To Dr. Charles J. Marr, teacher and poet, uncle and inspiration, thank you for years of conversation, letters, and encouragement for my lit-love. I love you, Uncle C.
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About the Author
Also by Melissa Marr
About the Publisher
M AYLENE PUT ONE HAND ATOP THE STONE FOR support; pulling herself up from the soil got harder every year. Her knees had been problem enough, but of late the arthritis had started settling in her hips. She brushed the soil from her hands and from her skirt and pulled a small bottle from her pocket. Carefully avoiding the green shoots of the tulip bulbs she’d planted, Maylene tilted the bottle over the earth.
“Here you go, dear,” she whispered. “It’s not the shine we used to sip, but it’s what I have to share.”
She stroked the top of the stone. No grass clippings had collected there; no spider silk stretched from the top. She was careful of the smallest detail.
“Do you remember those days? Back porch, sunshine, and mason jars”—she paused at the remembered sweetness—“we were so foolish then ... thinking there was a big ol’ world out there to conquer.”
Pete, for his part, wasn’t likely to reply: those who were properly buried and minded didn’t speak.
She made the rest of her rounds through Sweet Rest Cemetery, stopping to clean debris from stones, pour a bit of drink onto the ground, and say her words. Sweet Rest was the last of the cemeteries on the week’s schedule, but she didn’t shortchange the residents.
For a small town, Claysville had a high number of graveyards and cemeteries. By law, everyone ever born within town limits had to be buried here; consequently, the town had more deceased residents than living ones. Maylene wondered sometimes what would happen if the living knew of the bargain the town founders had made, but every time she’d broached the topic with Charles, she’d been rebuffed. Some battles weren’t ones she could win—no matter how much she wanted them.
Or how much damn sense they make.
She glanced at the darkening sky. It was past time to be back home. She did her duty well enough that there hadn’t been visitors in almost a full decade, but she still went home by sundown. A lifetime of habit didn’t wane even when it seemed like it should.
Maylene had only just tucked her flask into her front dress pocket when she saw the girl. She was too thin, concave stomach showing under her ripped T-shirt. Her feet were bare, and her jeans had holes in the knees. A smudge of dirt outlined her left cheek like badly applied rouge. Eyeliner was smudged under her eyes like she’d fallen asleep with her makeup still on. The girl walked through the well-manicured cemetery, not staying on the paths, but crossing through the grass until she stood in front of one of the older family mausoleums beside Maylene.
“I wasn’t expecting you,” Maylene murmured.
The girl’s arms jutted out at awkward angles, not quite hands-on-hips-belligerent but not relaxed either, as if they weren’t all the way under the girl’s control. “I came to find you.”
“I didn’t know. If I’d known ...”
“It doesn’t matter now.” The girl’s attention was unwavering. “This is where you are.”
“It is, at that.” Maylene busied herself gathering up her gardening shears and watering can. She’d finished with the scrub brushes and already piled up most of her supplies. The bottles clinked as she tossed the watering can into her wheelbarrow.
The girl looked sad. Her soil-dark eyes were clouded over by tears that she hadn’t been able to shed. “I came to find you.”
“I couldn’t have known.” Maylene reached out and plucked a leaf from the girl’s hair.
“Doesn’t matter.” She lifted a dirty hand, fingernails flashing chipped red polish, but she didn’t seem to know what to do with her outstretched fingers. Little-girl fears warred with teen bravado in her expression. Bravado won. “I’m here now.”
“All right, then.” Maylene walked down the path toward one of the gates. She pulled the old key from her handbag, twisted it in the lock, and pushed open the gate. It creaked just a bit. Might want to mention that to Liam , she reminded herself . He never can remember without a nagging.
“Do you have pizza?” The girl’s voice was soft in the air. “And chocolate drink? I like those chocolate drinks.”
“I’m sure I have something I can fix.” Maylene heard her own voice quiver. She was getting too old for surprises. Finding the girl here— in this state —was a few steps past a surprise. She shouldn’t be here. Her parents shouldn’t have let her roam; someone should have contacted Maylene before it got to this point. There were laws in Claysville.
Laws kept in place for just this reason.
They stepped through the gate onto the sidewalk. Outside the boundaries of Sweet Rest, the world wasn’t nearly so tidy. The sidewalk had cracked, and from within those gaps spindly weeds were sprouting.
“Step on a crack, break your mama’s back,” the girl whispered, and then stomped her bare foot on the broken cement. She smiled at Maylene and added, “The bigger the crack, the worse it’ll hurt her.”
