Authors: Mariah Stewart
BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK
Table of Contents
To Mel, with great affection—
Many thanks for sharing your knowledge of the southern Arizona hills and for helping me to find just the right place in which to set this story
He sat on the top row of the visitors bleachers, body pitched forward slightly, knees apart, arms resting on his thighs. A good portion of his face was hidden by sunglasses, much as the baseball cap covered his hair. He wore a dark blue T-shirt and well-worn jeans. He cheered when the visiting Patriots got a hit or scored a run, just like all the other parents seated around him.
But he was no one’s dad, and applauding at the appropriate moments was merely another form of camouflage. An opportunity to watch without being seen. A chance to study without his quarry suspecting that every move she made was under scrutiny.
It was a method that, in the past, had always proven satisfactory.
Already this week he’d had ample opportunity to follow her, to get a feel for the rhythm of her life. Where she went, what she did. He knew where she shopped and where her kids went to school. When—and where—she was most likely to be alone, to be most vulnerable. The past week’s surveillance had yielded much useful information, and hopefully, before the day was over, he’d know her even better.
He watched her move along the edge of the softball field from behind the batter’s box to the concession stand, watched her disappear into the little cinder-block building thirty feet from where he sat and emerge several minutes later with a cooler with which she struggled momentarily. Most eyes being on the field at that moment, he recognized an opportunity that might not come again. Dropping off the side of the bleachers, he covered the ground between them in several long strides until he reached the building.
“May I give you a hand with that?” he asked, hesitating as if he’d just been about to join the line of customers waiting to buy snacks at the concession stand.
“Thanks. It’s heavier than I thought.” She smiled freely.
“Well, here, let me . . .” He lifted it with ease, surprised, having expected it to be much heavier, given her struggle to lift it. “That’s heavier than it looks, all right. You must have had help carrying that from the car.”
“Nope. I managed myself. Well, with a little help from my son.” She looked up at the tall, good-looking, dark-haired man and smiled again.
He smiled back, even as he tucked away the newfound knowledge that she wasn’t as physically strong as he’d expected.
Good to know.
He’d already figured out that she was a single mom. This was his third visit to this ball field in the past week. Experience, and careful observation, had taught him that, as a general rule, if the same woman drives the same kid in the same car to the same activity several days in a row, particularly on the weekend, and is never accompanied by a man, chances are she’s a single mother.
Just his cup of tea.
“Which way were you headed with this?” he asked.
“Just over to the bench.” She was still smiling.
She followed along behind him, then pointed to a spot near the bench where the Little League players sat watching the Deal, Pennsylvania, Red Sox battle the Patriots from nearby Gettysburg.
“Here is fine. Thanks again.”
She looked up at him, squinting in the late-morning sun.
“Do I know you?” she asked. “Is your son on one of our teams?”
“No. My son plays for Gettysburg.”
“Oh? Which position?”
“Third base.” The first thing that came into his mind.
“Oh, Matt Gallagher?” Her smile brightened. “You’re Matt Gallagher’s dad?”
He nodded, uneasy and infinitely annoyed with himself for being so careless, so stupid. What had he been thinking?
“Do you know Matt?” he asked casually.
“No, no. But I know of him, of course, since he won the batting awards and all last year. That sort of news travels in Little League circles, as I’m sure you know.”
“Well, I sure won’t tell him that,” he relaxed somewhat—after all, no harm, no foul—but reminded himself that such slips were worse than foolish. Loose lips and all that. “We don’t want his head swelling more than it already is.”
She thanked him again, and he returned to his place on the opposite side of the field, his heart beating wildly.
Her eyes were so blue, her hair so soft, so blond—there was just something about blue-eyed blonds. And her neck was so graceful and lovely, rising above the open collar of her blue-and-white-striped shirt . . .
Up close she was everything he’d hoped she’d be. He could barely wait to see her again. She’d serve his purpose quite nicely.
Of course, it would be a shame. She’d been friendly and courteous to him. He almost liked her. But he could not, must not, lose sight of his agenda, of the role she was to play. And that was, in the end, the important thing, he reminded himself. His agenda.
