Authors: Maggie Shayne
It took forever, the better part of an hour, River thought, or maybe longer. But eventually, he was dressed in the orderly's white uniform, with the hunting knife hidden in a deep pocket and the lanyard around his own neck. The orderly was wear
ing River's own powder-blue patient pajamas. They were on him crookedly, the top inside out, but it didn't matter. He'd done the best he could.
River lifted the dead man's head by its hair, and grimacing, smashed his face on the toilet seat three times, hard enough to obliterate his features.
When he finished, he managed to empty the remaining contents of his stomach without any trouble at all.
Sighing, breathless, he turned to the sink, washed his face and rinsed his mouth. Then he wet his hands, smoothed down his hair as best he could, wiped the spittle from his chin.
Have to get out. But how? The door's locked from the outside.
Get a nurse to open it. Get a nurse to come in.
Nodding, River hit the bathroom's emergency call button.
After a moment, a nurse's voice came on. “What is it, Mr. Corbett?”
He drew a breath, swallowed hard. He was forgetting something, more than likely. He wasn't in any condition to plan an escape that would work. But he had to try. “Iâ¦I fell. I'mâ¦hurt.”
He released the button and went back into the room, standing against the wall, beside the door. He could hear the nurse's voice coming over the speaker, asking if he were all right, then telling him she would be there promptly. When the lock on the door clicked, he pressed his back to the wall, so that when the door swung open, it hid him.
The nurse paused in the doorway at the sight of the legs sticking out from the open bathroom door. Then she rushed into the bathroom, and he heard her whisper, “Oh, my God,” as he slipped out of his room and down the hall.
Within seconds, staff members were rushing toward his room, barely noticing one lone orderly in the corridor, moving in the opposite direction. He found the stair door, used the
key card that hung from the orderly's lanyard to unlock it, and took the stairs rather than the elevators. All the way down, all the way to the basement garage, where his footsteps echoed in the cool, exhaust-scented air.
God, it was getting harder and harder to walk. To focus. Maybe some of the meds had dissolved before he threw them up. Or maybe he was just tired. He didn't know what to do next, and he groped in the orderly's pockets as if for an answer. His hands closed around a set of keys, and he pulled them out and stared at them.
Car keys? They had a remote device on them. The kind with the button you could press to start your car from a distance, another to unlock the doors and yet another that had an emblem of a horn on it. Frowning, River pressed that button and heard, in the distance, two short beeps.
Blinking, trying to focus, he followed the sound, thanking his lucky stars. After a while, he hit the button again, and again the car's horn sounded, guiding him in. It was a small Toyota. Yellow. He hit the unlock button and got behind the wheel. And he knew damn well he shouldn't be driving, but he had no choice.
It was a strain to steer the vehicle. Had another car come along he would have surely hit it, or hit one of the parked cars trying to avoid it. But no other car came, and finally, he was at the gate, where a striped bar blocked his exit, and a little box with a blinking yellow light stood beside him.
He nearly panicked. There was a man inside the small booth, smiling at him and shaking his head, then he pointed at the box and held up a little card.
Right. Put the card in the slot in the box. That's all. He took the lanyard off his neck, turned to thrust the key card into the box and banged his hand against the closed window. Swallowing his panic, he put the window down, tried again. He put the card into the slot. Pulled it back out. The gate rose. The
man in the booth waved at him. River waved back, tried to smile, and struggled to steer the car out of the garage and onto the long strip of pavement that wound away from the Vermont State Mental Hospital.
He pressed the accelerator a little harder and left the place behind.
When he made it to the highway, he hesitated for one brief moment, wondering where on earth he was going to go where they wouldn't find him. Because eventually, they were going to realize the dead man in his room was not Michael “River” Corbett. Hell, they'd probably call what he'd done back there murder.
That would be two on the list. Three, he reminded himself. He mustn't forgetâcouldn't forgetâthe baby. Three murders.
It didn't matter if he was found, if he was caught, if he ended up deadânothing mattered except learning the truth. He had to know what had happened the night of the fire. He couldn't have murdered his wife and his child.
For a moment, as he sat there, turn signal blinking incessantly, he closed his eyes, and it came rushing back to him as if it were happening all over again.
He found himself lying on the lawn in the cool green grass, surrounded by searing heat and light and a stench that burned his lungs. Rex was there, licking his face, whining plaintively. And even as he slowly fought to grasp what was happening, he realized he'd had another damn blackout. Yet another episode when he lost minutes, sometimes hours of his life, only to return to himself with no idea of what he'd done during that time. He patted the dog's head. “Okay, boy, okay. I'm back.”
