A Taste of... Cold Grave
Five Years Ago…
Roger Feldman lifted the ball cap off his head, squinting as the hot sun beamed down. Officially, it was the first day of fall, but Mother Nature didn’t care about calendars. It was downright steamy outside.
Wiping the sweat from his forehead onto his long-sleeved shirt, he grabbed another nail from the box. Holding the point against a new pine board that was a bright yellowish-tan compared to the gray wood of the rest of the fence, in two quick swings, he buried the nail to the head and picked up another nail.
The rhythmic pounding of his hammer on wood echoed as it drifted into the forest around him. Roger stopped mid-swing to take in the view that still left him in awe after all these years.
He lost his wife shortly after his fiftieth birthday and had balked at the thought of starting over with another woman when everyone began to suggest dating. There could be no other Nora, and he had no desire to even attempt to replace her. Instead of trying, he sold their house and moved up to Bartlett Woods. Between the life insurance and his retirement, Roger had a nest egg that would last him a good long time.
As much as he missed Nora, life was good. Almost fifteen years had passed, and he still had more than half the money left over, and his storeroom was filled with neatly organized shelves of canned goods, toiletries, and emergency supplies. Roger was ready for anything.
Everything except the recent influx of new neighbors.
It’s all that Caroline’s fault.
He shook his head. Not Caroline. Carol.
Scowling at his increasing confusion, he pulled off one glove, stretching his arthritic aching fingers while he searched his memory for the name. “Cara.” The name felt right this time.
It was Cara Covington who had divided and sold her land shortly before she passed away. Until that sale, there’d only been a handful of people living in Bartlett Woods, and even then, they were so far apart Roger could take long walks in the woods without seeing another living soul. But that had all changed, and Roger didn’t like change.
Growling under his breath at the injustice of having his peace on Earth disturbed by noisy neighbors, he picked up the hammer again and reached for the box of nails.
“Where in the heck?” He searched the surrounding area, but there was no box of nails. “Doggone, I know they were right here a minute ago.”
Shrugging the misplacement off, he leaned the hammer against the fence before heading into the house. On the table sat a large box that held twelve individual boxes of nails—a case. The box he’d lost somewhere outside was new, but he could use another one until he found the first set.
He rounded the table and froze in his tracks, his lips parting in surprise. A familiar open box of nails sat right on the table, along with the hammer he’d just been using.
“I didn’t come inside.” His thin voice echoed across the hardwood floors in the sparsely furnished cabin. “Did I?”
He rushed to the window, but the distance was too far to make out anything more than the blurry outline of the fence line. Roger sighed, going back to the table and picking up the hammer and nails before setting them back down again.
A good walk always clears the mind. Nora’s voice filled his head so clearly, his heart skipped a beat.
“Nora.” He spun, reaching out for her.
But the kitchen was empty. The only remnant of Nora was a faded cross-stitched dishtowel that hung from the handle of the oven.
Despair bloomed in his chest as his throat tightened. Closing his eyes, he tried to conjure up an image of her face, but nothing would come. Had he forgotten his precious Nora’s face? As he focused on retrieving her image with all his might, tears welled in his eyes.
His fist hitting the table made him jump. “Dammit.”
With shaking hands, Roger stalked across the room to the bookshelf where he kept the photo albums neatly arranged by the year written on their spines. He dragged his fingertips over each one, the need to feel something Nora had touched strong.
She had created the last photo album not long before her death. When he was packing their things months after the funeral, his daughter had brought it to him.
“Dad? I found a gift in Mom’s closet with your name on it.” His daughter, amazingly an adult and in college, turned from the closet door, a happy glint in her eyes despite the color having drained from her face.
Sitting on the bed he’d shared with Nora for thirty years, he held her favorite white cardigan in his hands. “A gift?”
“Here, Dad. It says, ‘Happy Birthday, Love Nora’ on the tag.” Maisie smiled encouragingly. “You should open it.”
His heart leapt as he stared at the large box, wrapped carefully in what Nora would call masculine gift paper. He wanted to reach out and rip open the box, let his eyes feast on what was inside. At the same time, he wanted to bash it up against the wall. He couldn’t do this without Nora. Still.
“I don’t think I can, hon. It’s too soon.”
“Dad, she’s been gone for six months. And you were supposed to open it on your birthday and didn’t.”
He hadn’t been able to. Roger inhaled deeply and blinked to stem the flow of tears. “It could be six months or six years. Losing her is killing me, Maisie.”
“It’s not easy for me either. But you can do this, Dad. At least see what it is.”
“I know what it is.” Maisie recoiled at his sharp tone, and Roger lowered his head. “I’m sorry. I know this isn’t easy for you either. Your mom was my first love, and after thirty years together, I’m not sure how to go on without her.”
“You’ll figure it out. I believe in you.”
Blinking against the memory, the leather binding was cool beneath his fingertips. He’d taken out the final album and made himself comfortable on the couch while lost in the past. Which was just fine. His daughter was everything to him, and every moment with her was worth reflecting on.
