Authors: Cheryl Bradshaw
STRANGER IN TOWN
Copyright © 2012 by Cheryl Bradshaw
First edition November 2012
Cover Design Copyright 2012 © Reese Dante
Formatting by Bob Houston eBook Formatting
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, businesses, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any similarity to events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and should be recognized as such.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in any form, or by any means whatsoever (electronic, mechanical, etc.) without the prior written permission and consent of the author.
For updates on Cheryl and her books:
ALSO BY CHERYL BRADSHAW
Grayson Manor Haunting (Novella, coming December 2012)
Echoes of Murder (Novella, coming January 2012)
Author praise for the Sloane Monroe Series:
“A delightful read.”
Vine Voice Reviewer
“Bradshaw spins a good story with solid characters and pacing.”
RW Bennett, Author of Love.com
“Bradshaw's dialogue is sharp, her pacing superb, and her talent shines throughout the entire story.”
Michael Robertson, Author of REGRET
“I can officially declare that I am now a Cheryl Bradshaw fan.”
Mel Comley, Author of the Justice series
“Cheryl Bradshaw has crafted a fast-paced thriller that draws the reader in with its easy, flowing prose.”
G.R. Yeates, Author of the Vetala Cycle series
This book is dedicated to anyone who has ever lost a child.
My heart goes out to you.
To my husband, Justin, for his unwavering support—and for helping me understand things like guns, wild animals, and fishing. You still owe me a pistol, by the way.
A big thanks to Dr. Brian Reedy at the School of Chemistry and Forensic Science in Australia for answering my forensics questions.
Many thanks to the best editor and gal around, Janet Green (thewordverve), my formatter, Bob Houston, and my superb cover artist, Reese Dante.
Thanks also to Becky Fagnant and Amy Jirsa-Smith, my proofers.
To my friends and family for your continued support.
And finally to Tracy Chapman. “The Promise” is the theme song for this novel.
"At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?
By what means shall we fortify against it?”
October 17, 2010
Six-year-old Olivia Hathaway tiptoed down the center aisle of Maybelle’s Market, stopping once to glance over her shoulder and make sure her mother wasn’t watching. But Mrs. Hathaway was too engrossed in selecting the right card for her sister’s birthday to notice her daughter had slipped away.
Olivia looked left and then right before scooting one aisle over. She peered at the products lining the shelves and then shook her head. “Nope, not this one.”
She frowned and moved on.
The colors from the paint samples on the next aisle were like bright strips of candy, beckoning her to come closer. So she did. She loved plucking the cardstock strips from their slots and adding them to her collection at home. She’d gathered so many over the past few months, her mother had bought her a notebook to glue them all in.
The star-shaped colors were Olivia’s favorite because they weren’t plain and ordinary like the rectangle ones, and they had fun names like “Summer Sparkle” and “Twinkle, Twinkle.” She tapped her pointer finger on the top of each card like she was playing a game of “eeny meeny miny moe” and then selected her favorite color: green. She’d always wanted a green room, but her mother said green was for boys and had painted Olivia’s room pink instead.
Olivia held the green star out in front of her and twirled around and around, fascinated with the glitter that had been mixed in to the paint. If only her room could be as beautiful as this. Maybe if she wished hard enough, one day, it would be. She kept that thought in her mind as she spun around one last time before she collided with something hard.
“Hello, Olivia,” a man’s voice said.
A man in a black ball cap and mirrored sunglasses smiled and pointed at the ground. “You dropped something.”
“Here, let me get it for you,” he said.
The man scooped up the painted star and held it out in front of Olivia. “Go on, take it,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”
Olivia didn’t know why her stomach felt like a bunch of ants were crawling around inside, but she did know the way it made her feel: scared. She wanted to shout for her mother, but when her mouth fell open, nothing came out. She looked down at the ground, hoping when she looked back up, the man would be gone. But he wasn’t.
“Come here, sweet thing,” the man said. “It’s okay. I don’t bite.”
When Olivia didn’t move, the man knelt down in front of her. He lifted up her stiff body and set her down on his knee. “Do you want me to take you back to your mommy?”
Olivia squeezed her eyes shut, but when she opened them, the man’s hands still wound around her tiny arms like a boa constrictor.
If he wants to help me find my mommy, why is he holding me so tight?
“How far away is your mommy?” the man said.
“How about this—give me a hug, just a little one, and we’ll look together.” He held a finger out in front of her. “Pinky promise.”
Olivia wanted nothing more than to be back with her mother again. The man’s breath smelled like her mom’s when she hadn’t brushed her teeth in the morning. Olivia leaned in just enough for the man to hold her close, but jerked back when the mountain of stubble on the man’s chin scratched her face. She knew her cheek wasn’t on fire, but it burned like the metal from a seat belt on a hot day.
The man patted Olivia on the back and stood up. “There now, take my hand.”
