Twenty Years Later
He had come back to get her. She heard the sound, breath against bone…
Violet bolted upright from a dead sleep and searched the darkness. She’d known this day would come. That he’d find her and kill her just as he had Darlene.
Shadows from the room clawed at her. A reedy, whistling sound rippled through her ears. What was it? An animal crying? No, it was lower, softer but sharp.
Almost like… like the sound she’d head the night Darlene died.
Had the sound been in her dreams or was someone really outside this time?
She flicked on the fringed lamp, searching the room, angry she still hadn’t conquered her fear of the dark. Or storms. She had dreamt of Darlene’s death a thousand times over the years. And that noise, she’d heard it before, too.
But never like this.
Not like it was right outside, coming nearer.
And this dream was different. In her earlier nightmares, Darlene had remained the same sweet, red-haired, small child. This time the victim had been a woman. What did it mean? Was the evil back? Was it inside her?
Or was her subconscious aging Darlene so Violet could see what she might have looked like if she’d lived? She dropped her head into her hands. Or maybe her grief and guilt had finally robbed her senseless, and she’d lost her mind.
Outside, ocean waves crashed against the Savannah shore. The wind howled off the coast, rain splattering against the roof of the cottage she and her grandmother had rented a few months ago when they’d moved to Tybee Island.
The wind had seeped through the thin panes and weathered wood, causing the whistling sound. That was the logical explanation.
The only explanation.
Sweat-soaked and shaking, Violet tugged the quilt around her legs. The clock chimed midnight. The steady crashing of the waves faded into a hypnotic drone. But her heart pounded in her chest like ancient Indian war drums. The only time she’d had a psychic vision or heard voices in her head had been twenty years ago. The day her father had sent her away. The day her best friend had died.
It couldn’t be happening again.
Although a few times in a crowded room or store, she’d experienced strange sensations, odd snippets of a stranger’s voice whispering in her head, she’d written them off as her overactive imagination. And on a date in Charleston, she’d sensed something dangerous about the man. It was almost as if she’d met him before. As if he’d known more about her than he was telling.
She tossed aside the covers and padded barefoot across the braided rug, then stared through the windowpane at the moonless night. Her fingers toyed with her half of the Best Friends necklace she had shared with Darlene. The rain and fog rolling off the shore obliterated the normally crystal images of the cove and the constellations. Ominous shadows tore at her self-control. It was almost as if someone was watching her.
Like the past had returned to haunt her.
No. Tomorrow marked the twentieth anniversary of Darlene’s death. Thoughts of Darlene always dominated her mind this time of year. Like an obsession that grew stronger every year instead of weaker, the incessant guilt dogged her like a demon.
Yet as she looked into the inky sky, fear snaked through her, and she sensed that it was only the beginning. That just as the tides changed in the ocean, they were about to change in her life.
Just like everything had changed that horrible day when she was eight years old, and she’d stood by and let her best friend die.
“Are you all right this morning, dear?” Violet’s grandmother gripped the Magnolia coffee cup with gnarled fingers and slid into a kitchen chair. “You look tired.”
Violet shrugged, pushing away the half-eaten piece of dried toast. “I didn’t sleep well.”
“Having nightmares again?”
Violet nodded, her gaze straying to the rain still drizzling in soft sheets onto the parched sand outside. “It’s that time of year, I suppose.”
Sympathy lined her grandmother’s face. “I know it’s hard, Violet. Try not to dwell on the past though.”
Violet nodded, resigned. She wouldn’t upset her grandmother by confessing about the voices. She was twenty-eight now, independent and strong. She’d even invested in a gift shop in downtown Savannah, Strictly Southern, determined to plant roots and build a life here. She’d save some money, buy this cabin and fix it up for herself and her grandmother. In fact, she’d already mapped out the first decorating plans — she’d paint the fading chipped walls yellow, sew some frilly curtains, add a windowseat by the bay window so she could bask in the sunlight to read and draw.
And maybe she would finally escape the ghosts. “I’m going to the shop for a while. Do you need anything?”