He opened the photo album, the spine cracking in protest. At the first glimpse of an eight-by-ten of Nora smiling up at him, he closed his eyes for a second, relieved that the photo brought her back to him in his mind. Opening them again, he read the note in permanent marker on the bottom of the photo. Her once graceful handwriting was wavy, her hand too weakened by illness to write neatly.
I love you always and forever,
He chuckled at the absurdity of her signing her last name. As if he would forget that. He’d forgotten a lot of things, but he would never forget Nora.
The picture had been taken a week before her fiftieth birthday. She was the picture of health, with bright hazel eyes, curly brown hair, and cheeks that were full and perfectly rounded. The sight of her took his breath away, as it had their entire marriage. But this time, it was as much the pain of her absence as her striking beauty.
Just a month after the photo was taken, her doctor had scheduled an appointment to discuss test results in his office. That should’ve been Roger’s first clue that something wasn’t right.
Nora’s smile was wide as she sat down across the desk from the doctor. Her death grip on Roger’s fingers as he took a seat next to her the only thing that gave away her nervousness.
After sitting in silence that seemed to stretch on for an eternity, the doctor finally lifted his gaze from Nora’s medical file and let out a sigh.
“Just tell us what it is, please.” Nora straightened her shoulders. “I can handle it.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that, because fighting back is just as much about your attitude as it is about the medicine you receive. That’s not to say this won’t be a difficult battle, but I have faith in you.” He turned the top sheet of paper around, using the tip of his pen to point to test results printed in vibrantly colored graphs. “The exhaustion and shortness of breath isn’t menopause or complications from the flu. Your tests came back positive for lung cancer. It’s stage four, Nora.”
“Lung cancer?” Roger sat up straight, giving Nora a bewildered look before turning back to the doctor. “Nora never smoked a day in her life, and neither did I. How could she have lung cancer?”
“Lung cancer can be caused by a number of factors, even though it is typically caused by tobacco use or exposure to asbestos. In Nora’s case, I can’t honestly say. I’m sorry I can’t give you more information than that, but I do have a bit of encouraging news.”
“What’s that?” Roger’s heart was racing, the words coming out clipped and uneven as he fought back a bout of anxiety. Cancer? Nora couldn’t have cancer.
“There are certain mutations of the disease that respond better to chemo than others. Nora has this mutation, so there is a very real possibility she will beat this. Based on her lab results, I’m optimistic she has at least a sixty percent chance of going into remission.”
Roger’s stomach dropped.
Nora squeezed Roger’s hand and beamed a smile in his direction. “See, honey? Everything will be fine. We’re going to fight this, and I’ll be all right.”
The photo book clattered to the floor, bouncing off his toes and snapping him back to the present. He returned it to the shelf and straightened with his fists clenched. “I need to get out of here.”
Head down and back rigid, he strode through his back yard to the path that ran from his gate to the woods. It was high time he checked his property line anyway. Eyes on the ground, he shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans.
A blanket of leaves crunched under his feet, the bare branches of the trees doing little to stop the sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Within a few minutes, Roger was calmer, but the fragmented memories still plagued him. His mind jumped from the moment of bad news in the doctor’s office, to the birth of his child, and back to Nora’s last breath.
Roger followed the path until he reached the northern end of his property, taking a sharp turn at a fork in the trail that would take him down a long slope and deeper into the woods. He paused, longing for a more strenuous hike, but decided against it. Today wasn’t a good day to lose himself in the woods. Maybe tomorrow.
The rumble of a diesel engine broke the silence and drew Roger’s attention to the east. Through the leafless trees, a house with log-cabin-style siding rose in the distance. A white truck topped the rise of the slanted driveway, tailgate first. Boards of white sheetrock hung out of the bed, safety straps holding the load in. At the end of the boards, a red rag was secured to serve as a flag to prevent motorists from hitting the building materials.
Roger snorted, bitterness ringing in the sound. “If they can’t see the giant white rectangles, they aren’t gonna see a teensy red flag.”
A compact young man with lean muscles and a thick beard stepped out of the driver’s side, his eyes covered by dark sunglasses. The man wore a dingy white thermal shirt that had seen better days, along with denim jeans and work boots. After unstrapping his load, he grabbed the first sheet of drywall to ease it out of the truck bed.
Even though he didn’t like the wilderness filling up with people, Roger still knew his manners. He took off at a half jog, waving when the young man turned his way. “Hold on a minute, neighbor. I’ll help you with that.”
“Thank ya.” He propped the sunglasses on top of his head, his sharp golden gaze zeroing in on Roger’s hands. “I see you came prepared.”
Blinking, Roger realized he still had his work gloves on. “I guess I was working around the house when I decided to take a walk.” Using his index finger, he tapped the side of his forehead. “My memory is going, but my body is still strong. How about I show you what kind of neighbors we are here in Bartlett Woods.”
