PROLOGUE

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 distrusted.

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 still.

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 her garden.

“Ms. Boswell?”

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?”

“Please.”

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.

My God.  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 second book.

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.

So 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.

So 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.

My 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 came.

Death made its exit, leaving its grim calling card behind.

 

CHAPTER ONE

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.

New 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.

She 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.

A  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 their New 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 reality.

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 3:30 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 exertion.

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 nearly set.

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.

The 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 her.

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.

Do 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 fill her.

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 repeated.

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 there.”

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 just now.”

“Yes, but there was that guy alongside me.  Did you see him?”

“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. Rowell.”

“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 alone.”

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 on me?”

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 added.

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 more careful.”

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 really building.

What if it does really well?  What if I do become a bestseller?  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 double-edged sword.

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 Santa Barbara to attend the book party where Maggie Boswell was killed.

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 throat.

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 Bodega 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 kitchen window.

You 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.  Write.

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 Crimewatch’s 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 take down.

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 usual.

“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?”

“Outside 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 South 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, anyway?”

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’ large.”

“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 Delhi accent more pronounced in the wee hours.

He raised his head to regard her.  “You didn’t have to stay.”

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.

For 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 Reno, 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.

No one is safe with this punk on the streets.  Reid 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 can.”

He didn’t look at her as he ejected the tape and returned it to the archive shelf.  “You think we’ll ever get him?”

It took her a while to answer.  Finally, “Yes, I do.”

“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 9 AM.  It’d be another short night.

“The funeral is at noon.  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.

Lucky seven.

He let his hope rise as he walked to his own car.

*

Before dawn broke over the Potrero Hills neighborhood of San 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.  “Simpson.”

“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.”

“Whatcha got?”

“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.”



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