Her grandmother pointed to the list on the butcher block counter. “Thanks, dear. I hate that I can’t get about like I used to.”
“You’re doing fine, Gram.” Violet patted her hand, then scraped the dry toast into the trash, a twinge of anxiety pulling at her. The doctor had cautioned Violet about her grandmother’s high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat. Occasionally she suffered memory lapses, and her arthritis was becoming more of a problem.
At one time, Violet had told her grandmother everything. Had shared her fears, all her nightmares, the bitter sense of loss that had eaten at her over the years when her father had never called or visited.
“Maybe you’ll find a nice young man here in Savannah,” Gram said with a teasing smile. “Get married, make me some great-grandbabies.”
“Maybe.” Violet feigned a smile for her grandmother’s benefit, although she didn’t foresee marriage or a man in her near future. If her own father hadn’t loved her, how could someone else? Besides, her failures with men were too many to count. The psychologist she’d finally spoken with about her phobia of the dark, had suggested she was punishing herself for Darlene’s death by denying her own happiness. So, she had forced herself to accept a few dates.
But Donald Irving, the man in Charleston had given her the creeps. When she refused to see him again, he started showing up at odd times, calling at all hours of the night. Then the hang-up calls…
Her grandmother had become so distraught, Violet had finally agreed to move.
No, Violet had no plans for marriage or men. She had been a loner most of her life.
And she probably always would be.
“Oh, my goodness.” Her grandmother paled. “Did you see this, Violet?”
Violet leaned over her grandmother’s shoulder and stared at the newspaper, her stomach knotting at the headlines.
Twenty-five-year-old woman from Savannah College of Art & Design Reported Missing.
Police suspect foul play.
Grady Monroe stacked the files on his desk, wishing he could rearrange his attitude and life as easily. He traced a finger over the edge of the photo of Darlene he kept on the scarred wooden desk. She’d been so damn young and innocent, just a freckled-faced kid with a heart-shaped face who’d liked everyone. And trusted them.
But she’d died for nothing.
He pressed the pencil down to scribble the date on the file, his gaze shooting to the desk calendar. The pencil point broke. The date stared back at him, daring him to forget it, the red circle around the fifteenth a staunch reminder of the reason he couldn’t.
The single reason he’d studied law himself. Only so far he had no clue as to who had committed the vile crime or how the killer had eluded the police for two decades. The police referred to it as a cold case — dead files.
The files would never be shut until he found his half-sister’s killer.
Jamming the pencil in the electric sharpener, he watched it spin, his mind sorting through the recent cases on his desk. Crow’s Landing — the usual traffic citations. Domestic crimes. A complaint against a stray dog that might be rabid. Not like crime in the big cities. A man murdered in Nashville two days ago. A drive-by shooting in an apartment complex in Atlanta. And this morning, reports of a woman missing in Savannah.
As if to mock him, the phone trilled. “Sheriff Monroe here.”
“Sheriff, this is Beula Simms.”
Oh, lord. What now?
“Get out to Jed Baker’s house right away. Your daddy and Jed’s at it again.”
She didn’t have to say at what; Jed and his father had hated each other for years. “I’ll be right there.” He hung up and snagged the keys to his patrol car. A headache pounded at his skull, the painkillers he’d managed to swallow barely touching the incessant throbbing. He should have left off the tequila the night before, but the approaching anniversary of his half-sister’s death always brought out his dark side, the destructive one.
And now this call.
Five minutes later, he screeched up the graveled drive to Baker’s clapboard house. His father and Baker were yelling at each other on the sagging front porch. Grady opened the squad door and climbed out, although both men seemed oblivious that he’d arrived.
“You should have left town a long time ago.” His father waved a fist at Jed.
“I did what I had to do and so did you,” Jed yelled.
Grady’s father raised a scotch bottle and downed another swallow, staggering backward and nearly falling off the porch. “But if we’d done things differently, my little girl might be alive. And so would my Teresa.”
“I know the guilt’s eatin’ at you, Walt.” Jed thumbed through his sweaty, thinning hair. “We’ll both be burning in hell for keeping quiet.”
“Hell, I’ve been living there for years.”
