The first rays of morning sunlight cut through the naked canopy, casting myriad slivers of pale gold streams down in the woods, chasing away the menacing shadows that had claimed dominion over the territory during the long night.  The gentle twittering of songbirds filled the air, welcoming the start of a new day, their joyous chorus accompanied by the sound of a bubbling stream that raced through the undergrowth.  A carpet of red and gold leaves covered the ground, somehow adding an air of nobility to the trees that stood like silent sentries in thick, dense clusters.

 

Though the air was cold, a biting breeze somehow finding a way to penetrate deep into the woodland, the morning was fresh, bright, welcoming.  Most might have enjoyed a gentle stroll in the woods in such a day, embraced the opportunity to soak up the tranquil atmosphere, to relish the autumnal beauty, but Tom Daily had no interest in such things.  On the best of days he was unable to take pleasure from nature, from beauty, from peace and solitude, but as he staggered through the barren woods, his arms folded tightly over his bare chest, all he wanted was to find is way back home, crawl into bed and perhaps never leave it again.

 

He gritted his teeth as a frigid gust of wind enveloped his near-naked form, emitting a low, almost inaudible whimper when finally it subsided.  For a moment, the briefest of moments, he considered retracing his steps and recovering the clothes he had cast off just minutes before, taking solace in the limited warmth they provided him once again, but the very thought caused his stomach to tighten, hot bile burning the back of his throat.

 

He didn’t remember what had happened the previous night.  Not all of it anyway.  He knew he’d started drinking in the late afternoon, a flask of whiskey to get him through until nightfall when he could really begin his quest to obliterate his senses.  He remembered that he’d spent the evening with Erica, his girlfriend, and with Jesse and Julie, his closest friends.  They’d gone to the diner for dinner and then he’d driven them out to the lake.  He had a vague memory of stripping off his clothes and running naked into the water while his friends bayed like a pack of hyenas behind him, but by then he’d been truly intoxicated, and anything that happened after that was a blur.

 

He could remember screaming, something coming at him in the darkness, and then running, stumbling, scrambling through the trees, but he wasn’t sure if the memory was real or imagined.  At least, he hadn’t been sure until the sky had begun to brighten and he’d seen the blood that coated his jacket, his shirt, his jeans, and his flesh.  Until the moment he’d seen the blood he’d been wandering about in a daze, his mind drifting, unfocussed, incapable of forming a single coherent thought, but the instant he’d seen it he’d emerged from his stupor, his sober, alert mind consumed by dark memories, anxious thoughts, and a cacophony of emotions.

 

He wasn’t sure why he’d torn the clothes from his body.  All he knew was that he wanted them gone, wanted to free himself from their touch, perhaps believing that if he could no longer see the blood then he would awaken in his own bed, free from the nightmare in which he’d found himself, but it hadn’t worked.  Instead he’d stumbled away from the discarded pile clad only in his socks and shorts, lost, alone, with no clear recollection of what had happened.

 

When he’d heard the stream in the distance he’d headed towards it, intent on washing his hands, his face, his arms, any part of himself that had been touched by the blood, but somehow he knew that even if he managed to cleanse himself and find his way back home his nightmare was far from over.  Something had happened, something he couldn’t quite remember, but he knew it was bad.  In his mind he could still hear the screaming; one of the girls, Julie or Erica, perhaps both, as well as his own as he’d fled into the night.

 

He wanted to believe that it had been a prank, a cruel joke designed to teach him a lesson.  He could remember that Erica had been angry with him when they’d left the lake.  He could hear her voice, her tone, as they’d stumbled blindly through the woodland and back towards town, though her exact words, the cause of her wrath, was a mystery to him.  It wasn’t that he’d been drunk, he was sure of that.  They’d been out to the lake regularly after dark, and every time he’d brought with him a generous quantity of liquor to help him get through the night.  When he’d been too drunk to drive them back to town, Jesse had always taken the wheel.

 

He wasn’t supposed to.  Though was only a few months younger than Tom, he didn’t have a license.  Still, that had never stopped him in the past.  He took it slow, drove carefully, and always managed to get them back to town without incident, without attracting the attention of the police.  But for some reason they’d walked last night, and Erica had been mad at him, lecturing him for the first few minutes before lapsing into a rigid silence.

 

Of course, walking through the woods was hardly a chore.  Before he’d got his license, and his car, they’d regularly walked to and from the lake at night.  It wasn’t exactly a brief stroll, but there was a footpath from the rocky beach that emerged on the other side just a few hundred yards from Erica’s front door.  And if they cut through the woods just before the footpath ended they could easily find the gate at the back of her garden.  They’d done it a thousand times.

 

But they hadn’t reached either the end of the path or Erica’s back gate.  He couldn’t remember what had happened, what savage nightmare had crossed their paths along the way, but he was sure he’d never made it out of the woods.  He’d seen lights, he was sure of that, but when the screaming began he’d turned, run away from them, perhaps intending to circle back, to find his way onto the street, but he’d become lost, disoriented.  He couldn’t even remember when it was that he’d stopped running.  While his memory from the time they reached the lake was a vague blur, he had no recollection of what had happened after the screaming, after he’d started running, not until he’d seen the blood on his clothes.

 

What didn’t make sense to him was how the blood had come to be there.  If his memory was right, he’d taken off the moment he’d heard screaming and he had already checked himself for injuries.  He had a few scratches and grazes on his hands and face, but that was to be expected if he was running blind through the woods at night, and none of those injuries were enough to produce the amount of blood that he’d found on his clothes.  Had he somehow found his way back to his friends after it was all over?

 

No.

 

He couldn’t think that.

 

Tom was cold.  Emotionally cold.  His parents had seen to that.  His father, a womanising jerk who’d left on a “business trip” one day and never returned, who’d sent him a Christmas card every other year since and just once a birthday card that arrived two months after his birthday.  His mother, a bitter drunk who regularly announced that having a child was the worst mistake she’d ever made, who put on a show for the neighbours, for friends, portraying herself as a suffering but loving mother while behind closed doors made no effort to conceal her contempt for him, and for all men.

 

He was cold, but he loved his friends.  Jesse was like a brother to him, the one person he could always rely on to support him when he needed a friend.  Erica was a cross between a surrogate mother and a girlfriend, giving him the affection he tried desperately not to need and the loving companionship, the tender kisses, the warm embraces he secretly yearned for.  And Julie…

 

Tom shook his head.  As children they’d been close – so close that he’d assumed that it would be her he ended up with.  They’d been best friends, confidantes, closer than she and Erica, but something had changed.  She’d changed.  Erica and Jesse seemed oblivious to it, but Tom saw it.  He saw the difference within her, something more than the usual changes a person goes through as they grow up, grow older.  Even so, he’d never stopped loving her, never stopped seeing her as a friend, never once considered terminating their friendship.

 

To think that something might have happened to any of them was almost too much to bear.  He’d run.  He’d fled when he’d heard the screaming.  He’d abandoned them, but now he wished he hadn’t.  He didn’t much care if something happened to him.  He didn’t want to die, didn’t want to endure pain, but to spare his friends, to save them, he would gladly have endured anything.  And yet he’d run.  Disappeared.  Left them to fend for themselves.

 

Even if it had been a joke, a cruel prank, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to face them again.  It wasn’t that he was afraid of the ridicule, the laughter, the jibes that would doubtless follow him for the rest of his life.  He could handle that.  But seeing them, seeing them and knowing that they knew he’d run away, abandoned them…even if it was the reaction they’d hoped for, he wasn’t sure he could look any of them in the eyes again.  And if he was wrong, if it hadn’t been a joke…

 

Tom swallowed hard, shaking his head.  He couldn’t let himself think about that.  He couldn’t.  He needed to find that stream, clean himself up and then make his way back to town.  That’s what he needed to do.  Anything else would just have to wait.

