Late on a cold November evening the moon slid above the snow-dusted mountaintops and bounced its light off the surface of Lake Bella, illuminating wisps of fog undulating in a gentle wind. Above the lake a clear, dark, and starry sky stood a silent watch as the fog thickened in the breeze and rolled toward the water’s edge.
Private Investigator Hera Hunter stood high upon the embankment, grasping her coat around her against the cold and admiring the otherworldly scene as it unfolded. Many people feared the deep darkness. But ever since Hera was a child, she’d found peace and comfort in the night. She liked its mystery and its solitude.
Behind her the soft lights of a log cabin cast her elongated shadow across the water. Lucky, her small black and tan dog, barked his outrage. She’d left him inside the cabin, fearing that he might get lost in the advancing mist.
But this was no ordinary fog. In just seconds it rolled past the edge of the lake and engulfed her, limiting her vision to five feet and tingling the skin on her face and hands with its damp chill.
Her fingers stiffened with the cold. She slipped her hands into the pockets of her coat to warm them. Then she breathed in the biting moist air and listened to the sounds of the night. It was one of her favorite things to do.
Off in the distance a frog croaked a steady tune. From closer the dim noise of someone’s television reached her. Closer still a neighbor’s door creaked open, then it banged shut.
As the wind picked up, deepening her chill, she turned to go back to the cabin and comfort her pet, who’d now abandoned his complaint. But she stopped abruptly when she caught a sound that didn’t belong in the quiet intimacy of the night.
A cumbersome object was being dragged across the hard uneven ground. She turned her head left and right, trying to catch the direction from which the noise came, for sound traveled differently in the moisture-laden air.
She heard heavy breathing. She turned slightly to her left. The dragging noise had ceased, but the heavy breathing continued.
Then came the gentle slosh of water. The object was sliding into the lake. A small rowboat, perhaps. She took two steps toward the water. But now the heavy breathing appeared to come from her right.
She realized she’d become disoriented in the thick fog. She had no idea what direction she now faced. Concern about what lay ahead that might trip or snag her feet made her hesitate.
Heavy footsteps traveled toward her. A light tapping accompanied them. She froze. Unable to see before her and having no point of reference, she couldn’t decide which way to move. Confused, she stayed put.
The breathing grew louder as the footsteps approached. A sudden urge tempted her to speak out, to greet the person nearby. But a little voice within warned her to remain silent.
Five feet away a shadow appeared in the mist. Just barely she saw the outline of a man of average height and build. He wore a cape coat and a top hat. His right hand carried a walking stick. He looked as if he’d just stepped out of Victorian London. He tapped the walking stick on the ground before him while he moved forward with tentative steps.
She blinked, certain her eyes were deceiving her, for the stranger’s attire was startlingly out of place.
He stopped suddenly at the sound of laughter from a nearby cabin. His head turned her way, but she didn’t think he caught sight of her. Then he moved on.
She stayed put, unable to follow him because of the dense fog. But she could not push the matter aside, so she listened intently for any sound of him.
A car door clicked open. The door slammed shut. Then an engine chugged to life. Tires scrunched the gravel surface of Lake Bella Road, a lane that followed the water’s eastern edge. Judging by the sound, the vehicle moved painfully slow, its driver unable to see in the dense fog. Minutes took their time passing. Then the sound disappeared.
She remained on the embankment, recalling the man’s image. Soon she became certain that her imagination had tricked her mind into seeing something different from what had actually been there.
She glanced around for the cabin’s lights to draw her toward it, but the fog offered little but a hazy gloom. Undeterred, her gaze searched for familiar objects: the big pine tree by the southwest corner of the cabin or the brightly colored urn at the edge of the porch.
She regretted that she’d let a couple years pass since she last visited the place. It lay within the mountain village of Rosewood and belonged to her foster parents, Hank and Marnie Longchamps. As a child the Longchamps had brought her and her foster sister, Billy Fenn, to the village every summer. Cherished memories of days spent swimming and water skiing and picnicking on the grass would stay with her forever. And Hank’s barbecued chicken and ribs still remained the best she’d ever tasted.
Soon, Hera lost patience with the uncertainty of her path through the fog. “Lucky!” she called. “Lucky!”
“Arf, arf,” came the response from the cabin. “Arf, arf, arf.”
She headed toward his voice, wary that her sense of the direction from which it came might be off. But she knew every tree, bush, and stone in the yard surrounding the cabin. Sooner or later she’d stumble into some familiar object, and from there she’d know how to get to the front door.