But this time was different. He'd felt it even before he struggled to sit up, and then leaped to his feet at the sight of his beautiful home going up in flames.
He screamed his wife's name, lunged forward, only to be
clasped by a pair of strong hands that held him back. “Easy, Mr. Corbett. Easy. We're doing all we can.”
He blinked up at the face of the firefighter, a young man, one he didn't recognize, though he'd met most of the men in Blackberry by then. Rex was barking at the man, and he told the dog it was all right, to quiet down.
Rex sat obediently, but still whined every now and then.
“Thanks,” the firefighter said, and then the young man's face changed. It turned ugly as he sniffed. Then he looked at the ground beside River's feet and his eyes widened.
River looked, too. A gasoline can lay there, toppled onto its side, no cap in place. A high-heeled shoe lay beside it, bright orange in the flashing lights.
It might be Steph's shoe. He didn't recognize it, but God knew she had so manyâmaybe she got out already.
“Just why is it you've got gas on you, pal?” the firefighter asked.
River frowned, and then he smelled the gas, as well. Not just from the fumes that open can emitted. The smell of gas was coming from him. From his hands. From his clothes.
“I think you'd better come with me, Mr. Corbett,” the firefighter said. And then he took River by the arm and walked him toward the flashing lights of Frankie Parker's police car, a black-and-white SUV.
A horn blew, jerking River from his muddled thoughts and gap-riddled memories. He looked into the rearview mirror and saw a car behind him, the driver waiting impatiently to get on the highway. Sighing, he flicked his own signal light off again, opting instead to take back roads. Less chance of killing someone. God knew he didn't need any more blood on his hands. And he knew the way. He knew the back roads of Vermont so well he could find his way even from within the thick chemical clouds in his brain.
If he'd murdered Stephanie, he deserved whatever he got.
But dammit, he had to know. He had to know the truth. And there was only one place where he would find it.
He had to go back home to Blackberry.
That was where all the secrets were buried.
Dawn shouted the word and Bryan hit the brakes of her Jeep. It skidded a little on the road, then came to a stop right in front of the empty, beautifully painted Victorian house that sat alone a few yards away.
“What?” Bryan asked. “What's wrong?”
He knew something was. Something had been wrong for months now, and she was running out of ways to deny it, or avoid it, or block it out.
She swallowed hard, tried not to notice the worry in his dark eyes, or the way his hair had fallen over his forehead, making her want to smooth it away. He hadn't cut it since they'd started college. She liked it this way.
“There was something in the roadâ¦.” She watched his face, knowing immediately there had been nothing there. Nothing
had been able to see, anyway. Certainly not a woman in a white nightgown, holding a baby in her arms. Certainly not that.
Closing her eyes, she shook her head. “Sorry, Bry. Iâit was just a squirrel. I didn't mean to scare you.”
He sighed in relief, seemed to relax visibly. “You're wound awfully tight lately, Dawn. I'm really glad you're gonna spend
Thanksgiving break at the inn with Beth and my dad.” He smiled. “And me.”
She shrugged and chose to ignore the final part of his comment. He knew she needed to cool things off between them. He didn't know whyâpretended to accept her decision and be fine with it. But he wasn't fine. She'd hurt him and she knew that. If there were any other wayâ
“You sure you're okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. I get a little torn. It's tough, trying to find time to spend with both familiesâbreaks from college are few and far between.”
He nodded. “At least your adoptive mom is cool with you spending time with your birth mom,” he put in. “That helps.”
It also helped that her birth mother, Beth, was married to Bryan's dad, Joshua. Or it would have helped, if she weren't trying so hard to put some distance between herself and Bryâfor his sake, mostly.
“Let's get going. Beth and Josh are waiting for us,” she said.
Bryan set the Jeep into motion. But as they drove away, Dawn couldn't stop her gaze from straying back to that dark, lonely house. And as she did, she saw the woman again, a filmy, nearly transparent shape in the night. Not real, Dawn knew. She wasn't real at all. None of them were.
It's not going to work, you know,
You're never going to make it work, Father. Never.
