her; and he was moving at as much of a dead run as the thick blanket of white covering the yard would allow. Pain shot through her bruised side as a thick arm roughly hooked about her waist. There was a hard jerk on impact, her head snapped to one side, and she felt herself spinning, which caused her hand to whip back and away from the still moving girl. A split second later all manner of balance had instantly disappeared, and Constance was briefly airborne. Falling hard, she tumbled to the left with a sharp yelp, hitting the ground, but not before landing on top of whoever had just tackled her. She tried to roll away but felt the arm pull tighter, squeezing around her waist like a vise as he yanked her back.

She was pitched onto her back, still partially atop her attacker, the wind knocked from her lungs. She gasped for a breath as his other arm came around just beneath her ribcage, but over the top of her own left forearm, trapping it securely against her side. She felt his hand groping across her stomach, trying to get a hold on her right arm as well. She immediately pulled it away, but for a moment his fingers hooked into her coat sleeve and clenched.

She yanked hard in a desperate tug of war. Fortunately, given the awkward angle at which she was being restrained, she still had enough leverage, so that with a second sharp jerk she was able to break free and pull it out of reach.

The man was trying to talk to her-half-spoken, unintelligible words coming out between panting breaths, but she wasn’t paying attention. Right now she had no interest in hearing his threats; she just needed to get away from him before he could inflict serious damage.

Out of trained reflex, she threw her free arm forward and brought it back down at a sharp angle, summoning all of the strength she could muster out of her shoulder as she rotated it back. Pulling straight in with her forearm she cocked her elbow and drove it hard into her attacker’s stomach. She felt a fleeting moment of satisfaction when a deep, guttural huff exploded into the night immediately behind her right ear. She instantly twisted to the left as his hold on her loosened, but it still wasn’t enough for her to escape.

He pulled her back, pawing at the folds of her coat as he renewed his grip. For the barest of an instant, a stab of panic skewered Constance’s racing heart. If he managed to get his hand on her weapon, she was in trouble. Close quarters hand-to-hand combat wasn’t a problem for her; she knew exactly how to disarm and take down almost any opponent-as long as she was on her feet.

Therein was her weakness.

Once she hit the ground, the game changed drastically, and not in her favor. It was almost like being a turtle that had flipped over onto its back with no way to right itself. She was petite and lacked the upper body strength of a man. That made her susceptible and put her in serious jeopardy. In a prone position like this, a larger opponent-especially a man-would have a weight and strength advantage that was much harder to overcome. In some cases, maybe damn near impossible. As tight as this particular man’s hold seemed to be, her odds were starting to look grim.

She bit back the sudden fear before it could run rampant and take over. She couldn’t afford to give in to it, because once she did, that meant she had lost the fight, and in her mind that wasn’t an option. While he obviously had strength on his side at the moment, she still had some things going for her. For one, he didn’t have the weight advantage-yet. Right now, he was down, and she was on top of him, which put her in a better than average position under the circumstances. Plus, they were wrestling in deep enough snow to slow him a bit and restrict his movement. While balance and agility were no longer her great equalizers, she knew she had to use whatever openings she could find. One of those just happened to be that her attacker had an intrinsic vulnerability she could exploit, and she was already planning to go after it with extreme prejudice.

Twisting to the left she shot her arm out again and curved her back as much as the Kevlar vest would allow, hunching forward as she brought the heel of her fist rocketing down for a groin shot. He must have seen it coming, because she felt her hand connect, but it impacted with a solid thud, far more like a full on blow to his thigh instead of the tender area she had targeted. He still yelped but held firm.

He began kicking and twisting after the first blow, fully recognizing her plan of attack. He rocked to the right, then rolled hard, trying to push her over and pin her down.

She couldn’t allow that to happen, or the fight would be over with her as the loser.

Scissoring her legs and bending her left knee, she dug her foot into the snow and locked it there, pushing back against him as hard as she could, stopping his roll in its tracks. With a quick swivel, she brought her other leg up, over, and down in between his, hooking it over the top of his left knee. Digging the heel of her foot into the snow pack, she rocked forward, bending her chin to her chest and tensing her neck as she grimaced. With a quick thrust she arched her body while throwing her head back, intent on slamming the back of it into his nose. It was a maneuver of last resort, but she was running out of options.

She figured he saw the head butt coming, because she felt him trying to twist. He managed to turn enough to save his nose; however, he was unable to keep her skull from popping hard against his jaw, right at the corner of his chin and mouth.

The strike was solid enough to send a jarring pain through Constance’s own head, but she was expecting as much and had braced for it. Judging from the sound, he had taken the worst of the strike and was hopefully stunned. With that-and the fact that she had his leg pinned, which left his crotch fully exposed-she would be back in the game.

Wasting no time, she quickly raised her free arm and drove her fist downward again. He tried to swivel himself and bring up his other leg to block; however, he was a half-beat behind her rhythm. Her blow glanced from his upper thigh but continued its trajectory. Although with far less force than she intended, this time she hit squarely on her mark.

Even with having been momentarily impeded, the strike still had the desired effect. A pained howl roared out behind her head, and the constricting arm broke away from her waist.

His other arm was still up around her midsection, looser than before, but still pinning her left arm to her side. Bending her right elbow, she cocked her arm in and immediately reached for his hand as it momentarily unclenched. Grabbing the first two fingers she could seize, she rotated her shoulder upward, unlocking her left knee and rolling to the side. The pair of digits bent backward, eliciting a sharp yelp from her attacker, and he released his grip.

Finally free, Constance continued pitching quickly to the left, rolling as best she could through the snow. Twisting her body away from her attacker, she lunged forward; scrambling away and up to her knees, she spun around. He was still down, but she didn’t bother weighing the options of a knee drop to the chest or a throat strike. She simply drew her arm back beneath her coat and wrapped her cold-numbed bare hand around the grip of her weapon.

Throughout the entire skirmish the man had been yelling something at her. Now, more words spilled out of his mouth.

“…SKIP! IT’S SKIP!” the sheriff’s pained and near breathless voice rang in her ears as she came up to her feet with the pistol in hand. The words were punctuated by a tight cough that blended into a groan.

“DAMMIT! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” she shouted, stepping back so that she was well out of his reach in case he decided to lunge at her. Assuming a tight stance, she took square aim.

Ben’s recent words raced through her mind- Don’t turn your back on ‘im, okay? She couldn’t help thinking that she obviously should have paid that advice much more heed.

“Put that damn…thing away…before…someone gets…shot!” Skip panted back at her while struggling to pull himself to his feet.

“STAY DOWN!” Constance shouted.

He continued to right himself.

“DAMMIT SKIP, STAY DOWN!”

He was already on his feet but bent over with his hands on his knees, sucking in labored breaths as he wheezed. “Calm down…” he huffed out between gasps. “Just…calm down…”

“GODDAMMIT, SKIP! DON’T MOVE! STAY RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE!”

“Okay… Okay…” he replied.

“PUT YOUR HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD AND LOCK YOUR FINGERS TOGETHER! NOW!”


With a pained wince Skip complied. He was standing up, not quite doubled over as before, but apparently still in a good bit of pain from the punch to the family jewels. A dark swath of blood smeared his face and chin where her head butt had caused him to bite through his lip.

“Will you just calm down…and put the gun away, Constance?” he groaned, still huffing and puffing but starting to regain his breath. He worked his mouth for a moment, then sputtered as he spat blood out onto the snow.

“What’s going on here?” she demanded. Her voice was still stern and volume slightly elevated, but she was no longer shouting. She threw a quick glance to her left at the little girl who was slowly but steadily increasing the distance between herself and them. She was already to the street and showing no sign of stopping. Throwing a sideways gaze back on Sheriff Carmichael, she called out over her shoulder, “Merrie! Stop!”

She threw another fleeting glance to the left. The child continued on, having trudged across Evergreen Lane as if she hadn’t heard a thing. Still focused on the sheriff and keeping her sidearm trained on him, Constance demanded again, “Dammit, Skip, tell me what the hell is going on here!”

“DROP YOUR WEAPON!” a new voice suddenly came from her right. “NOW, Special Agent Mandalay!”

Constance slowly shifted her eyes and turned her head just enough to see Deputy Broderick. He was only a few feet away with his own weapon trained on her, having come up from a position behind. Apparently, the fact that she was wearing a vest hadn’t escaped him as the muzzle of his pistol was pointed straight at her head. At this distance, unless he was the worst shot on the planet he wasn’t likely to miss.

“You aren’t going to shoot a federal agent,” she said, fully cognizant of the fact that the comment sounded like dialogue from a cheesy movie. It was the kind of thing the main character’s two-dimensional sidekick always said to the villain right before getting riddled with bullets and becoming a martyr to be avenged with rocket launchers and air strikes. But then to Constance the whole past three days had seemed to play out like a bad movie. Why break the streak now?

“Yeah, sugar,” Sheriff Carmichael grunted as he stood up a little straighter and grimaced again. “He will if he has to, but that’s not where any of us want this to go. Just hand over your weapon and we can get on with what needs to be done.”

“I don’t think so,” she barked.

“Dammit, Constance,” he grumbled. “You can have it back in a few minutes. I just need to show you something first.”

“That little girl…” she started.

“I know,” he interrupted her. “That’s exactly what I need to show you. Now if you aren’t gonna hand that thing over, at least holster it, okay? We’re all on the same side here. Nobody needs to be getting shot.”

Constance glanced between Sheriff Carmichael and Deputy Broderick. She was in a stalemate and she knew it, but she wasn’t about to relinquish her weapon. At least he’d offered the second option, but that didn’t fix anything as long as Broderick was pointing his firearm at her. Ben’s words were still echoing through her brain on an endless loop as she searched for a way out of this.

Skip stared back at Constance. Her resolve must have been obvious in her expression because he sighed. “Goddammit you’re stubborn…” He directed his attention to the deputy. “Broderick… Stand down.”

“But, Skip…” the deputy started.

