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Authors: Maggie Shayne

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BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
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With what felt like superhuman effort, he got to his feet again and turned in a slow circle, studying the intact part of his house. Well, not
house. Not anymore.

It stood there, dark and silent. Not a light on in the place, no car in the driveway. The house exuded emptiness. As he moved closer he realized there were no curtains in the windows. So maybe his house was still empty. Hell, he didn't wonder at that. Who would want to live in a place with so much horror in its past?

No one. Certainly not him. When it had gone to the town in lieu of taxes he hadn't even cared. He never intended to set foot there again.

And now he was doing just that.

He walked up onto the porch and tried the door. It was locked, naturally. Sighing, he lowered his head and left the porch. He walked around the place, tracking through the snow, until he reached the back door. And by then he was barely holding his eyes open. There was no time for subtlety here. He wasn't going to be able to stay on his feet much longer. He tapped a windowpane with his knuckles, then tapped it a little harder. The third time, he hit it hard enough to break the glass, then he reached through, scratching his arm on the way. He found the doorknob, the lock, flipped it free, opened the door, and stepped into the kitchen.

He stood, none too steadily for a moment, looking around the place. It felt so familiar he almost collapsed from the force of the memories rushing at him. And he could only be grateful it was too dark to see much, or it might have been even worse.

“Just get on with it, already.”

There was no kitchen table. No chairs. No place where he could sit to remove his shoes, so he sank onto the floor and wrestled the frozen, snow-coated things off his feet. He'd have killed for a pair of warm, dry socks. His feet were heavy stumps with hardly any feeling left in them, and he sat there for a moment, rubbing them until he felt the intense sensation of needles pricking them all over as the feeling slowly returned.

His feet burned when he managed to get back up on them, and the blood rushed into them. He found a light switch and snapped it on, but nothing happened. Frowning, he limped to the refrigerator, but found it empty, spotless and unplugged. Its door was propped slightly open by a foam block sitting in the bottom.

Clearly, no one had lived in the house for a while. Maybe not since the fire, though someone had made repairs. Maybe
the Fates had finally decided to cut him a break. He stumbled through the kitchen, found the stairway and limped up it. It was even darker in the upstairs hallway, but moonlight flooded through the windows of the first bedroom he reached. It spilled onto a neatly made bed as if angels were pointing the way for him. He almost laughed at the absurdity of the notion, even as he moved forward, clasping the comforter in his eager hands, tugging it back, seeing the thick pillows awaiting his tired head.

He wanted to collapse into the bed right that instant, but managed to hold off long enough to struggle free of his wet, frozen clothes. Then, at last, he crawled into the bed, pulling the covers tight around him, tucking them in on all sides and around the bottoms of his feet. He lay on his side, wrapped in a soft cocoon, and he was still waiting for warmth to seep into his bones when he fell into a deep sleep.

* * *

Jax stopped off at her parents' house to pick up the lanterns her father had promised to loan her, but she did so largely to soothe her mother's constant worry. She couldn't blame her mom for worrying about her. She'd lost one daughter, so it was natural she would become overprotective of the other. Even though Jax was on the fast track to thirty, and a decorated police officer, her mother hadn't managed to make the leap. She still worried, still fussed.

Probably always would.

Carrie had been the one who'd needed fussing over—the one who'd thrived on it. She'd been very much a girlie-girl, while Cassie had been the tomboy. It chafed when her mother fussed, but not so much that she would ever complain.

Jax wasn't worried in the least. She could handle herself. She'd kicked the asses of countless perps who thought they could outdo her on the streets. And probably an even greater number of male colleagues in the gym, when they underesti
mated her abilities. A few responded by developing a grudging respect. Most just got their boxers in a twist over having their ultrafragile male egos bruised, and became more hostile than ever.


It was a fine line she'd learned to walk. Frankly, it was a damn tightrope, and she resented
to walk it. Moreover, she was tired of it. Here, it would be different. Instead of an entire city PD full of men to whom she had to prove herself even while tiptoeing over their machismo, she would have three fellow officers. She could make this work. She knew she could. Without tiptoeing, bowing, scraping
leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

It was going to be great.

As she pulled her dependable red Ford Taurus into the driveway of the pitch-dark house, she didn't feel a single hint of apprehension about going inside, spending the night there alone. She had her flashlight—always carried one in the car—and her personal handgun strapped to her side, not that she expected to need it. She had a spare gun in the glove compartment for emergencies. There wouldn't be any, of course. After all, nothing bad ever happened in Blackberry.


The driveway was freshly plowed. Frankie must have made a phone call or her father had sent someone over. There wasn't a lot of snow on the ground, not yet. Six inches of packy, rapidly melting white stuff, with hardly any base to it. Stones and dirt showed through where the plow blade had scraped. She pulled her car to a stop close to the porch, left the headlights on, hit the trunk release button, then got out and went around to the back.

She took the megasize dog dishes from their blue plastic Wal-Mart bag. She'd made a stop on the way back from her parents' at a store they had assured her was almost always
open. She'd purchased some bottled water, a giant bag of dog food, a windup alarm clock, the dog dishes and, most essential of all, a small coffeemaker with filters, a pound of ground roast and a travel mug. She was good to go. The humongous, thick, cushy dog bed had been an afterthought. Another chink in her armor.

She filled the dish with food and left the big bag of dog food there in the trunk for the night. No point bringing it inside and leaving it out where it would attract any curious mice or chipmunks that might have taken up residence in the vacant house.

