Death was not on the guest list, but it appeared
all the same.
Maggie Boswell, reigning queen of mystery fiction,
sat at the signing table as if she were royalty on a
throne. Around her, in teetering piles, was her latest
bestseller. Grabbing at the books were members of the
literary elite—authors, editors, agents. It was a huge
irony that Maggie had invited them into her home for this
book party. Most of them she disliked. Now all of them she
For any one of them might try to kill her.
Someone handed her a book. She scribbled the
inscription, struggling to rise above her fear. In the
shifting terror of her worst imaginings, even her beloved
home unnerved her. Its enormity was no longer a joy, but a
threat. It had too many corners, too many shadows. And
outside its stucco walls the night was moonless, and the
silver-gray Pacific beyond the terraced garden unnaturally
A breeze from the open French doors behind her
wafted over the back of her neck, chilling her skin like a
spectral caress. She shivered, turned to look. Yet there
was nothing there, nothing but the unrelieved blackness of
She spun at the woman’s voice, and pursed her
lips. A pretender to her throne, in the form of a brunette
wisp with—in Maggie’s opinion—dubious talent.
The woman held a book toward her and smiled. "I’m
Annette Rowell. I’m a huge admirer of your work."
Maggie took the book but didn’t care to smile
back. “Are you?”
"I’ve really been looking forward to this one."
Read it and weep.
“Shall I sign the book to you?”
Maggie scrawled To Annette and then her
signature in expansive script. She slapped the hardcover
shut and held out the volume.
"You may remember that I have a mystery series of
my own," the woman said.
Maggie was well aware of it. "Is that so?"
Again the woman smiled. “Thank you so much for
including me tonight."
Maggie wondered how this upstart had made it onto
the guest list. She averted her head in silent dismissal
and the woman moved along.
The books kept coming, endlessly. Greet, open,
sign, hand back, smile, over and over again. At one point,
Maggie jolted upright. She’d felt something, sudden and
swift, in the nape of her neck. A piercing, like a bee
sting, or a needle making an entry into flesh. Deeply and
with purpose. Then, just as quickly, gone.
She frowned, twisted to look behind her out the
French doors. Again, nothing. Just the yards of flagstone
terrace and the lawn sweeping to the sea. With some
trepidation she touched the back of her neck, then stared
aghast at the unmistakable crimson smear on her finger.
A thought came, a terrifying idea she immediately banished.
It can't be.
Someone held another book toward her. Mechanically
she signed it, her mind whirling. As she returned the
volume to its owner, she grimaced again.
An unnatural tingling sensation had begun in her
body. Maggie stilled, gave it her full attention. Yet the
feeling didn’t disappear, but grew, strengthened.
She shivered. Coldness writhed within her. The
hideous thought returned, taunted her. Just like in my
No. She wouldn’t believe it. It couldn’t be so
easy, that what she feared most would simply come to pass.
Just like that. All the while the iciness intensified,
knifing through her body. A harbinger of doom.
This cannot be happening.
Yet, she knew, it could.
The people around her seemed to grow distant, as if
a veil had dropped between her and the living world. She
saw their faces, she heard their voices, but she was alone
among them in a way she never had been before. She tried to
move her mouth to speak but her lips failed to respond.
fast. It really is so fast.
She was almost admiring of the poison's power.
Just as she had written about it, so it was.
"Darling?" Her husband bent over her. Voices
echoed, concerned faces loomed. Someone held up something
thin and shiny and silver. Maggie didn’t need to see it
clearly to know what it was. A dart, tipped with poison.
Terror gripped her then, spun in her mind like a
grotesque dervish. Her imagination, always vivid, conjured
an image of her last breath. Not so far off now, she knew.
And, oh, how she would gasp, strain, seek air she could
never more find ...
Panic ballooned in the gorgeous living room, an
acid cloud only she could see. People were jostling now,
bumping into one another, seeking escape. A lone scream
rent the air. She tried to turn her head to see who had
made the shrill sound but wasn’t able. Already that was
beyond her rapidly dwindling capabilities.
fast, so fast …
Her body slumped to the table. She was powerless
to keep her head from slamming onto the book she had been
preparing to sign.
last book. It's over. I'm dead.
