Read Mystery Dance: Three Novels Online
Authors: Scott Nicholson
Tags: #Mystery, #detective, #Murder, #noir, #Romantic Suspense, #Harlan Coben, #Crime, #Suspense, #serial killer, #james patterson, #hardboiled
An omnibus edition
By Scott Nicholson
Features the complete text of:
The Skull Ring
Plus bonus material
Copyright ©2010 Scott Nicholson
Haunted Computer Books
“Nobody thrills like Nicholson. Nobody.”–JA Konrath,
“This is one author that aims to kill and never misses.”–Jeremy Robinson,
“Always surprises and always entertains.”–Jonathan Maberry,
“Buy everything he writes. He’s the real deal.”–Bentley Little,
“A psychological thriller that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go, not even at its shocking conclusion.”–Vicki Tyley,
A #1 bestseller in Mystery & Suspense. Twin brothers vie for a family empire built on deceit, dark secrets, and blood, while one woman stands between them and another waits in the shadows.
By Scott Nicholson
Copyright ©2010 Scott Nicholson
Published by Haunted Computer Books
Jacob Wells smelled smoke seventeen seconds before hell opened its door.
The Appalachian night was just cool enough to require a quilt on top of the bedspread, and he’d sought Renee’s body heat beneath the sheet. One of his wife’s legs was tangled in his, the nail of her big toe digging into his ankle. The weight of her head pressed into that familiar space above his armpit and her hair spilled across his shoulder. Drowsy, he tried to remember where he was, then saw the red glaring numbers. 1:14.
The alarm was set for six a.m., an ugly hour that always came too soon. Jacob rarely slept before reaching the long side of midnight. Every night his sleep shrank, his dreams crammed into tighter and darker crevices, his thoughts spiraling like dirty water down a drain. He had failed, and the knowledge had dull teeth that ground him from the guts up.
Tonight, the dream had been of a mirror that he had somehow fallen into, as if it were a silvery, sunlit sea. He tried to drag himself out, because he couldn’t breathe. When he reached out of the mirror, though, his reflection was on the other side, pushing him back down. Desperate, he grabbed his reflection and pulled it into the mirror with him, and they wrestled in that bottomless, soundless void, joining into one writhing mass that sank and sank ever further from the light.
His eyes snapped open to the black sheet of the ceiling. The pillow was damp at his neck. A breeze blew from somewhere, a crack in the door or window, carrying the March odors of mud and daffodils. Renee stirred beside him, nudging him with a sleepy elbow. Her snores were soft and feminine.
Her scent flooded his nostrils, meadow shampoo and the lingering tang of their lovemaking. She had always been clean, a chronic neat freak, almost to the point of obsession. She loathed perfume, though, and was comfortable with her own natural odors. That was one of Jacob’s favorite things about her. He took another sniff, as if he could carry its memory back into his dreams to give him comfort.
The sniff brought unease instead of comfort. Something was out of place in the too-thick air. Jacob pulled himself from drowsiness. No mistake.
They’d had candles on the nightstand, a ritual dating back to their initial shy fumbling in college when soft light hid minor flaws and made pupils attractively large. But the candles were long cold, and this aroma wasn’t thick and waxy.
It had a chemical sting, and beneath that, the brusque body of burning wood.
Jacob swam the rest of the way up from the waters of half-sleep and pushed Renee’s leg away. Maybe one of the neighbors was burning brush. It was the time of year for yard work, when leaves and ice-damaged branches were raked into large piles in that first spring bloom of homeowner energy. But who would start a brush fire an hour after midnight?
Renee mumbled into the pillows where her face had fallen. Jacob swung his legs over the side of the bed, squeaking the springs. He switched on the bedside lamp. On the nightstand, shielded by a slight sheen of dust, was a framed photograph of Mattie. Except for the crooked primary teeth in her grin, she looked like a miniature of Renee–sea-green eyes, reddish-blond hair, a faint splash of freckles on the swells of her cheeks. Jacob looked at the trusting face.
Another photograph was behind it, lost in shadows.
He sniffed again. Smoke, for sure.
He stood, wide awake, the air thicker now and tingling his sinuses. He grabbed his polar fleece robe, still damp from the shower, and hurried to the door.
“Jakie?” Renee mumbled, disoriented amid the piled covers and squinting against the intrusion of light. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know,” he said. They’d locked the door, a habit since Mattie had walked in on them one night two years ago, after which they’d spent fifteen minutes of improvisational theater explaining why grown-ups were silly enough to exercise in bed. Now the lock seemed to work the opposite way, keeping Jacob imprisoned instead of the rest of the world out.
As Jacob fumbled with the lock, a whisper of warm air crawled across his toes.
“What’s that smell?” Renee asked. She was fully awake now, too.
Jacob swung the door open, and that was when hell came calling, rolling forward in a whoosh of yellow and red, fingers and tongues of flame stabbing and licking, Satan’s gate thrown wide in welcome.
The heat singed his eyebrows, the smoke slapped him like an open palm. He raised his arms against the rush of heat.
“Jake!” Renee screamed from the bed.
“Oh, God. Mattie.”
“I’ll get her. You get out.”
He slammed the door closed behind him, hoping it would buy Renee an extra minute. He ducked and scrambled on all fours, keeping his head low where the oxygen was less polluted. The flames crackled like bunched cellophane and he could smell the steam off his bathrobe.
Mattie’s room was three doors down, three easy doors, past the laundry room and the vacant nursery and around the corner, where she shared the largest upstairs room with a dozen stuffed animals, two hundred books, and a wooden locomotive large enough to ride.