Early the next morning Hera stepped into Jillie’s with Lucky following close at her heels. She stopped a moment to breathe in the aromas of sizzling bacon, freshly brewed coffee, and cinnamon buns baking in the oven. Then she put a couple dollars on the counter near the restaurant’s cash register and grabbed a Centreville Times from among the newspaper racks by the door. A day never went by that she didn’t appreciate the truck that in the middle of the night made the long trip from the city of Centreville to Rosewood, bringing a selection of news dailies for the villagers’ enlightenment.
With paper now in hand, she traveled past the front windows and entered the enclosed patio section. As soon as the cold weather arrived, panes of glass replaced its flimsy screens, and the tall gray heaters came out. The heaters warmed the area to a comfortable level but did little to stop the drafts. She preferred this section of the restaurant, because here no one complained about the presence of a dog.
She headed for the far wall of windows, stopping just once to scratch the head of a Labrador that sat quietly beside one of the tables. “Nice dog,” she said to the man in the adjacent chair.
The man looked up, but Hera had already moved on.
Lucky ignored the dog. He knew where they were going. He led the way.
“Morning,” she said with a smile to Sheriff’s Deputy Mitch Haygarth. He’d been chewing on a slice of toast while he watched her approach his booth.
She thought he looked tired. She’d never asked about his age, but he must be close to seventy now. He kept his white hair cropped and his tan uniform crisply pressed. When he wasn’t seeing to the welfare of the village, he was playing chess with his sister, Kitty, a spinster who ran the local post office.
Mitch had spent his entire adult life in law enforcement, most of those years within Rosewood. He’d been married once, a long time ago, but his wife ran off with a man who possessed greater ambition and a lot more money.
Hera picked up Lucky and placed him on the bench opposite the deputy. She slid in after him.
The dog took a moment to stare at Mitch, then he tramped across Hera’s lap and settled himself comfortably at the edge of the bench. He expressed a soft whimper and locked his eyes onto the sausages that rested atop a plate at the next table. The two young men seated there, enjoying a breakfast of omelets and hash brown potatoes, took no notice of the dog.
“Morning, darling,” Mitch said once Hera was situated.
She would take offense at the address from anyone else. But not from Mitch. She’d known him since she was ten years old, and she cared for him like an uncle.
“I brought the paper,” she said, dropping the Centreville Times on the table.
Mitch always took his time with things that interested him. He sipped from his coffee cup. He put the cup down and lifted the newspaper and looked at the front page. Then he carefully spread the journal flat in front of him and started to read.
This was his and Hera’s typical morning routine. Always curious and vigilant of her surroundings, she used the time to look over the crowd. Jillie, the establishment’s owner, was winding her way through the tables with a pot of coffee and a large mug. She stopped several times and replenished cups. On her slender frame she wore a long flowing skirt and light knitted sweater. Her graying hair was pulled back into a ponytail so short that it didn’t swing when she moved.
Three tables away a baby sat in a high chair shredding a pancake with his bare hands while his mom and dad quietly ate their breakfasts. At a table closer to the door, two young couples engaged in lively conversation. Hera guessed they were visitors drawn to the village by the neighboring ski resort.
And in the back corner, alone in the booth, a man sat staring at her. He had windblown brown hair and several days’ worth of facial hair. But it was the look in his eyes that caught her attention. They held a depth of pain that she’d only seen before in war during her two stints as a Marine Corp sniper.
She’d noticed him in the restaurant before. And each time he sat at the patio’s back corner booth. She’d never seen him direct his gaze toward any spot but onto the table before him. She often thought he kept his field of vision close as a way of informing everyone to let him be.
She met his gaze. Straight on. That he didn’t turn his eyes away, as most people would, intrigued her. But she soon became impatient with the game and turned her attention back to Mitch. He was scanning the titles on each page of the newspaper.
“Are you looking for something in particular?” she asked.
“Yep,” he said, “any news about the Collingwood Killer.”
“Of course,” she said.
She should have guessed, for thirty miles away a serial killer was terrorizing the small town of Collingwood. The necks of five young women had been viciously severed, and their stomachs had been repeatedly slashed with a thin knife. Their corpses were then wrapped tightly in clear plastic sheets. For a final indignity, they were each left along a roadside just inches from the pavement, as if the killer was anxious to show off his artwork.