 

 

*        *        *

 

 

Detective Paul Statler lifted the mug of black coffee to his lips, wincing as he swallowed a mouthful of the tepid, foul-tasting fluid.  Setting the mug back down on his desk, he drew in a long, deep breath, hoping that the combination of caffeine and oxygen would help stave off his growing fatigue, allow him to stay awake and alert long enough to allow him to get through the pile of documents and reports he'd found waiting for him when he returned from the hospital.  He was sure he wasn't taking in even half of what he read, that he would have to reread each and every word once he'd enjoyed a few hours of unconsciousness, but still he didn't feel able to simply leave the papers and get some sleep.

 

Emitting a heavy sigh he glanced over the next document in his pile, a statement from the manager of the Jubilee Diner asserting that he had seen Julie Davidson, Erica Ramone and their boyfriends in his establishment some five hours before the murder.  The statement offered no clue as to who might have been responsible for the killing, no real insight into what happened, but at least it provided some information about Julie's movements in the hours before her death.

 

Setting the statement down, Paul reached for the next document in the pile, but before he could even glance at it his attention was diverted by a short, sharp knock on his office door.  He looked up as Detective Summers opened the door, offering her a weary smile before beckoning towards the chair on the other side of his desk.

 

“You look like hell,” she said as she seated herself opposite him.

 

“I feel ten times worse,” he replied, somehow managing to force a dry laugh.  “What can I do for you Georgie?”

 

“I just wanted to let you know I've had a call from Detective Raymond over in Seattle homicide,” she told him.  “He's spoken with Julie's parents and told them what happened.”

 

“That's one job I'm grateful I didn't have to do,” he sighed.

 

“You and me both,” she nodded.  “He got a blood sample from the mother to run against the blood we found on Julie's body, but he said to tell you there's no way either of her parents were involved in the murder.  They've both got solid alibis for last night.”

 

“That's something, at least,” he said.  “Any news from the team in the woods?”

 

Georgie shook her head.  “We've had eight men out there since dawn, but they haven't found a knife or anything that might have caused the girl's head wound.”

 

“They've found nothing at all?” Paul frowned.

 

“Nothing significant,” she told him.  “There's some blood about twenty feet from the crime scene, but until we've had it analysed we don't even know if it's human blood.  Other than that...”

 

“Wonderful,” Paul sighed.

 

“How did you get on at the hospital?” she asked him.  “Did the Finnley kid have anything useful to say?”

 

“I wouldn't know,” he answered, shaking his head.  “He had some priest with him.  A Father Mark...Finnegan or Flannigan, something like that.  Anyway, the old bugger wouldn't let me talk to Jesse.  Said something about how he thought it would be better if the boy had a lawyer present.  He's bringing him down to the station later, once his wound's been treated and they've found suitable counsel.”

 

“So the kid's our prime suspect at the moment?”

 

“Shit,” he sighed, reclining in his chair, “I don't know.  We have witnesses who put Jesse with Julie and Erica last night, and his injury combined with the fact that the priest wouldn't let me talk to him leads me to believe that he was still with them at the time of the murder, but until I talk to him... That gash on his arm looked pretty nasty, so it's possible the kid's just another victim.  Then again, he's right handed and Dr Chapman tells me it's entirely possible the wound was self-inflicted.  Right now he's either our prime suspect or a key witness, and I don't have a clue which it is.

 

“Then there's Erica's boyfriend, Tom Daily.  Witnesses also put him with Julie and Erica last night, and no one's seen or heard from him since.  It's possible that our team in the woods will find another body before the end of the day, but then it's just as likely Daily is our killer and right now he's hiding somewhere in town.  Then there's that creep Fairbanks who claims he's Erica's brother, the peeping tom Danforth, and, of course, Erica Ramone.”

 

“Erica?” Georgie frowned.

 

“Her best friend is butchered, stabbed thirty-six times and then bashed over the head with enough force to crush her skull, yet Erica is simply knocked unconscious,” Paul said.  “I've thought about it all morning and I can come up with just three explanations.  Either the killer knew Erica and didn't want to hurt her, or he intended to kill her but something happened to scare him off before he had the chance, or she was an accomplice to the murder and was knocked unconscious to divert suspicion away from her.”

 

“Or maybe the killer wanted to send her a message?” Georgie suggested.

 

Paul shook his head.  “There are far less extreme ways of sending someone a message,” he said.  “Besides, you don't stab someone thirty-six times and crush the back of their skull unless you really want them dead.  Julie Davidson was the target.  The question is why?  And why leave Erica Ramone alive and relatively unharmed?”

 

“OK,” she nodded, “I can see why you consider Erica a suspect, but didn't we already exclude Danforth and Fairbanks?”

 

“In addition to her own blood,” Paul answered, “blood from two people was found on Julie Davidson's body.  The first was a female who was related to Julie.  The second was a male.  All we've managed to determine is that the male donor was neither Danforth nor Fairbanks, but now Jesse's turned up at the hospital...”

 

“With a big cut on his left arm,” Georgie finished for him, “you're thinking that the blood is most likely his.”

 

“It makes sense,” he nodded.  “Victim or killer, he's got the wound, it makes sense that the blood is his.  And if he's not the killer, it means Fairbanks and Danforth are back in the frame.”

 

“What about the female's blood?” she asked.  “Any luck identifying that yet?”

 

Paul shook his head again.  “I think it's fairly safe to rule out the mother.  She was in Seattle and if Detective Raymond is right there's no chance she was anywhere near town at the time of the murder.  We'll test her blood anyway.  It could be useful to know if this female relative is also related to Mrs Davidson, but beyond that...”

 

“What about siblings?”

 

“None,” he said.  “At least, none that we know of.”

 

“Could it be a cousin?  An aunt?”

 

Paul opened his mouth to respond, but his words were interrupted by a high-pitched chirrup from the phone on his desk.  Rolling his eyes, he picked it up, pressing it to his ear before offering a reluctant greeting.  He spoke for a few moments, before hanging up, his shoulders sagging as he turned his eyes towards Georgie again.

 

“Fancy taking a little trip with me?” he asked her.

 

“Where to?”

 

“Midnight,” he responded.  “Charles has some news for us.”

 

 

*        *        *

 

 

“Did we do the right thing?” Jesse asked as Father Mark led him from the hospital.

 

“What do you mean?” the old priest responded, beckoning Jesse towards his car.

 

“Well...you told that detective I wouldn't talk to him without a lawyer present,” Jesse said, his hand moving unconsciously to the bandage on his left arm.  “Don't you think that makes me look a little...guilty?”

 

“Let's be honest, Jesse,” Father Mark replied, “you already look guilty.  A terrible thing happened last night, and rather than going for help, rather than calling the police, you came to me and said not one word about it until morning.”  Jesse opened his mouth to respond, but Father Mark quickly gestured for him to be silent.  “I know you didn't hurt those girls.  It's not that I don't believe you have it in you.  You have a lot of anger within you, Jesse, and one of my biggest fears is that one day that anger will surface and you will hurt yourself or someone else.  However, I trust you, and if you look me in the eye and tell me something, as you did this morning, I will always believe you.”

 

Jesse nodded, drawing in a long, staggered breath before trying to respond.  “I loved Julie,” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper, “and yet when I felt the knife...I ran.  I didn't even try to protect her.  What kind of man runs when the woman he loves is...”