“Stand down,” he repeated, cutting him off.

Deputy Broderick hesitated for a moment, then lowered his weapon and slid it into his belt holster. Constance tossed her gaze back and forth between the two of them.

“Hands behind your head,” she ordered the deputy.

“Do what she says,” Skip told him.

Mandalay divided her attentions between them while he complied.

“There,” Sheriff Carmichael said, directing himself to her. “How about you put yours away too.”

Constance carefully stepped back and turned so that they were both in her line of sight. “Where’s Deputy Johnson?” she demanded.

Skip snorted. “If I had to guess, he’s sitting at a desk back at the office where I sent him about nine last night. Probably has his feet up while he’s drinking a hot cup of coffee,” he replied.

“The office?” she spat. “He was supposed to be watchi-”

He cut her off. “No need in all of us freezing our asses off, young lady.”

“But you were supposed to be watching the outside of the house.”

“We were. Did you see anyone come in?”

“That’s not the-”

“Dammit, Constance,” he retorted, cutting her off again. “Just put your damn pistol away and I’ll give you whatever answers I have. I promise.”

She mulled it over, staring back at both of them as a rising surge of wind whipped her hair around her face. It moaned dolefully through the trees before tapering off to nothing.

“Why should I believe that? You haven’t exactly been forthcoming with me so far.”

“I think you just saw my reason for that.”

She continued to stare at him but didn’t reply.

After several heartbeats he appealed, “We really don’t have a whole lot of time. Merrie is going to be waiting.”

Every ounce of training Constance had told her to cuff them both, then call the Missouri Highway Patrol for backup, then her SAC, and then just sit on this until it could all be sorted out. She’d been lied to, physically attacked, and on the wrong end of a gun, and those were just the high points. She was sure there could be plenty more charges filed without even cracking the spine on a law book.

But that was her training. Her instinct was telling her something completely different. It was being entirely contradictory, and she couldn’t follow both of them. Not simultaneously. She had to make a choice between brain and gut. She knew it was a coin toss. She also knew there was much more at stake than who got the ball.

Going with her brain would be the safe bet. But then there was that little girl, trudging half-dressed through the snow, and somehow she knew that’s what this was really all about. Following her gut might well be the option that would bring some sense to all of this.

“Constance, if you want answers, put the gun away. But I’m telling you now, I don’t have time for this. No matter what, in about one minute I’m going to walk to my car and go do what I have to do. You can either come with me, or you can shoot me. Honestly, I’m kinda hoping for option number one.”

“What is it you have to do, Skip?”

“Come with me and you’ll see.”

She stared back at him and sighed. This was crazy. She needed to just arrest him and his deputy and be done with it. That would be proper procedure. Then again, it would have also been proper procedure for the bureau to send her up here with backup and a complete file on this case to begin with. There was nothing SOP about any of this.

“I must be insane…” she finally muttered.

Against her better judgment, Constance slowly and carefully held her arms out to the sides and then just as carefully slipped the Sig Sauer back into her belt rig.

“That’s better,” the sheriff grunted, lowering his hands and touching his fingertips to his bloody lip, then pulling them away and giving them a quick inspection. “Lovely,” he mumbled, then looked at her and asked. “How’s your head?”

“It hurts like hell,” Constance said, looking at him in earnest. “Tell me what’s going on, Skip…”

He pointed off in the direction the little girl had gone. She looked and saw the trail through the snow, but no sign of Merrie.

“I should probably just show you,” he said, then started ambling across the yard toward the street. There was an obvious pained hitch in his gait. As he passed her he added, “Come on. My car is just around the corner.”


THREE blocks from the house on Evergreen Lane, Sheriff Carmichael lazily cranked the steering wheel and brought the cruiser into a wide arc around the corner. He and Constance had been riding in relative silence for the small handful of minutes it had taken to traverse the distance, neither of them speaking a word. The only real sounds to join them were the tires against snowy pavement and the drone of warm air pushing out of the vents.

The heat felt good to Constance. Although both the tense excitement and the physical altercation had set her blood moving, she still felt frozen to the core. Too much time immobile in that deep-freeze of a house had taken a toll.

While she had brushed off before climbing into the cruiser, she hadn’t been able to free herself of all the snow she had picked up while rolling about on the ground. Now, here in the warmth of the car, it was melting. Her hair was damp, even downright wet in some spots. So were the knees and seat of her jeans. She desperately wanted to strip down and soak in a hot bath. She especially wanted to get out of the Kevlar vest. But neither of those things would be happening anytime soon, and she knew it.

Skip finally broke the silence. “Almost there.”

Spinning the steering wheel, he took the cruiser through another languid turn. As he straightened the vehicle and continued rolling forward, the headlights fell in a bright swath across a small figure standing motionless in the middle of the street. He slowed more and angled off to the side. Eventually they came to a halt next to the curb several yards in front of the little girl.

He cranked the shift lever into park and then flipped on the light bar. A swath of red and blue flickered into the night, falling across the still motionless figure standing in the street. Each strobe highlighted the blood, dirt, and wounds that marred her. Carmichael reached to the dash and poked a button. A clunk sounded behind them as the trunk release popped.

With a quick glance at the digital clock on the console he grunted, “We’re running a bit late.”

“What do you mean?” Constance asked.

“I don’t have much by way of an explanation,” he said, looking over at her. “I just know that this is exactly where I found her in nineteen seventy-five. And it’s where I’ve found her every Christmas morning for the past eight years. But I’m usually here a bit earlier. It’s better that way.”

“Why?”

“She doesn’t have much time.”

“What’s happening here?” Constance whispered.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I’ve been hopin’ for eight years now that someone could tell me… ” He paused for a moment, then said, “You can get out if you want, but stay next to the car. Don’t go near her. I’m serious.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s my responsibility. That’s all I have time to explain right now.”

With that, he climbed out of the vehicle and walked around to the back where he lifted the trunk lid. A moment later he slammed it closed and trundled back around, a blanket tucked under his arm.

Constance popped her door and stepped out onto the street after he had passed. Questions were dancing on the end of her tongue, but when she opened her mouth, the music stopped and she couldn’t seem to give them voice. Instead she wandered a few steps forward and stood next to the front of the cruiser as she’d been instructed, watching as Sheriff Carmichael knelt down on the snowy pavement and wrapped the blanket around the little girl. The child continued to stare blankly into space as he bundled her in the thick fabric. Hooking his arms around and hugging her close so that her head lay against his shoulder, he hefted her up, then stood. The weariness of both age and exhaustion were apparent in his struggle as he rose to his feet. The lingering pain of Constance’s hammer-handed punch was still showing in his gait as he turned and began walking back to the car.

Constance could see his lips moving as he drew closer. She swiveled slowly in place, following him with her bewildered gaze as he headed toward the back door of the cruiser. She was finally able to hear what he was saying as he trundled past her. He was whispering, voice cracking with the repressed emotion of an old wound, freshly opened.

“It’s okay, Merrie,” he soothed. “You’re safe now, sweetheart. You’re safe… He can’t hurt you anymore… I promise…”

C HAPTER 27

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Constance reached up and absently pushed a damp shock of hair from her face while she stared out the windshield of the police cruiser. Her eyes were burning as the warm air from the vent caused them to dry, but she couldn’t stop staring. The faint reflection of a disheveled woman gazed back at her from the inside of the glass. It looked horrifyingly old.

She forced herself to blink then looked beyond the slanted glass. The snowy landscape ahead loomed in the headlights as they rolled along the street. However, as with each time before when she would try to stay focused on a distant point, whatever she locked onto would grow to fill the window, then slip past and disappear into their wake. Her eyes would always come back to the unpleasant reflection.

She closed her eyes and allowed her head to drift forward, dropping her chin against her chest. Reaching up with both hands, she massaged her scalp through tangles of damp hair.

She was somewhere in the early stages of an annoying headache. At first she assumed it was a product of the head butt she’d delivered, especially since there was a fresh knot on the back of her scalp, courtesy of Skip’s chin. While that had probably been partially responsible, the epicenter seemed to be a dull ache radiating through her ears and into her temples. It took some time for her to realize that her jaw was tightly clenched, and she was grinding her teeth-a side effect of too many caffeine pills mixed with the jitters that always followed an adrenalin dump from hell.

She forced herself to open her mouth, then took in a deep breath and tried to relax, but it was an exercise in futility. There was no way she could relax while her mind was still racing. Unfortunately, since it had no idea where it was racing to, it was doing little more than following itself around in a confusing circle, looking for an off ramp that didn’t seem to exist.

She needed a drink. Maybe two. Followed by twenty-four hours of uninterrupted sleep. Better yet, she needed someone to tell her that this was all just an exceptionally vivid nightmare and that she would be waking up very soon.

Constance puffed out her cheeks with a heavy sigh and dropped her arms back to her sides. Then she pushed herself up in the seat and started turning around to check on the little girl in the back. She’d lost count of how many times she had turned to look at her. She wondered silently how much of it was to check on the girl’s well being and how much was simply to see if she was really there.

Skip threw an understanding glance at her, just as he’d done each time before when she’d twisted around to look upon the girl. She gazed back at him for a moment, but said nothing. Right now, there didn’t seem to be any words that would make sense.

She shifted some more and completed her turn in the seat. Although it was dark in the back of the vehicle, there was enough ambient light for her to see. What met her eyes was pitiful and heartbreaking. It would have been so even if she didn’t know the circumstances behind it.

Better than fifteen minutes had passed since they had picked up the little girl, but almost nothing about her had changed.

She was still mute, and unmoving.

Although she absolutely had to be chilled all the way to the bone, she didn’t shiver. She didn’t tremble. She didn’t huddle into the blanket. She didn’t even cry. She simply sat there, her only visible movement being that which was forced upon her slight form by the jostling of the vehicle as it bumped along the road.

Her expression had remained constant as well, in that she really bore no expression at all. Her face was slack, relaxed in a way that reminded Constance of death. That morbid thought was bolstered by the fact that the child’s pallor was ashen, almost devoid of any color behind the smears of blood and dirt.

