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Mary Stone - Dark Mask (Charli Cross Mystery Series Book 8)

A Taste of… Dark Mask

Chapter One

Ruby Whitcomb could think of so many better places to be on this gray, drizzly day. With a grimace, she sat on the playground’s soggy bench after trying in vain to wipe the metal dry with a wadded napkin she’d found stuffed in her coat pocket. As the seat’s chilly moisture seeped into her slacks, she squirmed.

Fan-freaking-tastic.

Wasn’t the dreary Friday morning bad enough? But no, she just had to be out in this weather with her four-year-old charge. Like clockwork, they came to the playground on the days Trevor didn’t have private tutoring sessions—Wednesdays and Fridays. She really needed to rethink her life.

Being a nanny sucks. I wish someone had warned me I’d be a slave to the whims of a spoiled brat and his entitled parents, the too good for everybody Prices.

Honestly, she didn’t know what she’d been thinking when she’d accepted the job three months earlier. As Ruby pulled her phone out and checked her social media, she groaned, wishing she’d brought an umbrella with her. While she scrolled through a bunch of mind-numbing pictures, she kept telling herself the smiling people weren’t nearly as happy as they wanted the world to think.

“Best face forward.”

That was what her mother used to say when she was alive. “Never let anyone know how you’re feeling inside.” Ever since she’d lost both her parents in a car crash, that advice hadn’t served Ruby very well.

In Savannah for college, she was paying for her education by taking care of Trevor and being at his parents’ beck and call. There were worse ways to make a living. Still, as she shivered in the rain, her butt cold and wet—because

Trevor had thrown a tantrum when she told him it was time to leave the playground—Ruby struggled to think of one.

Trevor was a cute kid, but his parents were overindulgent, probably to make up for the fact that they were underrepresented in their kid’s daily life. He was used to getting his way, and today’s fit had put Ruby on edge.

It’s enough to make me not want to have kids. Ever.

She glanced up as he sailed down the slide, his clothes already muddy. Ruby curled her fingers tight around her phone and sighed. She’d have to wash her charge’s outfit before his parents came home.

The playground was empty. No one else is stupid enough to be out here today. And why am I here again? We could have gone—

A flicker of movement caught her eye.

Someone hunched inside a raincoat and huddled under a large black umbrella was cutting through the playground to get to the next street. Ruby had taken that path many times.

At least the person had the good sense to bring an umbrella.

Ruby’s phone vibrated, reminding her that she had a midterm coming up in two days. Knowing she hadn’t spent enough time studying, she scowled. Between her classes and work schedule, Ruby had little time left to prepare for the exam.

Maybe when I get Trevor back home and cleaned up, I can convince him to watch some cartoons while I start cramming. If he’ll ever let us leave this stupid playground.

She lifted her head again and peered at the slide.

What in the world?

Ruby’s heart raced, clenching so hard her chest hurt. Stumbling to her feet, she slipped in a puddle that had gathered in front of her foot.

The stranger in the long raincoat held Trevor’s hand, leading the oblivious kid away.

Is he holding a lollipop?

Ruby sprinted forward. “Stop!”

The little boy glanced over his shoulder to grin at Ruby. “I have candy.”

How many times over the last few months had Ruby drilled into the kid’s head the importance of not talking to strangers? And what did he do the first chance he got?

Unbelievable.

She lunged toward Trevor. Stretching out her fingers, Ruby just managed to grab hold of his long-sleeved t-shirt.

But not for long.

With the agility of a cheetah, the stranger yanked the boy forward, snatching the shirt out of Ruby’s grasp. As she lurched in another attempt to grapple him, her fingernails scraped the base of Trevor’s neck.

“Let go of him!” Ruby panted. “Let. Go.” With a desperate lunge, she clutched his shirt again, holding the cloth in a vice grip.

With her free hand, Ruby whacked the stranger’s wrist, trying to make him—at least, she thought the stranger was a him—release his hold on the boy.

“Trevor! Stranger! Run away from the stranger!”

Eyes now wide with fear, Trevor stood rooted to the spot, the lollipop in his hand thudding on the ground.