“I appreciate you. How ‘bout I walk backward, since I know which room I want these in?”
“That sounds good. I’m Roger Feldman, by the way.” He chuckled. “I can’t say if we’ve met before, but you look awfully familiar.”
“I’ve met quite a few people since I started buildin’ in the spring.” The young man stuck out his hand. “I’m Tucker. Tucker Penland.”
Roger shook, approving of the man’s strong grip. “I’m not one of those neighbors that will drop in for a visit every chance I get, but if you ever need anything, I live west of here.”
“Good to know. I’d like to extend the same offer. I like my privacy as well, but I never shy away from a neighbor in need.”
Roger pointed to Tucker’s right hand, which glinted in the sun. “That’s a nice ring you’ve got. Class ring?”
Tucker shook his head, holding his hand up and angling it so the sun caught the striations beneath the oval garnet. The effect was stunning, as if a fire was contained inside the dark red stone. “Got it from a friend.”
“Good friend. Can’t have too many of those.”
“Good neighbors are just as valuable.” Tucker picked up the sheetrock and slid it gently backward while Roger guided from behind.
When the end was almost to the edge of the tailgate, Roger picked it up and followed Tucker into the house. “I was surprised to see you’re still building so late in the year. I figured you’d be done by now.”
“I am done, but I decided to wall in the cellar.” Tucker slowed down to take a corner and wait for Roger to catch up before continuing to the basement door. “The exposed framework isn’t how I envisioned it, and the cellar feels too dark.”
Roger laughed as Tucker backed down the stairs. “Cellars are supposed to be dark.”
“You’re right. Just figured I ought to put a wall up while I’m still motivated to work.”
“I’m surprised you don’t have help.” Roger followed Tucker’s lead, setting the sheet on the floor and leaning it against the wall near a deep freeze. “This is a big job for just one man.”
“I had a helper for a little bit.” Tucker waited for Roger to take the stairs first. “Hangin’ sheetrock is challengin’, but it’s something I can do for myself.”
Roger reached the truck before Tucker and pulled another ten-foot section out. “I’m not great with taping and bedding, but if you need help, just holler.”
“What yer doin’ right now is a huge help.” His new neighbor grinned. “Now that yer here, I’m not sure what my plan was. Takin’ this through the house and to the cellar by myself would’ve been next to impossible.” Tucker indicated Roger’s wedding ring. “You live here with your wife?”
Roger shook his head. “Sara died over fifteen years ago.” He narrowed his eyes and frowned. “No. That’s not right.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sure it feels like an eternity since you’ve seen her. That would leave anyone tryin’ to figure out how long ago it really was, so don’t worry. You don’t need to talk about it if’n you don’t want to.”
“No. I’m not confused about when she died.” Roger ground his teeth together and turned what he’d said over in his mind. Nothing sounded right. What he’d said was off, but he couldn’t put his finger on how it was off. “Sara died…” He cleared his throat and kicked a rock across the gravel driveway. “Nora, not Sara. My wife’s name was Nora.”
“She sounds like she was a lovely woman.”
“Nora was the best wife a man could ask for.” Roger reached into the truck for another sheet but stopped at the sight of the empty bed. “I guess we’re done.”
“Yep.” Tucker smiled. “Thanks to you, unloadin’ went by quick.”
“Glad to help.” Roger twisted his lips into a grimace. “What was your name again? I know you already told me.”
“Tucker.” Retrieving a small notepad from his shirt pocket, Roger wrote the name down. “You know, it’s funny, but even though I know I haven’t met you before, I can’t shake the feeling that I do know you. Isn’t that weird?”
“The mind is a strange thing.”
“Maybe I’ve come over here and helped you before. You and your helper. What happened to him?”
Tucker shrugged thoughtfully, stroking his thick beard. “He was just gone one day. Could’ve been picked up by the sheriff or somethin’.”
“He have a record?”
“Yeah.” Tucker turned his hands palm up with a smile. “But hey, I wasn’t askin’ him to handle my finances or lettin’ him run around unsupervised. Even with his shady past, he was a great worker.”
“Everyone deserves a second chance.”
“I agree. That’s part of the reason I was willin’ to give him a job.” Tucker gestured to the woods near where Roger had come out. “You should probably head home before it gets dark. I can give you a ride back.”
“You’re right, but I’ll enjoy the walk back with the sun going down.” Roger took a step toward the woods. “Well, it was good talking to you.”
“You too.” Tucker hooked a thumb over his shoulder at his truck. “I’m making one last run into town for groceries. Do you need anything?” He held up his hand when Roger started to protest. “In return for the help, and I’ll swing by and drop it off.”
“That’s awful kind of you, but I have everything I need.” Roger’s mind clicked to the hammer he’d left on the kitchen table, and he perked up. “I could use an extra hand on my fence. Been working on it for a bit, and it’s still giving me fits. It can wait a week or two. I just want to get it done before the weather gets cold.”