“It’s been a while since the last victim was found, hasn’t it?” Hera said.
“Yep,” Mitch said. “It’s been two weeks.”
“I thought the killer was striking every other Friday night.”
“He has been.”
“But he didn’t strike last night, as expected?”
“Apparently not. There’s no report in the paper about another victim being found in Collingwood.”
“His sudden change in habit is odd.”
“It is odd. I’m hoping it means he’s left Collingwood and relocated somewhere far away from this county.”
“Is it true the FBI and local police think the killer lives within the town?”
“That seems like a risky assumption.”
Mitch put the paper down and gave her a curious look. “Why do you say that?”
“Collingwood is a forty-minute drive from here. The killer could easily reside in Rosewood.”
“No,” Mitch said. He shook his head vigorously, chasing the thought away. “This is a quiet, peaceful village. I know everyone who lives here. There’s no serial killer among us.”
“Good morning,” Jillie said.
She’d just arrived at the booth. She placed the mug on the table, filled it from the coffee pot, and slid it in front of Hera.
“Thanks,” Hera said.
“You want your usual breakfast?” Jillie asked her.
“Yes, please,” Hera said. She always started her mornings with scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast.
“It’ll be just a few minutes,” Jillie said, and she left to place the order.
The man from the back booth was now moving across the patio toward the door. Jillie made a quick turn to skirt one of the tables and ran hard into him. The impact knocked her off balance, and she started to teeter. The man gently cupped his hand beneath her arm that held the coffee pot and steadied her. Then without a word he continued on his way.
His quick reflex impressed Hera. “Who is that man?” she said.
Mitch had been watching the two collide. “His name’s Wes Hellings,” he said. “He lives around the corner from you.”
“His is the first cabin after Lake Bella Road turns east by your property.”
Hera stared after the man as he disappeared through the door. “How long has he lived there?”
“Things change, but you never notice because you don’t visit us as often as you did when you were growing up. He bought the cabin two years ago. What’s your interest in him?”
“None, really. It’s just he looked so sad sitting all alone in the back.”
“He always looks like that.”
“What’s troubling him?”
“The man doesn’t say much, and I don’t ask.”
“So what do you know about him?”
“You’re asking a lot of questions for someone with no interest in the man.”
“I’m a private investigator; it’s my job to mind other people’s business.”
Mitch smiled with amusement. “Well, I reckon he’s around your age, twenty nine. Maybe a little older. He spends his early mornings here in Jillie’s. Mostly he’s come and gone by the time we get here. In the evening you can sometimes find him at Tattler’s Watering Hole, where he drinks until he passes out on the table. That’s when Gabe calls me to come get the man and carry him home.” He was referring to the owner of the tavern, Gabe Tattler.
“Have you ever seen Wes with anyone?”
“No, never. The guy’s a loner, and I get the impression he’d like to remain that way.”
“Here we go,” Jillie said as she arrived at their booth with a plate of food in each hand.
“Thanks,” Hera said after Jillie set the plates down.
Mitch picked up his fork and attacked the stack of pancakes before him. They were covered with dabs of butter and drenched in pure maple syrup.
They ate in silence for a while. Then Mitch put his fork down, rested his elbows on the table, and studied Hera’s face. She sensed what was coming.
“So how are you doing?” he said.
“Just fine,” she said through a mouthful of scrambled eggs. She hoped his questions wouldn’t take long.
“Hank called. Your foster father’s worried about you. Asked me to keep an eye on you. He says you blame yourself for the death of a dear friend.”
Hera shook her head. “I don’t,” she said. “Really.”
But Hank was right. Her friend Gwen Oates had been shot to death eleven days ago, and Hera blamed herself for not doing more to keep Gwen out of harm’s way. After the shooting Hera had fled from Centreville, her home and place of work, in hopes of finding some peace from the guilt and loss that tore at her heart. She’d been in Rosewood eight days now, and the pain had yet to subside.
She had seen a lot of violence in her young life. When she was a child, her father murdered her mother right in front of her. He then abandoned her, leaving her to the cruelty and grim uncertainties of living on the streets. After high school, she joined the Marine Corp and spent her days with a high-powered rifle, shooting people deemed a threat to the well-being of her fellow soldiers and the politics of her country.
She’d survived it all. She’d even thrived. She knew that the memories of the times she and Gwen had shared would fade. But that didn’t stop the hurt she now felt.
“You aren’t responsible for your friend’s death,” Mitch said.