Whipping his head around, the kidnapper slammed the hilt of the umbrella into Ruby’s eye. Pain exploded in her head, blurring her vision. She staggered back and, in her struggle to keep her grip on Trevor, dug her nails into the cotton fabric of his shirt.

When the material tore, Ruby stumbled backward. Reeling from the momentum, the back of her legs hit a big, decorative rock, and she fell ass over teakettle into the rubber mulch.

Nonsensical thoughts whirred through Ruby’s mind before a high-pitched wailing punched through the chaos.

Trevor!

With her uninjured eye, Ruby strained to focus. The stranger was dragging Trevor away, but the boy was screaming and fighting back now, using every trick in his arsenal, like he was refusing to go take a bath.

“Good boy, Trevor! Keep fighting!”

Too far away to reach the pair, Ruby twisted around and pulled herself over the rubber mulch.

She jerked forward, broke into a quick sprint, and then jumped at them, her phone bouncing into the wet grass as she fell. In her descent, Ruby managed to wrap her fingers around the attacker’s pants leg. Gripping the fabric, she yanked with all her might. It was enough to knock him off balance, and he toppled to the ground.

Trevor stood, mouth hanging open in a round O. But then he picked something up. Her phone!

Overhead, the sky opened, and fat drops of rain railed down in torrents.

“Call nine-one-one!” Could Trevor understand her pleas, or was he just too traumatized to respond?

Her lip quivered, and with her one good eye, she watched him clutch the phone to his chest and stare off into the distance.

You’re our only hope.

“Trevor, please!”

Ruby tried to push up onto her knees and crawl toward him. Almost. There. Ignoring the exploding anguish in her wounded eye and the warm, sticky goo trickling down her face, she put one hand in front of the other, groaning with the exertion.

I can make it. If I can just—

A sharp, rigid object crashed into her rib cage, driving her to the ground. She rolled onto her back in a desperate effort to breathe. For the second time that day, pain ripped through her body. With every labored wheeze, Ruby winced. The rain pouring into her mouth swallowed her scream, causing her to choke and sputter instead.

Clutching her side, she turned her head to plead with the boy. “Trevor…nine-one-one!”

While her phone had to be locked, there was still a way to call 911 from the lock screen. Did he know how?

Why didn’t I make sure he knew? It’s my job to keep him safe, and I failed.

The pang in her side stabbed her like a white-hot knife every time she took a breath. But despite the unbearable agony, they had bigger problems.

Ruby squinted up at the kidnapper. Her blood ran cold.

Holy shit.

The attacker wore a clown mask, and under the coat, a clown outfit.

With a shudder, she gritted her teeth against the pain and terror threatening to overwhelm her senses. “Leave…us alone!” She had no idea if begging would help at all, but she would do anything to get her and Trevor out of this situation. “Please, don’t…do this. Let us…go. Won’t…tell…anyone.”

On his knees, hovering over Ruby, the crazed clown shifted his attention to Trevor.

This was her opportunity. Now or never.

Summoning every bit of strength she had, Ruby kicked out at the attacker as hard as she could. The kidnapper grunted, toppling onto the soggy ground.

If Trevor scrambled away, maybe this psycho clown would leave Ruby alone. “Run, Trevor! Fast…as…you…can!”

Eyes wide, the little boy took off, only managing a few steps before face-planting on the playground.

Get up, Trevor. Run!

“No!” With lightning speed, the attacker grabbed Ruby and slammed her back onto the ground, his knee settling on her chest and pinning her down.

I can’t breathe. He’s crushing me.

Ruby gasped, helpless and paralyzed under the weight. Rain came down in sheets as he wrapped his hands around her throat and squeezed.

Get off me!

She wanted to tell him he could take the kid if he’d just let her go. But how would she ever forgive herself?

Not that it mattered. She couldn’t even whisper the words.

Ruby flailed, her searing lungs and the sharp ache from her broken rib becoming intolerable. Her vision blackened, and strangled screams gurgled in her throat.

Though she attempted to hit the psycho clown in the face, her arms felt like weak rubber bands, wigglier than the gelatin her mother had made her when she was sick as a kid.

Oh, Mom…miss you.

With lungs burning and rain flooding her mouth, Ruby gasped, struggling to keep the constant stream of water from sliding down her throat.