Tucker didn’t even hesitate. “How about I come by tomorrow morning and see what it needs? If there’s not too much to do, I’ll help you knock it out real quick.”
“You don’t have to do that. You have projects of your own to finish.”
Tucker waved his words away. “I don’t need daylight and good weather to do my walls. I’ll see you a little after sunrise, all right?” Tucker opened the driver’s door and put one foot in. “Have a wonderful evenin’. I really have to get goin’. I hate drivin’ up this road at night.” Tucker grinned, slipping into the driver’s seat with one last wave before he put the truck in gear.
I know him from somewhere. Roger rubbed his thumb against the tips of his fingers as he sometimes did to try to jog his memory. Nothing.
He turned, teeth clenched and shoulders stiff as he walked toward the path. But the doubt remained, bugging him. Roger knew the lingering sense of a memory just out of reach was part of his disease. His doctor had said as much. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that had him turning to look over his shoulder every few steps. He knew that young man from somewhere.
Roger snorted and shook his head. That was the other thing about his mind going—the memories he got to keep weren’t the ones he would’ve chosen.
“Dementia,” the doctor repeated in the exam room, her voice gentle, her smile reassuring as she handed Roger a pamphlet. “Here’s a guide with tips and tricks to help slow the disease’s progression, and I’ll call in a prescription for you. We’ve made leaps and bounds with treatment. If you’ll follow my recommendations and take your medication regularly, you can delay the progression by eighteen to twenty-four months. Some have had even better results. Dementia progresses differently in everyone.”
“Two years? And then what?”
The doctor’s shoulders lifted as she inhaled a long breath, her blue eyes lowering slightly as she sighed. “I know this is hard to hear, Roger, but there’s nothing we can do to stop the progression. You will eventually lose the ability to do everyday tasks.” She scribbled onto a notepad and handed him a prescription. “I’m going to input this electronically too, but my suggestion is to use a mail-order pharmacy. They have services that will divide your pills into packets and even print a date and time on each one, so you don’t mix them up.”
“Will I know when my memory is gone?” His chest tightened, his breathing shallow as he struggled to keep panic at bay.
“Like I said, dementia is different for everyone. A lot of my patients report a sense of déjà vu or the feeling that they know something or someone, but when they try to recall the memory, it’s not there. Forcing your mind to try and retrieve the memory can sometimes lead to spiraling thoughts and fragments of other events trying to merge with false memories. It can be very frustrating. When that starts happening, I would suggest you think about your options.”
She pointed to the brochure he held in his hand. “There is a helpful guide in the back of the booklet. If you have children, now would be the time to discuss your wishes with them.”
“My daughter lives out of state with her two boys. Their father travels for work, so it’s just her and the kids most of the time.” His spine curved into a slump as he perched on the edge of the examination bed. “There isn’t anyone who has time to care for me, so I’ll have to depend on myself.”
“I would still let her know. There will come a time when living by yourself is dangerous.”
He straightened, lifting his chin. “Alone is the only way I know how to live. I need my independence. Been on my own since Nora died. I refuse to burden Maisie any more than she already is.”
Roger stopped on the trail, closing his eyes and trying to conjure up his daughter’s face. The incident with the photo album that had sent him rushing into the woods for solace was already jumbled in his mind. Bawled into fists, his fingers ached. He shook from the effort, but there was no stopping the mingling of memories, both real and faulty.
Forcing your mind to try and retrieve the memory can bring about spiraling thoughts.
Roger grimaced, turning slowly until he was facing the neighbor’s house again, only about a hundred yards away. He laughed and shook his head. “If only my memory was as good as my eyesight.”
If he could trade perfect vision for a better memory, he wouldn’t be standing in the woods within sight of the man’s house trying to ease the dread that came with knowing he was forgetting something important.
“Dammit.” He stomped back down the path, his gaze on what he could see of Tucker’s driveway. Tucker wasn’t home, and it wouldn’t hurt to know who he was dealing with. Faulty memory or not, Roger was certain he’d seen the man before.
The front door was unlocked, the new hinges opening without sound. Taking the time to absorb the details he’d missed while carrying heavy sheetrock, Roger slowly stepped through the cabin. There were no pictures on the walls, which were painted a neutral cream. The first room was sparsely furnished with a bed and a dresser. Roger left the door open as he’d found it, backing out so he didn’t disturb anything.
The other rooms were empty, but that was to be expected. Tucker had only been in Bartlett Woods for a short period of time, and aside from the cellar, the house had just been finished.
Frowning, Roger wandered down the hall until he found the door leading to the cellar stairs.
Cellars weren’t usually finished, and you wanted them dark and a bit cold. That’s what kept nonperishable food good a little longer. He scoffed as he stepped off the staircase and onto the concrete cellar floor.
“Can’t take the city out of the boy,” he muttered.
There wasn’t much to see in the basement; a stack of concrete blocks, a few leftover two-by-fours.