Another scream, not her own, for she could no
longer draw breath. She knew. She had tried. Nothing
Death made its exit, leaving its grim calling card
Annie Rowell snagged a deep breath of air, her
heart pumping, her feet in their worn running shoes pounding
the graveled shoulder of the two-lane road. It was dusk,
and at this hour few cars passed through these low grassy
hills outside the
California coastal town of Bodega Bay. Here, a mile inland,
she couldn't hear the surf, but still the chill air carried
a tang of salt. Overhead a raven cawed, its shriek
splitting the heavens.
The route was her usual one and required no
concentration. Her mind was free to wander, and it did, to
her favorite daydream.
Yorkers shouldered past her as she stared into the windows
of the glitzy bookstore. Snow drifted from the sky, dusting
her brunette hair and melting on the long lashes rimming her
green eyes, shiny with tears of joy. A businessman, walking
fast, bumped into her, muttered under his breath.
remained motionless. Mesmerized. Nothing could tear her
from this sight, one she'd dreamed of for years. Her
novel—hers!—stacked in a giant pyramid in the window. In
the middle where the bestsellers go.
shopper inside lifted a book from the pyramid and headed for
the registers. More like that and Annie would rise even
higher on the bestsellers list. She could just imagine
Philip and that new wife of his frowning at each other over
York Times, unable to fathom that Annette Rowell's name
was printed there, and in such an illustrious position.
Maybe I shouldn't have divorced her, Philip
would think, eyeing wife number two with the disappointment
he'd previously reserved for Annie. But who would have
thought she'd ever amount to anything?
The fantasy generated the usual smile but this time
it didn’t last long. Annie was abruptly jarred back to
She picked up her pace—just a bit, not enough to be
obvious, then raised her chin a notch and resisted the urge
to glance over her shoulder.
How long had that car been behind her?
Why wasn’t it driving past?
It was late April and the longer days allowed her
to get sloppy about when she set off on her run. In January
she had to get going by
or it’d be dark by the time the circuit led her back home.
Darkness and jogging solo were a bad combo for any woman.
Let alone one who might have a target on her back.
But she’d gotten caught up revising chapter
seventeen, and five o’clock slipped by, then six, six thirty
… And there was no way she’d skip the run. She was all
discipline these days—in her writing, her workouts, her
meals, everything. But it meant that here she was, still
out, with the shadows too long for comfort.
The slow-moving car sped up. She could tell from
the rev of its engine. Then it appeared alongside her and
slowed again to roll at exactly her rate of speed. From
inside the vehicle, through the open passenger window, she
could feel the driver’s eyes on her. Just … watching.
She kept her gaze straight ahead, her heart
thumping an anxious rhythm that had little to do with
What should she do? Be bold, she decided.
Look at the driver.
She swung her head to the left and got an eyeful of
a beat-up maroon sedan. Behind the wheel … a man. Not an
elderly man, either, which might have explained the
molasses-in-January pace. Of indeterminate age, and
dark-haired. Wearing sunglasses even though the sun had
But that was all she could make out, because a
second later the car accelerated and shot ahead. At first
Annie couldn’t understand why, until she realized that
another vehicle was coming up from behind. She caught a
snippet of animated conversation through open windows as an
SUV sped past.
The roar of both engines died away and silence
again descended, broken only by the repetitive beat of
Annie’s footfalls on the gravel.
SUV scared him off. That’s good, right?
Sure, but who was he? And why did he have to get scared off
in the first place?
Don’t think. Just run. Get home.
For several minutes she made good progress. But
the peace was short-lived. Soon she heard a vehicle behind
She glanced over her shoulder.
Despite the gloaming, a car was approaching without
its headlights on. Was it the maroon sedan? She couldn’t
tell. Had the guy turned around and doubled back?
Her breath caught in her throat. Should she
confront him? No, that would only egg him on. Turn
around? But it made no sense to close the distance between
them. Speed up? At the bend just ahead she could cross the
road and sprint over the smallish hill to the left. It
would make for more difficult running but it would also be
impossible for him to follow her.