 

“Stop that right now!” Father Mark instructed, reaching out and resting a hand on Jesse's shoulder.  “I know you, Jesse.  For the rest of your life you will regret running away.  You will wonder if you could have saved Julie if you hadn't run, if you could have overpowered her killer or at least bought her enough time to get away.  There will be people who will be angry with you for what you did, people who will call you a coward for running away, but as much as their words will hurt, they'll be nothing compared to the torture you'll inflict on yourself.

 

“The trouble is, Jesse, you did the only thing you could do.  Most of us have a choice – fight or flight – but you're different.  Your father is a violent drunk, and from a young age you've learned that when someone is attacking you the only thing you can do is run and hide.  Last night you were attacked, you knew you were in danger, and years of experience told you to do one thing and one thing only.  Run.  I know how much you cared for Julie, and I know how much you wish you could have saved her, but you need to understand that you had no choice last night.  You reacted the only way you could.”

 

“I understand what you're saying,” Jesse nodded, “but it doesn't make me feel any better.”

 

Father Mark smiled, giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze.  “Of course it doesn't,” he said.  “You wouldn't be the fine young man I've come to be so proud of if it did.  Now, what say we get ourselves back to the Church and find you a lawyer?”

 

 

*        *        *

 

 

Tom sank to his knees in the shallow, fast-flowing stream, a pained whimper escaping his lips as the icy water enveloped his legs.  He paused for a moment, breathing deeply, waiting for his body to adjust to the savage onslaught, then sank his hands into the water, rubbing them furiously.  The deep brown stains on his palms and the back of his hands washed away easily, but the dried blood had formed hard, encrusted mounds beneath and around his fingernails, and it took several minutes of scrubbing to remove them.

 

Once his hands and wrists were clean he turned his attention to the rest of his body, his breath catching in his throat as he scooped handful after handful of frigid water onto his flesh, massaging it into his skin.  He closed his eyes as he washed himself.  The task would have been much easier, much faster, much less uncomfortable if he'd looked at what he was doing, but he couldn't bear it.  He couldn't bear to see the faint hint of red in the water around his knees, couldn't bear to think that it was his friends' blood he was washing from his body.

 

Though he could avoid seeing the blood, watching as he cleansed his flesh, he couldn't escape the images that flooded his mind, the beautiful and inhuman memories that played beneath his eyelids like movies on a cinema screen.  He recalled the first time he'd held Erica's hand, the softness of her touch, the shy smile that played on her lips, the warmth and affection in her eyes, the way his heart had jumped when he felt her fingers entwine with his.  He remembered the way she'd looked at him the previous night as they began their walk home through the woods, the disappointment, the anger in her eyes, her rigid shoulders, pursed lips, narrow gaze, and the way he hadn't actually cared.

 

He recalled the day the previous summer when he and Jesse had gone hiking in the woods, one of the rare occasions when they'd spent time together alone, without the girls.  They'd walked for hours with no particular destination in mind, just talking, joking, laughing, somehow finding themselves on the far side of the lake and running naked into the water to escape the blistering heat.  He remembered the reassuring, sympathetic smile Jesse had offered him when Erica had begun her lecture the previous night, a simple gesture of support that had told Tom that Jesse didn't share the anger the girls seemed to feel towards him, and how it had slightly annoyed him at the time.

 

He recalled the day several years earlier he'd been out in town when he'd spotted Julie and her mother heading into a shop, how he'd followed them intending to greet his friend only to find them in the underwear section.  He'd tried to slip away unnoticed, but Julie had spotted him as he'd retreated, a look of pure mortification spreading across her face, tears filling her eyes as she'd charged at him, pushing him out of the store.  That day her mother had taken Julie to buy her first bra, and his presence had been an intrusion, a violation that had, for a short time, damaged their friendship.  He remembered how, as they'd sat by the lake the previous night, Julie had flaunted her sexuality, pushing out her chest whenever she spoke to either him or Jesse, flirting seductively and unashamedly with both of them.

 

So many other memories played in his mind as he washed himself.  The day of Erica's fifteenth birthday when a game of truth or dare had seen him and Jesse running naked down the street only to be spotted and captured by their history teacher.  The day Erica's mother had given her a letter from her father, written on the day of her birth, and how she'd sobbed as she sat beside him reading it, her heart breaking as she mourned a father she could barely remember.  The day he'd walked into Julie's bedroom unannounced to find her and Jesse almost naked on her bed just moments away from consummating their relationship.  The day Jesse had turned up at his house battered and bruised after his father had beaten him for no rational reason.

 

Happy, sad, embarrassing, cruel, wonderful and tragic memories, and there were so many more.  He could remember days that most people would have considered insignificant, when he just had lunch with Jesse or talked with Julie or shared a moment of intimacy with Erica, moments that seemed largely unremarkable, but which he treasured.  Though he knew that they would eventually have to grow up, head off for college, build their own lives, he'd always believed that they would have many more opportunities to create memories together, and the thought that something terrible might have happened to one or more of them was too horrible to imagine.

 

They all annoyed him at times.  There were days when he actually found himself disliking one or more of them.  There were moments when he even considered his life might be better without them in it.  The vast majority of the time, however, he knew how important they were to him, how much of a difference they made in his life.  Erica had opened his heart, allowed him to experience emotions that might otherwise have been lost to him forever.  Jesse was the only thing that stopped him from drinking himself into a constant oblivion, a reminder of the pain alcoholism could cause, a reminder of why he couldn't lose himself to his desire to escape the pain he was in.  Julie somehow gave him strength, determination to survive his youth in spite of his parents, in spite of any obstacles that might get in his way.

 

He was by no means a perfect person, and there were times when he doubted he was even a good person, but he had little doubt that he was a better person because of each of them.

 

Tom pushed himself to his feet, shivering as a cool breeze cut through the trees, caressing his moist flesh.  Taking a deep breath he turned, glanced at the bank, at his shorts and socks.  He knew what he had to do.  He knew what he needed to do.  He would pull on what remained of his clothes and head upstream until he found the lake, the town, any sign of civilisation.  From there he would head back to town, find out what had happened to his friends.  It no longer mattered to him if it had all been a cruel prank – he just wanted to know that they were alive and well, to see them again, to talk to them.

 

And if the worst had happened, if his worst fears were realised, he would talk to the police, tell them what he knew, what he remembered, do all he could to help them catch the bastard that had killed the people he loved most.  And then...

 

He shook his head.  He couldn't think about that.  It was too hard, too painful.  He needed to get back to town, to find out what had happened and take it from there.

 

His mind resolved, he began wading through the water, back towards the bank, towards his clothes, but he'd moved no more than a couple of steps when he froze, his breath catching in his throat.  For an instant, just a fraction of a second, he wasn't sure if what he was seeing was real, if perhaps it was some kind of optical illusion, but then she stepped out from behind the tree, moved towards him, her eyes wide.  Tom rushed to the bank, the trauma of the previous night, his determination to get back to town, forgotten, overwhelmed by a rush of embarrassment, humiliation at being caught naked by his girlfriend's little sister.

 

“Shit Audrianna!” he gasped as he pulled his shorts over his hips.  “How long have you been watching me?”

 

“A few minutes,” she said calmly, stepping down onto the bank beside him.

 

“Fuck,” he groaned, shaking his head.  “You could have said something.”

 

“Sorry,” she muttered, bowing her head.

 

“What the hell are you doing out here?” he demanded, glaring at her fiercely.

 

“Looking for you,” she muttered, her eyes darting between his face and the ground at her feet.  “I heard you were missing and probably still in the woods somewhere, and I didn't want to just sit around at home, so...”

 

“Erica,” he gasped, his anger and humiliation suddenly forgotten.  “What happened?”

 

Audrianna shook her head, a frown furrowing her brow.

 

“Last night?” he said.  “What happened?  Erica?  Is she ok?”

 

“You don't remember?” she asked him, her voice nervous, anxious.