In the corner where they’d leaned the sheetrock against the unfinished wall, a large deep freezer hummed. Bright white and pristine, it still had the stickers from the appliance store on the side. It was a big unit for a man who lived alone. Unless he was a hunter.
Or a poacher.
Shuddering at the thought, Roger stopped to listen to the house above him. He was worried Tucker might come back home any minute. There was nothing but silence, and he’d come too far to turn back now. Going into town would take Tucker at least an hour, if not more.
In for a penny…
Reaching out, Roger lifted the lid. Adrenaline flooded his system as he gasped, his arms flailing as he stumbled backward. “What the hell.”
Instead of neatly wrapped packages of meat, a figure was wrapped like a mummy in industrial plastic. There were so many layers Roger couldn’t make out the person’s face, but it was definitely human.
His stomach threatened to bring up his lunch, and his breath quickened.
Tucker Penland wasn’t a poacher.
He was a murderer.
“I wish you hadn’t seen that.”
Roger’s heart jumped into his throat at the sound of his neighbor’s voice. He spun, his fists up, ready to fight.
But Tucker’s hands circled Roger’s neck before he could swing. Roger gagged as the man’s fingers clenched, cutting off his air supply. He clawed at Tucker’s fingers, trying to budge them, but the younger man was much stronger.
Bearing down so his face was so close the gold flecks in his hazel eyes were visible and seemed to glow with an unearthly light, Tucker shoved Roger back against the wall. “I don’t wanna do this, but you leave me no choice.”
A snap echoed in Roger’s ears, light exploding with excruciating pain. Roger struggled to draw in any amount of oxygen, but his body went limp, as if it were out of his control. No amount of effort could move his limbs.
Still, he held Tucker’s gaze with unblinking defiance as sudden clarity came to him. He might be beyond help, but he wasn’t going to let Tucker off easy.
With great effort, he drew in enough air to speak the words he hoped would haunt the man for the rest of his life.
“I know who you are.”
The wind whipped Ellie Kline’s red hair around her face as she drove through sleepy downtown Charleston, South Carolina with all the windows of her Audi Q3 rolled down to let the warm air in. Today was the first day of September, though the sun hadn’t risen yet, and the air was filled with the scent of the sea and the sweet fragrance of blooming roses and crape myrtle.
Ellie tucked a curl behind her ear, glancing at her roommate and coworker, Jillian Reed, in the passenger seat. “Are you sure?”
“Ellie, I need to get a car. I’ll find something in my budget without the insurance money. Desk clerk for the PD doesn’t pay that bad.” Jillian frowned as she turned in her seat and removed the band from her hair. “If you don’t want to carpool, that’s cool. I can take a car service.”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “Are you kidding? It’s no big deal. We’re both going to Charleston PD anyway.”
Redoing her low ponytail to catch the strands of blonde hair that had escaped the first time around, Jillian sighed. “You keep saying that, but I have to be at work early, and I know you’d prefer a later morning than six a.m., wouldn’t you?”
“I really don’t care.” Ellie shrugged, trying to be nonchalant to hide her true motives. In truth, she didn’t want her roommate to have a car just yet. Not until Dr. Lawrence Kingsley was found. “Besides, it’s nice getting in before everyone else. I enjoy the quiet.”
Jillian scoffed. “Still avoiding the new guy?”
Ellie didn’t like how close to the mark her friend and co-worker was. “Not avoiding.”
“That’s a lie, and you know it. It’s not Detective Valdez’s fault Fortis assigned him to your case and ordered him not to collaborate with you.” Jillian sat back, turning her attention to the street as they passed historic homes, Spanish moss hanging from the tree branches glinting in the headlight beams. “I think it’s kind of nice that you can focus on your other cases right now. We don’t know if Kingsley is alive or dead. Let the rookie spin his wheels.”
Ellie tightened her hands on the steering wheel, an involuntary reflex that occurred each time she heard Lawrence Kingsley’s name. As a teenager, the monster had kidnapped her, making her an unwilling accessory to his sick and twisted game.
She forced her mind away, refusing to let him spend an additional second in her present. Instead, she focused on her most recent foe.
“Valdez isn’t a rookie. He transferred in from Louisville.” It had taken a while for Fortis to be successful in drilling that in Ellie’s head.
“Whatever. He’s new to Charleston PD, and that makes him a rookie in my eyes.” Jillian laughed with a shrug. “Let him do the grunt work while you change people’s lives. You have cold cases to solve and families who deserve to finally have justice.”
Ellie glanced at Jillian as she slowed for a red light, emotion pricking at the backs of her eyes. “That’s the nicest thing I think anyone has ever said to me.”
“It’s the truth, Ellie. Kingsley will get what’s coming to him…if he hasn’t already. The best revenge you can have is to stop obsessing over him and keep on bringing justice to the forgotten victims.”
Catching her bottom lip between her teeth, Ellie nodded. “You’re right. I just wish Valdez would step things up a little bit. The…accident happened in April.”