“But you don’t get it, someone’s been asking around.” Jed’s voice sounded raw with panic. “Claims he’s a reporter.”
His father coughed. “You didn’t tell him anything, did you?”
“Hell, no, but I don’t like him asking questions. What are we gonna do?”
“Keep your goddamn mouth shut, that’s what.”
“I ain’t the one who wanted to blab years ago. And what if he gets to Violet?”
“It’s always about her. What about what I lost!” Walt lunged at Jed, ripping his plaid shirt and dragging them both to the ground. Jed fought back, and they tumbled down the stairs, wood splintering beneath them as they crashed to the dirt. The late evening heat blistered his back as Grady strode over to them.
“Get up, Dad.” Grady yanked his father off Jed, and Jed rolled away, eating dry dirt and brittle grass.
His father swung a fist at him. “Leave us alone!”
Grady grabbed him by both arms and tried to shake some sense into him. “For God’s sake, Dad, do you want me to haul your ass in to jail for the night?”
Jed swiped a handkerchief across his bloody nose and climbed onto the lowest step. Grady’s father wobbled backward, a trickle of blood seeping from his dustcoated lower lip.
Grady snapped a finger toward his vehicle. “Get in the damn car before I handcuff you.”
His father muttered an obscenity as Grady shoved him in the backseat. He slammed the door and glared at Baker. “Are you all right?
Jed merely grunted.
“You want to press charges?”
Grady narrowed his eyes, wondering why Baker would allow his dad to assault him and get away with it. But as usual when the two men fought, neither Jed nor his father offered an explanation. Although this time the conversation had triggered more questions than usual.
It was senseless to ask though. Something had happened years ago that had caused a permanent rift between the men. Something they refused to talk about.
Judging from their conversation, it had to do with Darlene.
And sooner or later, Grady was going to find out exactly what it was. Then maybe he’d figure out who had killed his sister.
A few minutes later, he pulled up to his dad’s house, disgusted. The Georgian style two-story had once been impressive, almost stately with its front columns, but had deteriorated in the past twenty years from lack of upkeep. Paint peeled from the weathered boards, the shingles from the roof had blown off in the recent storm, and the columns needing painting, a sad testament to his father’s life. “You’d better stay put tonight, Dad,” Grady ordered.
His father wove toward the den, his face ruddy with rage. “You should have left us alone.”
“Sleep it off, Dad.” Grady slammed the door and jogged to his car. Damnit, just as he’d expected, his father had clammed up and refused to talk about his fight with Baker or offer an explanation.
His nerves shot, Grady reached for a cigarette, then remembered he’d quit smoking for the dozenth time this year. Rummaging through the litter of papers on his console, he grabbed a piece of Juicy Fruit gum and shoved it in his mouth instead. The shortest time without his Marlboros had been six days. The longest time, six months.
He automatically veered toward the graveyard beside Crow’s Landing Church, the daisies he’d bought for his little sister’s grave a reminder of the reason he’d started smoking in the first place.
Everything in his life could somehow be related to that one crucial event. And the fact that her killer had never been caught.
Twenty years ago today she had been kidnapped. Twenty years ago tomorrow, they had found her dead. He knew his father was in pain. Hell, so was he. He had lost his entire family that day.
He’d never forgive himself for it either.
If only he hadn’t stopped to hang out with the boys, if he’d come straight home to watch Darlene, she wouldn’t have set across the hollow by herself to see that little friend of hers, Violet. And she wouldn’t be dead.
The small graveyard loomed ahead, shadows of tombstones darkening with age, some graves littered with debris, others better-tended with colorful artificial flowers. Still, the dank air and smell of freshly turned dirt from a new grave enveloped Grady as he forced his rubbery legs to track through the aisles of cement landmarks. It was almost midnight, the day of mourning upon him.
Night sounds twittered and screeched around him, the crunch of his boots snapping twigs and leaves. He knelt and traced his finger over the curved lines of Darlene’s name carved in slick marble, then laid the flowers across the headstone, his gaze straying to her mother’s grave beside her. At least the two of them were together, he tried to take solace in that fact. God only knew where his own mother was. She might be dead for all he knew. His father refused to talk about her.