* * *
The best restaurant in Blackberry, the Sugar Tree, was a two-story log cabin with picture windows that looked out on to a rolling, snow-covered lawn. In the summer, the hostess told Jax, there were glorious flowers and blossoming trees, a tiny pond with a fountain in the center, and outdoor tables. But this time of year, all the fun was indoors. The second floor was loft-style on all four sides, leaving the center of the place open clear to the rafters. It was a hell of a place.
The hostess seated them at a table near the huge stone fireplace with a window nearby, leaned closer and said, “Welcome back to Blackberry, Lieutenant Jackson. We sure hope you like it enough to stay.” She sent her a wink. “Your waitress will be right over to take your drink orders. Enjoy your dinner.”
Jax lifted her brows and sent a look at the three coconspirators who sat around the circular table. “So, does the whole town know what I'm doing here?”
“Honey,” Frankie said, “this is Blackberry. The whole town probably knows what time you arrived and what your mother made you for breakfast.”
“Small towns,” Jax said with a shake of her head.
“It's not all bad,” her mom told her. “People may know a lot of your business, but not all of it. It's nice that they care enough to want to know what you're willing to share, but also enough to know when to leave it alone.”
Jax shot a look at her father.
“She means they don't pry here,” her father interjected. “I've confided in Frankie about my past. But I've seen no sign that it's gone any further.”
“It hasn't,” Frankie assured him. “Nor will it.”
He nodded. “I don't deserve your loyalty, Frankie, but I do appreciate it.”
“Of course you deserve it.” Frankie patted his hand across the table. “We've all done things we wish we could undo.”
“Few as much as I,” he said softly.
“Dad, you paid for what you did.”
He met Jax's eyes, and for a moment they were so dark, so sullen, she didn't even recognize them. But then he looked away. Her father was a haunted man. Sometimes she wondered if he knew the truthâbut no. He couldn't possibly. It would kill him if he knew.
Mariah said, “You've had all day to think it over, Cassie.
Don't keep us in suspense any longer than you have to. Have you made a decision yet?”
Jax tore her worried gaze from her father, sent her mother a nod and a smile, then focused on the chief of police. “I've decided to take you up on your offer to stay in the house and shadow you on the job for the next two weeks. Andâhell, there's not much point playing cutesy, is there? Unless something really troubling crops up, or you decide to withdraw the offer, I imagine I'll be accepting the job when the two weeks are up.”
“Hot damn!” Frankie said with a smile. “Well, this calls for a celebration!” Even as she said it, a pretty young waitress arrived, dressed in black pants with a knife-sharp crease, spotless white blouse, red ribbon tied in a bow at her collar, and carrying an order pad in her hand.
“Champagne?” Frankie asked the others.
“I prefer a nice cold beer,” Jax said. “In the bottle.”
“Ahh, me, too,” Frankie said. “But make mine an N.A., in a frosted mug.”
“Mariah and I will have wine. A nice merlot. You choose,” Ben told the waitress.
The girl smiled brightly and trotted off to get the drinks. Jax said, “I'm kind of looking forward to spending the night at the house tonight.”
“Tonight?” her mother asked.
“Sure. Why not?”
“Well, the power's not turned on. There's no phone yet, no heatâ¦.”
“I can have the utilities turned on fast,” Frankie said. “But not that fast. By tomorrow, for sure.” She shrugged. “On the other hand, I've already got a bed set up in the master bedroom. Even took over some fresh sheets and blankets for you, got it all made up and ready. No other furniture in the place yetâI planned to do that tomorrow, as well.”
“You don't need to furnish the house, Frankie. That's asking too much,” Jax said.
“Oh, I won't be. Not all by myself. Your parents have some things in storage, and several others around town have items they want to contribute. I mean, you'll want your own things once you decide to make it your permanent home, but these will do for your two-week trial period,” Frankie said with a smile, as if she knew damn well Jax would be staying.
“You should stay with us tonight, hon,” Mariah said. “It's not safe to be in that house all alone.”
Jax put a hand over her mother's on the table. “It'll be an adventure. Like camping out when we were kids.”
“Carrie always hated it,” Mariah said softly.
“Only because I always managed to find something slimy to put in her sleeping bag before sunup. Frogs, lizardsâ”
“You were such a brat.” Her mother turned her hand over, closing it around Jax's.
“I'll have the fireplace for heat. Dad, you can loan me a couple of your lanterns. It'll be fun.”
Mariah looked to her husband as if for backup. But Benjamin was studying his daughter and nodding in reluctant approval. “She's a grown woman, a police officer, Mariah. She'll be fine.”
