Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Lesson of Her Death

Jeffery Deaver


  This Polaroid had been taken at the same time as the one left on the back steps. The scene was of Sarah, or whoever the girl might be, lying in the grass, her skirt still up to her waist. The angle was about the same, so was the lighting. There were in fact only two differences. The photographer was now much nearer--only several feet from the girl.

  And the message in red marker on the back was different. It said: GETTING CLOSER.






  "The characters are well drawn, the plot is fast paced, and the writing avoids totally the usual trappings of blockbusterdom.... An intelligently written thriller."


  "This novel is a solid achievement."

  --Mystery News

  "Loaded with character and action and a very devious plot, Mistress of Justice is a top-notch legal thriller."

  --Mystery Lovers News


  The Stone Monkey

  The Blue Nowhere

  Speaking in Tongues

  The Empty Chair

  The Devil's Teardrop

  The Coffin Dancer

  The Bone Collector

  A Maiden's Grave

  Praying for Sleep

  The Lesson of Her Death*

  Hell's Kitchen

  Hard News*

  Death of a Blue Movie Star*

  Manhattan 1s My Beat*

  Bloody River Blues

  Shallow Graves

  *Available from Bantam Books

  Table of Contents


  Another Warning

  Other Books By This Author

  Title Page


  Author's Note

  Part 1 - Profile

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Part 2 - Physical Evidence

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Part 3 - Close Pursuit

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  About The Author


  For Carla Norton


  I would like to express my grateful appreciation to Jerry Cowdrey, Laguna Niguel, California, for her insights into the plight and the potential of learning disabled children. Similarly, my thanks to my sister and fellow author Julie Reece Deaver, Pacific Grove, California, and special thanks to Karen Cowdrey of Los Angeles, whose insights into psychotherapy and the human mind have proved invaluable in many, many ways. Also, my appreciation to my editor, Kate Miciak, among whose uncanny talents are the abilities to inspire, to instruct, and--not the least--to instill in an author the same enthusiasm she feels for the written word. And finally, my heartfelt thanks to my agent and friend, Deborah Schneider.

  JWD, New York City, 1993



  With every passing mile her heart fled a little more.

  The girl, nine years old, sat slumped in the front seat, rubbing her finger along the worn beige armrest. The slipstream from the open window laid a strip of blond hair across her face. She brushed it away and looked up at the unsmiling, gray-haired man of about forty. He drove carefully, with his eyes fixed beyond the long white nose of the car.

  "Please," the girl said.


  She put her hands into her lap.

  Maybe when he stopped at a red light she would jump out.

  Maybe if he slowed down just enough ...

  Would it hurt, she wondered, to leap from the car into the tall grass beside the road? She pictured herself tumbling through the green blades, feeling the cold sprinkle of dew on her face and hands.

  But then what? Where would she run to?

  The first click of the turn signal interrupted these thoughts and the girl jumped as if a gun had fired. The car slowed and rocked as it pulled into the driveway, aiming toward a low brick building. She realized that her last hope was gone.

  The car eased to a stop, brakes squealing like a sob.

  "Give me a kiss," the man said, reaching over and pushing the buckle release. The seat belt retracted. She held on to the nylon like a lifeline.

  "I don't want to. Please."


  "Just for today? Please."


  "Don't leave me."

  "Out you go."

  "I'm not ready!"

  "Do the best you can."

  "I'm scared."

  "There's nothing to be--"

  "Don't leave me!"

  "Look--" His voice grew stony. "I'm going to be right nearby. Just over at Blackfoot Pond. That's hardly a mile away."

  Her inventory of excuses was depleted. Sarah opened the car door but remained sitting.

  "Give me a kiss."

  She leaned over and kissed her father quickly on his cheek then climbed out of the car, standing in the cool spring air heavily scented with bus exhaust. She took three steps toward the building, watching the car pull out of the driveway. She thought suddenly about the Garfield toy stuck to the back window of the family station wagon. Sarah remembered when she'd placed it there, licking the cups before squeezing them against the glass. For some reason this memory made her want to cry.

  Maybe he would catch a glimpse of her in the mirror, change his mind and return.

  The car vanished behind a hill.

  Sarah turned and entered the building. Clutching her lunch box to her chest she shuffled through the corridors. Although she was as tall as any of the children swarming around her she felt younger than them all.

  Tinier. Weaker.

  At the fourth-grade classroom she stopped. Sarah looked inside. Her nostrils flared and she felt her skin prickle with a rash of fear. She hesitated only for a moment then turned and walked resolutely from the building, buffeted and jostled as she forced her way through the oncoming stream of shouting, calling, laughing children.

  Not thirty feet from where they had found the body last night, he saw the note.

  The piece of paper, pierced by a wild rose stem the shade of dried blood, fluttered in the moist wind, sending out a Morse code in the low morning sunlight.

