Three years ago, FBI agent Darcy Gellar almost died at the hands of a serial killer.Struggling with her demons, Darcy takes an early retirement after capturing the murderer and moves her family to Genoa Cove. With the sadistic killer serving a life sentence, she hopes a peaceful life along the ocean will end her nightmares.Then a body surfaces along the coast. And the evidence points to one man: the killer Darcy put behind bars three years ago. Either Darcy caught the wrong man, or an apprentice serial killer stalks paradise. Then the murderer takes another life, and the nightmare of three years ago rushes forth to claim Darcy.Now Darcy isn’t simply unraveling a mystery. She’s facing a killer who knows what frightens her most. He won’t stop until he takes her life and destroys her family.But the killer should beware. Darcy stopped a serial killer once. And she’ll do it again.
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About the Author
This is where monsters lurk.
The loss of light forever terrified Darcy Gellar. When she was a child, she begged her mother to read her one more story, and after she finished, another tale. Anything to delay the inevitable darkness that followed. No amount of checking for monsters in the closet and under the bed comforted little Darcy. After the lights went out and she was alone in the bedroom, every shadow became a clawed witch or a man with a knife.
Now the dark is an unexpected ally. It conceals Darcy even as it traps, working in her favor.
The FBI agent’s hands tremble as she swings the gun across the upstairs hallway. Four open doors bleed shadows across bare hardwood. One door leads to a bathroom. Darcy sees the sink and a drawn shower curtain. The others open to bedrooms.
He is here. Hidden in the shadows and following her with his eyes.
For over a year, Darcy and her partner, Eric Hensel, followed a trail of North Carolina murders. All girls in their teens and early twenties, women with their entire lives ahead of them, butchered by a serial killer the media refer to as the Full Moon Killer. Forensic evidence at the murder scenes proved scarce, and the few hair fibers and fingerprints the crime scene investigators discovered drew blanks. The Full Moon Killer was a ghost.
Darcy realizes she is a fool. No way should she be here alone. Though she competently handles a gun, she is not a marksman like her fellow agents. Nor is she a strong or skilled fighter. Her value to the Bureau is as a researcher and profiler. She’s hunted killers across the country and entered their minds to predict their next moves, but never has the duty of capturing a dangerous criminal fallen on her shoulders.
She grabs the radio off her hip before a squealing floorboard silences her. Gun raised, Darcy throws herself flat against the wall. Her breaths freeze in her chest as she searches the upstairs for movement. The noise could have come from anywhere inside the old bungalow. Sounds echo through the walls and down the vacant corridors like water droplets inside a tomb.
Darcy is here to interview Janelle DeLee, a friend of Marcy Abraham, the twenty-four-year-old office temp the killer murdered last month. No reason she couldn’t question DeLee alone. But when she arrived, Darcy found the front door open and a note taped to the mailbox.
I’m upstairs, come inside.
After DeLee failed to answer Darcy’s calls up the stairs, a thud shook the walls, loud enough for Darcy to fear the woman had fallen and required medical assistance. She took the stairs two at a time. At the top of the staircase, the lights shut off.
A trick. The fly had crawled into the spider’s web.
That’s when she knew the killer was already here.
Another moaning floorboard gets her moving. Saucers for eyes, she slides along the wall and reaches the jamb surrounding the bathroom entryway. Something grabs at her shirt. Darcy almost cries out before recognizing the light switch digging into her back. Her heart thunders with the frenzied rhythm of a rabbit caught in the wolf’s gaze. On the silent count of three, she spins past the jamb and aims the weapon into the bathroom.
Pulls the shower curtain back.
The tub is empty. A moth flutters past her face.
The bathroom door is flimsy, but the knob and lock set are new. She considers throwing the door shut, twisting the lock, and radioing for help.
Her flashlight rests on her hip. If she flicks the light on, she’ll draw the madman to her location. Instead, she edges into the hallway and walks toward the first bedroom.
The darkness sharpens her senses, attunes her to the creaks and groans of the old house. The scent of wood polish is thick, and she smells the flowery soaps and perfumes behind her on the bathroom counter.
The tree branch scraping the house makes her jump. Outside the window at the end of the hall, the bough extends clawed branches and dances when the wind blows.
Still blinded by the pitch-black, Darcy reaches her hand out and touches the bedroom door. A little nudge will swing it all the way open, but this is foolhardy. Better to slip into the room without alerting the killer.
But the spare bedroom is empty. Just a made bed and a wooden dresser set against the far wall.
