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A Maiden's Grave

Jeffery Deaver



  8:30 A.M.

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  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.


  A Signet Book / published by arrangement with the author

  All rights reserved.

  Copyright (c) 1995 by Jeffery Deaver

  This book may not be reproduced in whole or part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission. Making or distributing electronic copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement and could subject the infringer to criminal and civil liability.

  For information address:

  The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

  The Penguin Putnam Inc. World Wide Web site address is

  ISBN: 978-1-1012-0935-6


  Signet Books first published by The Signet Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

  Signet and the "S" design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Putnam Inc.

  Electronic edition: May, 2002

  To Diana Keene, for being

  an inspiration, a discerning critic,

  a part of my books, a part of my life,

  with all my love.


  I'd like to give special thanks to Pamela Dorman at Viking, an editor with the persistence and patience (not to mention just plain guts) to keep authors striving for the same level of excellence she achieves in her craft. My deepest appreciation too to Deborah Schneider, dear friend and the best agent in the world. And to the entire Viking/NAL crew, especially Barbara Grossman, Elaine Koster, Michaela Hamilton, Joe Pittman, Cathy Hemming, Matthew Bradley (who's earned the title Combat Publicist a hundred times over), and Susan Hans O'Connor. No mention of gratitude would be complete without acknowledging the fine folks at Curtis Brown in London, especially Diana Mackay and Vivienne Schuster, and at my top-notch British publisher, Hodder-Headline, notably my editor, Carolyn Mays, and Sue Fletcher and Peter Lavery. Thanks to Cathy Gleason at Gelfman-Schneider, and thanks and a "hey" to my grandmother Ethel Rider and my sister and fellow author, Julie Reece Deaver, and to Tracey, Kerry, David, Taylor, Lisa (Ms. X-Man), Casey, Chris, and Bryan Big and Bryan Little.



  8:30 A.M.

  "Eight gray birds, sitting in dark.

  Cold wind blows, it isn't kind."

  The small yellow school bus crested an abrupt rise on the highway and for a moment all she could see was a huge quilt of pale wheat, a thousand miles wide, waving, waving under the gray sky. Then they dipped down once again and the horizon was gone.

  "Sitting on wire, they lift their wings

  and sail off into billowy clouds."

  When she paused she looked at the girls, who nodded approvingly. She realized that she'd been staring at the thick pelt of wheat and ignoring her audience.

  "Are you nervous?" Shannon asked.

  "Don't ask her that," Beverly warned. "Bad luck."

  No, Melanie explained, she wasn't nervous. She looked out again at the fields that streamed past.

  Three of the girls were drowsing but the other five were wide awake and waiting for her to continue. Melanie began again but was interrupted before she'd recited the first line of the poem.

  "Wait--what kind of birds are they?" Kielle frowned.

  "Don't interrupt." From seventeen-year-old Susan.

  "People who interrupt are Philistines."

  "Am not!" Kielle shot back. "What is that?"

  "Crass dummy," Susan explained.

  "What's 'crass'?" Kielle demanded.

  "Let her finish!"

  Melanie continued:

  "Eight little birds high in sky,

  They fly all night till they find sun."

  "Time out." Susan laughed. "It was five birds yesterday."

  "Now you're interrupting," lean tomboy Shannon pointed out. "You Philadelphian."

  "Philistine," Susan corrected.

  Chubby Jocylyn nodded emphatically as if she also had caught the slip but was too timid to point it out. Jocylyn was too timid to do very much at all.

  "But there are eight of you so I changed it."

  "Can you do that?" wondered Beverly. At fourteen, she was the second-oldest student.

  "It's my poem," Melanie responded. "I can make it as many birds as I want."

  "How many people will be there? At recital?"

  "One hundred thousand." Melanie looked quite sincere.

  "No! Really?" offered enthusiastic eight-year-old Shannon, as a much older eight-year-old Kielle rolled her eyes.

  Melanie's gaze was again drawn to the bleak scenery of south-central Kansas. The only color was the occasional blue Harvestore prefab silo. It was July but the weather was cold and heavily overcast; rain threatened. They passed huge combines and buses filled with migrant workers, their Porta-Pottis wheeling along behind. They saw landowners and sharecroppers, piloting their huge Deeres, Masseys, and IHs. Melanie imagined them glancing nervously at the sky; this was harvest time for the winter wheat, and a storm now could ruin eight months of arduous work.

  Melanie turned away from the window and self-consciously examined her fingernails, which she trimmed and filed religiously every night. They were coated with faint polish and looked like perfect flakes of pearl. She lifted her hands and recited several poems again, signing the words elegantly. Now all the girls were awake, four looking out the windows, three watching Melanie's fingers, and round Jocylyn Weiderman watching her teacher's every move.

  These fields go on forever, Melanie thought. Susan's gaze followed Melanie's. "They're blackbirds," the teenager signed. "Crows."

  Yes, they were. Not five or eight, but a thousand, a flock of them. The birds watched the ground, the yellow bus, and the overcast sky, gray and purple.

  Melanie looked at her watch. They weren't even to the highway yet. It would be three hours before they got to Topeka.