“I know,” she said, even though she didn’t believe the words. “I appreciate your concern.”
He reached across the table and placed his hand on hers. “You know that if you need someone to talk to, I’m always available. Day or night. Promise me that you’ll call me if you need to unload on someone.”
“I promise. And I appreciate it.”
He wouldn’t understand, she thought. He’d never witnessed a violent death. In fact, he’d never once shot anyone. He’d never even drawn his gun. She managed a smile, hoping it would satisfy him and end the conversation.
He nodded to her, a gesture that meant he had nothing further to say. Then he picked up his fork and finished his breakfast in silence.
Later that morning Hera and Lucky wandered through the woods that surrounded the cabin, picking up fallen branches to use as kindling for the fireplace. She had often wished her apartment in Centreville possessed one. So she made frequent use of the one in the cabin’s front room. On many an evening she would sit for hours sipping a glass of wine and watching the flames upon the hearth flicker and dance.
This quiet activity induced a calm that she rarely felt during her normal days of work and play. It helped her to think about things: the violence in her past; the steadfastness of her friends; the success of her company, Hunter Investigations; and the loss of those dear to her, like her mother and her friend Gwen. Some of these memories caused her pain. Others brought her joy. In the end these mingling thoughts gave rise to a sense of life’s balance and of peace within.
Now, as Hera bent to pick up a twig, Lucky lunged and grabbed the slender shoot between his teeth. She seized one end of it before the dog could carry it away. A serious tug of war ensued. They played for several minutes, then Hera let the twig slip from her grasp.
Lucky leapt with joy as he took off with his prize.
Hera watched him dart among the trees. She’d become accustomed to his sulks when he failed to win any game they played. So she rarely let that happen.
The sounds of excited talk drew her attention. They were coming from farther west along Lake Bella’s edge. She stopped her gathering and listened. When she caught the alarm in the voices, she dropped the pile of branches in her arms and hastened toward the embankment.
Two hundred feet away the morning sunlight reflected off an object caught amidst the rocks at the water’s edge. Mitch stood on the ground above the rocks talking with Claire Atwell, who along with her husband owned the cabin just west of Hera’s. Both Mitch and Claire seemed strangely agitated.
Hera hastened toward them. “Lucky,” she called, for she never liked him getting too far away.
The dog dropped the twig he was carrying and hurried after her.
Mitch and Claire ceased their conversation when Hera approached. Both turned solemn eyes toward her.
Hera sensed their fear. She looked down and saw a figure, wrapped in a clear plastic sheet, bobbing in the water at their feet. Inside the heavy sheet lay a young woman, her long brown hair covering her neck and part of her face, her arms crossed upon her chest, and her lifeless eyes wide open.
“That’s Annie Sykes, one of the barmaids at Tattler’s Watering Hole,” Hera said.
Claire gently placed a hand over her mouth as tears spilled from her eyes. She was a small, elderly woman with a heavily wrinkled face and jet black hair that clearly came from a bottle. “So young,” she said. “And such a nice girl.”
Mitch laid a shaking hand on Claire’s shoulder to comfort her. His other hand also shook. With fear. He and Hera both knew that lying before them was a crime more terrible than any he’d ever handled before. Hera left unspoken her doubt that he was up to the challenge.
“Claire!” came a loud call from behind them.
All three turned to look. Claire’s husband, Renny, was standing on their side porch waving to her.
“Come here!” he shouted.
Hera narrowed her eyes at him, for the sudden noise seemed inappropriate at such a grave moment. Not that Renny was insensitive or rude. He’d lost most of his hearing. To make up for it, he shouted so he could here himself speak.
“Do you want me to help pull the body out of the water?” Hera asked after Claire had rushed off.
Mitch shook his head. “I’m waiting for Eugene. I want to get pictures before we touch anything.” Eugene Cuperman was another sheriff’s deputy who policed Rosewood and the surrounding areas.
“Who’s the coroner for the village?” Hera asked. She couldn’t remember when Rosewood last had a crime more unsettling than shoplifting a candy bar from the general store.
“That would be Doc Scarborough,” Mitch said.
“Did you call him?”
“Yep. He said it would take him twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes? His house is five minutes away. What’s he doing?”
“Eating his lunch.”
“Great,” Hera said, her tone sarcastic.
Quiet prevailed as they both stared with regret at the body in the water. Hera knew the victim, although they’d never become friends.