He nodded, smiling slightly.
The waitress arrived with their drinks and handed them around. Jax twisted the cap off her longneck bottle. Frankie lifted her mug. “Here's to the newest resident of Blackberry,” she said. “Welcome home, Jax.”
“Welcome home,” her parents echoed.
They clanked their drinks together as the waitress hovered, ready to take their orders.
* * *
Driving the dead orderly's car had become more and more difficult, and finally impossible. The third time River veered off the road, and went skidding through the slush on the shoulder, he'd taken out two mailboxes. At first, he thought he'd hit two human beings. It shook him too much to continue. He didn't want to kill anyone else. He didn't want to end up dead himselfânot until he found the answers he needed to find, at least.
Besides, he was pretty sure he'd been seen. Another car had passed, heading in the opposite direction, just as he'd lost control that last time. The driver probably called the cops. Probably reported him as a drunk driver. Maybe not.
Didn't matter. He couldn't drive anymore.
He steered the car up a side road, where the only other tracks in the snow had been made by a logging truck, by the looks of them. And then he drove until the tires spun in the snow.
After that, he got out and took a look around. His mind kept wandering, but he managed to keep tugging it back on track. He knew where he was. In a tall pine forest outside Blackberry. Five miles to town, on foot, but less if he cut through the woods. It had been a while since he'd spent any time in the woods.
He used to, though. All the time. Him and Ethan. When they were kids. The trips with Ethan's dad. Camping and hiking. As adults, they'd bought a hunting cabin together, the two of them. It wasn't far from hereâtoo far to walk, though. An hour by car. It had been their getaway. Stephanie called it their “He-Man Woman Haters Club.” God, they'd had some good times there.
River stopped walking, vaguely aware he'd let his mind wander again. He wasn't sure which way he'd gone, had to check his tracks in the snow to tell which direction the road was. “Have to stay focused,” he muttered. He managed to get his bearings. The fire trail was off to his left. He headed for
it, knowing it cut kitty-corner through the southeastern edge of Blackberry and ended at the pond across the street from his house.
He was weak, he realized as he set off again. Every step in the packed snow was an effort, and every steamy breath came harder. It was probably no wonder. He'd done nothing but sit in a hospital for a year. The meds had killed his appetite months ago, to the point where only the threat of a feeding tube forced him to down a few bites of the meals that were brought to him, and even that small amount made his stomach buck in rebellion. Four miles. Surely he could manage that much.
He did, but by the time he emerged from the woods across the street from his long-lost home, he was so cold he'd stopped shivering. No coat. He should have taken that into account. The orderly's shoes were a size too small, and designed for padding softly through hospital corridors, not for trudging through snow. River's feet had long since gone numb, so his stumbling gait had more than just a chemical cause.
It was night; he couldn't guess how late, but it wasn't dark. The full moon hung low, spilling its milky light over the snow, over his house. Or what remained of it. He noted the absence of the entire wing, but also noted that the place looked to be in excellent condition, given what had happened.
The square, main part of the house remained, pristine white with those green shutters and purplish trim, colors Steph had chosen. The big oak door. It had an arched, stained-glass panel above that matched the slender ones to either side. He looked up higher, at the tall, narrow bedroom windows on the second floor. One of those bedrooms had been his and Stephanie's. Another was going to be the nursery. The wing had held a two-car garage and a huge family room, with guest rooms upstairs. One of those guest rooms was the room where Stephanie had died.
Gone now, except for bits of the foundation showing
through the snow. Vanished, like his life. And any possible reason he might have had for living it.
He sank to his knees in the snow, braced his hands in its frigid depths to keep from falling facedown. God, he was cold. And dizzy. And so very tired. The walk had drained him. He hadn't walked more than a few yards at a stretch during his time in the hospital. From his room to the community room. More often just within the confines of his room, where he'd preferred to stay alone. He never had to walk to the isolation room, the proverbial “rubber room,” where they took him when they decided he had become agitated or violent. He had found himself there a number of times, confined in a straitjacket. Ethan would tell him the things he'd done, but he wouldn't remember them. It was sheer hell to finally realize he was capable of violence during his blackouts. He would never have believed it if Ethan hadn't told him himself, witnessed it himself.
His hands were going numb. The wind burned his face and ears. He sat up slowly, his fogged mind telling him he had to find shelter. A warm place to sleep. If he stayed where he was, he'd likely be dead by morning.