And that was the one thing that had changed. In fact, she seemed to be graying more with each passing minute.

Her eyes were unblinking as she gazed straight ahead from behind matted clumps of chestnut hair that had fallen across her sallow face. The glassy stare was the same one she’d worn inside the house. What Merrie saw with those eyes was something that only she knew, but Constance doubted it was anything good. She was also convinced that whatever it was, it lay somewhere beyond the confines of this world. She found herself wishing Rowan were here. This sort of thing was his forte. The seemingly fantastic and the paranormal were where his expertise dwelled. Even if it didn’t make sense to everyone else, he always seemed to accept it for what it was and find a way to deal with it.

She desperately needed a way to deal with this.

Mandalay felt the vehicle starting to slow and then yaw a bit as it started into a turn. She braced herself and tossed a quick glance at Sheriff Carmichael, then twisted back around in her own seat and looked out through the windshield once again. For a brief instant, the sign for the Holly-Oak Assisted Living facility was framed in the headlights, then it quickly slipped sideways into the darkness as they turned into the entrance.

“Shouldn’t we be taking her to a hospital?” she asked.

“No,” Skip replied.

“But…”

“Trust me. I’ve been down this road before.”

Skip drove around to the back of the building, made a tight circle through the empty lot in order to turn around, and then pulled up close to the back door. As the vehicle rolled to a stop, flood lamps above the rear entrance sprang to life, spilling their brilliance outward and casting the passenger side of the cruiser in a stark light. After cranking the shift lever into park, Carmichael switched off the engine and dragged himself out from behind the wheel.

Before swinging the driver’s side door shut, he peered back in through the opening at Constance and said, “Get Merrie’s door for me, will you…”

Constance glanced quickly back over her shoulder at Merrie, then shouldered her own door open and climbed out into the cold wind. By the time she had levered it back closed, Skip had come around to her side, so she pulled the cruiser’s rear door open for him.

“We’re home,” he said to the girl as he pushed his frame in through the opening.

After unbuckling the seatbelt, he wrapped the loose folds of the blanket tighter, taking care to make sure Merrie was protected from the cold. Slipping his arms around her, he lifted up and carefully maneuvered her small form out of the seat.

Constance heard a sudden creak of hinges behind them and turned to see Martha pushing open the back door of the building. The woman shot her a curious look and then raised an eyebrow as if seeing her was a surprise, but other than that she seemed as if she had been waiting for them. A second later she turned and directed herself to the sheriff.

Pushing her voice up a notch to be heard above the sigh of the rising wind, Martha asked, “Is everything okay, Skip?”

“Okay as it ever is,” he called out as he turned. Hugging the bundled child close, he looked at Constance and dipped his head toward the open doorway. “Follow me.”

“Good God, Skip!” Martha exclaimed when the light fell across his swollen lip and blood-smeared chin. “What happened to you?”

As he hastened past her into the building he replied, “Nothing to worry about. Just got my ass handed to me is all.”

“You’re getting too old for this, Addison Carmichael,” she chastised.

“We all are, Martha,” he called back over his shoulder. “We all are.”

Constance followed him through the opening, with Martha bringing up the rear for the moment. Once she had latched the back door, she quickly skirted around them, running ahead and opening the other doors in their path, leading them along short, dimly lit hallways until they finally arrived at “Merrie’s Room.”

“I was starting to worry,” Martha expressed in a hushed voice, carefully opening the door a crack. “You’re running late.”

“I know,” S


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kip replied, whispering. “Couldn’t be helped. But there should still be time.”

Martha pushed the door inward to reveal the same room they had visited three days ago. It was dark now, except for a dim puddle being cast outward by a small lamp resting atop the nightstand. The adult Merrie Callahan was tucked into the bed, her slackened face bathed in the soft glow.

“You two must be frozen solid,” Martha whispered. “I’ll go start some coffee…” Then she turned and disappeared up the corridor.

Skip looked at Constance and said, “Wait right here.” Then he shifted the blanket-wrapped girl farther up onto his shoulder to adjust his grip on her as he walked through the opening and into the room.

Just over twenty minutes had elapsed since they had picked up the little girl from the middle of the road, and still nothing made sense. Constance watched on in a shocked stupor from the doorway as the sheriff stooped over and carefully laid the ten-year-old Merrie Frances Callahan on the bed next to her catatonic adult self. He gently unwrapped the cocoon, revealing the girl. Her skin was now the ghostly gray-white of a corpse. Working with both tenderness and haste, Carmichael lifted the child’s hand and placed it against the woman’s. Slowly, both of their hands moved, intertwining with one another, though there was no other sign of consciousness from either of them.

Skip stood beside the pair for a moment, watching quietly. Finally, he kissed his fingertips and gently touched them to the little girl’s forehead, then to the older Merrie’s cheek.

When he walked out, he ushered Constance ahead then pulled the door shut behind him.

With a sigh he said, “All right, Special Agent Mandalay. Much as it pains me, I believe we still have a crime scene to process.”

“What…” she started, stammered, and then started again. “What just happened here, Sheriff Carmichael?”

He reached up and brushed his thumb and forefinger through his mustache while gazing in the general direction of the floor. His shoulders drooped as he allowed a long, low breath to escape. He swallowed hard, then looked up at Constance and shook his head.

“I don’t honestly know,” he said. “I don’t have any answers and that’s the truth. All I can tell you is that as of tonight it’s been happening for eight years now.”

“That little girl is actually Merrie Callahan?” she pressed.

He nodded. “Yes…or maybe her soul… I just know she’s part of Merrie.”

Constance rubbed her eyes and then pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger as she leaned back against the wall. “This is surreal…” she breathed.

“Yeah…it’s a bit much to take in.”

“Uh-huh…even for me and I’ve seen some things.”

“Anything like this?”

“Not exactly, but pretty close on the bizarre meter.”

“I have to admit, you’re the first Fed to tell me that one.”

“Why all the deception?” she asked. “Why didn’t you just tell me about all of this right from the outset?”

Skip raised an eyebrow. “You wouldn’t have believed me if I had.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Maybe not, but I’d say it’s a pretty good guess,” he replied. “Hell, sometimes I’m not sure I believe it myself.”

“So…” she said. “It’s some kind of test?”

“I guess that really depends on how you look at it. Believe me, I tried the truth with the first Fed. It ended up being more trouble than it was worth.”

“How so?”

“Well, on the first murder in oh-three I didn’t even call. We hadn’t put the pieces together yet, and besides, when I found Merrie standing in the street just like she had been in seventy-five, I wasn’t all that sure that I hadn’t lost my damn mind.”

Constance shook her head. “How did you manage to find her in oh-three anyway?”

Skip shrugged. “Dumb luck, just like seventy-five. Why I even turned down that street I have no idea. Maybe it was some sort of divine intervention, who knows? Either way, I did, and there she was. I honestly thought I was hallucinating. But…as you can see, I wasn’t.”

“Unless we both are…” Constance offered quietly.

“Sometimes I wish that was true,” he replied.

“How did you know to bring her here to Holly-Oak?” Constance asked.

“I didn’t.” He shook his head, voice tinged with sadness. “That ended up being a very bad year for Merrie. We actually thought we were going to lose her.”

“What happened to the little girl?”

“That’s a good part of why I thought I was hallucinating,” he explained. “She disappeared.”

“Disappeared how?”

“I mean she vanished. It was like she was never there. No trace. Anyway, then in oh-four when I called after receiving the same Christmas card as before, we had an Agent by the name of Graham show up. During the interview to get him up to speed, I told him about finding Merrie and such. All of it… The bare naked truth, every bit… Right then and there he decided I was either insane or covering something up. To be honest, after what happened in oh-three I was almost inclined to believe him on the insane part.

“Either way, because of all that I went right to the top of his suspect list. We sat in my office the whole night Christmas Eve, and on into the morning Christmas Day, with him profiling me. Once we got the call he headed straight to the scene, but I made a detour… As crazy as it seemed, I had to go look. And…as I’m sure you can guess, I found Merrie again.”

Constance offered a matter-of-fact observation. “And that’s when you brought her here for the first time.”

“Yeah,” he said with a shallow nod. “Still don’t know what made me do it, but obviously it was the right thing.”

Skip paused for a moment, then shrugged and continued relating the history. “Then, in oh-five when I got another card, I called again. Graham showed up and turns out I was still his prime suspect. He just figured I had an accomplice. He beat that horse to death for a while then finally gave up. At that point he was just convinced that I was a head-case. Insisted I be evaluated by a shrink. That was a mess.

“Then, oh-six rolled around. Another card, another call, and he was back again, but that time he staked out the house with us and saw everything first hand, including Merrie coming out the front door. He didn’t handle that so well. In fact, he left town before we ever started processing the scene, and that’s the last time we ever saw him around here. After that, I stopped calling you Feds. Sorta figured I was on my own with this. Kind of like my own private hell, I guess.”

“So you haven’t contacted the bureau for help on this case since two-thousand six?”

“Nope. Hasn’t stopped any of you from showing up though, regular as clockwork. It’s just been a new face every year. Either way, ever since the first unsolicited visit in oh-seven I’ve kept my mouth shut and just let you all see it first hand for yourselves.” He shook his head. “Of course, don’t know that it’s worked any better that way either.”

Constance mulled over what he had just said. Her tired brain was having enough trouble processing everything she had seen tonight, and these latest revelations definitely were not helping her to make sense of the situation. As if there weren’t enough curiosities about this case already, the fact that the SAC had implied that the assignment came out of DC was even more intriguing now.

After a moment she offered, “I’m not really sure what to say about all that, Skip…”

“I suppose there’s not much you can,” he grunted. “Just so you realize that the lack of up-front information on my part wasn’t anything personal against you. Seeing is believing, I guess… Don’t know what to tell you about the lack of support at your end, other than join the club… I haven’t been getting any either.”