 

He shook his head.  “I just...there was screaming and then... Just tell me what happened?”

 

She was silent for a moment, her eyes fixed on the ground at her feet, but then she raised her gaze, her eyes meeting his.  “They're dead,” she told him.

 

“What?” he asked, swallowing hard.

 

“Erica, Jesse and Julie,” she said, her voice oddly calm.  “They're all dead.”  She leaned close to him, her face just inches from his.  “You killed them,” she told him.

 

 

*        *        *

 

 

 “Good afternoon,” Charles Walter beamed at Paul and Georgie as they entered his office beside the morgue.

 

“That remains to be seen,” Paul groaned wearily, slumping into a chair opposite the ageing coroner.  “What have you got for us?”

 

“A clearer idea of what exactly happened last night,” he replied, “and possibly a motive for Miss Davidson's murder.”

 

In spite of his fatigue, Paul found himself sitting upright, his mind clear and alert for the first time in hours.  “Go ahead,” he urged.

 

“As you know,” the old man stated, “Julie Davidson was stabbed thirty-six times with a kitchen knife, or knife with a similar type blade, approximately eight inches in length.  She suffered serious wounds to her face and neck, and deep, penetrating wounds to her chest and abdomen.  In addition, I also found a number of less serious cuts and gashes to both arms consistent with defensive wounds.”

 

“That's hardly unexpected,” Paul frowned.

 

“Very true,” Charles nodded.  “As a matter of fact, what's unexpected is the small number of defensive wounds I found.  Though I've not been able to determine which of the thirty-six wounds was responsible for her death, I have identified two key injuries that would have killed her in a matter of seconds.  Further, I have identified eleven stab wounds that were inflicted post mortem.  If we assume that this was a frenzied attack, the killer might have stabbed Miss Davidson two or three times after inflicting either of the potentially fatal stab wounds.”

 

“Maybe it's because I'm tired,” Paul said, shaking his head, “but I'm not following you.”

 

“What I am saying,” Charles told him, “is that Miss Davidson was stabbed around twenty times while she was still alive and probably capable of fending off her attacker, yet there are only four defensive wounds on her right arm and two on her left.  As I found no evidence that Miss Davidson was intoxicated last night, and I found it hard to believe that a healthy young woman would allow someone to stab her repeatedly without putting up a fight, I took another look at her body.”

 

“And what did you find?” Georgie asked.

 

“Bruising,” Charles told them.  “I found bruising on Miss Davidson's arms that suggest she was restrained.  Given the size and shape of the bruising, I would speculate that her killer used his or her knees or lower legs to pin Miss Davidson's arms to the ground while he, or she, stabbed her.”

 

“You said something about a possible motive for the murder?” Paul said, fighting hard to conceal his growing impatience.

 

“Yes indeed,” Charles nodded.  “As I've already said, at least eleven of the stab wounds were inflicted post mortem, and eight of them were concentrated around her lower abdomen.  Based on what I discovered an hour ago, I believe Miss Davidson may not have been the killers only intended target.”

 

“I don't...” Paul began.

 

“She was pregnant?” Georgie asked, cutting him off.

 

“Approximately six weeks along,” Charles confirmed.  “Now, it is entirely possible that Miss Davidson was unaware of her condition, but if she did know and the killer was also aware...”

 

“We could have a damn good motive for murder,” Paul nodded.

 

 

*        *        *

 

 

“Can I get you something to eat?” Father Mark offered, closing the back door behind him.

 

Jesse shook his head.  “I'm not hungry,” he replied as he pulled one of the old oak chairs from beneath the table.  He sat down heavily, sighing as he folded his arms across his chest, a frown furrowing his brow.

 

“If you're sure,” the old priest nodded.

 

“I am,” Jesse replied, glancing at him and forcing a brief smile.

 

“OK then,” Father Mark nodded.  “Well, you know where everything is if you change your mind.  If you'll excuse me, I have a phone call to make.”

 

“A phone call?” Jesse frowned at him.

 

“We have to get you a lawyer, don't we?” Father Mark smiled.

 

Jesse shook his head.  “I've been thinking about that,” he said.  “I think having a lawyer with me will only make me look more guilty and...”

 

“Jesse, we've talked about this,” Father Mark stated, cutting him off.  “Right now you do look guilty.  Having a lawyer present isn't going to change that, but it might very well mean the difference between you being questioned and arrested.”

 

“I'm innocent,” Jesse said, his eyes wide as he gazed at the old man.  “You know I didn't hurt Julie or Erica, right?”

 

“I know,” he nodded.  “If I believed you were guilty I would be trying to convince you to turn yourself in.  If I had any doubt as to your innocence I would sit down with you right now and we'd discuss the events of last night over and over until any trace of doubt was erased from my mind.  I know you didn't do this, Jesse, and I'm not going to tell you that again.  But we have to be smart about this.  The police aren't going to simply take your word for it, and they're certainly not going to listen to the opinion of an old fart like me.  Police...well, it's their nature to be suspicious, and they're going to suspect you until they find conclusive evidence either exonerating you or pointing to someone else.

 

“In the meantime, all we can do is try to keep you safe, and the best way to do that is to get you a lawyer who will ensure your rights are protected and prevent you from saying something that might give the police the wrong idea.  You need to tell the police what happened last night, but you need to speak to a lawyer first.  It's not just about protecting you.  It's also about Julie.  While the police are looking at you they're not looking for her killer.”

 

“I understand, but...”

 

“Jesse...”

 

“I don't have the money to pay for a lawyer,” Jesse said quickly.  “Even if my father had the money, I doubt he'd give it to me, so...”

 

“Don't worry about it,” Father Mark said, shaking his head.  “I have an old school friend who owes me a favour.  He's no Perry Mason, but I'm sure he'll do his best for you.”

 

“Perry who?” Jesse frowned.

 

Father Mark laughed, shaking his head slowly.  “Just rest here, get some food if you need it, have a sleep if you want to, and I'll be back once I've called my friend.”

 

Jesse watched the old priest amble from the room, his frown deepening with every step he took.  When finally he left the room, closing the door behind him, Jesse rose from his chair, walking swiftly to the window and gazing out.  He hated lying to Father Mark.  He kept telling himself that he wasn't actually lying, that he was just...leaving out some information that had absolutely nothing to do with what happened to Julie, but he knew he wasn't telling the whole truth either.

 

He couldn't.

 

He knew how it would make him look if people knew that he'd planned, for perhaps the dozenth time, to break up with Julie that night.  On its own that meant nothing, but if he'd told Father Mark that he'd intended to end their relationship he would have asked why, and then he would have had to come up with some reason, some excuse, something other than the truth about him and Erica.

 

He felt his stomach tighten as he thought about her.  While he'd waited for a doctor to stitch up his arm he'd managed to subtly ask about Erica, but when he'd discovered she was still unconscious it had taken every ounce of his self-control not to run to her room, take her hand in his, kiss her, hold her, beg her to wake up.  He wanted nothing more than to be by her side, but he knew, now more than ever, that was the one place he couldn't be.

 

He knew how it looked.  Julie dead, Tom missing, and their respective partners alive and, for the most part, well.  He could handle the suspicion.  He could handle the dirty looks.  He could handle the questions from the police.  But he wasn't going to inflict all that on Erica.  At least, not without talking to her first.  If they were going to come clean, tell the truth about their relationship, it had to be a joint decision.

 

He shook his head, emitting a slow, prolonged sigh.  How could they tell anyone the truth about their relationship?  Even if they were cleared of Julie's murder, there would always be whispers, looks, suggestions.  People wouldn't understand how hard it had been for them, how badly they'd wanted to find a way to be together without hurting Julie or Tom.  They wouldn't understand that he'd genuinely loved Julie, he just...wasn't in love with her.