  The bus descended into another canyon of wheat.

  She sensed the trouble before a single clue registered in her conscious thoughts. Later she would conclude that it was no psychic message or premonition; it was Mrs. Harstrawn's big, ruddy fingers flexing anxiously on the steering wheel.

  Hands, in motion.

  Then the older woman's eyes narrowed slightly. Her shoulders shifted. Her head tilted a millimeter. The small things a body does that reveal what the mind is thinking.
r />   "Are girls asleep?" The question was blunt and the fingers returned immediately to the wheel. Melanie scooted forward and signed that they weren't.

  Now the twins, Anna and Suzie, delicate as feathers, were sitting up, leaning forward, breathing on the older teacher's broad shoulders, looking ahead. Mrs. Harstrawn waved them back. "Don't look. Sit back and look out opposite window. Do it. Now! The left window."

  Then Melanie saw the car. And the blood. There was a lot of it. She shepherded the girls back to their seats.

  "Don't look," Melanie instructed. Her heart pounded fiercely, her arms suddenly weighed a thousand pounds. "And put seatbelts on." She had trouble making the words.

  Jocylyn, Beverly, and ten-year-old Emily did as instructed immediately. Shannon grimaced and peeked, Kielle blatantly ignored Melanie. Susan got to look, she pointed out. Why couldn't she?

  Of the twins, it was Anna who'd gone still, hands in her lap and her face paler than usual, in sharp contrast to her sister's nut-brown tan. Melanie stroked the girl's hair. She pointed out the window on the left side of the bus. "Look at wheat," she instructed.

  "Totally interesting," Shannon replied sarcastically.

  "Those poor people." Twelve-year-old Jocylyn wiped copious tears from her fat cheeks.

  The burgundy Cadillac had run hard into a metal irrigation gate. Steam rose from its front end. The driver was an elderly man. He lay sprawled half out of the car, his head on the asphalt. Melanie could now see a second car as well, a gray Chevy. The collision had happened at an intersection. It looked like the Cadillac had had the right of way and had slammed into the gray car, which must have run a stop sign. The Chevy had skidded off the road into the tall wheat. There was no one inside; its hood was twisted and steam plumed from the radiator.

  Mrs. Harstrawn brought the bus to a stop, reached for the worn chrome handle of the door.

  No! thought Melanie. Keep going! Go to a grocery store, a 7-Eleven, a house. They hadn't passed anything for miles but surely there was something up ahead. Don't stop. Keep going. She'd been thinking those words but her hands must have been moving because Susan responded, "No, we have to. He is hurt."

  But the blood, Melanie thought. They shouldn't get his blood on them. There was AIDS, there were other diseases.

  These people needed help but they needed official help.

  Eight gray birds, sitting in dark . . .

  Susan, eight years younger than Melanie, was the first one out of the school bus, running toward the injured man, her long, black hair dancing around her in the gusting wind.

  Then Mrs. Harstrawn.

  Melanie hung back, staring. The driver lay like a sawdust doll, one leg bent at a terrible angle. Head floppy, hands fat and pale.

  She had never before seen a dead body.

  But he isn't dead, of course. No, no, just a cut. It's nothing. He's just fainted.

  One by one the little girls turned to gaze at the accident; Kielle and Shannon first, naturally--the Dynamic Duo, the Power Rangers, the X-Men. Then fragile Emily, whose hands were glued together in prayer. (Her parents insisted that she pray every night for her hearing to return. She had told this to Melanie but no one else.) Beverly clutched her chest, an instinctive gesture. She wasn't having an attack just yet.

  Melanie climbed out and walked toward the Cadillac. Halfway there she slowed. In contrast to the gray sky, the gray wheat, and the pale highway, the blood was so very red; it was on everything--the man's bald head, his chest, the car door, the yellow leather seat.

  The roller coaster of fear sent her heart plummeting toward the ground.

  Mrs. Harstrawn was the mother of two teenage boys, a humorless woman, smart, dependable, solid as vulcanized rubber. She reached under her colorful sweater, untucked her blouse and tore off a strip, making an impromptu bandage, which she wrapped around a deep gash in the man's torn head. She bent down and whispered into his ear, pressed on his chest and breathed into his mouth.

  And then she listened.

  I can't hear, Melanie thought, so I can't help. There's nothing I can do. I'll go back to the bus. Keep an eye on the girls. The roller coaster of her fear leveled out. Good, good.

  Susan crouched too, stanching a wound on his neck. Frowning, the student looked up at Mrs. Harstrawn. With bloody fingers she signed, "Why bleeding so much? Look at neck."

  Mrs. Harstrawn examined it. She too frowned, shaking her head.

  "There's hole in his neck," the teacher signed in astonishment. "Like a bullet hole."

  Melanie gasped at this message. The flimsy car of the roller coaster dropped again, leaving Melanie's stomach somewhere else--way, way above her. She stopped walking altogether.

  Then she saw the purse.

  Ten feet away.