“Darcccccy.” The whisper drifts down the hallway. “Come out and play.”
Darcy throws herself inside the bedroom and waits. It’s difficult to hear over the pounding pulse in her ears. She crosses the room and slinks down to one knee beside the dresser. The killer’s breaths rasp in the hallway as she yanks the gun back and hides in the shadows.
Footsteps approach. Emboldened, the killer no longer conceals his whereabouts. He’s hunting her now.
The footsteps stop outside the bedroom door. Seconds pass.
Then the steps continue through the darkness, moving away from her now.
When she hears him descending the stairs, she rips the radio off her hip. Lowering her voice, she gives her location to the dispatcher. He can’t make out her words, and she repeats herself. A moment later, he confirms her whereabouts. Help is on the way.
The door slams open and blasts against the plaster. The killer outsmarted her again.
Reaching around the dresser, she squeezes off two shots, but in the deep gloom, she can’t see him.
Ears ringing from the blasts, she pulls the gun back and prays her aim was true. Darcy’s hands shake until she can barely maintain her grip on the weapon. In her mind, she pictures the killer on his back, bullet wounds streaming blood onto the throw rug. Yet she never heard him fall.
Fear holds her in place amid the silence.
Minutes tick away.
Maybe he retreated into another room.
Her shivers cease, and Darcy regains control of the gun. When she tries to stand, her leg cramps from kneeling too long. Listening for the killer, she rubs the feeling back into her leg and creeps out of hiding.
The silhouette of the bed stretches before her. Almost coffin-like. An empty closet with two clothes hangers beckons as a potential hiding spot. And beside the door, a coat rack she hadn’t noticed before.
But it can’t be a coat rack, because the looming shadow moves.
She cries out and fires the gun. But he is too fast.
She twists her body out of the way as the knife plunges into her arm and tears flesh from shoulder to elbow. The agony paints stars across her vision.
A hand grips her neck and squeezes. Choking. Pulling her down to the floor.
Three hours ago, she’d argued with her son over concert tickets. Hunter’s last words were angry and hurtful after she told him he wasn’t old enough to go with his friends. His door slammed. He locked her out of his life and tossed away the key.
Darcy won’t die with Hunter hating her, nor will she force her teenage son and eleven-year-old daughter to bury their mother. They already lost their father and know too well of life’s cruelty. She can’t fail them.
Survival instinct takes over as the corner of the dresser clips her spine. She kicks out, fighting a monster she can’t see. The force drives the wind from his lungs. He totters back a step and comes at her again. But she’s ready this time.
The wicked blade slices at her belly as she pulls the trigger. The knife tears into her stomach. Screaming, she fires the gun again.
He pinwheels backward and collapses against the corner of the bed. The killer clutches the mattress, holding himself up, before he topples off and pulls the covers off the bed and over his body.
The pain catches up to her. She grasps at the bubbling wound and slumps against the wall, desperate to halt the pumping lifeblood. The ceiling, the walls, the crypt-like bedroom darken as the gun tumbles from her hand and cracks against the floor. She finds herself on her back, no memory of how she got there. Eyelids droop shut and blink open. Labored breathing fills the room. Her own or the killer’s?
Please don’t hate me for dying, she begs her children. Mom loves you.
Sirens rip the night as her vision turns black. The dark envelopes her body and pulls her into its clutches.
THREE YEARS LATER
Genoa Cove, North Carolina
Arms snake around Darcy’s throat and cut off her oxygen.
She twists her hips and rolls, but her captor holds her firm. The man’s breath is hot on her neck, the veins standing out on his arms as he pulls her chin back. The instructor, Bronson Severson, yells advice she can’t discern over the shouting spectators.
During sparring sessions choke holds are illegal. Why the instructor allows the holds this time Darcy doesn’t know, but if she doesn’t make a move soon, she’ll lose consciousness.
She feels her muscles weaken as the man strains to control her. Scrambling to slip her hands free, she drives her palm against his forearm. The momentary break of his grip is all she needs. Darcy twists and drives the point of her elbow toward his temple, pulling back at the last second so she doesn’t injure him.
At the instructor’s command, Darcy rolls out of the man’s arms and jumps to her feet. Her opponent, a forty-something policeman with a shaved head and a black and gray beard, shakes the cobwebs out of his head. He blinks at Darcy, knowing she could have knocked him cold if she struck him flush. Darcy offers her hand, but the cop pushes himself up and stands against the wall, catching his breath.