She took the other purchases out, threading her arm through the plastic handles of the overloaded bag, wedging the dog bed between her inner arm and her body, and, dog dish in one hand, flashlight in the other, she closed the trunk. Then Cassie walked over the nicely plowed driveway toward the porch, seeing that whoever had scraped away the snow had taken a shovel to the sidewalk, too, and even cleaned off the front steps. Nice.

She set the items down, taking only her flashlight and the dog bed with her as she trudged through the snow to the spot where the dog had emerged from underneath the porch today. A couple of boards were missing, giving the shepherd a handy entrance. She shone the light inside, but there was no sign of the dog right now. Still, she shoved the dog bed through the opening, pushing it back as far as she could reach. The cover could be unzipped, removed and washed. The inner part was waterproof and cedar filled. You could empty it out and refill it with fresh stuffing if you wanted. Not that she would. Only a real sucker would go to that much trouble for a stray.

She backed out of the opening once she was satisfied the bed was back far enough to stay dry and be sheltered from the wind. Then she got the bowl of food and tucked it inside the opening, as well.

She decided against filling the water dish just now. It would only freeze overnight, and she had no idea if the dog would be back. He'd probably become accustomed to eating snow or drinking from an icy stream somewhere. Water could wait until tomorrow. She paused a moment, to turn and look around in the darkness, seeing plenty of tracks in the snow around the house, some made by her dad as he'd checked the place out from one end to the other earlier today. Others no doubt made by the big dog snooping around. He'd be back. She was sure of it.

She returned to the car for her duffel bag, in which she'd packed what she hoped were enough clothes for a two-week stay. Slinging it over her shoulder, she returned to the porch, picked up her shopping bag, got out the keys Frankie had given her, and let herself in through the front door.

Damn, but she liked this house. Bathed in moonlight, the cozy living room spread out before her like an old friend opening its arms. The walls were a deep forest-green, the woodwork trim and floorboards, knotty pine. She crossed the room and set her shopping bag on the stone hearth, then knelt to remove the screen. A fire lay ready; a handful of logs were stacked nearby. Another thoughtful surprise from Frankie, or more likely, one of her boys in blue.

She dropped her duffel and dug in her shopping bag for the long-snouted lighter she'd picked up, then flicked it and touched it to the waiting papers. They caught, curling and blazing up. She sat there and watched the fire take off, its flames feeding on the newspapers, then the kindling and then licking hungrily at the larger logs cleverly stacked in a teepee shape overtop. She replaced the screen and sat a while longer, holding out her hands to feel the warmth seeping into them, into her body. It felt good. As the room grew warmer she took off her coat and hung it from a doorknob.

When she could safely add more logs without risk of put
ting out the burgeoning flames, she added several all at once, hoping to create enough heat to warm her even in the upstairs bedroom, and ensure there would be warm, glowing coals when she woke up in the morning.

The far side of the living room was still just as cold, though. She walked along the wall, one hand out, feeling for a draft or some other source for the unnatural chill. But she couldn't find one. That was the side of the house that used to extend farther, she recalled. The one that had burned.

Shivers danced up her spine as she paused near the window. Something caught her eye, and she held her breath, leaned closer to the glass and peered outside. For just an instant she'd glimpsed something—a shape, a vague sense of flowing white fabric. But of course, there was nothing there. Probably a trick of the firelight on the glass.

Sighing, she reached for her new alarm clock, set it by her watch, wound it tight and put the alarm on 6:00 a.m. She wanted to arrive at the Blackberry PD bright and early, and she had to leave time to stop by her parents' place for a shower and one of her mother's high-calorie breakfasts on the way.

Jax was smiling as she hoisted her duffel and flashlight, and walked up the stairs, into the first bedroom. The moon was high now, but a corner could still be seen from the very top of one of the bedroom windows, spilling a small amount of light into the room. It touched the bottom of a bed, and the blue-and-green-patterned comforter Frankie had contributed to the cause.

Jax set her flashlight on the floor and peeled her sweatshirt over her head. Cool air touched her skin—too cold to take off much more, she thought. She'd keep the T-shirt on, maybe her socks, too. But the shoulder holster and sidearm, jeans and suede Columbia boots had to go. She took off the holster first, setting it on the nearby dresser, then bent to untie the first boot. She paused there, because she heard a sound in the room.

A sound she should have noted when she'd first come in, but she supposed she'd been moving around, making noise of her own. In a break between motions, as she reached for her shoelace, she heard it.


A long, slow, relaxed exhale.

A broken, unsteady inhale.

An unnatural pause.

A long, slow exhale.

A soft moan.


Jax's hand snapped around the cool metallic grip of her Maglite flashlight. She yanked it up even as she straightened, and aimed its eye at the bed, where the breathing was coming from, training her own eyes that way as well, while reaching to the dresser with her free hand.

There was a man sound asleep in her bed. Her fingers closed on the gun, sliding it smoothly from its holster. Her heart pounding in her chest, she inched closer to the bed.

“Hey! Hey you, wake up!”

There was another low moan, and the man moved a little, then snuggled deeper into the covers with a sigh. He had a face carved of granite. Bones that were unnaturally prominent, but would be sharply delineated even under a normal layer of flesh.

She used her foot to nudge his shoulder, pushing him from his side onto his back, and she saw his collarbones and winced. He had to be a homeless person, though he would be the first one she'd encountered here in Blackberry. She had begun to think they didn't have any.

“Wake up, dammit!”

Eyes flew open, stark and surprised, first confused and then intense in the glow of her flashlight. There was something riveting about them. Something familiar. And then she real
ized what it was. They held that same wary, mistrusting look she'd seen in the stray dog's eyes. And they were just as brown.

“What the hell are you doing in my house?”

BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
5.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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