Ellie hated bringing up the horrible day she almost lost her closest friend when Jillian was kidnapped by Kingsley. The bastard had waited until the thirteenth anniversary of her own kidnapping before using Jillian as bait to try again.
“These things take time,” Jillian said reasonably, but it still made Ellie grit her teeth.
“Besides, insurance won’t total out your car and release payment until it’s cleared from evidence, and Valdez is dragging his feet.”
Jillian pursed her bright red lips. “After almost dying at the hands of a madman, the inconvenience of not having a car seems like small potatoes.”
Ellie turned into the Charleston PD lot, parking near the side door. Taking off her seat belt, she turned to look into Jillian’s gray-brown eyes. “And that madman was my fault. If it hadn’t been for me, he’d never have gone after you. When you go to get a new car, will you let me buy you one? You’re my best friend, Jillian. I promise it’s not a big deal.”
Jillian snorted out a laugh as she searched Ellie’s eyes. “I appreciate the offer, but you don’t need to buy me a car because you feel guilty. Kingsley kidnapping me was completely out of your control. And come to think of it, I might just wait on a car after all.”
Ellie bit back a sigh of relief. “Just promise me you’ll let me know if you change your mind.”
Jillian pushed her door open and grabbed her bag. “I promise.”
They parted ways at the elevator. Jillian stepped through the open doors to head for the basement evidence room where she was head file clerk. She waved as Ellie headed for the stairwell to the second floor.
There were days when Ellie still longed to work in the blissful solitude of the evidence locker, but her desk in the Violent Crimes Unit was near the windows. Everything she needed was there since the rest of the homicide detectives at Charleston PD worked from the same open space.
With all the case notes digitized, Ellie rarely had cause to go down to the evidence room unless it was to look through the boxes that held physical evidence collected from the scene of a cold case. As much as she’d liked working side by side with Jillian, and as much as she’d fought having her desk moved to the detectives’ pen, Ellie belonged up here.
And Jillian was safer out of sight of madmen like Kingsley.
Ellie pushed the door open, forcing herself not to wallow in the memories of what had happened to her roommate. Kingsley was the one who had kidnapped Jillian and nearly killed her to make Ellie suffer. No one but Kingsley was responsible for that.
Of course, knowing she wasn’t at fault personally did nothing to assuage her guilt.
Ellie forced a smile and tossed her bag onto her desk. “Valdez. You’re here early. Any new leads?”
Detective Fernando Valdez wagged his finger at her. “You know I can’t discuss the case with you. Conflict of interest and all that.”
Anger rose in her chest at the patronizing gesture. “Fair point, but I assumed since I was part of the same law enforcement family, you would at least give me the courtesy of a bare bones update like we do with all living victims and their families.” She managed to speak the words in a conversational tone, though she balled her hands into fists to hide their slight tremble. And to stop herself from punching the smug smile from his face.
“True.” He opened his mouth as if in an exaggerated pantomime of taking a deep breath in preparation for a big reveal, then yawned. “But I have nothing to update you on.”
“You have some nerve, Valdez. This isn’t a joke to me, okay?” She stepped closer to him, poking her finger into his freshly pressed button-down shirt. “Maybe you’d understand that if someone kidnapped you as a child and then watched you for thirteen years. Even though I was told there was no danger, Kingsley was lurking in the shadows, waiting for the perfect opportunity to make me pay for escaping. If I would’ve gone with my gut, one of our colleagues wouldn’t have nearly died.”
He smacked her finger away. “I’m not making a joke. What the hell is wrong with you? I know you’re trying to help, but interrogating me every time you see me isn’t furthering the case.” He put a foot of space between them, leaning one hip against the corner of the desk behind him, deep brown eyes nearly penetrating through to her bone. “I’m sorry if I offended. I promise I’m on your side. Finding the man who did this to you and to Jillian is my highest priority. If you could act like you trust that my intentions are good and maybe stop treating me like the enemy, I think we’d have a better relationship.”
Stuffing her hands into her pockets so she wouldn’t poke him again, she lifted an eyebrow. “Doubtful. You’re aloof and I—”
“Kline, a word?” Lead Homicide Detective Harold Fortis leaned out of his glassed-in office at the back of the detectives’ pen. “Now.”
Throwing one last glare at Valdez, Ellie grabbed her bag from the desk and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as she walked toward Fortis still standing in the doorway, his piercing honey-gold eyes assessing her every move. He moved out of the way to let her pass, then closed the door and took his seat behind the desk.
“I was just about to tackle another case from your cold case list.” Ellie unzipped her bag and removed the notepad with his top cases listed on the first page. Turning the paper toward him, she pointed to the correct line. “The hit and run victim from three years ago.”
Because Ellie seemed to have trouble playing well with others, Fortis had assigned her to cold cases after she’d been promoted to detective last fall. Which was good. She liked working alone. Well, except for Jillian, who’d become her unsuspecting partner.