Unless he abandoned his vehicle.
She didn’t care to consider that possibility. Nor
did she have time to think. She was nearly at the bend now,
the softly mounded hill tempting her as an escape route.
it. Another few paces. Now.
She made a sharp left turn and knifed across the
road, then scrambled up the grassy incline as fast as her
aching muscles and pounding heart would allow. It was no
easy trick, winded as she was. Don’t let him follow me
don’t let him follow me …
Behind her she heard tires on gravel. Had he
pulled off the road? She was only a little ways up the
hill, which was steeper than it had appeared. Her breath
was coming hard and fast into a dry open mouth that was
sucking in as much oxygen as possible. Her lungs were on
fire; her brain repeated the silent mantra. Don’t let
him follow me …
She wished for the fearlessness she’d enjoyed as a
girl. In those days she was scared of nothing and no one.
Since then, two decades of life had intervened. Philip had
intervened, wreaking havoc with the confidence that used to
Behind her a car door opened. She heard the
beep-beep-beep of the ignition when the key is left in,
then voices, and static, like radio on a bad frequency. A
flashlight beam lit up the grass ahead of her.
“Miss!” a man’s voice shouted. “Stop!”
She paused—she was almost on all fours, she’d been
scrambling so hard—and glanced behind her.
It was a cop, late forties or so, with a thick
build, a wide lined face, and a flashlight in his hand. He
was standing in front of a black-and-white with both doors
open. “Are you all right?”
Now she understood the static sound: it was the
police radio. She let herself drop onto the grassy bank,
cool against her skin, and watched the cop make his
laborious way up the incline. When he got closer, she could
see that his badge read HELMS. “Are you all right?” he
She nodded, for a second couldn’t find her voice.
Then, “I’m fine.”
He motioned at the hill. “Why’d you come up here?”
“I thought I was being followed.” She relayed the
story. Behind Helms, down the hill, his fellow deputy
exited the cruiser. He was white, too, roughly the same
age, height, and build as his partner but with a gut that
sagged over his belt.
Helms offered her a hand and hoisted her to her
feet. He motioned toward the road. “Let’s talk down
She followed without protest. Once at the base of
the hill she could read Helms’s partner’s badge: PINCUS.
Helms slid a notebook from his back pocket. “Did
you see the license plate?”
“No.” How embarrassing she hadn’t even thought to
look. But the car had sped off so fast she might not have
been able to read it even if she had.
He eyed her. “You realize that was us behind you
“Yes, but there was that guy alongside me. Did you
“In a maroon sedan, you told me.”
“Yes. At least the first guy was. I’m not sure
about the second. I couldn’t see that well because it got
so dark.” Helms didn’t say anything and she got the idea he
didn’t believe her. “I’m not making this up,” she added.
Helms regarded her a second longer then flipped his
notebook open and jotted a few lines. Then he returned it
to his pocket. “I have a piece of advice for you, Ms.
“I know. I shouldn’t be out running at this … ”
She paused. “You know my name?”
“You’re that mystery writer from out of town who
rents the old Marsden place.”
Pincus spoke for the first time. “You live there
He didn’t need to remind her. Nor did she care to
remember how that came to be—how Philip left her once he
finished the medical training she’d helped pay for, how he’d
traded her in for a woman doctor “soul mate,” how she’d
moved to this remote town to get the lower rent she could
afford on her tiny advances.
She looked at Helms and a frightening idea took
root in her mind. “Is there a reason you’re keeping an eye
His gaze skittered away. Then, “We’ve been asked
to be on the alert where you’re concerned.”
“Because of the murders of those writers,” Pincus
Helms shot Pincus a look that said Zip it.
Then he turned his eyes again toward Annie. “It’s a routine
alert given to law-enforcement agencies that have known
mystery writers in their jurisdiction.”
It might be routine to him. It wasn’t to her.
“We’ll drive you home,” Helms went on. He opened
the cruiser’s rear door and stood beside it. “And my advice
is you shouldn’t be out alone at this hour. You need to be
Truer words were never spoken. She got inside the
cruiser and settled on its cracked black Naugahyde.