“That part doesn’t rhyme,” Maylene pointed out.
“It doesn’t, does it?” She tilted her head for a moment and then said, “The bigger the break , the worse the ache . That works.”
She swung her arms loosely as they walked, out of time with their steps, out of normal rhythm. Her steps were steady, but the pattern was erratic. Her feet came down on the sidewalk with such force that the broken cement tore at her bare feet.
Silently, Maylene pushed her wheelbarrow down the sidewalk until they came to the end of her driveway. She stopped, and with one hand, she pulled her flask out of her pocket and emptied it; with the other hand, she reached inside the postbox. In the back—folded up, stamped, and addressed—was an envelope. Her fingers trembled, b
ut Maylene sealed the flask inside the envelope, slipped it inside the box, and raised the red flag to signal the carrier to take away the package. If she didn’t come back to retrieve it in the morning, it would go to Rebekkah. Maylene put her hand on the side of the battered box for a moment, wishing that she’d had the courage to tell Rebekkah the things she needed to know before now.
“I’m hungry, Miss Maylene,” the girl urged.
“I’m sorry,” Maylene whispered. “Let me get you something warm to eat. Let me—”
“It’s okay. You’re going to save me, Miss Maylene.” The girl gave her a genuine look of happiness. “I know it. I knew that if I found you everything would be okay.”
B YRON MONTGOMERY HADN’T BEEN INSIDE THE BARROW HOUSE IN YEARS. Once he’d gone there every day to meet his high school girlfriend, Ella, and her stepsister, Rebekkah. They’d both been gone for nearly a decade, and for the first time, he was grateful. Ella and Rebekkah’s grandmother lay on the kitchen floor in a puddle of partially congealed blood. Her head was twisted at an odd angle, and her arm was torn. The blood on the floor seemed to have come mostly from that one wound. It looked like she had a handprint bruise on her upper arm, but it was hard to tell with the amount of blood around her.
“Are you okay?” Chris stepped in front of him, temporarily blocking the sight of Maylene’s body. The sheriff wasn’t an unnaturally large man, but like all of the McInneys, he had the sort of presence that commanded attention under any circumstances. The attitude and musculature that had once made Chris a sight to see in a good bar fight now made him the sort of sheriff that invited trust.
“What?” Byron forced himself to stare only at Chris, to avoid looking at Maylene’s body.
“Are you going to be sick or something ... because of the”—Chris gestured at the floor—“blood and all.”
“No.” Byron shook his head. A person couldn’t be an undertaker and get squeamish at the sight— or scent —of death. He’d worked at funeral homes outside of Claysville for eight years before he’d given in to the insistent urge to come back home. Out there, he’d seen the results of violent deaths, of children’s deaths, of lingering deaths. He’d mourned some of them, even though they were strangers to him, but he’d never been sick from it. He wasn’t going to get sick now either, but it was harder to be distant when the dead was someone he’d known.
“Evelyn went and got her clean clothes.” Chris leaned against the kitchen counter, and Byron noted that the blood spray hadn’t touched that side of the room.
“Did you already collect evidence or ... ?” Byron halted before he’d finished the sentence. He didn’t know what all needed to be done. He’d picked up more bodies than he could count, but never from a still-fresh crime scene. He wasn’t a pathologist or in any way involved in forensic investigation. His job commenced afterward, not at the scene of homicide. At least, it had been like that elsewhere. Now that he was back home, things weren’t what he was used to. The small town of Claysville was a different sort of place from the cities he’d roamed. He hadn’t realized exactly how different it was until he’d gone away ... or maybe until he’d come back.
“Did I collect evidence of what ?” Chris glowered at him with a menace that would make a lot of folks cringe, but Byron remembered when the sheriff had been one of the guys—likely to go into Shelly’s Stop ’n’ Shop to grab them a twelve-pack when Byron wasn’t quite old enough to buy it for himself.
“The crime.” Byron gestured at the kitchen. Blood spatter had arced across Maylene’s floor and cabinet fronts. A plate and two drinking glasses sat on the table, proof that there had been a second person at the table—or that Maylene had set out two glasses for herself. So she might have known her attacker. A chair was knocked backward on the floor. She’d struggled. A loaf of bread, with several slices cut and lying beside it, sat on the counter cutting board. She’d trusted her attacker. The bread knife had been washed and was the lone item in a narrow wooden drying rack beside the sink. Someone—the attacker?—had cleaned up. As Byron tried to assign meaning to what he saw around him, he wondered if Chris simply didn’t want to talk about the evidence. Maybe he sees something I’m missing?