“You can put that on hold, Kline. I just got a call from the medical examiner’s office. As you know, Dr. Faizal and her team have been combing through the remains dug up by our crime scene crew since the Tucker Penland case first came to light at the beginning of the year. They’re confident they’ve cleared the forest at Bartlett Woods, and Dr. Faizal is requesting assistance so they can move forward.” He slid a file folder across the desk toward her. “Dr. Faizal has given a brief description of each set of remains, in hopes you can narrow down the possible identities of each one. There are eleven bodies in all, not counting Ben Brooks. Only two have been identified, and their families notified. Time of death seems to range from around five years ago to a few weeks before you took Penland out.”
Tucker Penland. Ellie’s nostrils flared upon hearing the man’s name.
Ellie flipped the file cover open. “Male aged twenty to twenty-five. Five ten to six feet, hair color brown, eye color hazel or light brown.” She looked up at her boss, her mouth slightly agape. “Fortis, this describes most of the John Does I have in Cold Cases, not to mention a good portion of men reported missing in the past year.”
“I understand that. Which is why I would like you to use her list to gather as many names as you can. Tomorrow, you can head over there and start ruling out the missing persons who don’t fit the timeframe.”
“Even narrowed down, there will still be a lot of John Does who are a possible match to people reported missing.” Ellie grimaced as she scanned the descriptions of the victims of Tucker Penland, the man the media had dubbed The Hunter of Bartlett Woods. “If we were only looking at local missing persons cases, that would be one thing, but Penland bought his victims online. There’s no telling where they were kidnapped or if they were trafficked to more than one owner before they ended up with him. This is a monumental task, and that’s assuming the missing persons file has a DNA sample we can match against.”
“It’s tedious work, but you’ll have access to the physical remains, and Dr. Faizal is one of the most brilliant medical examiners in her field. I’m confident the two of you can clear more names off this list.”
“No pressure, right?” She flashed him a smile. “I’ll get right on this. To be honest, I’m looking forward to nailing this bastard into his coffin for good.” Ellie had killed him in the very woods in which he’d set all his victims free, only to track them down and shoot them like prey. The Hunter was dead, but it never hurt to add another nail for justice.
Fortis nodded in agreement. “There are twelve families waiting for this nightmare to end. Since they’ll never see him answer to the justice system for what he did, the least we can do is give them closure.”
“I would’ve taken him alive, if I could’ve.” She’d come close to losing her life that night. Sam, Jillian’s black lab, had jumped on Penland at the last moment, distracting him.
“No one faults you for that. You saved the woman he was hunting in the woods like a wild animal, and that’s what’s important.” He exhaled, his gaze going to the computer screen. “Not to mention, whenever you make the news, our recruit numbers seem to go up. That’s not a bad thing.”
“I’m glad you think so. Police Sergeant Danver acted like I was bringing shame down on the department on a regular basis when I was on beat.”
Fortis chuckled and went to the door. “To be clear, I’m not saying jumping off a bridge to catch a fleeing perp is a good thing. But the people of Charleston love you, and that translates into good PR for the entire department. Your old boss just didn’t know how to harness that gumption and turn it into results. Let me know if you need anything, but for the most part, I’m going to let you and Dr. Faizal run the show.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
Ellie was still in the doorway as Fortis lowered his voice. “And try to play nice with Valdez. When there’s an update of any caliber, I will let you know.”
She nodded her understanding. As she stepped back into the detectives’ office, she tried not to let it show that she was a little peeved at the way Fortis had just manipulated her, handing her a big case with basically free rein and asking for her cooperation to stay out of her own.
“Good call, Kline. We’re a team here. There’s plenty of room for more than one star detective.”
Ellie blinked and turned, but Fortis had already closed the door. Star detective? Was he saying that she was one of them? The compliment was so out of left field, Ellie wondered for a moment if she’d misunderstood what he meant.
But there really wasn’t another explanation.
Her steps were lighter as she went to her desk, his praise taking some of the sting out of being asked to play nice with Detective Valdez.
At some point while she was in the office with Fortis, Valdez had left. The eight o’clock crew would be arriving in a little under an hour, so Ellie had a bit more quiet time before the empty desks filled up. She planned to take full advantage.
Booting up her computer, she set her music app to stream her favorite pop station and plugged her earbuds in. The office melted away as she rewrote the list of unidentified victims Fortis had given her, grouping the victims by gender, age, height, and finally, hair color. If she could run simultaneous searches on remains that were similar, that would cut the time down substantially. Cataloging the commonalities would also narrow the search parameters.
Ellie lost herself in the process, jotting notes in the margins until a pattern started to emerge. The fact that Tucker Penland had favored male victims in their twenties to early thirties was no surprise. Valerie’s boyfriend, Ben, had been in the prime of his life. A victim being fit and active added to the difficulty. Tucker Penland clearly had hunted for the thrill, for the “sport” of it, choosing victims who were physically capable of defending themselves.
How sporting of him.
