Read Darker Than Midnight Online
Authors: Maggie Shayne
“Town claimed it for back taxes and other money owed a while back. They did some initial repairs, and kept it in tiptop shape since. Were thinking about selling it, but we had a budget surplus this year. I convinced them to offer it to the new police chief, make up for the pay being lower than you could make elsewhere. Told 'em we'd have to do something special to get someone good enough to fill my shoes.”
“Must be some damn big shoes,” Jax muttered. “What are you, a twelve extra-wide?”
“Ahh, it's not so much. Used to be twice this size,” Frankie said. “But an entire wing had to be torn down. Wait till you see inside.” She shut the motor off and got out, making footprints in the snow. She tugged her furry collar up to her ears
and trudged forward, taking a set of keys from her black, leatherlike cop-jacket's pocket.
Jax got out, too, waiting for her parents to join her before hurrying toward the front door. She was nearly there when a large black-and-brown dog lunged out from underneath the front porch, barked twice with its pointy ears laid back, then turned and ran away. It vanished into the woods across the street. Jax just stood there, staring after it and swearing under her breath.
“That was a police dog, wasn't it?” Mariah asked. “I think it's a sign!”
Jax pursed her lips and refrained from correcting her mother. She'd always referred to German shepherds as “police dogs” and always would. “That was one sad-looking case,” Jax said. “Seemed as if it's been living on tree bark and swamp water.”
“Oh, don't worry about
dog.” Frankie shook her head so that her tight silver curls bounced. “He's a menace. We've been trying to collar him for a year without any luck. He's cagey enough to get by on his own.”
Jax tipped her head to one side. “That's odd, isn't it?”
“How so?” Frankie asked.
Jax shrugged. “He's no mongrel, looked like a purebred. He must have belonged to someone once.”
“I didn't know you were a dog lover, Jax,” Frankie said.
“I could care less about dogs.” It was a lie and she knew it, but she didn't want to go blowing her anti-girlie image by painting herself as a bleeding-heart puppy cuddler. “You have a father who's a vet, you pick up a few things, that's all.”
“Well, that mutt may be a purebred, but I can tell you he's one hundred percent pure pain in my backside now. Don't worry, Jax, we won't let him pester you. Come on, come see the house.”
Jax nodded and followed Chief Frankie inside, trying un
successfully to put the dog out of her mind. It wasn't easy. His brown eyes had met hers for just a moment, and managed to beam right past her hard-shell exterior to the soft, mushy parts she didn't let anyone see.
She didn't like those parts, kept them concealed and confined. Mostly because she lived and worked in a man's world and she'd learned to act the part. But she knew, too, it was partly because her sister had been soft. She'd been friendly, open and utterly trusting. Jax had learned at sixteen where those soft parts could get you. In her line of work, and in life in general, a woman just couldn't afford to indulge them.
Still, the whole time Frankie showed her around the house, which was just as gorgeous on the inside, she kept thinking about the dog. And before the tour was finished, she'd decided to pick up a bag of dog food and leave some out for him. Of course, she wouldn't tell anyone. But she'd always had a soft spot for strays.
“Now, the fireplace has been checked over thoroughly. It's ready to use, but there's also a new furnace in the basement that heats the place just fine,” Frankie said.
Jax nodded, and couldn't help imagining the redbrick fireplace aglow with a big fire, even as she walked around the living room. When she got to the far wall, she hugged her arms. “Chilly on this side of the room.” When she spoke she could see her breath. “Whoa, real chilly.”
“Must be the side the wind's blowing on,” Mariah said, smiling. Her mother, Jax realized, wasn't going to find any fault with the house that might become her daughter's new home. No matter what.
“It's always chilly on the east side of the house. I suspect it could use another layer of insulation,” Frankie said. “Upstairs there are three bedrooms and a bathroom. One bathroom down here, as well.”
“More than one cop needs,” Jax said.
“Sure wouldn't be as cramped as your apartment in Syracuse, would it, Cassie?” Mariah asked.
It wasn't really a question.
“Come on, let me show you the kitchen,” Frankie said.
As they trooped through the place, Jax looked back to see her father standing on the far side of the living room, studying the clouds of steam his breath made, a frown etched on his brow.
He glanced her way, softened his face so the frown vanished.
“You okay?” Jax asked.
He nodded and joined her in the dining room. Mariah and Frankie were already in the kitchen, chattering. Benjamin slipped an arm around his daughter's shoulders. “The place seems lonely,” he said. “Almostâ¦sad. I think it needs you.”
“And it would make your mother awfully happy.”
“I know, Dad. I'm considering it, I really am.”
“That's all we can ask.”
She could have told him she was thinking this whole thing a little too good to be true, and trying to figure out a way to find the catch in the entire offer without hurting Frankie's feelings. Hell, they were just going to hand her a house? Something had to be off. If there wasn't, she'd be an idiot not to take the job. Still, as she took the grand tour, liking the place more with every room she saw, she knew there had to be a downside.
Later, as they drove away from the house, Jax noticed a shape peering out from beneath the snow right beside the place. “Is that a foundation?” she asked.
Frankie glanced where she was looking and nodded. “That was the wing that had to be torn down. It was never part of the original structure, anyway. It was added on in the seventiesâseventy-five, I think. Two-car garage and a game room on the ground floor, extra bedrooms up above.”
“So what happened to it? Why'd it have to go? Shoddy construction work?”
Frankie shook her head. “There was a fire couple of years back. Sad story, really. A woman was killed.” She narrowed her eyes on Jax's face. “That's not gonna spook you now, is it?”