  Thankful for any distraction to keep her eyes off the injured man, she walked over to the bag and examined it. The chain pattern on the cloth was some designer's. Melanie Charrol--a farm girl who made sixteen thousand, five hundred dollars a year as an apprentice teacher of the deaf--had never in her twenty-five years touched a designer accessory. Because the purse was small it seemed precious. Like a radiant jewel. It was the sort of purse that a woman would sling over her shoulder when she walked into an office high above downtown Kansas City or even Manhattan or Los Angeles. The sort of purse she'd drop onto a desk and from which she'd pull a silver pen to write a few words that would set assistants and secretaries in motion.

  But as Melanie stared at the purse a tiny thought formed in her mind, growing, growing until it blossomed: Where was the woman who owned it?

  That was when the shadow fell on her.

  He wasn't a tall man, or fat, but he seemed very solid: muscled the way horses have muscle, close to the skin, rippled and defined. Melanie gasped, staring at his smooth young face. He wore a glossy crewcut and clothes gray as the clouds speeding by overhead. The grin was broad and showed white teeth and she didn't believe the smile for a second.

  Melanie's first impression was that he resembled a fox. No, she concluded, a weasel or a stoat. There was a pistol in the waistband of his baggy slacks. She gasped and lifted her hands. Not to her face but to her chest. "Please, don't hurt me," she signed without thinking. He glanced at her moving hands and laughed.

  From the corner of her eye she saw Susan and Mrs. Harstrawn stand uneasily. A second man was striding up to them; he was huge. Fat and tall. Also dressed in over-washed gray. Shaggy hair. He was missing a tooth and his grin was hungry. A bear, she thought automatically.

  "Go," Melanie signed to Susan. "Let's go. Now." Eyes on the yellow skin of the bus, she started walking toward the seven unhappy young faces staggered in the windows.

  Stoat grabbed her by the collar. She batted at his hand, but cautiously, afraid to hit him, afraid of his anger.

  He shouted something she didn't understand and shook her. The grin became what the grin really was--a cold glare. His face went dark. Melanie sagged in terror and dropped her hand.

  "What's . . . this?" Bear said. "I'm thinking we . . . about that."

  Melanie was postlingually deaf. She began losing her hearing at age eight, after her language skills were honed. She was a better lipreader than most of the girls. But lipreading is a very iffy skill, far more complicated than merely watching lips. The process involves interpreting movements of the mouth, tongue, teeth, eyes, and other parts of the body. It is truly effective only if you know the person whose words you are trying to decipher. Bear existed in a different universe from Melanie's life of Old English decor, Celestial Seasonings tea and small-town, midwestern schools. And she had no idea what he was saying.

  The big man laughed and spit in a white stream. His eyes coursed over her body--her breasts beneath the high-necked burgundy blouse, her long charcoal-gray skirt, black tights. She awkwardly crossed her arms. Bear turned his attention back to Mrs. Harstrawn and Susan.

  Stoat was leaning forward, speaking--probably shouting, as people often did with the Deaf (which was all right because they sp
oke more slowly and their lip motion was more pronounced when they shouted). He was asking who was in the bus. Melanie didn't move. She couldn't. Her sweaty fingers gripped her biceps.

  Bear looked down at the injured man's battered face and tapped his booted foot lethargically against the head, watching it loll back and forth. Melanie gasped; the casualness of the kick, its gratuitousness, was horrifying. She started to cry. Bear pushed Susan and Mrs. Harstrawn ahead of him toward the bus.

  Melanie glanced at Susan and shot her hands into the air. "No, don't!"

  But Susan was already moving.

  Her perfect figure and runner's body.

  Her one hundred and twelve muscular pounds.

  Her strong hands.

  As the girl's palm swung toward Bear's face he jerked his head back in surprise and caught her hand inches from his eyes. The surprise became amusement and he bent her arm downward until she dropped to her knees then he shoved her to the ground, filthying her black jeans and white blouse with dust and mud. Bear turned to Stoat and called out something.

  "Susan, don't!" Melanie signed.

  The teenager was on her feet again. But Bear was prepared this time and turned to meet her. When he grabbed her his hand found her breasts and lingered there for a moment. Suddenly, he grew tired of the game. He hit her solidly in the stomach and she dropped to her knees, clutching herself and struggling for breath.

  "No!" Melanie signed to her. "Don't fight."

  Stoat called to Bear, "Where . . . he?"

  Bear motioned toward a wall of wheat. He had a curious expression on his face--as if he didn't approve of something but was afraid to be too critical. "Don't . . . time . . . this bullshit," he muttered. Melanie followed his eyes and looked into the shafts of wheat. She couldn't see clearly but from the shadows and dim outlines it appeared to be a man, bending down. He was small and wiry. It seemed that his arm was raised, like in one of those Nazi salutes. It remained poised there for a long moment. Beneath him, she thought, was the form of a person, dressed in dark green.

  The woman who owned the purse, Melanie understood in a terrible flash.

  No, please, no . . .

  The man's arm descended leisurely. Through the undulating wheat she saw the dull glint of metal in his hand.

  Stoat's head bent slightly; he'd heard a sudden noise. He winced. Bear's face broke into a smile. Mrs. Harstrawn's hands rose to her ears, covering them. Horrified. Mrs. Harstrawn could hear perfectly.