“Yeah… I’m not exactly clear on that myself,” she admitted.

Skip suppressed a snort, then nodded. “I hear you… Well… I’ll say this much, Special Agent Mandalay, you’re different.”

“What do you mean?”

“After what you’ve seen and learned in the past hour, you’re still here. I can’t say the same was ever true for most of your colleagues.”

Constance paused, still digesting the influx of bizarre data. Eventually she blew out a heavy sigh and looked at Sheriff Carmichael. “So, what now?”

“We grab some coffee and go process a crime scene,” he replied, then bobbed his head toward the door next to them. “In about two hours Merrie will wake up just like usual, and for her, it’ll be Christmas Day nineteen seventy-four all over again.”

“Which one of them, Sheriff?” she asked.

“There’s only one Merrie, Constance.”

“But you just-”

He cut her off. “I know.”

She cocked her head and blinked. “And all of the other Merries?”

“Trust me, Special Agent Mandalay. There’s only one Merrie Frances Callahan.”

CHAPTER 28

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6:17 A.M. – December 25, 2010

632 Evergreen Lane

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

QUIET is a relative term, especially at 6 A.M. on Christmas morning. Constance was certain, however, that no matter the day, the hour, or the point of reference used to define the concept of relative quiet, the portable generator parked outside the abandoned house on Evergreen Lane didn’t qualify as such-even though the words Super-Quiet were emblazoned on the side right next to the manufacturer’s logo.

The pulsing thrum of the running engine was spilling into the frosty air in competition with the moan of the wind through the trees. The incessant staccato popping of the exhaust was being carried aloft on the undulating breeze, and together they were most assuredly splitting what little calm remained of the pre-dawn darkness. The melange of noise wasn’t helping Constance’s headache either, nor were the extra-strength aspirin Martha had given her back at Holly-Oak. At this point, the only thing that would do her any good would be sleep, but that was a prescription she couldn’t fill just yet.

She followed the ropes of multi-colored, heavy-duty extension cords that snaked away from the generator and across the porch, running in through the front door. Inside, the harsh glow of a halogen work light illuminated the way through the front room. A second of the adjustable lamps was positioned farther inward to light the hallway.

The bulk of the cords continued along the floor of the main room until they bent sharply into the corridor at the archway and angled across its length. After running diagonally across the floor for several feet, they hooked to the left and disappeared through the open basement doorway-a twisted green, orange, and yellow stripe that marked an obvious path toward the remnants of horror that waited below.

The tight bundle of electrical cords ran down the stairs-carefully arranged, safely out of the way-against the uprights that supported the handrail. At the bottom they spilled out across the concrete floor in a bright pile of coils before shooting off in a spindly fan, each ending in its own caged, halogen work lamp.

Constance lowered herself down from the double-height step at the bottom of the staircase and then tiptoed gingerly around the pile of cables. To her back, the basement was still bathed in oblique shadows, illuminated only by residual glow. But in front of her, beyond the semicircle of tripod-mounted lamps, a man-made sun had risen. Even during the day, there hadn’t been anywhere near this amount of light filling the subterranean room, but then again, during the day there had only been rough outlines to see. Now those outlines were grotesquely filled in.

Deputy Broderick was facing away from the spotlighted carnage, hands buried deep in his coat pockets. His face was harshly shadowed due to the angle at which he was standing. The reflected wash of brilliance from the nearest lamp fell in an oblique swath across him, and what little of his face it revealed was sickeningly pale.

He looked up at Constance and nodded. After a moment he said, “Sorry about…you know…earlier.”

She returned the nod. “Yeah. Me too.”

They stood staring at one another for several heartbeats until the awkward silence became too deafening to endure.

Broderick gave in first. Lolling his head to the side and angling it toward the dismembered victim, he offered in a quiet voice, “Fourth Christmas for me. Wish it would get easier… You know… Seeing it and all…”

“No,” Constance replied without hesitation. “Trust me, Deputy; you really don’t.”

He appeared to frown then gave a shallow nod in response to her statement. A second later a fresh pair of footsteps began to echo from the stairs, and the sullen officer cast his flat expression upward toward the source.

“Martin called,” Broderick announced as Sheriff Carmichael came into view and continued down the staircase. “He’s having trouble getting the hearse to turn over this morning, so he’s running behind.”

“Yeah,” Skip replied, stepping off the bottom precipice with a grunt. “I just got off the radio with Johnson. He told me.” Hitching up his belt, he picked his way through the tangle of electrical wires and drew himself up next to Mandalay.

“Is Martin your County Coroner?” Constance asked.

“Yeah,” he grunted. “Martin Hornbeak. He owns the funeral home here in town too.”

She acknowledged with a nod.

The sheriff sucked in a deep breath then blew it out in a loud huff, as if to state unequivocally for the record just exactly how they all were feeling. After a long measure with nothing more than the muffled drone of the generator outside to fill the space, he grumbled, “Deja goddamn vu… Every year… Every goddamn year…”

“Do you have a Crime Scene Unit on the way?” Constance asked.

“You’re looking at it,” he snorted. “We could process this scene in our sleep.”

“I’m not doubting you, Skip,” she replied. “But have you considered calling in outside investigators? Maybe from the MHP Crime Lab?”

“Sure,” he told her. “But not for a few years now.”

“Why not?”

“They’ve made it clear that they prefer to leave this one alone,” he explained.

“Why?

“Hold that thought,” Carmichael said, then turned his gaze toward the deputy. “You take the pictures yet?”

“Yeah,” Broderick replied. “Same as last year.”

“And the year before; yeah, I know,” Skip grunted. “Bag the axe?”

The deputy nodded. “Yeah. Bagged and tagged. Whiskey bottle too. Just waiting on Martin to show up for the remains. I’ll take prints and do a DNA swab over there. Called Doc Harper too. She said to let her know if Special Agent Mandalay wants an official autopsy, otherwise just have Martin sign off on the death certificate as usual.”

After a pause the sheriff asked, “Did you check…?”

He purposely left the half-asked question dangling in the air. While not fully spoken, it seemed that between the two of them it was implicitly understood.

“Yeah,” Broderick replied. “Same as always.”

“Good,” the sheriff replied with an approving nod. “Give Constance a glove.”

Broderick dug around in his coat pocket, then produced a latex glove and handed it over to Mandalay.

“You still haven’t answered my question, Skip…” she said.

“I know, but I’m about to,” Skip told her and indicated for her to follow as he started across the basement. “Go ahead and put the glove on. I need to show you something.”

She followed along behind him, stretching the sheath over her hand and working it onto her fingers as they stepped out in front of the arc of halogen work lights. Their shadows fell against the far wall in harsh, misshapen silhouettes. After skirting around the congealed pools of rusting blood, which were already showing the first-stage signs of freezing to the floor, they stopped amid the scattered remains of the butchered victim.

“Have a look,” Skip said, pointing at the severed head a few feet away.

Constance furrowed her brow at the sheriff. She had worked far too many cases involving violent death to be squeamish as a rule, so she wasn’t exactly a lightweight when it came to crime scenes. However, the egg salad sandwich was still lodged sideways in her gut, and her headache wasn’t helping either. Getting up close and personal with a dismembered corpse wasn’t exactly high on her priority list.

Still, after a moment’s hesitation, she stepped forward, then gathered her coat and squatted down in front of the disembodied head. She tilted her gaze, inspecting the grotesque tableau.

“What am I looking for?” she finally asked.

“You can move it,” the sheriff answered. “Get yourself a better look.”

Somewhat reluctantly but with great care, Constance reached out with her gloved hand and carefully rolled the head up to fully reveal the face. The victim’s expression was flaccid, mouth open, eyes half-lidded and staring lifelessly back into hers. Blood bathed the chin and most of the face, as well as the ragged portion of the neck that was still attached. A deep gash ran from the cheekbone just below his left eye, down across the jaw, revealing raw muscle and crushed bone. It had apparently been a wild strike from the blade of the axe-not unexpected given the circumstances.

However, even with the severe marring and excessive blood, the features were intact and distinct. The image of a mug shot filled Constance’s already overtaxed brain.

After a prolonged hush, with the petite federal agent motionless and staring at the severed head, Skip cleared his throat.

“Recognize him at all?” he finally asked.

A heartbeat later Constance replied, her voice flat and soft but clearly audible in the still basement. “It’s John Horace Colson…”

“Yeah,” Skip grunted. “The sonofabitch hasn’t changed a bit. Not bad for a guy that’s been dead for thirty-five years.”

CHAPTER 29

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7:53 P.M. – December 25, 2010

Highland County Regional Hospital

Psychiatric Wing

Mais – Northern Missouri

Twinkling lights chased each other in a tightening upward spiral with ever-increasing speed, dancing briefly on the tips of lightly flocked green plastic branches. The miniature glimmers of color reflected wildly from glass ornaments that dangled as shiny obstacles in their paths. Finally, the racing points of brilliance reached an ornate silver-trimmed starburst at the top, and its own hidden cluster of tiny bulbs sprang to life in a radiating display of commercialized holiday cheer.

Constance quietly watched the flickering decorations on the Christmas tree as the strands of lights rolled through a half-dozen differing patterns before going dark for a moment and then starting the sequence from the beginning once again. As the chase began anew, she turned her face away from the animated distraction, lazily uncrossed her legs, and then leaned forward in the molded plastic waiting room chair. She pursed her lips then arched them into a hard frown as she hunched over and rested her forearms atop her knees. Staring downward, she thumbed a button to illuminate the screen of the cell phone she held cradled in her hands. She’d been sitting here waiting for almost twenty-five minutes now. Any other time she would already be well on her way to annoyed, but not this evening. She was willing to wait as long as necessary.

Somewhat more than twelve hours ago, sleep had finally come screaming at her with the throttle wide open and no brakes to speak of. She had seen it coming and her only course of action at that point had been to brace herself and let it happen, so that was exactly what she did. No sooner had she returned to her motel room from the crime scene than the exhaustion struck head on and the pillow came rushing into her face like a deploying airbag. Fortunately, she had just enough time to extract herself from the Kevlar and get undressed before impact.