“I don't believe in ghosts, if that's what you mean.” Right, so what was that little shiver up her spine just now? she wondered. And deep down in her brain an irritating voice said, “Hey, kid, maybe you just found your downside.”
Frankie brightened. “Good. Because I'd like you to spend your two-week vacation at the house,” she said. “You can shadow me on the job, get a real feeling for what it will be like to live and work here in Blackberry. After that, if you decide to take the job, the house is yours, rent free. If you stay five years, you get the deed, as well.”
“That's an incredibly generous offer, Frankie. Almost too generous.” Jax faced the woman, reminded herself Frankie was something of a kindred spirit, and decided to stop pulling punches. “So what's the catch?”
Frankie held her eyes, probably to make it clear she had nothing to hide. “No catch. It's meant to be an offer that's too good to turn down,” she said. “Of course, the pay isn't the greatest, but it's nothing to sneeze at, either. Best of all, Blackberry's a safe place to be a cop. Nothing bad ever happens here.”
Jax crooked one brow. “Aren't you forgetting your run-in with Mordecai Young last year? I was here for that, Frankie. Remember?”
Frankie's smile died. “Not likely to forget. He murdered my best friend.” She sighed, shaking her head. “God rest your soul, Maudie Bickham.” Then she focused on Jax again. “That was a once in a lifetime event. Honestly, Jax, I mean it. Bad things don't happen in Blackberry.”
Jax nodded, but she thought about the foundation, the fire that had burned a wing of the house. A woman had been killed, Frankie said. Surely that qualified as a “bad thing.” Jax wondered briefly if the pristine purity of Blackberry, Vermont was anything more than a convincing and beautiful illusion.
* * *
A nurse brought River back to his room, speaking softly to him all the way. He checked her name tag, but she was neither a “Judy” nor a “Jensen.” He wasn't really sure why he was checking. When she got him to his room, he looked aroundâeverything here was becoming familiar. The bed. The mesh-lined glass of the single window. The door to the tiny bathroom. He needed to remember what he had to do. That was all he struggled for. To remember what he had to do. Get away. Get out.
“There now, I'm so glad to see you're feeling better this afternoon,” the nurse said, leading him to the easy chair, expecting him to sit down, he realized, when she paused there, just looking at him. So he did. Then she brought out the pills, as he had known she would. She poured water from a pitcher and handed him the tiny medicine cup that held the tablets.
he told himself.
Remember what to do.
He took the pills, drank the water, swallowed them.
“Let's see,” she chirped, as if she were speaking to a four-year-old.
River obediently opened his mouth, lifted his tongue, let her assure herself he'd swallowed the pills.
“Good, good for you, Michael.”
He could have told her to call him River. He'd started out correcting everyone here. No one had called him Michael since he was thirteen years old. Ethan's dad had started it that summer after the rapids had gobbled up his canoe and spit him out onto the shore. But River didn't care what anyone called
him anymore. He wasn't sure who the hell he was, anyway, so what difference did it make?
“Now if you put in a good night, you'll get your privileges back tomorrow. You want to go to the community room, don't you?”
He nodded, tried to force a smile, and just wished she would leave so he could try to make himself cough up the pills before he forgot.
“That's good,” she said. “You just take it easy for tonight. You've had a hard day. Do you need anything before I go?”
“All right then. Good night, Michael.”
He waited until she had closed the door behind her. He heard the lock snap into place.
Focus. The medsâhave to get rid of them.
He got to his feet and went into the bathroom, angry that hurrying wasn't much of an option. He shuffled when he walked. Opening the toilet lid, he leaned over the bowl, stuck a finger down his throat, started to gag.
“Oh, now, Michael. That's no way to behave yourself, is it?”
He straightened fast, but it made him dizzy, and when he spun around he fell, landing on the seat. Which turned out to be a lucky thing, because the orderly standing over him was swinging a knife at him. River's clumsiness caused him to duck the blow that would have slit his throat.
He reacted with the instinct of a veteran cop, not a mental patient. It was almost as if he were standing aside, observing, silently amazed that his years of training hadn't been entirely erased, even by the drugs. His body remembered. It didn't need his mind's coherent instructions to move; it just reacted. He drove his head into the man's belly, shot to his feet as the guy doubled over, clasped his fists together and brought them down as one, hammering the back of the orderly's head.
The man went down hard, his forehead cracking against the toilet seat on the way. And then he just lay there, not moving.
River stared down at him, shocked. His heart was pounding as hard as the drugs would allow.
The drugs! Dammit.
He grabbed up the knife the downed orderly had been wielding, long instinct refusing to let it lie there beside the man. Then he shoved the limp body out from in front of the toilet, and tried again to vomit. He managed to bring up a little. Enough, he hoped. Prayed. Let it be enough.
The orderly still hadn't moved. The toilet seat was cracked, River realized, and so was the bowl underneath it. Water was seeping onto the floor.
River started to shake as he knelt beside the man, checking for a pulse. He wasn't sure he'd be able to find it in his condition even if there had been one. So many drugs floating through his bloodstreamâeven if he had brought up the most recent batch. Still, he tried to find a pulse. But he didn't think the man was alive.
He sank onto the floor, rocking back and forth, trying to organize his thoughts. He had to get out of here. He had to. But God, it was so hard to think. Maybe if he'd managed to avoid swallowing his meds for a few days. Maybe then he could haveâ
Not then. Now. You have to get out of here now.
Somehow, he latched onto a thought, a goal. And slowly, clumsily, he began to remove the fallen man's clothes. All of them, even the lanyard around his neck with the magnetically stripped key card. The front of the card bore a photo of the orderly. His name had been Kyle. Kyle W. Maples.