 

He knew that Father Mark wouldn't suspect him even if he did know about his relationship with Erica.  He would be disappointed in him for lying, for cheating, but he would understand.  He would believe him.  But Jesse also knew that if he told Father Mark the truth he would insist that he tell the police.  He could almost hear the old man's voice telling him that it would look far less suspicious if Jesse volunteered the information to the police, if he told them about his relationship with Erica before they found out about it some other way.

 

And, of course, he would be right.

 

But it wasn't just his decision to make.  It wasn't just his revelation to share.

 

He shook his head.  He would speak to Erica as soon as he could.  He would talk to her about whether or not to come clean about their relationship.  They would make the decision together.  Until then, as guilty as the secret made him feel, he would keep his mouth shut and hope that the police didn't find out before he and Erica had a chance to talk.

 

 

*        *        *

 

 

Paul groaned as he climbed behind the wheel of the car.  There had been a time in his life when he could easily have handled a full day and night without sleep, but as he reached for his seatbelt he realised that time had long since passed.  Though he liked to tell himself that the years were not catching up with him, that he was as fit and healthy as he'd been in his youth, there were times

when that particular delusion was almost impossible to maintain.  It wasn't that he was old – at forty-eight he was hardly ready to be put out to pasture – but as much as he tried to deny it he knew he was on the wrong side of middle-age.  And after nearly thirty-six hours without sleep he certainly felt it.

 

He glanced across as Georgie climbed into the front passenger seat, casting a weary smile in her direction as their eyes briefly met.  She frowned at him for a moment, her eyes narrowing as they focused on his face.

 

“Do you want me to drive?” she asked.  “You look exhausted.”

 

“I am,” he nodded, “but I'll manage.  It's only fifteen minutes back to the station, and then I think I'll grab a couple of hours in my office.”

 

“You sure?” she persisted.  “I don't want you falling asleep at the wheel and...”

 

“Just close the damn door,” he sighed, turning the key in the ignition and starting the engine, hoping that would be enough to convince her to drop the matter.

 

She stared at him for a moment longer, then nodded her head, pulling the door closed and reaching for her seatbelt.  Paul didn't wait for her to buckle up, instead easing the car out into the street and heading as fast as the speed limit would allow towards the outskirts of town.

 

“So,” Georgie said after a minute, “do you think Julie really might have been killed because she was pregnant?”

 

“Are you asking because you want to discuss the case or because you want to keep me talking so I don't doze off?” he asked, a dry smile forming on his face.

 

“Honestly,” she grinned, “a little of both.”

 

“In that case,” he chuckled, “I honestly don't know.  The only thing I know for sure is that this complicates matters.  First thing we need to do is get a blood sample from Jesse Finnley, test it against the blood found on Julie's body and run a paternity test to see if he is the father of her baby, and take it from there.”

 

“You think he'll submit to a blood test?” Georgie asked.

 

“He'd be a fool not to,” Paul replied.  “Given the circumstances any judge with two brain cells to rub together would order him to submit a sample of his blood for testing, and any lawyer worth a damn would know that refusing to submit to a test would only make the kid look guilty.  If the blood on Julie's body is his, it can easily be explained.  He was attacked by her killer.  His arm was slashed.  He bled onto her.  As for the baby...well, he was her boyfriend.  We'd have a pretty weak case if we tried to arrest him on the basis of the forensic evidence alone.”

 

“So what do we do?”

 

“Exactly what we'd do if the test shows that it wasn't Jesse's blood on Julie's body, and that he isn't the father of her child,” he told her.  “We begin by tracing Julie's movements last night, finding out where she was, who she spoke to, what happened.  Trouble is, so far there's a gaping hole between our last confirmed sighting and the approximate time of the murder.”

 

“I've been thinking about that,” Georgie said.  “We know that Julie, Erica, Tom and Jesse were in the Jubilee Diner until about seven-fifteen last night.  We also have a possible sighting of Tom, Julie and Erica at a gas station on Lexington at about seven-thirty-five...”

 

“We do?” Paul frowned.

 

“The report's on your desk,” she winked at him.  “Alan went over to the gas station this morning to check the CCTV, see if we can get confirmation.”

 

“And?”

 

“I haven't heard from him since he left,” she said.  “We've got a team going house-to-house along the streets adjacent to the woods to see if anyone saw or heard anything last night.  He was planning to stop by a house on Kingsmore to speak to some old guy who said he might have seen someone running into the woods at around midnight.”

 

“Sounds promising,” Paul nodded.

 

“Anyway,” she continued, “I was thinking.  We know that Julie was supposed to be staying at Erica's house last night.  We also know that if they stayed in town there would have been absolutely no reason for them to go into the woods.  The diner, the gas station on Lexington, both are east of the woods.  Erica's house is on the eastern edge of the woods...”

 

“So why would they have gone into the woods in the first place?” Paul nodded.

 

“You've got to figure that if they were somehow chased into the woods people would have heard screaming and shouting,” Georgie stated.  “So it's fair to say that they were probably somewhere on the other side of the woods last night, somewhere that would have required them to take a shortcut through the woods.”

 

Paul frowned.  “The report I've got says that the manager at the Jubilee Diner saw all four of them getting into Tom Daily's car.  If they had a car, why would they have walked through the woods from anywhere?”

 

“If my guess is right,” she said, “I may be able to explain that.  You see, northwest of Midnight there's a lake.  It's fairly isolated – you have to either drive up a dirt track to get to it or walk through the woods.  It seems the local kids like to head over there to party where they won't be disturbed.  If Julie and her friends were there last night, it would explain why no one seems to have seen her for several hours before her death.  And if they were up there partying, perhaps that's why they decided to walk back.”

 

“There was no indication that either Julie or Erica had been drinking,” Paul said.

 

“But if Tom and Jesse were drinking...”

 

“They might have left the car up at the lake and decided to walk back through the woods,” Paul nodded.

 

“Which means Julie had to have been killed by one of the three people she was with last night,” Georgie stated.

 

“That's a leap too far,” Paul replied.  “All we have at the moment is a theory, but let's assume that Jesse Finnley confirms that they were up at the lake and offers a reasonable explanation for why they decided to walk back through the woods.  For all we know the killer could have followed them to the lake last night, and from the lake through the woods back towards Erica's house.  Or, worse still, the killer wasn't looking for Julie at all, and she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

 

“You know,” she grinned at him, “there's such a thing as being too cautious.  I know you don't want to jump to any conclusions, but sometimes the most obvious explanation is the truth.”

 

“And what's the most obvious explanation in this case?” he smiled.

 

“Jesse Finnley killed her,” she told him.  “Last night she told him that she was pregnant.  Maybe he panicked at the thought of being a father.  Or maybe she told him the child wasn't his.  Either way, he flipped out and stabbed her to death.”

 

“With a kitchen knife he just happened to be carrying in his pocket?” he suggested, raising his eyebrows at her.

 

“OK,” she sighed, “maybe he found out about the pregnancy before they went out last night and he planned to kill her from the very start.”

 

“I see,” he nodded.  “And then he cut his own arm to make it look like he was also attacked?”

 

“Or maybe Julie got the knife off him and cut him?” Georgie suggested.

 

“And he just decided to leave Julie's best friend lying unconscious a few feet away, knowing that she would probably be able to identify him as the killer when she woke up?”

 

“You said it yourself earlier.  Maybe he intended to kill Erica too, but something happened to scare him off before he could.”

 

“Maybe,” he nodded, “but at the moment this whole theory rests on a shitload of ifs, buts and maybes.  I agree, Jesse Finnley is our prime suspect at the moment.  There are quite a few compelling reasons why we should look at him, but just as many reasons why we should look elsewhere.  Right now the best thing to do is to keep an open mind and...”