After that she didn’t remember much of anything. All she knew was that according to the clock, she had spent slightly more than nine hours horizontal and for a change, she’d been blissfully unconscious and devoid of the terrors that had been plaguing her previous attempts at sleep. Beneficial as that was, it still simply wasn’t enough. While the restful slumber had definitely taken the edge off, she needed much more.

Unfortunately, she was well aware that more sleep wouldn’t fix the other problem at hand. She could have sacked out for three days straight and still would have awakened to the realization that none of what had transpired in the early hours of the morning was a dream. It was most definitely a nightmare-of that much she was certain-but it wasn’t the kind that went away when you opened your eyes. That point was driven firmly home when she awoke to find a text message impatiently waiting on her chirping cell phone.

And now, here she was in Mais, hoping to fit a few more pieces of the puzzle into place.

She yawned, then allowed herself a tired sigh and closed her eyes. Even though she kept herself in excellent shape, she had dealt out some serious self-abuse over the past few days. On top of that, no matter how much training you did, you could never truly prepare your body for what a serious dose of adrenalin and a sudden fight would do to cold, stiff muscles. She had felt those effects the moment she rolled out of the bed, and she knew she’d be paying the price for at least another day or so. She didn’t think there was any serious damage, but she was definitely sore, wearing a couple of new bruises, and had aches on top of aches. She was fairly certain that meant the pains were procreating. However, she had dulled them as best she could with a pair of ibuprofen caplets and would take some time to whine about it later. Right now, she was chasing answers-or so she hoped. The way things had been working out since this all started, she wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that she was really chasing yet another impossible question.

Constance fluttered her eyes open and saw that the cell phone screen had timed out, winking itself into dormant darkness. She thumbed a random button to wake it up. She had been waiting almost a full half-hour now. No big deal. She had time.

She scrolled to the text folder then pulled the message back into view and read it for the thousandth time. Then she read it again just for good measure.

It hadn’t disappeared, and it hadn’t changed-not that she expected it would, but in a way she wished it had. Something of that sort happening would be much easier to fathom than most anything else regarding this case so far.

Across the room there finally came a sharp click, followed by the whooshing sound of a door. Constance looked up expecting the nurse, but was greeted instead by a new face.

“Good,” she thought. Though unexpected, it was exactly what she wanted. She slipped the cell phone into the pocket of her coat on the chair next to her and stood.

“Good evening,” the man said as he approached. “I’m Doctor Poe.”

His voice was cautious, as was his expression. However, there was a hint of curiosity showing in his eyes. Constance reached into her blazer and withdrew her badge case, displaying it with an easy flip of her wrist as she returned, “Special Agent Mandalay, Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Doctor Poe settled a pair of readers onto the end of his nose and inspected the credentials, then gave her a nod as he returned his gaze to her face. “I was told you want to speak with a patient?”

“Yes, Doctor,” she replied, stowing the leather badge case back inside the folds of her jacket. “Edgar Virgil Reese. I’m given to understand he checked himself into this facility for observation yesterday afternoon.”

“Well, I’m afraid that it goes against policy to allow visitors during a seventy-two hour observation period, not to mention that it’s rather late…”

“I understand that,” she said, cutting him off. “The nurse already told me the same thing.”

“Good, then you are aware of our policy.”

“Yes, Doctor, I’m well aware, but as I told her, I can’t accept that.”

“She was just doing her job, Miz Mandalay.”

“Special Agent Mandalay, Doctor,” she corrected. “And I understand her position. That is why I’m now talking to you instead.”

He nodded and replied with a guarded, “I see.”

Constance couldn’t help but think about the fact that if Ben were here he would be cracking a joke about the psychiatrist’s stereotypical choice of words. She’d heard the detective rib his own sister over such things. Fortunately, Helen Storm was very good-humored where that was concerned. Something told her, however, that Doctor Poe didn’t share that trait.

This wasn’t her first go around with someone like him. She suspected that he was already profiling her as an insecure woman who was overcompensating because of her rampant penis envy. She’d been told something very similar once before by a psychiatrist who had stood between her and the resolution of a case. He hadn’t stood there much longer after that.

But right now she didn’t care. Doctor Poe could think whatever he wanted. The truth is, she had already profiled him as a mid-level administrator with a God complex, so technically they were even.

He fell silent and simply stared at her on the heels of his two-word commentary, seemingly sure that he had the upper hand. Constance mirrored his gaze and kept her own mouth shut. She had played this version of chicken before and with people far better at it than him. Psychiatrist or not, he was actually the one at a disadvantage in this stare-down test of wills. She had paid close attention to his face when she’d flashed her badge. Federal credentials almost always made people nervous, even when they were innocent, and he was no exception to that rule. He may not realize it yet, but he had already blinked before they ever started.

Silence filled the waiting room as an unseen second hand swept around a figurative clock. A minute passed, then a minute plus one-half. It never made it as far as two.

Doctor Poe shifted in place then cleared his throat and followed with a nervous-sounding cough. “May I ask why you want to speak with Mister Reese, Special Agent Mandalay?”

“It’s simply part of an ongoing investigation,” she replied.

“Is he a suspect in this investigation?”

“More like a person of interest.”

The doctor seemed unsatisfied with the answer. “I need to know if he poses a danger to the other patients.”

“Wouldn’t you be the one to answer that question?” she replied.

He appeared to ponder her return quip for a moment, then began to object, “Special Agent Mand-”

Before he could finish, Constance interjected, “I just want to ask him some questions, Doctor, that’s all.”

“Mister Reese is here for a seventy-two hour observation and evaluation.”

He regurgitated the same line she’d already heard a dozen times since her arrival here. Obviously he wasn’t going to easily give up his attempt to stonewall.

“Voluntary,” Constance added. “You and I both know that the Missouri revised statutes guarantee him the right to visitors unless you have good cause to deny such. Do you?”

“I believe it also states, at reasonable times,” he added.

“Hospital visiting hours don’t end until nine, Doctor,” she replied. “It’s only eight.”

“Those are general hours. The psychiatric wing hours end at eight.”

“I was here at seven-fifteen and you kept me waiting,” she countered.

“I’m very busy.”

“I’m sure, as am I.” Constance nodded then tried to relax her posture slightly, making a slightly conciliatory appeal. “Listen, Doctor Poe, I understand your situation, not to mention that it’s Christmas. Believe me, I’ve been away from home since the twenty-second. I’d rather not be here either, but with a little cooperation this can be relatively painless.”

“I’m sorry,” he replied, shaking his head. “Visiting hours are still at our discretion.”

“This is official, Doctor.”

“My hands are tied, Special Agent.”

“Okay, then,” Constance huffed as she reached down and retrieved her cell phone from her coat pocket. “Let me see if I can untie them for you. I’ll make a call and get a court order.”

“If you could do that you would have already had a court order in hand,” he rebuked.

She replied, “Do you really want to take that chance?”

He stared at her again, and she held his gaze, thumb hovering over the keypad of the cell. Finally, she keyed in a speed dial code and placed the device up to her ear. After a trio of rings it was answered at the other end.

“Yes, SSA Greene, this is Mandalay… Yes sir, Merry Christmas to you too… Yes, sir… Yes, that’s where I am right now, and it’s actually why I’m calling. I’m very sorry to be bothering you at home, but I’m meeting some resistance from Doctor Poe here at the hospital. Yes, sir… Yes, exactly… Yes, I think we might need to obtain a court order… Yes, sir… Yes, I’ve tried… Yes, sir, I know… All right, just a second…”

She lowered the cell for a moment. “What is your full name, Doctor Poe? The judge is going to want it for the warrant.”

“Wh-wh-why my name?”

“It’s just proced


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ure,” she told him. “We like to have a paper trail in case there are any significant turns in the investigation, you understand.”

Doctor Poe quickly waved his hands and instead of answering said, “Slow down… Just… Let’s back up…”

Constance raised an eyebrow then pushed the phone back up to her ear and said, “I’m sorry, sir, could you hold for another minute? Thanks…”

She lowered the device again and stared questioningly back at the doctor.

He huffed out an exasperated sigh and said, “We don’t even know if Mister Reese is willing to take a visitor.”

“Why don’t you start with asking him?” she said.

He regarded her quietly for a moment before finally huffing again and all but spitting her title as if it were poison to his tongue. “All right, Special Agent Mandalay, we’ll do it your way. You don’t need to get a court order. But if Mister Reese refuses to speak with you, that isn’t my fault.”

“I understand. Thank you,” she replied, then pressed the phone back to her ear. “I’m sorry about that, sir… No, it actually appears that I bothered you for nothing. Doctor Poe has changed his mind. Yes, sir… Yes, sir… I will. You too… And Merry Christmas to your family… Sorry again for bothering you… Goodbye.”

Constance thumbed off the phone and breathed an inner sigh of relief. Given that she’d just carried on a one-sided conversation with her own answering machine at home, she was thankful the doctor hadn’t called her bluff.

“Follow me,” Poe said, turning to lead her toward the door from which he’d entered earlier. “I still want you to understand that this is highly irregular.”

She answered immediately while gathering up her coat, and mimicked his earlier tone of distaste with her title. “That’s okay, Doctor, this is a highly irregular investigation.”

CHAPTER 30

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11:43 P.M. – December 25, 2010

Sheriff’s Department

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

“Either two thousand-seven best director… That make sense to you?” Sheriff Carmichael asked aloud, not looking up from the crossword puzzle on his desk. “Four letters… Starts with C.”

“Coen,” Constance replied, her voice cold and flat. “C-O-E-N. Joel and Ethan. They’re brothers and they shared the award in oh-seven for No Country For Old Men.”

Still not tearing his gaze away from the puzzle, he asked, “Good movie?”

“I liked it.”