Annie Sykes had been a bully as a child. Hera recalled a summer day long ago when she’d heard her sister screaming from the lake’s edge. She’d rushed to Billy’s aid and found her prone on the ground, pinned there by Annie’s knees. The bigger girl was pushing Billy’s face into the rocky soil.
Hera had howled with rage at the assault. She jumped on Annie, knocking her over. She then banged Annie’s face into the ground, imitating the girl’s previous actions. She didn’t stop until Hank pulled her off the weeping child.
She hadn’t meant to break Annie’s nose and felt bad about it later, when Marnie sat her down and attempted to reason that violence was never the solution to a problem. Hera had responded with doubt. After all, it was how she’d survived living on the streets. She’d sat patiently while her foster mother talked, nodding when she thought it was expected, confused by a standard of behavior she’d rarely seen in the back alleys and abandoned buildings that she had once called home.
Then she saw the twinkle in Hank’s eyes, the look of pride. He’d been sitting across the room, listening while he pretended to read the newspaper. He understood her in a way that Marnie never would, although her foster mother often tried. Hank knew Hera was a survivor, that she would never back down from a fight, and that she would always come to the aid of the weak and vulnerable.
“What’s that Annie’s wearing?” Hera asked. She’d been struggling to see through the plastic wrapping, but it was soiled and scratched, obscuring much of the body within.
“It’s a flapper dress,” Mitch said.
“Isn’t that a style worn in the 1920s?”
Mitch nodded. “So we were wrong this morning,” he said.
“Wrong about what?”
“The Collingwood Killer didn’t take last night off. He didn’t cease his attacks or move away from the county as I had hoped. We just hadn’t found his next victim yet.”
Hera still didn’t grasp his meaning. “Are you saying that Annie was killed by the Collingwood Killer because she’s wearing a flapper dress?” she said.
“Yes, it’s a detail present on all his victims that hasn’t been released to the press.”
“If you’re right, he’s changed his MO. This is his first victim that he’s dumped in Lake Bella. He usually leaves them at the side of a road.”
Mitch’s gaze drifted across the surface of the lake as he silenced into thought.
“It is a significant difference,” he said. “But other details that we know are the same. Annie’s physical characteristics match those of his previous victims. She’s attired similarly. And she’s wrapped in plastic. We’ll have to see what else we find when we open the plastic.”
He glanced past Hera’s cabin toward Lake Bella Road, anxious for Eugene to arrive. “Every woman in the village who is tall, in their late twenties or early thirties, and has long brown hair and an athletic build is now in danger,” he said.
It was what he didn’t say that caught Hera’s attention. During breakfast she’d suggested that the killer might reside in Rosewood rather than Collingwood. Mitch had disagreed vehemently. Now, the body in the water reinforced her suspicion.
“You take care,” Mitch said, his eyes dark with worry. “Your physical traits match those of the killer’s victims. And we have little information about the man. So until we learn more, it’s best to regard everyone in Rosewood with suspicion. We don’t even know for sure that the killer is a man or whether he works alone.”
“You needn’t worry about me,” Hera said. “I’m always careful.”
Her words didn’t bring much relief to the sheriff’s deputy. But Hera wasn’t thinking about Mitch. She was considering whether the sloshing of the water she’d heard last evening, which she’d attributed to a small rowboat, was actually Annie’s wrapped-up body sliding into the lake. And if so, did the man dressed in a top hat and cape coat have anything to do with it?
She’d only seen the man walking through the fog. She’d gotten just a hazy glimpse of him. And she’d heard other sounds of human activity at about the same time. Still, a seed of suspicion that the Collingwood Killer had passed right in front of her planted itself in her mind. And that seed now made her wonder if the man had been aware of her presence. If he had noticed her, he would easily associate her with the cabin nearby, which meant he knew where she lived.
sheriff’s deputy stationed in Rosewood, where the most serious crime he’s had to investigate is the theft of a candy bar from the general store; feels he’s unprepared to deal with a serial killer
a quiet loner who moved to Rosewood two years ago; his self-imposed isolation makes some villagers suspect he’s the serial killer
owns Tattler’s Watering Hole, a popular tavern; jealous of the attention other men showered on Annie Sykes, the murder victim
runs the local postoffice; Mitch’s sister; the village gossip queen
female sleuth; former military sniper; vigilante; strong and dangerous
small black and tan dog; Hera’s faithful sidekick
Hera’s man Friday; skilled computer hacker; hostile to conventional mores