He reached inside his pocket and removed the bag of marbles he’d purchased earlier at the Dollar General, fingering each colorful ball as he arranged them in a heart shape on top of the grassy mound. A green one with swirls of gold flecks looked almost iridescent like a mother-of-pearl, the cascade of bright reds, oranges, purples and yellows a kaleidoscope of colors against the earth.
“Come on, Grady, play Barbie dolls with me.” Darlene’s childlike voice echoed in his mind. He automatically pressed a hand over his shirt pocket, where he always carried a green marble. He’d refused to play Barbie with her though, he’d been too cool. So, he’d tried to convince her to play marbles instead. She’d never taken to the game, but she had been enchanted with all the colors, and had started collecting marbles, calling them her jewels.
Damn, if he had it to do over again, he would have sucked it up and played dolls with her.
He could still picture her angelic little face as she lined her jewels up on the shelf above her bed, those lopsided red pigtails bobbing, the freckles dancing on her pug nose. “Look, Grady, I’m making a rainbow. The green one looks like my eyes. And this chocolate brown one looks like yours, and this pretty blue one is like Violet’s. And look at this sparkly clear one! I can see through it, just like I can see right through Violet’s eyes sometimes.
Although he didn’t understand their friendship, Darlene had loved the homely Baker girl. He’d been shocked when Violet hadn’t attended the funeral. But Baker had claimed Violet had a breakdown, that he’d had to send her away. And as far as Grady knew, she’d never returned to Crow’s Landing. Maybe she’d gone off and forgotten Darlene.
His life might be different if he’d moved away, too. He might escape the constant reminders of his past. His father. And his guilt. But he didn’t want to escape.
He wanted revenge.
He paced around and around in a wide circle. The moonlight was bright, bright, bright. The light hurt his eyes. Hurt his eyes. Hurt his eyes. But the circle had to be complete.
He raised his arm and tore at the hairs. One, two, three.
No, stop it! He gripped the rocks, inhaling pungent, salty air and the delicious scent of death as he twisted his hands into a frenzy over the jagged surface. Then he ground his palms so hard the pointed rocks tore at his skin. The first prickles of blood seeped from the cuts and trickled down his arms. He raised his fist to study the patterns, the crisscross where the streams of blood met. The angle they flowed onto his palms. The thickening at the base of his hand.
Gi’ga — blood, the force of life. The scarlet color stirred his loins. Excitement sang through his veins. I am the gi’ga-tsuha’li. One cut, two cuts, three —
No, he screamed again. He no longer thought in threes. One was his number.
Three was the first pattern. One for his mommy, one for his daddy, and one for him.
Then he’d learned about another.
But that one had to die.
He imagined her sweet, baby lamb’s face with those big trusting eyes. That day he’d heard another voice in his head, screaming at him to stop. He’d known there were more. Too many more. He had to make them all die.
Let them know he was the chosen one.
But his mommy and daddy found out what he’d done. He hadn’t been careful. No, he’d been stupid, so stupid, and they’d gotten angry. Finally they’d admitted it wasn’t his fault, then they’d called him their little angel. But, after that, they’d kept him locked up at night. He despised being shut up. Hated the bare white walls. Had clawed them until blood streaked down, giving them color. Pretty crimson color.
His mommy needed him now though. Oh, yes, yes, yes. He couldn’t let her down.
Laughter bubbled up inside him, erupting like the blood bursting from an open vein. Like the dark red substance he drew from the sacrificial lambs before they died.
Yes, he was the bloodtaker, the gi’ga-tsuha’li.
He was the good son. The only one who could save the father. And he wouldn’t stop until he did.
His favorite childhood song chimed in his head, “There was one, there were two, there were three little angels…”
Smiling to himself, he reversed the words, “There were ten, there were nine, there were eight little angels, there were seven, there were six, there were five little angels, there were four, there were three, there were two little angels, one little angel in the band.”
Yes, when it was over, there would be only one little angel left.
And it would be him.