“Hmmph,” he grunted, and then muttered to himself as he ticked off the letters in the small boxes. “C… Down… Yeah… It works… Never saw that movie. Guess I should take Kathy out a little more often.”

Constance watched quietly from the doorway as he filled in the blanks, then purposefully scratched through the clue in a column off to the side of the puzzle. He scanned the crossword box while reaching up and absently combing through his mustache with his fingers. After a languid pause, he laid the paper to the side then tossed the stub of a pencil on top of it before rocking back in his chair and locking gazes with her.

“Are you just going to stand there, or are you going to come in and sit down?” he finally asked.

“I think I’ll just go ahead and stand this time, Sheriff,” she replied.

She was leaning to the side with her shoulder against the doorframe and her coat carefully draped over her arm. Her eyes were hard beneath a creased brow and her lips were a tight, thin line. Other than that, her face was a tired, emotionless mask.

Skip waited a beat, never taking his eyes off her, then drew in a deep breath and exhaled a heavy “Suit yourself, Special Agent.”

“I have to admit,” she said after her own short pause. “I was surprised to see your cruiser parked out front when I passed by. I wasn’t expecting to have this conversation with you until tomorrow.”

“Been waiting,” he grunted. “I was hoping you’d show up.”

Constance cocked her head to the side. “Were you really?”

“Sugar, I could be home in bed right now. Hell, if you were anything like your predecessors, I damn well would be, because none of them ever bothered to stick around this long.”

“How did you know I didn’t just go ahead and leave like the others?”

“I didn’t, for sure…but I had you pegged as different from the day you showed up, so I had my hopes.”

“More of your uncanny powers of observation?”

He shrugged. “Actually, more like a gut feeling on that one. Oh, believe me, I had a moment of self-doubt when I drove by the Greenleaf earlier and saw your car was gone. But I checked with Artie and he said you hadn’t officially checked out, and the desk clerk said you weren’t carrying any bags when you left.”

“Do you have any idea how creepy it is that you people spy on everyone like that?” she asked.

“Small town, Constance. That’s just how it is. Most of the time everybody knows your business and you know theirs. Hard to keep a secret in Hulis, trust me.”

“It almost makes me wonder if there’s a hidden camera in my shower too,” she quipped, sarcasm so heavy in the words it double-underscored the comment.

Skip replied, “Depends. Which room did they put you in?”

She raised an eyebrow and glared, but said nothing.

“Kidding, sugar. I was just kidding.”

“I’m not really in the mood for jokes right now, Skip.”

“Yeah…” he grunted. “I guess you wouldn’t be, would you.”

Thick silence fell between them. The staring contest continued, but unlike the doctor in Mais, Constance didn’t see Carmichael as the type to cave because she made him nervous. She knew better than that. She also had a feeling he was thinking the same thing about her.

Before the standoff could turn into a prolonged stalemate, the sheriff spoke up, breaking the silence with an offhanded announcement. “I don’t know about you, but I need a drink.”

He slowly rocked the old desk chair forward on the complaining springs, and then leaned to the left and tugged open a drawer. Without further pomp or comment, he reached in, withdrew a sealing-wax-dipped bottle of bourbon, and settled it on the desk blotter. He followed that by extracting two short tumblers from the depths of the drawer and placing them next to the fifth of booze.

Carmichael shoved the drawer closed with a thump, then unscrewed the cap on the bottle, tipped it up, and carefully poured a measure of the dark amber liquor into one of the glasses. When he finished, he gave Constance a questioning look and nodded toward the empty tumbler.

“What the hell… Yeah…” she muttered, pushing away from the doorframe and stepping over to the straight-backed chair opposite him. She draped her coat over the back then parked herself.

“If you want ice, you’ll have to check the break room,” Skip told her as he filled the second glass and then spun the cap back onto the bottle. He pushed the three fingers of booze across the desk to her before picking up his own tumbler. He took a healthy sip then cradled it in his hands as he allowed his creaking chair to rock back once again.

Constance emulated the latter two actions: sipping, and then using the bulk of her coat as a cushion for the hard back of her chair as she leaned against it. She stared at her hands, contemplating the bourbon for a moment, and then finally she sighed and looked up across the desk at the sheriff.

“I just came back from Highland County Hospital in Mais,” she said.

“Yeah…” Skip nodded. “Not surprised. I figured you might decide to talk to Edgar after all.”

“He had some interesting things to say about December twenty-fifth, nineteen seventy-five.”

He snorted, but there was no derision, just sullen acceptance. With a shake of his head he added, “I’m sure he did.”

“Should I assume he was telling me the truth?”

“Guess that depends on how much sense he was making at the time.”

“What if he wasn’t making any sense?”

“Him, or what he told you?” he asked in return. “There’s a difference.”

“Yes… I suppose there is.” Constance sipped the whiskey again and let its smooth burn run down the back of her throat, spreading warmth in its wake. Then she asked, “Okay, then; why the lies, Skip?”

“Like I said this morning, you wouldn’t have believed me until you saw it for yourself. Just like you wouldn’t have believed Edgar if he’d told you his story yesterday instead of today.”

“But what about the rest of it? You could have filled me in this morning. Especially after what you showed me at the crime scene.”

He shook his head. “Neither of us was in any shape for that and you know it. That’s why I came by the Greenleaf this evening. I figured once you and I had both had some sleep we could talk about it and you wouldn’t think I was completely insane.”

“Fair enough,” she agreed. “Well… I’m here now, and I’ve had that sleep. I assume you have too?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I’d like to hear your version,” she said. “I think you may be able to fill in some of the blanks Edgar left.”

“Yeah…” he said. “You know, you’ll be the first since Agent Graham, and he thought I was crazy.”

She nodded. “I know.”

Skip looked at the tumbler in his hands, then brought it to his lips, tipped it up and drained it in a single gulp. Rocking back forward, he refilled the glass with another healthy measure of the amber alcohol and then carefully brushed his mustache, apparently pondering his words. After a long pause, he pursed his lips and sighed, then settled back in the chair once again and swallowed hard. His eyes were vacant and fixed. He was no longer staring at Constance, he was staring through her; looking thirty-five years into the past as if it were happening before him right now.

He cleared his throat and began, “Everything I’ve already told you about the abduction and finding Merrie is true; I think you’ve already seen that… It’s just some of the things since that have been altered a bit…to protect the innocent, as they say…”

“Yes,” she agreed softly. “And there are the things you left out.”

“Yeah,” he breathed. “That’s the part I’ve been trying my damnedest to forget for thirty-five years.”

“Go on…” Constance urged.

He drew in a deep breath and continued. “Our first concern that morning was Merrie, of course. She needed immediate attention, so I actually didn’t join the search for Colson right away… Fact is, I went with her to the hospital and stayed until her parents arrived. By the time I got back, Sheriff Morton, and Edgar, and everyone else had canvassed several blocks and found the house on Evergreen.”

“Why didn’t they just follow Merrie’s tracks back to it?” Constance asked.

He stifled a thoughtful snort. “Edgar didn’t tell you? There weren’t any.” He took a swig from his drink and contemplated the tumbler for a moment before continuing. “Well, anyway, I arrived to a crime scene crawling with Missouri Highway Patrol and Feds, as well as just about everyone from our department. Sheriff Morton was waiting for me when I got there, and the first thing he asked was if I was absolutely positive the little girl I’d picked up was Merrie. I told him yes, and he just asked me the same question again. I was starting to think the old man had lost it because he had seen her before we left for the hospital… He knew damn well it was her…but…then he took me inside.

“Well… You know what it looked like in that basement. You saw it this morning yourself. Not exactly how you want to introduce a green cop in a small town to a murder investigation, that’s for sure, but I held my coffee down, which was more than I can say for some of the State guys.”

Skip paused, falling silent once again. He continued to stare through her as he had been at the outset. His face masked with grief, he was obviously playing it all out in his mind in vivid color, just as he probably had for an untold number of times throughout the years. Constance couldn’t help but feel compassion for him.

“But there was more than just the brutality of Colson’s death,” she prompted.

“Yeah… There was…” he mused quietly. “Colson wasn’t…” he began, then stopped and tossed his head back, breathing deeply. He closed his eyes, and a fugitive tear rolled from the corner to trace across his cheek. After a trio of labored breaths, he rolled his head back down and spoke again. “Sorry… I live this… Especially this time of year… I can’t get away from it…but… I haven’t actually talked about it with anyone in a long time.”

“I understand,” Constance told him.

“Well…” he huffed, obviously forcing himself to continue. “I’m sure Edgar already told you. Colson’s body wasn’t the only one they found. Merrie’s was there in the basement too.”

“So Merrie Callahan was deceased,” she stated more than asked.

“Yeah. According to the autopsy she succumbed to her injuries and to exposure. They found her body behind the furnace, which was inoperable at that time, of course, since the house was abandoned. It looked like she was probably trying to hide from that bastard. After everything he’d done to her, he had kept her locked in that basement with no heat and just what was left of her school uniform. We found her coat upstairs. She didn’t have a chance.”

“But you had already found her standing in the middle of the street several blocks away,” Constance said. “And John Colson had been killed and dismembered. Were they certain it was her body?”

“No doubt about it,” he replied. “They made Tom and Elizabeth identify the body.”

“Who did?”

“Your people,” he spat. “The Feds.”

“Dear God…” she mumbled.

“Yeah, well you know my thoughts on that… Either way, they also pulled some fingerprints from Merrie’s things at home and they matched. They even checked dental records just to be sure.”

“What about the girl you found?”

“That’s just it; they matched her too.” He swallowed hard and shook his head. “If that wasn’t enough to make everyone question their sanity, there was also the fact that the autopsy estimated Merrie’s death at as much as a day prior to my finding her. But Colson…well, what was left of him anyway…he was still warm when they arrived on the scene.”

“What happened after that?” she pressed.