Her stomach turned when she realized that most of the victims on the list had been treated to a full meal shortly before the hunt began. Fueling his prey up before he turned them loose was just one of the rituals Tucker Penland had developed over the years. That, and making sure they had a good night’s sleep and fresh clothing. Running shoes. His entire sick rouse had been designed to take the victims by surprise.
There was something so sadistic about giving human trafficking victims hope before sending them on a terror-filled run in the woods while he hunted them.
As the only surviving victim of Penland’s human hunts, Valerie Price had confirmed Ellie’s suspicions about the killer’s motivations. Listening to her recount the horrors of her captivity had been difficult for Ellie, but as a survivor of a kidnapping herself, Ellie knew how important it was to share the burden of what the victim had been through. Still, it wasn’t easy to hear, even as a cold-case detective.
Valerie sat up in the hospital bed, lifting a cup of water to her lips with a trembling hand. Her blue eyes skittered to the door, huge in a pale face made paler by being kept in a basement prison for most of two years. Her captor, Arthur Fink, had very creepily built the prison to resemble a life-size dollhouse, complete with artificial turf grass and painted-on blue sky.
Ellie sat bedside with a tape recorder, patiently waiting for the traumatized woman to speak. “You don’t have to do this now, Valerie. We can wait.”
Valerie shook her head. “No, I want to. Every time I close my eyes, I see that monster’s face. Then he sells me to another man who turns out to be a million times worse. Whatever it takes to put everyone involved in jail, I’ll do it.” She let out a shuddering breath. “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I did.”
“Take your time. You don’t have to tell the story in a certain order. Just answer the questions as best you can, and if you think of anything that might help us nail Fink, that’s what every word will be used for. Even the smallest detail can have a huge impact.”
Valerie nodded, taking one last sip before she set the water to the side. “Got it.”
“All right. Now, how did you get to Tucker Penland’s house?” Ellie knew the answer, but she had to ask. Without physical evidence to corroborate what the dirty Detective Roy Jones had told her before he took his own life, Ellie didn’t have what she needed to take down the entire Charleston trafficking enterprise. That was the end goal, even if it meant putting one small, scared woman through hell by forcing her to relive her ordeal. Valerie was the only one who could answer Ellie’s questions.
“Detective Jones. He showed up at Arthur Fink’s house, where I was kept in a basement for almost two years. I thought Jones was going to save me at first, but when I woke up, we were at a remote cabin, and he was on the phone.” Valerie’s voice broke. “They forced Arthur to sell me to another man because the little pervert screwed up. That asshole cried because he had to let me go.”
Valerie gagged and grabbed the cup of water. Her throat worked as she choked down half of the remaining liquid.
Ellie knew the feeling of trying to wash away the sick feeling inside put there by a criminal who had lost touch with reality.
“I’m sorry. This is just so hard.”
“I understand. We can take a break.” At least Valerie remembered her ordeal, and therefore, could begin putting it behind her. The only memories Ellie had of being held by Dr. Kingsley were spotty and had been coerced out of her by an equally disturbed psychologist who had taken a job at the police department in order to get closer to her.
“No. Let’s get this over with.”
Ellie nodded, glancing at the recording device to make sure it was still on. “After Jones delivered you to Tucker Penland’s house in Bartlett Woods, what happened?”
“I was bathed, and he gave me new clothes that still had the tags on them. I woke up in them.” Valerie wrapped her slender arms around her waist and started to rock slightly, a soft smile on her lips. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it was not to wear panties and a fitted t-shirt like Arthur made me wear. It was just a tracksuit and new running shoes, but Tucker even gave me athletic socks that were black. Not white. I’ll never wear white socks again.”
Ellie had seen the drawers in Valerie’s basement prison, her outfits folded and ready, an identical one each and every day. Frilly underwear, a fitted t-shirt, and white crew socks that folded at the ankle. The sight had sickened her, but she couldn’t let Valerie wallow in that memory. She needed to get the entire story while it was still fresh.
“Did Penland say why he chose the clothing he did?”
Valerie nodded. “He told me that Arthur dressing me like a young girl was sick, and no one should have to spend years living in fear like I did.”
Ellie resisted the urge to comment on the horrifying irony of Tucker Penland finding another criminal’s behavior uncivilized. “What happened next?”
“He fed me, then he started talking about Ben.” A sob tore from Valerie’s throat, and she buried her face in her hands as she thought about her slain boyfriend. “I can’t…”
Ellie turned off the recording device and placed a reassuring hand on Valerie’s arm. “You did great. You have no idea how brave this is.”
Valerie had no idea how fortunate she was to be able to remember every horrifying detail. Ellie, unlike Valerie, had never been able to remember enough to bring her kidnapper to justice. Kinsley had killed again and again after Ellie had escaped. And she wondered, more often than not, if her memory loss was brought on by the fear of remembering.If only she had been half as brave as Valerie, maybe the women who’d died by Kingsley’s hand after Ellie escaped would still be alive today.
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