Olivia looked down. Her fingers were clenched in a tight ball, the edges of her untrimmed nails digging into the soft skin of the palm of her hands. She stuck out her tiny hand, and the man wrapped it in his. But when they got to the end of the aisle, he didn’t turn toward where Olivia had pointed, he kept walking.
A faint whisper echoed in the distance. “Olivia, honey, where are you?”
She wanted to cry out, “Mother, I am here!” But the man clasped her hand so tight, she was too afraid to say anything.
Hand in hand, they walked through the front door. The sun had just started to go down when they stepped outside, but it was still light enough for Olivia to recognize the person walking toward them.
“Olivia, is that you?” the woman said.
It was her white-haired, wrinkly-faced neighbor, Mrs. Schroeder.
“Excuse me,” Mrs. Schroeder said to the man, “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Helen Schroeder. Are you a relative of the Hathaway family, in town for a visit perhaps?”
The man looked down and kept walking without responding to the old woman. He stopped next to a silver car and turned to Olivia. “Get in.”
He shut her inside and turned around to find Mrs. Schroeder glaring up at him.
“I really must insist you answer my question,” Mrs. Schroeder said. “Or I’ll have no choice but to call Olivia’s parents right now.”
Mrs. Schroeder tapped her wooden cane on the back window of the car. “Olivia, dear, do you know this man?”
The man glanced around. Seeing no one, he pulled a knife from his front pocket, clicking a button on the top. The knife sprung to life. Before the old woman had the chance to scream, the man thrust the knife into her side. “I’m sorry, but I’ve had enough of your stupid questions,” he said.
The woman tried to grab for the door handle, but collapsed to the ground. The man stepped over her and got into the car.
Olivia shielded her eyes and thrashed her head from side to side. “It’s okay, everything’s okay. Mommy will find me,” she whispered to herself. All she could think about was being at home in her pink room. If she could just go home, she’d never run away from her mommy again.
The man started the car and backed out. The car bounced up and down for a moment. It reminded Olivia of the time her dad ran over the neighbor’s cat by accident. Olivia gathered up enough courage to move one of her fingers away from her eyes just enough to see Mrs. Schroeder through the car window. She was on the ground, motionless.
The man turned around, smiling. Olivia noticed a hole in his mouth where a tooth should have been.
“Mrs. Schroeder will be okay, Olivia,” the man said. “She fell down, that’s all. Lie down now, and try to get some sleep. When you wake up, you’ll be home.”
Olivia stared down at her star, wishing what he said was true.
Inside the store, a frantic Mrs. Hathaway ran up and down the aisles begging anyone she came in contact with to help find her missing daughter. A few minutes later the store was locked down. But it was too late. Olivia was gone.
I-80 Freeway, Eastbound
October 9, 2012
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the digital numbers on the dashboard clock in front of me. It was 12:45 p.m., and I had two options: break the law by speeding or accept the fact I was going to be late. I glanced around, taking in the reflection of the rear-view mirror, and slammed my foot down on the pedal.
Two hours earlier I’d been enjoying a cheese soufflé with my friend Maddie when my cell phone rang. I hadn’t recognized the number and sent it to voicemail. But something about seeing the little white number “1” circled in red on my iPhone sent my OCD into overdrive. Turning the phone over and setting it down on the counter didn’t help things either. I knew when I flipped it back around the number would still be there, taunting me like a baker dangling a fresh, glazed donut in front of my face.
Take it, you know you want to.
So I did.
The message began,
Hi, umm, my name is Noah Tate. I got your card from someone I met. I’m looking for a private investigator, and he recommended I contact you. If you’re not too busy, I’d like to meet later today. I realize it’s short notice…
There was a moment of silence, and then …
Please. If you could just help me. I don’t know what else to do.
It was Saturday. My day off. I had a policy about not taking new clients on the weekends. It was how I convinced myself I wasn’t
a workaholic. But something about the way the man’s voice cracked in between his words intrigued me. He was desperate, and I wanted to know why.
When I called back, the man wouldn’t say why he wanted to hire me. He just said he’d rather not discuss it over the phone, and asked if we could meet in Evanston, Wyoming in two hours, a place just past the Utah border. Although it was less than two hours away, I’d never been to Wyoming in my life.
I exited the freeway in Evanston and searched for the restaurant that Mr. Tate had described as log-cabin style. In a sea of fast-food joints, it wasn’t hard to find. An eight-foot tall carved moose kept watch out front. Only a few cars were parked on the lot, one of them being a vacated black Dodge Ram with an expensive, after-market grill on front. It was flashy, and polished to a buff shine. Content with my Audi, I’d never fully learned to appreciate trucks before, but this one demanded it.
Across the street at the McDonald’s, a young mother and her two boys sat at a table beneath the golden arches. One of the boys shoved a fry in each one of his nostrils and made a face at his mother, who wasn’t fazed in the least. Not to be outdone, the other boy sucked some soda through a straw and ejected it. The liquid landed on a pile of chicken nuggets she was eating. The boys giggled until their mother gave them a look all mothers give when they’re about to go McCrazy.