“Good question,” he replied. “The Feds took over at that point. They marched in with court orders, and we were pretty much cut out of the loop. So was the MHP. Everyone was interviewed and told that we were mistaken about what had transpired. Merrie’s remains mysteriously disappeared, as did Colson’s. And as I’m sure you noticed, our files were redacted…sanitized, really. The autopsy reports disappeared. The case reports definitely aren’t the ones we filed originally. I know that for a fact because I wrote one of them myself.”

Constance would have discounted the claim out of hand had it not been for the gaping holes in the case file she had been given by the SAC at the outset. That fact in itself made his story that much more believable, even if it did sound like a plot from a blockbuster conspiracy thriller.

“I’m sorry,” she said. She really couldn’t imagine what else to say.

“Yeah, me too…” Skip grunted. “Wasn’t long after that I left Hulis. Kathy and I got married, then headed for KC to follow my dream of being a big city cop.”

“I have a confession,” Constance said. “I ran a background check on you, so I already know about your career and the predators you took down.”

He nodded. “Would’ve been disappointed in you if you hadn’t. I figured you for a good cop, even if you are a Fed.”

She took a sip of her drink instead of replying. She wasn’t offended by the latter comment. She was actually used to taking grief from other branches of law enforcement. Ben even referred to bureau agents as the Feebs. He always said it was short for Feeble Bumbling Incompetents. Then he would be quick to add, “Present company excluded, of course.”

She waited a moment, then spoke up to bring the story full-circle. “And then you came back to Hulis…”

“Yeah, and that’s when I found out the rest of it.”

Constance perked an eyebrow as the verbal bomb landed squarely between them. She was under the impression that she knew where the story went from there, surreal and unbelievable as it was. She canted her head, looking at Carmichael with fiery curiosity clear in her eyes.

“The rest of it?” she asked.

“Yeah… Shortly after it all happened, Tom and Elizabeth sort of dropped out of life. Folks didn’t see them much around town. Tom went to work, came home, and that was about it except when they needed groceries and the like. Then you’d see one or the other out for a bit, but only as long as necessary. Even stopped going to the church over in Mais and started home schooling Rebecca. Other than that they kept completely to themselves.

“It wasn’t that folks didn’t try, mind you. People would call, and even drop by, but they usually wouldn’t answer the phone or the door. When they did, they’d just send whoever it was away as fast as they could.

“Whenever someone would run into one of them around town they would ask about Merrie, of course.” He shrugged. “They would just say she was doing fine and then excuse themselves. It was peculiar, but everyone pretty much chalked it up to them just losing trust in the world. Not all that hard to imagine, after…well…you know.”

“Anyway, didn’t hear much detail about their lives until they had that scare when they thought Merrie was going to die.” He paused, then let out a harrumph. “I guess that sounds kinda odd after everything I’ve just told you.”

“I remember mentioning that,” Constance offered.

“Yeah…well… The truth came out after they were killed in that car crash.”

“What do you mean truth?”

“Seems Elizabeth had been keeping journals. Almost daily as a matter of fact.”

“About what?”

“Merrie,” he explained. “Or Rebecca. Depends on the day.”

“I still don’t follow.”

Carmichael blew out a loud sigh through his nose, then absently brushed his mustache. After a weighty pause he continued. “Right around the time Merrie’s remains mysteriously disappeared, so did the little girl I picked up from the middle of the street.”

Constance stared back at him. Finally she said, “Are you saying what I think you are?”

He nodded. “Some days Rebecca was Rebecca. Other days, she was Merrie. The wounds would even show up on her body. Then later, of course, they were scars. But like stigmata, they were there.

“Doctors tried to treat it like some sort of multiple personality illness, but that didn’t work, obviously. Apparently they almost killed her in the process, which would have meant Tom and Elizabeth would have lost both their daughters.

“But she survived,” he breathed. “And she tried to make a life for herself. Even made it through college. Not without a few bumps, of course, but she did it.”

“So you’re saying Rebecca Callahan is the woman living in Holly-Oak now?”

“I guess it depends on how you look at it, Constance,” he sighed. “Not long after Tom and Elizabeth died, she started getting worse. She was Merrie more often than Rebecca. Folks here in town looked after her, but it wasn’t easy. By the time I moved back and ran for sheriff, she had become Merrie full time. She hasn’t been Rebecca since.”

CHAPTER 31

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10:56 A.M. – December 26, 2010

Sheriff’s Department

Hulis Township – Northern Missouri

“Decided what to put in your report yet, Special Agent Mandalay?” Sheriff Carmichael asked.

“No, sir,” Constance replied. “I haven’t.”

He cleared his throat, then nodded, looking down at the ground. “Yeah…that’s pretty much what I figured. I was kinda hoping you’d say something different though.”

“I know what I saw, and I know what you’ve told me. However, I’m not sure any of it would stay in the file if that’s what I submitted,” she offered. “I get the feeling it would disappear like previous accounts.”

“True…” he said with a nod. “Of course, you know the whole story. The rest of them don’t. Well, except for Agent Graham.”

“I know,” she replied, then bit her lip. “I’m going to try to change that, but I can’t make any guarantees.”

“Yeah, I know. Not sure what good it would do anyway. I doubt it would change anything.” He paused, visibly weighing his next comment before saying it aloud. Finally, he offered, “You know it’s not just the face, don’t you? If you run it, that ten-print card for the victim is gonna match John Horace Colson’s fingerprints.”

She nodded, “I assumed as much.”

“But you and I both know that can’t be who was in that basement.”

“Under any other circumstances I’d agree, Skip,” Constance replied. “But after all this… Well…I’m not so sure.”

“So…maybe you get it now.”

“I’ll admit, I think I now have an intimately better understanding of why the bureau file on this case is incomplete.”

He snorted. “Yeah. I’m sure you do…”

“I didn’t say it was right,” she added. “I just understand the ‘why’.”

“Yeah… I guess I do too.” Changing the subject, he nodded toward her feet. “So… I see you’re wearin’ those stilts again.”

Constance looked down at her shoes and let out a shallow laugh. “Merrie liked them the other day, and I stopped by to see her this morning, so…”

“Yeah, I heard.”

“Martha?”

“Yep.”

“I assumed she would call you.” Constance shrugged. “I guess the dressing up is a carryover from my own childhood-visiting family for the holidays and such. Mom always wanted us to look our best.”

“Sounds familiar.”

“Although, I’ll be honest,” she added. “I was a bit worried about the visit. I wasn’t sure if Martha would even let me in the door, much less in to see Merrie. I was a little surprised that I didn’t meet with any resistance when I arrived. In fact, she was actually very pleasant to me.”

“She was expecting you,” he replied.

“That’s what she said. Did you have anything to do with that?”

“Maybe…” He allowed the word to dangle in the air for a moment.

Constance could sense that there was more to the story. She waited, but when nothing else was forthcoming, it became apparent that he was fishing, so she decided to chum the waters a bit more. “You know, I almost called you first before going over there. I was really expecting somewhat of a repeat of the first meeting, even though this time all I wanted to do was see how she was doing. I had honestly figured Merrie wouldn’t even remember me, since everything seems to reset for her.”

Based on his response, she had apparently used the correct bait.

“She did though, didn’t she,” Skip offered the words as a statement, not as a question.

She answered anyway. “Yes. Oddly enough, she did. I was surprised, to say the least.”

“She always does,” he explained. There was something palpable in his tone that made him sound somewhat relieved by her response. “Don’t know why. Everything else is always wiped clean, but she remembers the visits from you Feds. For a while, anyway.”

“A mystery within a mystery within a…” she let her voice trail off.

He nodded.

After a lengthy pause, he cleared his throat and said, “Since we’re being honest, that’s another one of the reasons you didn’t get a very warm reception when you first arrived in town.”

“Oh? After our talk last night, I just assumed it was the way the bureau handled things thirty-five years ago that made me a pariah.”

“Well, that didn’t help, but a lot of the folks who remember that are long gone. You know how protective we are of her,” he explained with a sigh. “Every year it’s been the same. One of you Feds shows up and insists on interviewing her. Then, come Christmas night, after everything is over, and Merrie is Merrie again, she starts talking about Mister Drew, or Mister Keene, or whoever was sent that year. For some unknown reason she expects them to be coming back to visit with her again… She gets up early on December twenty-sixth every year, then just sits there waiting for the entire day.”

“That would explain why she wasn’t surprised to see me this morning,” Constance mused.

“Pretty much. But, you’re the first to actually show up. Until now, every year she’s ended up heartbroken because they don’t come back.”

“She takes it that hard?”

Again he answered with a quiet nod. Then he said, “Not sure why about that either… Takes her awhile to get over it too, and that doesn’t sit well with folks around here, as you’ve discovered.”

“That’s a fact,” she agreed.

“Eventually, that memory fades and she forgets it too. But something tells me she’ll remember you…” Skip gave a thoughtful snort and then shook his head. “You know, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure you’d show up over there today. But like I said last night, I had you pegged as different, so I called Martha and told her to keep an eye out. I admit, I was hoping I’d read you right about that too… Glad to see I did.”

“You could have said something about it last night. Were you testing me?”

“No,” he shrugged. “I think maybe I was testing myself.”

“So do you think you passed?”

“You showed up, so I think maybe I did. I guess we’ll find out,” he replied, then absently brushed at his mustache. “How about you? Did visiting with Merrie answer any lingering questions?”

“No,” she replied, shaking her head. “I don’t really know that I expected it to. Like I said, I just wanted to see for myself that she was okay. We ended up visiting for a while. I even got a fresh manicure.” She held out her hands to display her nails.

“Sounds like Merrie…” Skip replied.

Constance gazed thoughtfully at her nails and then looked back up to the sheriff’s face. “But, even without answers, it made me feel good just to see her. Does that sound odd, Skip?”

Carmichael shook his head. “Nope. Not odd at all. I know you’re a part of her life now, and from what you just said I think maybe she’s become a part of yours too. I realize it sounds sappy, but you’ve been touched by the spirit, Constance.”

“The spirit of Christmas?”

He shrugged. “Of Christmas… Of Merrie… It’s all the same to us around here.”