On a rational level she knew she wasn’t a likely
target. True, three big-name mystery writers had been
murdered. One after the next, in the space of a few
months. First Seamus O’Neill, then Elizabeth Wimble, and a
week ago Maggie Boswell. All of them literary superstars.
That didn’t describe her. She was a little-known
name with a small to middling readership. But it was
growing. Each of her four mysteries had done better than
the one before. And with the latest release, the series was
What if it does really well? What if I do become a
For the first time it seemed possible. Her publisher was
really pushing her. And she knew that Devil’s Cradle,
which had just come out, was her best work. After Philip
told her he wanted a divorce, she’d poured her heart and
soul into her writing and the effort showed. How ironic it
would be if the success she’d struggled so hard for was a
She gazed out the cruiser’s window as hills and
trees flew past, hulking shadows in the dark. Mystery
writers getting killed was terrifying. It wasn’t
theoretical, like writing mysteries. There she had no
problem spreading bodies around like peat moss.
These people she knew. They were flesh and blood.
She’d met them, talked to them. Just days ago she’d gone
down the coast to
Barbara to attend the book party where Maggie Boswell was
Meaning, she knew, that the murderer had been there
as well. He’d probably had a few drinks, told a few jokes.
He might have been within inches of her. Maybe he’d brushed
up against her. Maybe he was standing outside when she left
the party, watching her go. The same man who shot Seamus
O’Neill and plunged the crochet hook into Elizabeth Wimble’s
She slid on the seat as Helms made the left turn
that led past the churchyard cemetery, its weatherbeaten
headstones decades old. She’d been renting in
Bay for almost a year and she completely understood why
Alfred Hitchcock picked it as the site for The Birds.
It was perfect. The windswept terrain and unforgiving rocky
cliffs, the fog rolling in from the cold surging Pacific …
Ahead she could see her house. With none of the
lights on, it didn’t look welcoming. It was a rambling,
rundown yellow Victorian with cockeyed front steps. Several
of its black shutters were one storm away from falling to
pieces. It needed a paint job and a security system and
since it was a rental it wouldn’t get either.
Helms stopped the cruiser and Pincus got out to
open her door. She thanked them and hightailed it indoors,
aware of two pairs of eyes on her back.
Inside the house, she double-locked the door,
hooked the chain, then went around and switched on every
lamp she owned. When the old house was lit up like a
Christmas tree, she headed for the kitchen and pulled a
Gatorade from the fridge. Then she sat down at the small
pine table tucked into the corner beneath the curtained
have to stop thinking about the murders. You’re not getting
enough writing done.
It was so difficult to focus. And tomorrow she had
to attend Maggie Boswell’s funeral, which would bring it all
back full-force. But Michael had asked her to go with him
and she couldn’t refuse, not after everything he’d done for
her over the years.
Nobody’s coming after you. Keep your eye on the ball.
Her next deadline wasn’t far off. And she had to
meet it, with a fabulous manuscript. The best way to build
her name was to get those books out thick and fast, keep her
readership captivated. This was her chance to break
through. She couldn’t let it slip away because she turned
into a basketcase.
That’s just what Philip would expect you to do.
No greater motivation existed. “That’s it.” She
levered herself up from the chair, tossed a frozen burrito
in the microwave for dinner, and marched upstairs to the
spare bedroom she used as a study. She’d shower later. For
now she’d work. She clicked on the file for chapter
seventeen and settled in.
There was only one murder mystery she would let
herself dwell on. The one in her own imagination.
Reid Gardner sat by a bank of phones in
Hollywood studios. Past 2 AM, it was chilly and deserted,
with most of the overhead lights off and the rest dimmed.
In the newsroom behind him, the cleaning lady clattered,
emptying trash cans, occasionally running the vacuum,
humming a tune he couldn’t name.