He glanced at his watch. Time to go. She wasn’t the only fish in this week’s sea. There were others to see, others to get to know a little better before his . . .
got under way.
He resisted the urge to walk past her again as he left the field. He could not risk further contact. At least, not until Tuesday.
On Tuesday, pretty blue-eyed, blond Kathleen Garvey, mother of Tim and Eddie, would be all his.
The trap would be baited, and the game could begin. . . .
The old man took two steps back, then two more, until he was close to the middle of the one-lane dirt road. There he stood, hands on his hips and a scowl on his face, watching the painters tuck the last of their scaffolding into the rusty bed of an old pickup truck of indeterminable color. The only vehicle in a twenty-mile radius that might have been older than the painters’ was his own.
“So, what do you think?” The young woman stood on the bottom step of the front porch, the smile on her face a sure sign that she had a pretty good idea of what her elderly neighbor was thinking.
“Your grandfather be spinning in his grave, right at this very minute, that’s what I think.” He wagged a gnarled finger at her. “Old Jonathan be spinning out of control right down there where we laid him. Surely he is.”
“Now, Mr. Webb”—Kendra Smith bit back a grin and forced her most earnest expression—“what is it that you think my grandfather might object to?”
“Well, since you ask, let’s start right there with that purple door.” The cigar that Oliver Webb held jabbed at the air in the general direction of the house that was the object under discussion.
“It’s called aubergine. It means eggplant.” She came down off the step to stand next to him.
“Fancy word for purple.” He all but spit out the word. “What in the name of the Jersey Devil were you thinking? Painting the house
and the door
“I was thinking that the house has spent all of its two-hundred-plus years painted white.” She tucked an arm through his. “I was thinking it was time for a change.”
“Houses supposed to be white, maybe,” Oliver Webb said, perhaps with a little less bluster. “If in fact they need to be painted at all.”
“I like it, Mr. Webb.” Kendra tilted her head as if to study the paint job that had just about all of the 147 residents of Smith’s Forge, at the fringe of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, lingering at the counter in MacNamara’s General Store for an extra ten or fifteen minutes just to talk about. “I like it a lot.”
“Be suiting you, then,” he grunted, and she knew he was softening, just as she’d known he would.
“Suits me just fine.” She smiled, disarming him.
“Hmmph.” Mr. Webb took a puff or two on his cigar. “Well, anyone come looking for you, you won’t be hard to find, that’s for sure.”
He knocked the ash off his cigar and climbed into the cab of his 1976 Chevy pickup. The passenger door no longer opened, and the flatbed was riddled with cancer, but it ran, and as far as seventy-eight-year-old Oliver Webb was concerned, running was all a pickup really had to do.
Still shaking his head, Webb made a U-turn and headed back toward the main road, which lay a mile or two through the pine trees. On his way, no doubt, to MacNamara’s, where he’d tell one and all that yes, indeed, Kendra Smith had painted the old Smith house two shades of green and he’d seen with his own eyes that the front door was purple and that was a fact.
Kendra shoved her hands into the pockets of her worn jeans and watched the painters clear the last of the paint cans from the foot of the drive, then waved as they crowded into their truck and drove off in a cloud of dust. She took one last leisurely stroll around the side of the house, admiring the way the darker shade of green set off the windows from the pale sage of the clapboard. The afternoon sun sent shadows across the new roof—now a sturdy gray—and played up the clean new look of the ancient siding. Pleased more than ever with her decision to have the old house painted, she went up the back steps and opened the door.
During the months since her decision to return to Smith’s Forge, to make the old house her own, she’d had the electrical wiring upgraded, the plumbing updated, and the pine floors refinished. She’d also toyed with the idea of central air-conditioning, but resisted rather than disturb the two-hundred-and-forty-year-old joists in the attic. There were some modern amenities that Smith House simply hadn’t been built to accommodate.
The brick fireplaces had all been cleaned and relined, the kitchen spruced up just a bit, and she’d even had some insulation tucked into the attic. Bringing the family furniture out of storage where the pieces had languished for years had given her particular satisfaction. Seeing the rooms as they had been when she was a child had brought her the first bit of peace since her mother’s death almost four years ago.