 

His words were cut short by a shrill melody emanating from Georgie's jacket.  Rolling her eyes she reached inside, plucking her mobile phone out of her pocket and punching the “answer” button.  Lifting it to her ear she muttered a swift, formal greeting.

 

“What's the address?” Paul heard her say.  Frowning he turned to glance at her.  “We'll be there in a few minutes,” she stated, hanging up the phone.

 

“What is it?” Paul asked.

 

“You need to turn around and head back into Midnight,” Georgie told him.  “That was Detective Jarvis.  There's been another murder.”

 

 

*        *        *

 

 

Vivian Waverly leafed through the magazine in front of her, her eyes darting over the pages, scanning the images, occasionally setting on a headline or random paragraph, but seeing nothing at all.  She had no interest in the magazine or its contents, no interest in reading the latest celebrity gossip, no interest in the interviews, the gaudy advertisements, the glamorous pictures, but as she heard yet more footsteps come to a halt outside her daughter's bedroom she knew beyond a doubt that she needed the magazine in her hands.

 

Since her daughter arrived in the hospital she had barely left her side, determined to wait with her, wait until she was ready to wake up, wait until she could give her child the love and support she knew she would need.  She'd been content just sitting beside Erica's bed, watching her face for any sign that she was about to awaken or staring at the wall, out of the window, at anything and nothing, but for some reason her inactivity seemed to act like a beacon for anyone passing by the door to her daughter's room.

 

Nurses had come in offering her coffee, food, suggesting she take a walk.  Erica's doctor had stopped by a couple of times with encouraging though ultimately empty words.  Even random strangers had seemed to think that they were welcome to step in, to ask about her daughter, to offer words of support and understanding.  She'd exchanged polite words with each of them, smiled and nodded in all the right places, but in her mind she'd wished they would leave her alone.

 

It was an elderly lady who'd given her the magazine.  At first Vivian had tried to politely decline, telling the woman she had no interest in reading, but the old lady had quickly explained that her husband had suffered a stroke just six weeks ago, and for the first week he was in the hospital she'd been inundated by visitors and well-wishers, many of them strangers to her.

 

“They drove me absolutely potty,” she'd explained, “so one day I decided to bring a book with me to the hospital.  I knew I wouldn't be able to read it, but I thought that maybe if I stared at it intently enough people would think I was engrossed in the book rather than ignoring them when they stopped by.  Funny thing is, most of them didn't even try to disturb me once they saw I was busy with something.”

 

With that she'd tapped the magazine, offered Vivian a crafty wink and left her in peace.  At first Vivian had simply set the magazine to one side, but after another hour and two more well-meaning visitors she'd decided to take the old woman's advice, and since then not one single person had spoken to her.  She'd heard them stop at the doorway, listened as they waited for her to look around, but each time they'd walked away without speaking.

 

And so she turned the pages every now and then, kept her eyes turned towards the glossy paper, but her mind was elsewhere.  At first she'd thought about what she would say to Erica when she woke up, what words she could offer to console her, to reassure her, but finally she'd given up on that.  She knew that there was nothing she could say that would make the slightest bit of difference.  Julie had been like a sister to Erica since they were young children.  They'd been inseparable.

 

And now Julie was gone.

 

Vivian had felt tears form in her eyes whenever she thought about that, whenever she allowed herself to remember what had happened to Julie.  If she closed her eyes she could still see Julie and Erica as little girls, running around her back garden laughing and screeching, in Erica's bedroom playing with dolls giggling and whispering to each other, skipping merrily down the street as she took them both to the shops.  Back then Vivian had viewed Julie as part of the family, another daughter who just happened to have another mother, but over the years something had changed.

 

Julie and Erica had been fifteen when Vivian first realised it.  It had been a Saturday in late Spring, though why she remembered that day so clearly she wasn't sure.  She remembered she'd been cleaning the windows in the front room when Julie had called out to her to announce she was going home.  She'd smiled, told her to take care as she always did, but as she'd watched Julie walk away down the street Vivian had realised she didn't much like the girl anymore.

 

It wasn't that she hated her.  Far from it.  She still loved her like a daughter, and felt pain as though her own child had been taken from her.  But she realised that day that she didn't like the young woman Julie was becoming.

 

On the surface Julie was sweet, kind, generous, smart, funny, everything a mother could want in a daughter, but there was another side to her too.  A darker side.  Vivian had only glimpsed it a few times, but each time it had left her feeling deeply unsettled.  It was just an occasional look in her eye, the tone of her voice sometimes when she spoke, the expression on her face when she thought no one was looking her way.  Nothing specific, nothing tangible, but though she mourned Julie, there was a part of Vivian that was almost glad she would no longer be a part of her daughter's life.

 

Cursing herself for thinking such things, Vivian set the magazine aside and walked to the window, staring out at the world beyond.  It was a mild afternoon, surprisingly mild considering how cold it had been the previous night.  Typically on such an afternoon she would have been out tending to her garden, pulling weeds, pruning bushes, tidying and fussing.  As she stared at nothing in particular she found herself wondering why she would spend her time in such a way.

 

She liked things tidy, neat, orderly, and results of her labour left her feeling satisfied, but the act of gardening itself brought her no real pleasure.  There were days, in the summer, when the sweet scents and vibrant colours would brighten her mood slightly, but most of the time she viewed her garden as a source of chores, as something that needed to be maintained, not as a source of enjoyment or beauty.

 

A deep frown furrowed her brow as Vivian realised that the only things in her life that offered her any real pleasure were her daughters.  Her husband, at times, brought a smile to her face, but she'd never really loved him.  Well, she loved him, but she'd never been in love with him, never felt any real passion for him.  He was a good man, and he was a good friend.  He was strong, dependable, and willing to do whatever it took to keep his family safe and happy, but he wasn't the love of her life.

 

A bitter taste filled Vivian's mouth as she realised Erica's father held that particular title.  She immediately tried to shake the feeling, but still it lingered, clung to her like it always did when she thought about her husband.  Throughout their cruelly brief marriage he'd been the perfect husband, her best friend, her soulmate, but then he'd been taken from her, drowned on a fishing trip, his body lost.  And with his death, her life became unravelled.

 

It wasn't just the vicious allegations published in a certain Seattle-based magazine that left her feeling bitter.  It was more than that.  It was the things she'd found out after he was gone, after all the drama with the press had settled down, when finally she'd felt strong enough to go through his things, his papers, his possessions.  She'd thought she'd known everything to know about the man, every little detail, and yet there were things she'd found, things she'd seen, things she'd read that made her question just about everything.

 

Everything, including perhaps his name...

 

“Mum.”

 

Vivian frowned.  She'd become lost in thought, lost in memory, lost in a past better forgotten, and for a moment she forgot where she was.  She turned just enough to see the door, forcing a smile onto her face, expecting to find Audrianna standing there, waiting to be beckoned inside, but the doorway was empty.  Her frown deepened until she heard the voice again.

 

“Mum.”

 

With that Vivian Waverly span around, her eyes wide, her mouth dropping open as she found her oldest daughter, her Erica, sitting up in bed, awake at last.

 

 

*        *        *

 

 

Orchard Terrace was normally a quiet street.  The narrow road, barely wide enough to allow two cars to pass each other, was lined on one side by numerous picturesque cottages, each with its own small garden out front, while opposite lay an expanse of grass leading down to the woods.  While the road eventually joined the highway, it took a circuitous route along the edge of the woods, affording a scenic but indirect route out of town.  As such it was a road rarely travelled by locals, barely known to tourists, and thus left to the almost exclusive use of the, mostly elderly, residents who lived along it.