She gagged—trying in vain to spit—as more and more water ran in.

I can’t breathe!

Her body spasmed, unbearable agony overwhelming her.

I’m not ready to die. Oh, Mama.

Chapter Two

The madness is about to begin.

Those six words had haunted Detective Charlotte Cross for nearly a week, ever since the enigmatic note had been left on her office desk. Worse, it was a haunting echo of other threatening messages she’d received.

You will die.

“I’ve killed you already. You just don’t know it yet.”

Now, as she sat across from her sister at Angelo’s, trying to enjoy an early birthday lunch, the messages tangled in her mind, forming a dark web of foreboding.

It was right. The brink of madness was drawing closer.

Since the note’s arrival, Charli felt the shadow of the threats growing longer, more tangible. The vagueness of ‘madness’ and the stark certainty of ‘death’ merged in her thoughts, an insidious reminder of her vulnerability. As much as she wanted to believe they were just cruel pranks, her instincts as a detective told her otherwise.

Wasn’t it bad enough that she’d lost her father only eleven days ago? Was the universe not pleased with her suffering and just had to send her sister and her family to dose out a little more?

Charli had never sought the spotlight, but as her twenty-seventh birthday approached, she couldn’t help feeling like she was the center of a very disturbing stage. The bustling warmth of Angelo’s, a place quickly becoming her favorite Italian restaurant, did little to ease her unease.

She tried to focus on Cassie’s light-hearted chatter, the clink of cutlery, and the rich aroma of tomato and oregano wafting through the air. But her attention kept darting to the window, where she scanned the streets, half-expecting to see a figure lurking, watching. The messages had stripped away her sense of safety, turning every shadow into a potential threat, every unknown face into a possible enemy.

As Cassie laughed at something trivial, Charli forced a chuckle, her mind racing. Who was behind these messages? What did they mean by ‘madness’? And, more importantly, how much time did she have before these ominous warnings crystallized into something more sinister?

“This place has amazing spaghetti.” Cassie, who’d all but inhaled her food, was finally coming up for air.

Charli smiled. “That’s the word on the street.”

“Consider it confirmed.” In a dainty fashion, Cassie wiped at each corner of her mouth with her linen napkin. “I’m glad we got a chance to do this. Besides, who knows what kind of craziness will be going on tomorrow? I mean, with your job, you never can tell.”

Had Cassie intended her comment as a dig? After all, her sister had been furious with her after their father’s funeral a week ago, when Charli had wrapped up a murder investigation during the wake.

She searched Cassie’s face for any sign of resentment or malice. Finding none, she decided to let the comment go. “That’s true. Plus, this is nice, you know. Just us.”

Cassie reached out and fingered the stem of her water goblet. “Just us. Remember when we were kids, and it was just the two of us?”

When we were young, it was rarely just the two of us. Mom or Dad always kept close.

Charli sipped her soda while parsing her answer. “I remember things were simpler. Quieter.

Cassie nodded. With a sigh, she flipped her blond waves over her shoulder. “Quieter.”

This was the first time they’d spent more than a few moments alone since Cassie, her husband Mitch, and their two kids had arrived for the funeral. Mitch was irritating, and the rambunctious toddlers were often out of control. Part of Charli wondered if their parents had seen her and Cassie that way as well.

Now I’ll never have a chance to ask.

She dipped her head so Cassie wouldn’t see the tears springing to her eyes. One of the hardest, most frustrating factors about grief was that it reared its ugly head at the most random and inopportune times. Charli swigged more soda as she worked to rein in her emotions. If she started crying, she’d set her sister off, and neither of them needed to turn the lunch into another wake.

Cassie continued to fiddle with her water glass, spinning the goblet round and round in her hands. “Sometimes, I miss it, Charli. You know?”

Those days had passed much too soon. And so had many of her loved ones. “Me too.”

The statement was an honest one. When they were young, before the real world came crashing down on them, life had been simpler.

“I can’t believe they’re both gone.” Cassie’s voice was tight, and her eyes shimmered with moisture. “It’s just us now.” Tears slid down her cheeks.

Dammit. So much for keeping emotions at bay.

Charli’s own tears fought hard to betray her. Her throat started burning when the first one managed to escape and blaze a trail down to her chin, where the droplet hung before falling onto the table.