When Kendra’s ill-fated marriage had fallen apart over the past year, there was no question of where she’d go to lick her wounds. Once having returned to Smith’s Forge, she had no desire to leave, and so began the task of renovating the house to conform to her needs, just as her ancestors had done, each in their own time. Now that the last of the work was finished, she was ready, eager, to get back into the mainstream of life. She looked forward to once again feeling that zing when a new case caught her interest, the rush when she’d completed her task. The quiet satisfaction she got when her work helped some poor soul find closure.
She’d made a few phone calls earlier in the week, and late yesterday afternoon, her phone had rung with the request that she take on a job that was right up her alley. A packet of material would arrive within twenty-four hours, she’d been told. Could she begin work immediately?
Could she ever.
She slipped off her sandals and left them to one side of the front door, fighting back a slight twinge of conscience as she turned the lock. There wasn’t one resident of Smith’s Forge she wouldn’t trust with her life, and locking the door felt as if she was locking it against them. To Kendra, that smacked of mistrust. But years working as a sketch artist for various law enforcement agencies had given her an up close and personal view of the darkest side of human nature. Kendra had come to learn the value of taking those few basic steps to keeping all safeguarded and secure.
Step number one was keeping your home under lock and key, a sad but necessary commentary on modern times, even here, where in so many ways time had stood still. On her way out the back, she locked that door as well before slipping the key into her pocket.
The well-seasoned canoe that Kendra had dug out of the barn when she returned to Smith’s Forge lay facedown on the ground where she’d left it yesterday at just this time. She flipped it over, then pulled it forward with both hands, dragging it over forty feet of scrubby grass and pale gray sand to the bank of the stream.
Wonder what Oliver will have to say when I paint the barn to match the house,
she mused as she slid the canoe into the stream, then waded after it, climbed in, and pushed off in the shallow water.
The stream, at a narrow point behind the Smith property, both widened and deepened gradually as it flowed toward the lake deep in the woods. Miles of tributaries of this river or that snaked through the Pines, sometimes merging before going their separate ways again. There were endless ways of becoming disoriented and lost in any one of them. Once Kendra had known these waterways well. Her father had been raised in this house, had explored these woods and streams in this same canoe, and had shared the beauty and the mystery of the Pine Barrens with his wife and his children. Summer vacations, spring breaks, fall weekends, winter holidays—at every opportunity, Jeff Smith had brought his family here, to the million acres that made up the Pine Barrens, the landscape that had changed so little since the first Smith had settled there.
While still a child, Kendra had been taught by her father how to find her way around the Pines. Now, as an adult, a novice once again, she had to learn her way alone. Every day she repeated the previous day’s run through the waterways, adding another mile or so to her trek, memorizing the natural landmarks. A right at the gnarled old cypress tree would bring her a mile and a half downstream from the next largest tributary of the river. Taking the left where the water forked would lead to the first of the lakes that lay beyond the marsh, one of several lakes that were born years ago when the river was dammed to create cranberry bogs. Once she had know it all as well as she knew the back of her hand. She was determined to learn it all over again, bit by bit, mile by mile.
Kendra reached her goal for the day—the point where the stream snaked past the old iron forge—and turned the canoe around to head back. It had been years since that last trip she’d made here with her father and her little brother. Ian had just turned four, and he’d amused himself by trailing his little fingers in the dark, tea-colored water as Kendra had helped paddle. Jeff Smith had been strong then, strong enough to paddle the canoe on his own, though he’d let Kendra lend a hand. Two months later, he was diagnosed with leukemia, and their whole world was turned on end. Seven years later, Ian, too, was gone, lost forever. And then her mother, Elisa . . .
Kendra raised her paddle from the water and drifted for a moment. She’d come back to the Pines hoping to find that something of herself, something of her lost family, had remained here. Working on the house had immersed her in the past, filling the hours with memories that had to be worked through if she was to move on, and God knew the time had come for that. The last few months had taken their toll, but now she’d made her peace and was ready to put the past to rest and to find something meaningful to fill her days. For Kendra, that meant work.