 

As Paul drove towards the gathered police cars, he wondered if he might find himself living on such a street when finally he retired.  Part of him liked the idea, enjoyed the thought of living in a small, secluded community surrounded by others his age, but there was another part that couldn't even begin to imagine such a life.  He didn't see himself as the sort to simply fade into the background, to spend his days tending his garden, reminiscing with old folks, taking gentle walks in the woods.  He saw himself back in the city, perhaps in a quiet suburb, surrounded by people, by action, by life.

 

Of course, that afternoon Orchard Terrace had its fair share of people and action.  As he pulled up in front of the quaint blue-painted cottage, he glanced first at the half-dozen police officers who had gathered outside the front of the building, and then down the road at the neighbours in their front gardens, all of them looking at either the house or at him.  He sighed as he pushed open his door, glancing briefly at Georgie before stepping out into the street.

 

He spotted Detective Alan Jarvis jogging towards him as he closed the door.  The younger man had a sombre expression on his face as he raised his hand in friendly greeting, slowing to a brisk walk as he drew closer.  Paul made his way slowly around the car, conscious of how heavy his legs felt, aware of the burning in his eyes, fighting the urge to get back in his car and drive home, to sleep for at least ten hours.

 

“What've we got?” Paul asked as Alan came to a halt in front of him.

 

“A couple of officers were going house to house to see if anyone saw or heard anything last night,” Alan told him.  “When they got to this place they found the front door wide open, so one of them went inside.  They found the body in the front room.”

 

“The body?” Paul frowned at him.

 

“Ida Larkin,” Alan stated.  “Aged sixty-seven.  Retired schoolteacher.  It looks like she was stabbed four times.”

 

“By the same person that killed Julie Davidson?” Georgie asked.

 

“No way to know for sure until Dr Walter's had a chance to look at the body,” he replied, “but it's a good bet.  Two fatal stabbings in one night might not be unusual in a larger town or city, but in Midnight...chances are we're looking at the same killer.”

 

“Why?” Paul frowned.  “What does a sixty-seven year old retired schoolteacher have in common with a seventeen year old girl from the other side of town?  Did Mrs Larkin teach at a school Julie went to?”

 

“Doubtful,” Alan replied.  “I've spoken to a couple of the neighbours.  Mrs Larkin worked at a school in Chicago until a little over eight years ago, when she took early retirement and moved here to Midnight to take care of her sister.  The sister passed away last year, so Mrs Larkin's lived here alone ever since.”

 

“Then why...” Paul began.

 

“You folks from the police?”

 

Paul turned, frowning at the old man who stood in what Paul assumed was his own front garden.  “Yes we are,” he nodded.  “You see anything last night?”

 

“Me?” he scoffed, shaking his head.  “Son, I'm in bed by nine and up with the birds in the morning.  Sleep like a log.  Always have.  Didn't see or hear nothing.”

 

“Well then,” Paul sighed.  “If you don't mind...”

 

“Ida Larkin's the one to ask about the goings on here at night,” the old man continued.  “The woman was a vampire.”

 

“A vampire?” Georgie frowned at him.

 

“Oh, I don't mean she sucked blood or nothing like that,” he chuckled, shaking his head.  “I mean she was a night owl.  Up all night every night.  Used to keep my wife – God bless her soul – awake all night with her damned television.  And that's when she wasn't out gardening.”

 

“Gardening?” Paul echoed.  “At night?”

 

“Of course at night,” the old man said, rolling his eyes.  “I told you, the woman was a vampire.  Out in the garden at two in the morning, weeding and planting, cutting and snipping, drove my poor wife crazy.  Not me, of course, but then I could sleep through just about anything.”

 

“Do you happen to know if she was out in her garden last night?” Alan asked him.

 

“What?” the old man barked, raising his eyes to the heavens.  “Haven't I just done saying I was sleeping last night?  I don't know if the silly old cow was out gardening.  Wouldn't surprise me though.”

 

“Thank you Mr...” Paul said.

 

“Gifford,” the old man stated.  “Lawrence Gifford.  Larry.”

 

“OK, Larry,” Paul nodded, as politely as he could.  “I'll have an officer come over to speak to you shortly, take a statement from you, if that's ok?”

 

“Not sure what use an old fart like me could be,” he shrugged, “but I'm not one to turn away company.”

 

If he hadn't been so tired Paul might have smiled as the old man hobbled back towards his front door.  Instead he watched him, waiting until he was out of earshot before turning back to Alan and Georgie.  “I know it's a bit of a reach, but I think we might just have a theory as to why Mrs Larkin was killed.  Assuming it's the same guy.”

 

“You think she might have seen something last night?” Georgie suggested.

 

“Maybe,” Paul nodded.  “Have forensics go over the house with a fine tooth comb.  I want ever fingerprint, every drop of blood, every stray fibre bagged, tagged and analysed.  In the meantime, get those officers,” he said, beckoning towards the uniformed men chatting idly in front of the house, “going door to door.  I don't care if they've been to some of these houses once already.  I want to know if anyone on this street saw or heard anything last night.  I want to know everything they know, or think they know, about Ida Larkin.  And have them show a picture of Julie Davidson around, see if anyone on this street has seen her before.  If there's a connection between Miss Davidson and Mrs Larkin, I want to know about it.”

 

 

*        *        *

 

 

Audrianna closed the cabin door, watching as her sister's near-naked boyfriend slumped into the wooden rocking chair beside the barren fireplace.  She turned away from him, just for an instant, just long enough to slide the bolt on the cabin door, and then she returned her eyes to his body, fighting back a smile as she gazed at his muscular frame.  Over the years she'd seen him with his shirt off many times, but never had she been able to stare at him so openly.  Either Erica had been around, watching her like a hawk, or she'd been too self-conscious, too nervous, too afraid of being caught to really study him, but now he seemed almost oblivious to her presence.

 

His body wasn't as tight as it had been when he was sixteen.  He was still muscular, his body still nicely defined, but it was slightly softer, the merest hint of a paunch appearing above the waistband of his shorts.  He had just a light smattering of hair on his legs, and almost none on his chest and stomach, but that didn't bother her.  There was a faint scar on his right knee and another on his left shoulder, a mole just to the right of his navel and a blemish, perhaps a birthmark, just above his left hip, but none of that mattered to her either.  To her he was the perfect specimen of manhood; masculine, beautiful, sexy.

 

She glanced at the shower cubicle in the far corner, wondering if perhaps she could convince him to use it, to shed his clothes in front of her again, perhaps even allow her to bathe him, but she couldn't bring herself to ask.  Not yet.  She didn't exactly have a plan in mind, but she knew it was too soon to try anything with him.  She had to wait, bide her time, care for him, make him reliant on her and when he was she would take advantage of the situation.  And if she did it right, he would want her as much as she wanted him.

 

“Tell me again,” he muttered, his eyes flickering briefly in her direction.

 

“Tell you...” she frowned.

 

“About Erica and the others,” he said, a tortured expression flooding his face.

 

For a moment she felt a pang of guilt, knowing that her lie was the source of his pain, but she pushed it aside.  She couldn't allow herself to feel trivial emotions like remorse.  “They're dead,” she told him.  “What else do you want me to say?”

 

“And the police think I did it?”

 

“That's what they told my parents,” she lied.  “At first you were just a suspect, because they were all killed and your body wasn't found with them, but this morning they told Mum and Dad that they'd found the knife and your fingerprints were on it.”

 

“I didn't...”

 

“I know,” she said quickly.  “Do you really think I would be locked in a remote cabin with you if I thought you'd murdered my sister?”

 

“But the police...”