Did I set Cassie off? Did she see that I was trying not to cry?

Charli dashed at her eyes with her napkin, forcing her words out around the lump in her throat. “It’s not just us. There’s the kids…and Mitch.”

“Yeah, Mitch.” The name rolled off her sister’s tongue like she was trying to spit out an unpleasant taste.

Trouble in paradise.

Through her own welling eyes, Charli scrutinized her sister. Was it possible Cassie was no longer as enamored with Mitch as she had once been? Maybe she was finally starting to understand why their parents had never cared for him.

Despite all Charli’s questions, she knew restraint was the best strategy in this situation. If she interrogated Cassie like a suspect, her sister would clam up. She’d always been defensive about Mitch. No, best to just be casual and let her sister open up at her own pace.

Cassie scowled. “Have you ever been in a room with someone…even at the same table…and still felt utterly alone?”

Boy, have I ever.

Charli experienced that feeling most of the time, regardless of what or who was around her. The unwelcome sensation was a byproduct of the trauma of her best friend’s kidnapping and murder while they were in high school. Only recently, she had started to think she’d closed herself off to keep from getting hurt again and that being so guarded was hindering her chance at any kind of real, romantic relationship. Still, this conversation was about Cassie.

She chose her words with caution. “I’ve been through what you’re describing. It’s…isolating…frustrating.”

Cassie bit her lower lip. “It’s more than that. It’s enraging, humiliating…heartbreaking.”

“I’m so sorry you’ve ever had to feel that way.”

“Thanks. I guess I’m not a stranger to it,” Cassie shrugged, “but when it’s someone who’s supposed to always be there…I don’t know. I thought life would be different somehow.”

A dozen comments swirled through Charli’s brain. Witnessing the pain on her sister’s face, she held them all back.

Charli’s phone trilled in her pocket. She fished the device out to find her boss calling. If it had been anyone other than Sergeant Ruth Morris, she’d be tempted to let the message go to voicemail.

“I’m sorry.” She flashed Cassie a contrite smile. “I have to take this.”

Cassie nodded before picking up her water glass. “Of course you do.”

“Detective Cross speaking.”

“Detective Cross, how are you?” Ruth was usually direct—blunt even—and unapologetic about it. That was why her boss’s gentle tone surprised her.

I’ve been better, but life goes on.

“I’m okay, Sarge.”

“Glad to hear it.” In the ensuing pause, Charli tapped her fingers on the table. Why was Ruth really calling?

“Detective, there’s been a reported homicide at a neighborhood playground.”

Charli’s stomach muscles tightened. “A kid?”

“It doesn’t sound like it. A lot of people are out with this cold that’s going around. I know I put you on bereavement leave, but would you be up to checking things out?”

Relief flooded Charli’s system. She’d been on leave for too long, and as much as she enjoyed quality time with her sister, she itched to get back to work. “Yes, I can do that.”

“Thank you. It’s a big help. I’ll text you the address. Detective Church is already en route.”

“Okay. I’m on my way.”

What most people, including Ruth, didn’t understand was that time off drove Charli crazy. She didn’t need that. What she needed was to work, to keep her mind and hands busy.

After she hung up, the text came in with the address. The playground was in a very upscale neighborhood.

Charli pulled a few bills out of her purse and tossed them on the table before meeting Cassie’s gaze. “I’m sorry, but I have to go.”

“It’s fine and not unexpected.” Cassie shot her a look that told her otherwise. “After all, you spend more time with the dead than the living.”

Charli bristled as she tucked a short strand of hair behind her ear. Seriously? What I do matters, even if you don’t approve of my job. “That’s a terrible thing to say.”

Cassie folded her arms and glared. “I didn’t say it. Dad did.”

Hey little kid, want some candy?

Still on bereavement leave and dreading her upcoming birthday—a byproduct of the kidnapping and murder of her best friend in high school—Detective Charli Cross doesn’t feel much like celebrating. She’d much prefer being called in to investigate a reported homicide at a neighborhood playground. Until she realizes the young woman murdered was the nanny of the four-year-old son of a wealthy business mogul and a federal judge.

And the boy is missing. Read More