  Bill Corde pressed toward the paper through a tangle of juniper and maple saplings and stubborn runners of forsythia.

  Had they missed it? How could they?

  He barked his shin on a hidden stump and swore softly but continued toward the scrap.

  Corde was six foot two and his short hair was Persian-cat gray, which because he was just about to turn forty made him maybe seven-eighths premature. His skin was pale, the month being April and Corde having been fishing only twice so far that season. He looked lean from a
distance but his belt curled outward more than he would have liked; Corde's most strenuous sport these days was gentlemen's softball. This morning as always his New Lebanon Sheriff's Department shirt was clean and stiff as a sheet of new balsa wood and his beige slacks had razor creases.

  Corde was by rank a lieutenant and by specialty a detective.

  He remembered this place not twelve hours before--last night, lit only by the deputies' flashlights and the edgy illumination of a half-moon. He had sent his men to scour the ground. They were young and austere (the ones trained in the military) or young and arrogant (state police academy grads) but they were all earnest.

  Although they were virtuosos at DUI arrests and joyridings and domestics, what the deputies knew about murder they had learned mostly from pulp thrillers and TV, just like they knew about guns from stubbly autumn fields, not from the state pistol range up in Higgins. Still they had been ordered to search the crime scene and they had, doggedly and with fervor.

  But not one of them had found the piece of paper toward which Bill Corde now struggled through thick brush.

  Oh, you poor girl ...

  ... who lies at the foot of a ten-foot-high earth dam.

  ... who lies in this chill wet dish of mud and low grass and blue flowers.

  ... whose dark hair is side-parted, whose face is long, whose throat thick. Her round lips curl prominently. Each ear holds three wire-thin gold rings. Her toes are lanky and their nails dark with burgundy polish.

  ... who lies on her back, arms folded over her breasts, as if the mortician had already done her up. The pink floral blouse is buttoned high. Her skirt extends so modestly below her knees, tucked beneath her thighs.

  "We got her name. Here we go. It's Jennie Gebben. She's a student."

  Last night Bill Corde had crouched down beside the body, his knee popping, and put his face next to hers. The pearlish half-moon was reflected in her dead but still unglazed hazel eyes. He had smelled grass, mud, methane, transmission fluid, mint from her lips and perfume like pie spices rising from her cold skin.

  He had stood and climbed to the top of the dam, which held back the murky waters of Blackfoot Pond. He had turned and looked down at her. The moonlight was otherworldly, pale, special-effects light. In it, Jennie Gebben seemed to move. Not living, human movement but shrinking and curling as if she were melting into the mud. Corde had whispered a few words to her, or to whatever remained of her, then helped the men search the ground.

  Now, in the morning brilliance, he pushed his way through a final tangle of forsythia and stepped up to the rosebush. With his hand inside a small plastic bag, Corde pulled the paper from the russet thorns.

  Jim Slocum called, "The whole shebang?"

  Corde did not answer him. The boys from the department had not been careless last night. They could not have found this scrap of paper then because it was a clipping from this morning's Register.

  Slocum asked again, "The whole, uhm, place?"

  Corde looked up and said, "Whole thing. Yeah."

  Slocum grunted and continued unwinding yellow police-line tape around the circle of wet earth where the girl's body had been found. Slocum, after Corde, was the next senior New Lebanon town deputy. He was a muscular man with a round head and long ears. He'd picked up a razor-cut hairstyle in 1974, complete with sideburns, and had kept it ever since. Except for theme parks, hunting trips, and Christmas at the in-laws', Slocum rarely left the county. Today he whistled a generic tune as he strung the tape.

  A small group of reporters stood by the road. Corde would give nothing away but these were rural news hounds and well behaved; they looked all filled up with reporters' zeal but they left the two officers pretty much alone, content to shoot snaps and study the crime scene. Corde figured they were sponging up atmosphere for tomorrow's articles, which would brim with adjectives and menace.

  Corde lowered the newspaper clipping, now wrapped in the plastic bag, and looked around him. From the dam, off to his right, the ground rose to a vast forest split by Route 302, a highway that led to the mall then to a dozen other county roads and to a half-dozen state highways and to two expressways and eventually to forty-nine other states and two foreign countries where a fugitive killer might hide till the end of his days.

  Pacing, Corde looked over the forest, his lips pressed tightly together. He and Slocum had arrived five minutes before, at eight-thirty. The Register started hitting stores and porches at about seven-fifteen. Whoever had left the clipping had done so in the past hour.

  Listening to the hum of wind over a strand of taut barbed wire, he scanned the ground beneath the rosebush. It was indented by what seemed like two footprints though they were too smeared to help in identification. He kicked over a log that appeared newly fallen. A swarm of insects like tiny armadillos scurried away. Striding to the top of the dam, he placed his hands on green metal pipes sunk into the dirt as a railing.