 

“Even if you did kill them,” she continued quickly, “it had to have been an accident or temporary insanity or something, but I don't think you killed them.  I think someone's trying to frame you.”

 

“Why would...”

 

“I don't know why anyone would want to do that to you,” she said, crossing the room quickly and crouching beside him.  She reached up, resting her hand on his bare arm, squeezing it gently.  “I know you didn't do it, Tom.  You're not that kind of guy.”

 

“How would you know?” he frowned, pulling his arm from her grip.

 

“I've known you my whole life,” she told him.  “I know you can be a jerk and I know you drink too much, but you're not a killer.  My sister's dead,” she continued, allowing a slight quiver to form in her voice, “and I want the person who killed her to pay.  If I thought you'd killed her I'd probably kill you myself, but I don't.”

 

He stared at her for a moment, his expression impossible to read.  Audrianna felt her heart beat a little faster, but then he nodded, even managed a brief, small smile.  “Thanks,” he said.  “I just...I think I should turn myself in.”

 

“No way!” she said quickly, a little too quickly, a little too urgently, her tone catching him by surprise.  “I mean, you don't have an alibi, your fingerprints were on the murder weapon, as far as the police are concerned you're the killer.  Right now they're investigating, looking for you.  If you stay hidden then maybe they'll look a little deeper as they try to find you, perhaps even think that you might be another victim.  If you turn yourself in then what have they got to investigate?  You can't even deny it, really.  I mean, you didn't even know they were dead.”

 

“But if I tell them what I know...”

 

“Do you really think they'll believe you?” she frowned at him.  “You were drunk, you were the only one with them and the only one still alive, they have your prints on the knife...it's an open and shut case as far as they're concerned.  At least while you're out here they have something to investigate.  If you turn yourself in then they only question they're going to be asking is why, and I doubt they'll worry too much about motive when they have such compelling evidence.  If they're looking for you then maybe they'll find evidence that clears your name or another suspect or something.”

 

He nodded, a tear slipping from his left eye.  Audrianna reached up quickly, catching it and wiping it away.

 

“Where is here?” he muttered.

 

“Huh?”

 

“Where are we?” he asked again.  “This place...”

 

“It's Erica's dad's cabin,” Audrianna told him.  “Erica's never been up here, as far as I know, and I don't think Mum even remembers this place exists.  I found it a couple of years ago and took the keys from home.  I come up here whenever I want to be alone.”

 

“Or when you want to hide a fugitive,” he responded with a dry laugh.

 

“It comes in handy,” she winked at him.

 

“Why are you helping me?” he asked her.

 

“That's a dumb question,” she answered.  “Erica loved you, and I know she would want me to help you.”

 

“I guess,” he nodded.

 

“It's not much,” she shrugged.  “There's no hot water, but you can still take a shower if you want.  I wouldn't recommend starting a fire in case someone sees the smoke from the chimney, and you should probably keep the curtains drawn, but there's a bed, or at least a mattress, and I can bring you some blankets and food.”

 

“What about clothes?” he asked, his eyes suddenly widening.  “Oh shit!”

 

“What?” she frowned at him.

 

“My clothes,” he gasped.  “I left them in the woods.  I took them off because they were covered in blood, but if the police find them...”

 

“Where did you leave them?” she asked.

 

“I don't know,” he said, his voice desperate, panicked.  “I could hear the stream, so it can't have been too far away...”

 

“I'll find them,” she stated.

 

“Bring them back here,” he told her.

 

“No,” she said firmly.  “I'll burn them.”

 

“But...”

 

“They've got blood on them,” she said.  “That blood is evidence.  There's no way you can wash them here, and even if I could take them home and wash them, who knows if that'll be enough to get rid of all the blood.”

 

“OK,” he nodded.  “You're right.  Burn them.”

 

“Your shorts and socks too,” she said, her heart skipping a beat as the words left her mouth.

 

“What?” he frowned at her.

 

“Come on,” she said, struggling to keep her voice steady.  “I'll bring you some of my Dad's clothes tonight, but there could be blood on your shorts and socks too, or some other evidence.  It's best to just burn them now.”

 

“Let's wait until...”

 

“Now!” she instructed.  “I've already seen you naked, and I can look away if that's what you're worried about, but if the police find this place before I get back it's best they don't find any more evidence.  Give me the shorts and socks now, and while I'm gone you take a shower.  I'll bring you some soap and shampoo later, but you do the best you can until I get back.  I'll bring you food, clothes and blankets too, but we can't mess about.  You're a murder suspect, so unless you want to spend the rest of your life in prison there's no time for modesty.”

 

He stared at her for a moment, then nodded, sighing heavily.  “Do me a favour, though,” he requested.  “Look away this time.”

 

“Sure,” she agreed reluctantly.

 

 

*        *        *

 

 

Frank Danforth watched as the two teenage girls made their way down the street, both oblivious to his presence.  From where he stood, in the old section of the Church graveyard, he couldn't hear what they were saying, couldn't even hear their voices, but that didn't much matter to him.  He just liked to watch.

 

He smiled as he saw the taller of the two girls laugh, not because he particularly enjoyed sharing in the happiness of others, but more because of the way it made her face look.  There was a momentary flash of teeth, a slight crease around the corners of her eyes, a cherry-coloured redness to her cheeks, and for a moment, just a moment, her face transformed from something rather plain to a vision of loveliness.

 

He switched his gaze to the other girl, watching her as she continued to speak to her friend in a thoroughly animated fashion, her hands dancing in front of her, her lips barely meeting, her face, indeed her entire body, changing constantly, seemingly creating an entirely new person as each word escaped her mouth.  Occasionally she would glance at the ground in front of her, checking her path was clear, but mostly she kept her eyes fixed on her friend, scrutinising her as she spoke, watching her every expression.

 

Frank felt a tinge of sadness as the girls passed by on the other side of the street, when he could no longer see their faces.  Still he continued to watch them, observing their movements, but with their faces hidden from him it just wasn't the same.  He liked to see faces.  When he could see a person's face he could normally guess what they were feeling, imagine what they were thinking, and through their face vicariously share in whatever it was they were experiencing.  When he could see a person's face he felt as though he were in some way connected to them, and for those moments, however long they lasted, he felt as though he was a part of someone else's life, and somehow less alone.

 

Not that he minded being alone.  It was how he'd always been.  Over the years there had been the occasional person who'd shown him real kindness, who'd talked to him, listened to him, but few who'd really taken the time to get to know him, who'd looked forward to seeing him, who'd truly enjoyed his company.  It had been easier when he'd been younger.  Even as a child he'd never really had many friends, but there had been some, one or two, who had seemed happy to play with him.  But as they'd got older those children had changed somehow.  He didn't quite understand it, but none of them really seemed interested in playing the way they used to, and Frank had never been able to grasp the games they did play.

 

Eventually he'd come to accept that those friends he'd played with had outgrown him and went in search of younger children with whom he could talk, could play, could understand, but the older he'd grown the more his parents, his teachers, other adults seemed reluctant to allow him to continue playing with the kids he could connect with.  And so he'd taken to watching them, imagining he was a part of their games, but eventually even that seemed unacceptable to some people.

 

For reasons he had never been able to understand, it simply wasn't acceptable for a full-grown man to watch children play.  Then again, most people seemed to object to him watching...well, pretty much anyone.

 

"Frank."

 

Gasping, Frank span on his heels, his eyes opening wide as he found himself being watched by a figure in the shadows.

 

"I hear you spoke to a police officer this morning," the figure said, his voice solemn.

 

"I did," Frank nodded, taking a small step towards the man.  "I didn't tell them nothing though.  I didn't say nothing about you.  I swear."

 

"I know, Frank," Father Mark said as he moved from the shadows.  "I know you'll keep our secret.”