“You know, I think maybe I understand exactly what you mean.”

He regarded her carefully and then smiled. “Yeah, I think maybe you do. You’re good people, Constance.”

“Thanks. You are too, Skip.”

“Ya’know, I’ve never said this to any of you Feds before, but then, none of the others ever gave me a chance…” He paused and once again combed his fingers through the brush on his lip for a second. “Do me a favor, Constance: don’t let ‘em send anyone else to Hulis on this case.”

She sighed. “I’m not sure I can stop them.”

“Maybe you can. I guess it all depends on what you put in that report of yours.”

“Something tells me it won’t make any difference.”

“You’re probably right,” he agreed. “But sending an endless parade of Feds up here isn’t going to bring Merrie any peace. That’s what she really needs. Once that happens, maybe she can move on… Hell, maybe Rebecca and Hulis can too.”

“Maybe so…” Constance smiled, then gave him a nod. “I’ll promise you this much, Skip: I’ll come back. You can count on it. If the bureau wants to send someone anyway, I’ll make sure it’s me.”

“You know I’ll hold you to that.”

“Yes, I do. Don’t worry. I think I have some pull that the other agents don’t.”

“Do tell…”

“I would if I could.”

“Well, I tell myself this every year,” he grunted. “Guess I’ll tell you too… Let’s hope next Christmas you’re just here to visit and have a cup of egg nog.”

“I’d like that.”

“I’m sure Merrie would too.”

CHAPTER 32

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12:24 P.M. – December 26, 2010

College Gas ‘n Go

BR 61 South – Canton, Missouri

Constance tore a fresh paper towel from the dispenser and dried her hands. This was the second gas station she had visited in the past ten minutes. At the first stop, she had walked into the unisex facilities and then immediately turned and walked back out. If she was going to die prematurely, she had already decided that it wasn’t going to be courtesy of a toilet seat that hadn’t been cleaned since before she was born.

Her heels clicked sharply on the tile as she stepped over to the door, then used the damp paper towel to grasp the handle and pull it open. Hooking her foot in front of the door she wadded up the towel and tossed it into the trashcan, actually landing it dead center in the receptacle-unlike some of the other women who had visited recently. Using her elbow she shoved the door the rest of the way open and exited. It’s not that she was germaphobic by any stretch, but she was sure that even this restroom needed a date with some bleach and elbow grease.

She strolled slowly past the drink coolers, inspecting the selections, and then paused. She still had a little over three hours left before she would roll into Saint Louis. Although she’d sle


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pt well last night, she still didn’t feel like she was caught up, so she was definitely going to need caffeine to get her through the upcoming stretch of highway. After a brief moment of indecision, she settled on a bottle of green tea that was boasting “all natural” on the label. She didn’t fully buy into the advertising by any stretch, but she figured her body would appreciate green tea more than a soda, or even coffee.

After paying for the drink, she headed back out to the first row of pumps. Since she had left her coat on the passenger seat of her car, she hurried-heels again tapping out a sharp cadence, this time against the grimy, salt-frosted pavement. She had already topped off her tank and paid with her card before seeking out the restroom, so she quickly unlocked the door and climbed into the driver’s seat, then settled the bottle of tea into the console cup holder. As she reached over her shoulder for the safety belt, she heard a warbling chime issue from her side.

Abandoning the belt, she reached into her jacket pocket and retrieved her cell. The screen displayed, UNKNOWN, and for the number, a row of ten zeros, separated by strategically placed dashes. She frowned and consciously creased her brow, wondering at the odd data and whether to even bother answering. After a moment, the device ceased to jiggle, and the vibrato tone stopped. Problem solved.

Constance moved to slide it back into her pocket when it suddenly began to tickle her palm and sing the same generic tune to her again. She pulled it back up and found the same message on the screen. Giving in, she thumbed the answer button and tucked the cell up beneath her hair and against her ear while she used her other hand to fish her sunglasses from the visor.

“Hello?”

An unfamiliar woman’s emotionless and curt voice asked, “SA Mandalay?”

Constance frowned again. “Yes, this is SA Mandalay. Who is this?”

“Please hold,” the woman replied.

A dull silence instantly filled the earpiece. Constance let out a displeased harrumph but continued to wait. Several seconds later, there was a click and a new voice came on the line.

“SA Mandalay…” a calm, almost soothing male voice said. “I trust you are doing well today?”

Now she wasn’t just displeased, she was confused and starting to edge toward somewhat angry.

“Who is this?” Constance demanded, not bothering to hide the irritation in her voice.

There was a quiet chuckle at the other end. “Forgive me, I suppose I should have introduced myself first. I’m Assistant Director Jack Graham.”

Constance fell mute, the earlier aggravation now turning into a bewildering sort of alarm. She knew the name wasn’t likely to be a coincidence, not after everything she’d just been through.

After what seemed to be a forever period of silence she managed, “Good afternoon, sir…”

“Good afternoon, SA Mandalay,” he replied. He was, in a sense, restarting the conversation from square one.

“What can I do for you, sir?” she asked.

“I’m simply checking in with you,” he told her. “I know that you were just assigned to a rather difficult case at my direction, and I wanted to make sure you came through it okay.”

“So far,” she replied, still stunned. “Thank you for the concern, sir.”

“That’s good to hear,” he replied. “You should take some leave when you get home. A few days for yourself to rest up. Perhaps spend a belated holiday with your significant other, Detective Storm.”

The comment was as subtle as a hammer, but she willed herself not to flinch, verbally at least. Instead, she replied, “I still need to file my report, sir.”

“The report can wait, SA Mandalay.”

“But-”

“Trust me,” he said, cutting her off, “your report can wait. I insist you take a few days for yourself. I’ll be calling your supervisor with the authorization. After what you’ve seen, you deserve it.”

Obviously she was being left no other choice. She just wasn’t entirely sure why. Therefore, she said the only thing she could: “Thank you…”

“You’re very welcome,” he replied. “Besides, I’m sure you could use a little time to think about what you plan to include in your report.”

“Sir?”

“You came into possession of somewhat sensitive information during this case…” he said, allowing a verbal sword to dangle above her head.

“Dammit! Dammit! Dammit! I never should have dragged Ben into this” she thought to herself. “God, what if they come down on him for this too…”

Apparently her pause was long enough to evoke another quiet chuckle from AD Graham. “Relax. Who do you think sent you that file and text message, SA Mandalay?”

She realized that she had been holding her breath and now allowed herself to exhale slowly then take in a fresh lungful of air.

“May I ask why, sir?”

“To help you understand,” he replied.

“I’m still not certain that I do.”

“Hence your need for some time to think.”

Constance waited a heartbeat then asked, “What are you wanting me to put in my report, sir?”

“What do you think you should put into the report?” he asked.

“No disrepect intended, sir, but it seems to me the bureau has been hiding something for thirty-five years.”

“What do you think that might be, SA Mandalay?”

“I’m not entirely sure, sir. However, I can’t help but wonder if everyone in that town is involved.”

“They are, Special Agent, but not in the way you imagine.”

“Sir?”

“There is no conspiracy among the people of Hulis. You can trust me on that.”

“Then that only leaves…”

He filled in her pause. “As I said, you need to think about it.”

“If that is the case, why didn’t you send Rowan Gant with me? The paranormal is his forte.”

“I have my reasons, SA Mandalay.”

The tone of his voice told Constance that any further questions were unwelcome at this time. She hedged her bet and replied, “Yes, sir.”

“By the way…” Graham added, “it might help you to understand if I tell you that Joseph Wayne Garrity was missing from his cell early yesterday morning. Vanished without a trace.”

“Joseph Wayne Garrity, sir?”

“Check the file, SA Mandalay,” he replied. “I look forward to seeing your report once you’ve had a little time to recuperate.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied.

Without further comment or even a farewell, the call ended. Constance pulled the cell phone away from her ear and stared at it for a moment. Finally, she snapped it shut, stuffed it into her pocket, then hit the trunk release and climbed out into the chilly wind. Her laptop case was nestled in between her suitcase and gear bag, so it didn’t take much to dig it out.

Back inside the car she pulled the notebook computer out and flipped open the clamshell, simultaneously slipping a thumb in between to press the power button. Once it had booted, she sent her finger dancing across the touchpad and brought the mysterious emailed file up on the screen.

Constance began paging through the rap sheets she had already studied for hours, but then with far less sleep under her belt. Still, even then it hadn’t escaped her notice that Detective Sergeant Addison Carmichael was listed as the arresting officer on each of the reports. What she hadn’t noticed before was that some of the sheets had been tagged as “missing.” A gut feeling told Constance that she didn’t even need to count. The tagged predators in the file would add up to seven. That same feeling also told her she knew exactly where they each had gone.

After sifting through the pages, she eventually found Joseph Wayne Garrity. He was supposed to be serving seven to twenty-five for repeatedly molesting a nine-year-old girl in a Kansas City suburb.

Until yesterday morning, that is.

Apparently Merrie Frances Callahan had amended his sentence.

EPILOGUE

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On the remainder of the drive home, Greg Lake’s voice filled the interior of Constance’s sedan as he lamented the broken promises of Christmas and a man in a red suit who was not what he seemed. Whenever the song would reach its end, she focused on the last line, which so eloquently claimed that the Christmas we get is the one that we deserve. The rap sheets of the eight dead predators would flash through her mind, and in that moment she would believe the words to be true.

Then she would thumb the controls on the steering column and skip the CD backwards to start the tune again from the beginning. Now and again, as the song echoed in her ears, she would splay out her hand atop the steering wheel and look at the fresh lacquer of pearlescent pink polish on her nails, then smile.

Unfortunately, her smile would soon fade. She would flash on the dozens of rap sheets in the file for child molesters who were still alive, and realize that for Merrie-and Rebecca-Christmas would forever be Hell.

Then her vision would begin to blur as tears welled in her eyes.

AD Graham was correct. She was definitely going to need a few days…


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