  He squinted deep furrows into his forehead as he looked through the morning sunlight that crackled off the wind-roughed water of the pond. The woods stretched away from him, endless acres encased in a piercing glare.

  Listen ...

  He cocked his head and pointed his ear at the stream of light.


  He gazed once again into the heart of the forest. He lifted his hand to his eyebrows to shade the sun yet still the light dazzled. It stung his eyes. He could see everything, and he could see nothing.


  When he lowered his palm it came to rest on the grip of his service revolver.

  She ran most of the way.

  The route from New Lebanon Grade School to Blackfoot Pond was three miles along 302 (which she was forbidden to walk on) but only a half-hour through the forest, and that was the path she took.

  Sarah avoided the marshy areas, not because of any danger--she knew every trail through every forest around New Lebanon--but because she was afraid of getting mud on the shoes her father had polished the night before, shiny as a bird's wings, and on her rose-print knee socks, a Christmas present from her grandmother. She stayed to the path that wound through oak trees and juniper and pine and beds of fern. Far off a bird called. Ah-hoo-eeeee. Sarah stopped to look for it. She was warm and took off her jacket, then rolled up the sleeves of her white blouse and unbuttoned the collar. She ran on.

  As she approached Blackfoot Pond she saw her father standing with Mr. Slocum at the far end of the water, two or three hundred feet away through the thickest part of the forest. Their heads were down. It looked as if they were searching for a lost ball. Sarah started toward them but as she stepped out from behind a maple tree she stopped. She had walked right into a shaft of sunlight so bright it blinded her. The light was magical--golden yellow and filled with dust and steam and dots of spring insects that glowed in the river of radiant light. But this was not what made her hesitate. In a thicket of plants beside the path she saw--she thought she saw--someone bending forward watching her father. With the light in her eyes she couldn't tell whether it was a man or woman, young or adult.

  Maybe it was just a bunch of leaves and branches.

  No. She saw movement. It was somebody.

  Her curiosity suddenly gave way to uneasiness and Sarah turned away, off the path, starting downhill to the pond where she could follow the shoreline to the dam. Her cautious eyes remained on the figure nearby and when she stepped forward her gleaming black shoe slipped on a folded newspaper hidden under a pile of dry leaves.

  A short scream burst from her mouth and she reached out in panic. Her tiny fingers found only strands of tall grass, which popped easily from the ground and followed her like streamers as she slid toward the water.

  Corde called to Slocum, "You hear anybody over that way?"

  "Thought I might have." Slocum lifted off his Smokey the Bear hat and wiped his forehead. "Some footsteps or rustling."

  "Anything now?"


  Corde waited four or five minutes then walked down to t
he base of the dam and asked, "You through?"

  "Yessiree," Slocum said. "We head back now?"

  "I'll be taking a Midwest puddle jumper over to St. Louis to talk with the girl's father. Should be back by three or so. I want us all to meet about the case at four, four-thirty at the office. You stay here until the Crime Scene boys show up."

  "You want me just to wait, not do anything?"

  "They're due here now. Shouldn't be long."

  "But you know the county. Could be an hour." Slocum's way of protesting was to feed you bits of information like this.

  "We gotta keep it sealed, Jim."

  "You want." Slocum didn't look pleased but Corde wasn't going to leave a crime scene unattended, especially with a gaggle of reporters on hand.

  "I just don't want to get into a situation where I'm sitting here all day."

  "I don't think it'll--"

  A crackle of brush, footsteps coming toward them.

  The officers spun around to face the forest. Corde's hand again fell to his revolver. Slocum dropped the tape, which hit the ground and rolled, leaving a long thick yellow tail behind it. He too reached for his pistol.

  The noise was louder. They couldn't see the source but it was coming from the general direction of the rosebush that had held the clipping.


  She ran breathlessly toward him, her hair awash in the air around her, beads of sweat on her dirty face. One of her knee socks had slipped almost to her ankle and there was a thick streak of mud along a leg and arm.


  My sweet Lord! His own daughter. He'd had his hand on his gun and he'd been five seconds away from drawing on her!

  "Oh, Sarah! What are you doing here?"

  "I'm sorry, Daddy. I felt all funny. I got to school and I thought I was going to be sick." Rehearsed, the words stumbled out in a monotone.

  Jesus Lord....

  Corde crouched down to her. He smelled the scent of the shampoo she had received in her Easter basket not long ago. Violets. "You should never, never be where Daddy's working. You understand that? Never! Unless I bring you."

  Her face looked puffy with contrition. She glanced at her leg then held up her dirty forearm. "I fell."

  Corde took out his sharp-ironed handkerchief and wiped the mud off her limbs. He saw there were no cuts or scrapes and looked back into her eyes. There was still anger in his voice when he demanded, "Did you see anyone there? Were you talking to anybody in the woods?"