The lab tech, whom Byron didn’t know, stepped into the kitchen. He didn’t step in the blood on the floor, but if he had, his shoes were already covered by booties. The absence of his kit seemed to indicate that the tech had already done what he needed in this room.
Or wasn’t going to be doing anything.
“Here.” The tech held out disposable coveralls and disposable latex gloves. “Figured you’d need help getting her out of here.”
Once Byron had the coveralls and gloves on, he looked from the tech to Chris. The attempt at patience vanished; he needed to know. “Chris? That’s Maylene, and ... just tell me you’ve got something to ... I don’t know, narrow in on whoever did this or something .”
“Drop it.” Chris shook his head and pushed away from the counter. Unlike the tech, he was very careful where he stepped. He walked toward the doorway into Maylene’s living room, putting himself farther from the body, and caught Byron’s gaze. “Just do your job.”
“Right.” Byron squatted down, started to reach out, and then looked up. “Is it safe to touch her? I don’t want to disturb anything if you still need to collect—”
“You can do whatever you need.” Chris didn’t look at Maylene as he spoke. “I can’t get anything else done until you take her out of here, and it’s not right her lying there like that. So ... just do it. Take her out of here.”
Byron unzipped the body bag. Then, with a silent apology to the woman he’d once expected to be part of his family, he and the tech gently moved her body into the bag. Leaving it still unzipped, Byron straightened and peeled off his now-bloody gloves.
Chris’ gaze dropped to Maylene’s body inside the still-open bag. Silently, he grabbed the biohazard bag and shoved it at the tech. Then the sheriff squatted down and zipped the bag, hiding Maylene’s corpse from sight. “Not right for her to be looking like that.”
“And it’s not right to contaminate the exterior of the pouch,” Byron retorted as he dropped the gloves in the biohazard bag, removed the coveralls, and carefully put them in the bag, too.
Chris crouched down, closed his eyes, and whispered something. Then he stood. “Come on. You need to get her up out of here.”
The look he spared for Byron was accusatory, and for a split moment, Byron wanted to snarl at him. It wasn’t that Byron didn’t feel for the dead. He did . He took care of them, treated them with more care than a lot of people knew in their lives, but he didn’t stand and weep. He couldn’t. Distance was as essential as the rest of an undertaker’s tools; without it, the job was impossible.
Some deaths got to him more than others; Maylene’s was one of them. She’d had an office at his family funeral home and a long-standing relationship with his father. She’d raised the only two women he’d ever loved. She was all but family—but that didn’t mean he was going to grieve here .
Silently and carefully, Byron and Chris carried Maylene to the cot Byron had left outside the door, and then they put her in the waiting hearse.
Once the back of the hearse was closed, Chris took several breaths. Byron doubted that the sheriff had ever dealt with a murder investigation. Claysville, for all of its eccentricities, was the safest town Byron had ever known. Growing up, he hadn’t realized how rare that was.
“Chris? I know some people I could call if you wanted to call in help.”
The sheriff nodded, but he refused to look at Byron. “Tell your father that—” Chris’ voice broke. He cleared his throat and continued, “Tell him that I’ll call Cissy and the girls.”
“I will,” Byron assured him.
Chris took several steps away. He stopped outside the same side door where they’d exited, but he didn’t look back as he said, “I suspect someone will need to tell Rebekkah. Cissy isn’t likely to call her,
and she’ll be needing to come home now.”
R EBEKKAH HAD SPENT THE BETTER PART OF THE DAY OUT WALKING around the Gas Light District with a sketchpad. She didn’t have any projects right now, but she wasn’t feeling the inspiration to create anything on her own either. Some people worked well with daily discipline, but she’d always been more of a need-a-deadline or consumed-by-vision artist. Unfortunately, that meant that she had nowhere to direct the restless energy she’d been feeling, so she went wandering with a sketchpad and an old SLR. When neither sketching nor photography had helped, she’d come back to the apartment only to find more than a dozen missed calls from an unknown number—and no messages.
“Restless day and random calls. Hmm. What do you think, Cherub?” Rebekkah stared out the window as she ran a hand over her cat’s back.
She’d only been in San Diego three months, but the itch was back. She had almost two months before Steven returned and reclaimed his apartment, but she was ready to take off now.
Today feels worse.