Still he waited, even four hours after the show had
gone off the air; still he hoped for one more call to come
in on the viewer hotline. He loved when that happened. It
meant they were getting a tip from someone who’d seen the
show, a tip that might end up putting a fugitive behind
bars. That night, like every other night for the past five
years, there was one scumbag in particular Reid wanted to
An incoming call button flared red. Phone headset
on, fresh tipsheet on the computer screen, Reid jabbed the
button. “Crimewatch hotline.”
“Yeah, I got somethin’ to say.” The caller was
male, youngish. Per usual.
“Go for it.”
“That Espinoza dude on your show tonight?”
Damn. Not Reid’s personal Most Wanted. Still, of
the ten they’d profiled on the broadcast, an important
grab. “You know where he is?”
“Not right now. But I seen him.” Cocky. Per
“You’re sure it was him?”
Silence. Not a good sign. Then, “Yeah, I’m sure.”
Right. This call was rapidly moving south on the
priority list. “Where?”
Omaha, dump of a town called Murdock.”
Reid shook his head but moved his fingers dutifully
over the computer keyboard. Unlikely. The last place
they’d been able to confirm Espinoza’s whereabouts was
Florida. “That off interstate eighty?”
The guy chuckled. “Hey, pretty good, man. Nobody
ever knows jackshit about Murdock. You got a big ol’ map
there or somethin’?”
“No.” Except for the one in Reid’s head. Bagging
fugitives wasn’t a desk job.
The guy on the line paused. Then, “Who is this,
No point lying. “Reid Gardner.”
“No shit!” He pronounced it shee-it. “You the
host and you answer the friggin’ phones? In the middle of
the night? Not for me, man. If I was you, I’d be livin’
“Not my style.” He noted that Sheila Banerjee had
come into the newsroom. The scent of patchouli was the
first clue. The fact that they were the only two staffers
left in the building was the other. “Anyway, give me what
you got on Espinoza.”
That didn’t take long. In the meanwhile Sheila
hiked a slim hip onto the table beside Reid’s phone and
swung her right leg lightly back and forth, keeping her
sandal on with a graceful arch of her toes. The soft fabric
of her skirt swished rhythmically, lulling Reid into
remembering just how tired he was.
He finished the call and peeled off his headset,
then leaned back in the rolling chair and pinched the skin
between his eyes.
“Finally ready to call it a night?” Sheila’s voice
was soft, her
accent more pronounced in the wee hours.
He raised his head to regard her. “You didn’t have
She said nothing, just met his gaze. And really,
there was nothing to say. It wasn’t just loyalty to her
producer job that kept Sheila Banerjee at her desk well past
midnight, and they both knew it.
She looked away. “There was one tip tonight that
might be worth something.”
He knew which one. “I saw it.”
She read his skepticism and arched her brows. “You
don’t think it’s any good?”
He shrugged. “They all look good until they look
bad.” Until they lead to the same dead end.
Abruptly he rose, sending his chair rocketing backwards. “I
want to look at the story one more time. I’m not sure I
worded everything right.”
“We went over it so many—”
“I know.” He was already in the control booth, the
lights of the high-tech electronic equipment blinking red
and white in the chilly, darkened room. He pulled the show
archive off the shelf, then popped the tape in a deck and
scanned for the segment on Larry “Eight Ball” Bigelow.
The man he hunted above all others. The man who’d
changed his life. The man who’d ended Donna’s.
Sheila was beside him. “There.”
Reid slowed the tape, paused it as a photo of his
nemesis filled the small screen. It wasn’t a great shot but
it was the only one they had. There was Bigelow, his skinny
body in a white muscle shirt and worn jeans, bending over a
pool table with a cue in hand. Though it was hard to see
here, Reid knew Bigelow had a tatt on his right bicep, a
black 8 ball featuring the capital letter B instead of the
numeral 8. He seemed intent on measuring a shot, so much so
that his mouth hung open, revealing a missing tooth or two.
Straggly blond hair half hid his unshaven face. And though
his eyes weren’t visible, Reid had his own mental picture of
their ice-cold blue depths. He knew the devil lurked within
them. The devil himself.
years we’ve tracked him.
Reid’s recorded voice boomed in the silent booth.