Jacob crawled forward, the carpet scuffing his bare knees. The floor was warm, and he wondered how far the fire had spread, if it had already sucked the downstairs into its hungry, blue-white heart. The alarm hadn’t gone off. The smoke detector clung to the ceiling as a mute witness to disaster.
“Mattie.” He licked his lips, throat dry as a crack pipe. He called her name again, and the word sounded like the desperate bleat of a dying sheep.
He passed the laundry room, its door ajar, flames barely making entry there. Before bedtime, Renee had put her work clothes in the dryer, a nylon navy pants suit with a blouse that would look good with a briefcase. If the dryer had ignited, then the room would be gutted. So the fire’s origins were elsewhere.
Not that it mattered where the fire started. All that mattered was where it ended.
Jacob forced himself past the nursery, not daring to slow, because slowing would make him think of the empty crib inside, and he had no time.
The best antidote for failure was pain, and the heat shined his skin, pinked the back of his hands, stretched his forehead taut, and invaded his lungs. Still he crawled.
“Mattie!” he yelled, but the name may as well have been shouted against the swirling walls of a typhoon.
He reached the bend in the hall. The current of air was stronger now as the draft poured up the staircase. The flames leaped with new anger at the influx of oxygen. Jacob was dizzy from smoke inhalation and asphyxia, but he wouldn’t let himself drop to the floor. He couldn’t fail again.
All he had to do was reach Mattie’s room, break the window, and collect her in his arms, then jump two floors into the rhododendron hedge below.
He could do it, though the hairs on his arms were electrified wires and his eyeballs felt like boiled grapes.
Mattie’s door was just ahead, closed against the storm of fire. The great yellow-and-red beast chewed the ceiling, licked paint from the walls, clawed at the stair railing. A light fixture fell, shattering three feet to Jacob’s left. He crawled onward, ignoring the shards of glass gouging his hands and knees.
He would not fail.
The door beckoned, its rectangular shape lost in the shimmering haze. Jacob blinked moisture into his eyes and focused on the doorknob. Its brass reflected the conflagration, a kaleidoscope sunburst, acid lemon, nuclear tangerine.
Ten more feet.
He shoved himself forward, commanded his worthless limbs to work, embraced the pain. His lungs were two bricks of ash, his sinuses raw. In the crackling laughter of the surrounding blaze, Jacob heard soft whispers:
Sleep, surrender, lie down and lose
His eyes begged to be closed. The smoke churned and twisted in dark hurricanes. The golden maelstrom swelled with new passion as it reached the framing lumber behind the walls, tasted pine and found it sweet. The house shook in its first death throes. The smoke detector finally reached critical mass and emitted a piercing staccato of beeps.
The doorknob became Jacob’s grail. Failure’s gravity pressed upon him from all directions, as heavy as molten lead. He squirmed forward like some pathetic primitive creature crawling up from steamy slime. Sense of purpose had almost abandoned him, and his muscles screamed in rebellion as he kept moving.
Because behind it lay everything.
Her birthday was February 3rd. Six weeks ago. He’d given her a 35mm camera and a bird book, Renee had given her a bicycle. The cake was chocolate, the nine candles arranged to form an
. The neighborhood kids sat around the table squealing while Mattie smiled amid the splendor of bright ribbons and wrapping paper. Princess for a day.
Princess for every day, in Jacob’s heart.
He couldn’t surrender.
The flames seemed to whisper his father’s voice:
A Wells never fails
He rose, his body wracked with fever, the flames whining and screaming, pieces of construction falling downstairs, large timbers and shelves and furniture. He could only imagine the chaos below them, heat like liquid, and wondered if the floor would collapse before he made it through Mattie’s door. Steam rose from the carpet, its threads curling and shriveling.
At first Jacob thought Mattie had called out, but the voice was muted, metallic.
The voice came again: “
Jacob had given Mattie a Rock Star Barbie for Christmas that recorded short sound bites. While the quality and tone were the same as pull-string dolls, the newer technology allowed the owner to record bits of song for playback. Mattie and Jacob had a blast playing silly messages back and forth, but she couldn’t know about “Wish me.” The recording erupted into giggles, a perverted mirth that blended into the chaotic and crackling symphony of holocaust.
Broken toys. Nothing but broken toys.
He reached for the doorknob, patted it with his fingers. He knew that if he opened the door, the oxygen would create a backdraft. He wasn’t sure if the draft would blow inward or outward, or how much he’d endanger Mattie with the act.
“Mattie!” he shouted again, his voice lost in fire, becoming the fire, all one now, an angry, all-consuming, sky-eating roar. The detector was an electric hawk, shrieking overhead.
No recording. She was there, alive.
He cupped his blistered hands and yelled. “Move away from the door, honey.”
“Daddy?” Sobs surrounded the word, joined by tears that would evaporate before reaching the floor.
“Move back.” A sock lay by the door, somehow missed by Renee’s latest compulsive clean sweep. He rolled it over his fingers and grasped the knob. It was like sticking his hand in a forge, as if he were trying to meld his fingers into some sort of cold weapon.
The fire crowded behind him like a spectator, swelled, held its breath in waiting.
Jacob twisted the knob and pulled back, the gap in the door showed dark, then yellow and red and blue and white leaped through the opening like twisted and howling sheets of wet metal.
The flames lapped at Jacob, raced over his body, singed the hair on his arms and chest and groin. He fell backward against the hot gale while the fire kicked the door wide. The oxygen lifeblood of the fire pulsed forward in both directions and funneled toward the fuel of the hall. Jacob rolled over, heart heavy as a hearthstone as he crawled once more toward Mattie’s room.