Ten minutes later she saw the scrub pines that marked the edge of the Smith property. Just beyond the curve in the stream would be the clearing where she’d pull the canoe to shore. She slipped out of the small craft and into the water, preparing to drag the canoe up the slight incline, when she saw the figure of a man near the back of her house. Kendra froze, then slunk slowly down behind an outcropping of wild blueberry.
The man was tall and broad-shouldered with sandy hair cut close. He tossed a stick to the very large black dog that bounded across Kendra’s backyard as if both dog and yard belonged to him. He wore khakis and a polo shirt of dark suede-blue that Kendra knew was the same color as his eyes.
She crouched in the creek for several minutes watching the man and the dog, hoping he’d leave. She blew out an irritated breath as it occurred to her that he was a man on a mission—why else would he have made the trip?—and as such he’d simply wait around until she showed up.
“Oh, hell,” she muttered.
And then she splashed loudly to draw his attention, because only a fool would sneak up on the FBI.
“Nice dog,” he called to her as she dragged the canoe to the barn and leaned it against the wall.
“Thanks, but she’s not mine.” Kendra braced herself for the dog’s enthusiastic greeting. “She belongs to my neighbor down the road, though she does occasionally forget that, don’t you, Lola . . . ?”
“What’s her mix?”
“I’ve heard great Dane and cocker spaniel, though I have some difficulty imagining such a pairing.”
Kendra stopped to pet the dog and sighed in resignation. Didn’t it just figure that the day Adam Stark pulled into her driveway she’d be wearing old cut-off jeans—old and
cut-off jeans—a shirt tied at the waist, no shoes, and her hair would be a frizzy tangle tied up without thought on the top of her head.
“How’ve you been, Adam?” She walked toward him with her hands on her hips. Fat lot of good it would do to worry about her appearance now.
“Great.” He nodded. “How’ve you been?”
“Great,” she said without much enthusiasm.
“You look . . . great,” he said, and her eyes narrowed, thinking he was mocking her. When she realized that he didn’t appear to be, she softened.
“Thank you, so do you.” She stopped a few feet in front of him. “It seems that life is agreeing with you.”
They stared at each other, former more-than-friends not-quite-lovers, for a long minute.
“When John said he’d have a package delivered, I assumed he meant via some overnight mail service,” she said to break the silence.
“Well, I was visiting my father in Pennsylvania when John called yesterday afternoon. He had the file delivered to me at my dad’s before dinner last night so that I could look it over before bringing it to you.”
“Because he wanted me to go over the case with you.”
“I see.” She walked to an outside hose and sprayed a thin veil of water over her sandy feet. Lola came closer to investigate, licking at the spray. “John said he’s heading a special unit that focuses on serial crimes—abductions, rapes, murders. . . .”
“Right. I guess you discussed all this with him.”
“Not to any great extent. He just said he had a case he wanted me to work on for him. He’s pretty much a legend, you know, all those high-profile serial killer cases he worked on. So when you have a chance to work with him, you drop what you’re doing.” She resisted adding,
Which in my case was nothing.
“By the way, I did some work with one of your colleagues from the Seattle office while I was living in Washington state. Portia Cahill.”
Kendra switched feet. Lola’s pink tongue followed the spray.
“She’s worked with John, too, she said.” Kendra looked up at him and added, “She said she knew you.”
“Portia and I were at Quantico together” was all Adam said.
Kendra shot him an amused glance that let him know that she knew there had been more to it than that. Having made her point, she continued.
“Anyway, I worked on a few cases with her while I was out there.” Kendra turned off the hose and slung it over the water spout in a loose
. “She’s working mostly with the terrorist unit now, did you know?”
“I’d heard that.” Adam nodded. “Her sister, Miranda, was recently assigned to Mancini’s unit.”
“Portia said she had a twin sister with the Bureau.” Kendra stood about five feet away from him, her hands on her hips, as if waiting. Finally, she said, “These cases, the ones John called about, they started as kidnappings?”
“I think the local agencies held out hope that that was all they were. Until the bodies were found. Three, actually, that we believe to be related.”
“John said there’d been two.” He had her total attention now, her wayward hair and wet cut-offs forgotten.