We’ve gotten close a few times, thanks to the tips you’ve
given us. Those of you who are longtime viewers know this
one’s personal for me.
There were a few details about Donna’s murder.
Bigelow’s vital stats appeared on the screen: age, height,
weight. A red line crisscrossed a map of the country,
showing his known travels to
Cheyenne, Duluth, and back again. The map cut to Reid in a
nighttime standup, wearing his signature jeans and leather
jacket, in front of a graffiti-spattered wall. His blond
hair was cropped short; the bump on his nose from that brawl
in college more than any makeup artist could shade away. He
looked like the cop he used to be. Only the uniform was
different, and the LAPD badge was long gone.
one is safe with this punk on the streets.
was embarrassed by the intensity of his voice. To his own
ear, it bordered on desperation. He’s a killer. I want
him to pay. Help me bring him to justice ...
Sheila stopped the tape. Reid closed his eyes,
listening to the word justice bounce off the
control-room walls like a ball he could never quite catch.
“You worded it just fine,” she said.
He couldn’t speak. He’d never used that kind of
phrasing before, on the air: This one’s personal … I want
… Help me …
“I know,” she said, as if he’d actually spoken.
“But our viewers will understand. And they’ll help if they
He didn’t look at her as he ejected the tape and
returned it to the archive shelf. “You think we’ll ever get
It took her a while to answer. Finally, “Yes, I
“We don’t always, you know.” He turned to face
her. He didn’t say, We didn’t get yours.
Like Reid, like many of the staff, Sheila was a
crime victim. Maybe it was no surprise that so many victims
were drawn to working on the show. Sometimes it felt like
more of a calling than a job. Sure, they could make TV like
the best in the business. They understood the bells and
whistles and quick cuts and handheld-style video that gave
cop-type shows their raw edge. But they knew something
else, too, something you didn’t learn in TV and film school.
Sheila’s expression remained stoic. She never
mentioned the rape anymore. It’d been years since she made
Reid give up the search, stop airing the scumbag’s profile.
Reid couldn’t understand that but he knew that
every victim made his or her own choice about how to get on
with the rest of their life. That’s what it was, too.
There was Before it happened, and After. Before you
intersected with evil, when you didn’t think it could happen
to you, and after, when you knew it could.
Together they abandoned the booth, shut down the
studio for the night, and rode the elevator to the
subterranean parking garage. Reid accompanied Sheila to her
car as a courtesy. The building was secure as a fortress.
Given the hate their work generated in the scum-of-the-earth
population, it had to be.
Sheila settled herself in her white Jetta and
rolled down the window. She seemed to hesitate, then, “Do
you want to come over to my place for a nightcap? It might
help you relax.”
He couldn’t let himself go down that road again.
It would be no more fair to Sheila now than it had been
then. “Not tonight.” He kept his tone light.
She nodded. He got the idea his refusal came as no
surprise. “Tomorrow do you want to meet here or at the
airport?” she asked.
“At the airport.” The flight left at
It’d be another short night.
“The funeral is at
You have the background file I gave you?”
He nodded. He had it; he just hadn’t read it. He
couldn’t focus on the segment about the writer murders until
the Bigelow profile aired. He was too hyped about whether a
good tip might come in.
It was naïve, he knew, the triumph of hope over
experience. It’d aired how many times without a tip leading
to a capture? Six. That made this seven.
He let his hope rise as he walked to his own car.
Before dawn broke over the Potrero Hills
Francisco, FBI Special Agent in Charge Lionel Simpson got a
phone call. He reached a brawny arm toward his bedside
table, kept his voice low so as not to wake his wife.
“It’s Higuchi.” Simpson’s assistant in the local
field office. “Sorry to call at this hour but I thought
you’d want to know.”
“The prints ID’ed from the blowgun that shot the
dart in the Maggie Boswell case.”
Simpson sat up a little straighter. “And?”
“We got a few matches. One in particular.”
Beside Simpson, his wife hiked the patchwork quilt
higher on her shoulders and snuggled deeper into her
pillow. He lowered his voice. “Whose?”
“One set belongs to Annette Rowell.”