Six women ranging in age from young housewife to golden years circle the mat. Bronson, an ex-cop with the Charlotte Police Department, jots a note on his clipboard. He has a neck like a linebacker’s, his skin tanned and weathered from life beside the ocean. His chin is strong, arms chiseled from years of weight training. The fifty-five-year-old doesn't look a day over forty.
“I trust everyone observed Ms. Gellar’s technique for breaking the grip of a stronger male.”
Darcy isn't used to compliments. Usually Bronson spends half the class critiquing her mistakes. The man would have made an excellent drill sergeant.
“That's why I continuously stress that you keep your hands free when someone grabs you from behind. I don't care if you’re sixteen or sixty-five. Drive the point of your elbow into an enemy’s temple with speed and precision, and he’ll give up his grip.” His eyes sweep the class. When they come to rest upon Darcy, they narrow. “But hopefully the rest of you won't make the critical mistake of rolling into a choke hold in the first place. That's an amateur move, one that will get you killed in a life or death struggle.”
Ah, that’s more like it.
She collects her backpack and slides on her socks and sneakers as the other women file past. Using a hair tie, she works her long, dark locks into a ponytail, identical to how her daughter, Jennifer, wears her hair.
“Thanks for agreeing to be a punching bag, Julian,” Bronson says, slapping the officer on the shoulder. “Tell the boys down at the office I said hi.”
Julian gives Bronson a sidelong glance Darcy doesn’t understand. She didn’t mean to embarrass Julian, and Bronson’s good-natured jabs make it worse. All she wanted to do was escape the choke hold. As the police officer changes out of his training shirt and stuffs it into his gym bag, she considers apologizing. Too late. The officer throws the bag over his shoulder and shoves the double doors open.
Darcy follows Julian outside when Bronson stops her.
“That was a dumb move, leaning back into his chest like that. You practically invited him to choke you out.”
“Since when is a rear naked choke legal during sparring sessions?”
Darcy switches the backpack to her other shoulder.
“Yet you allowed it today,” she says, darting her eyes to the ring finger on his left hand.
There’s no band there, but he keeps rubbing the finger as though searching for a missing item. He’s recently divorced, she thinks. Three years removed from her profiler position, and she still assesses everyone she meets based on their mannerisms. There’s no turning it off.
“You handled it, so no harm, no foul. I would have stepped in if you were in danger. Trust me?” He grins, and she nods. “You’re showing improvement. Keep coming to class, clean up the mistakes, and soon you’ll be teaching beside me.”
“I doubt that,” Darcy says, smiling. “But thank you.”
“It makes me think you’ve had similar training in the past.”
He raises an eyebrow, but she doesn’t take the bait. Seems she isn’t the only profiler in the room. Better he knows her as a single mother new to Genoa Cove and not the FBI agent who accepted an early retirement after a serial killer came within inches of murdering her. It’s difficult enough to stay below the media’s radar and keep reporters from hounding her children. But anyone with a search engine can find out all they wish to know about Darcy Gellar’s past.
She says goodbye and exits the dojo before Bronson can probe further. In the parking lot, she unlocks her Prius when her phone rings. It’s Hunter. This can’t be good. Her son only calls when something bad happens.
“Can you come get me?”
His voice is shaky as though he’s gotten into an altercation or just finished crying.
“Sure, but I thought Michael was driving you home today.”
Michael, who lives two blocks from their house, plays on the football team with Hunter and brings him home after practice.
“Just come, all right?”
“What did you do?”
Hunter ends the call, and she regrets her accusatory tone. It’s difficult to maintain neutrality. They’ve only lived in Genoa Cove for three months, and during the first weeks at his new school, Hunter has been in the principal’s office twice, and last week a pair of teachers pulled Hunter away before he fought another boy.
Despite her best intentions, she’s failed her children. She knows this. Between the therapy sessions and the anti-anxiety medications, she’s been a hollow reflection of herself since the stabbing. What good is a guardian who is afraid of the dark? Now Jennifer is a freshman, and Hunter, whose previous school in Virginia held him back, is twenty months from graduation. Time moves without her. She’s losing her kids.
Darcy kicks the accelerator, and the Prius lurches forward as she turns off the coast road onto the highway. It takes ten minutes to reach Genoa Cove High School, the gray brick building planted on a hill overlooking the village. The marching band practices on the lower field, and she hears the horn section blare as she coasts through the parking lot, searching for Hunter.
Members of the football team congregate outside the side exit, boys sitting on helmets, others shoving each other and laughing while a hip-hop song thumps from car speakers. A few of the players stop what they’re doing and stare as Darcy drives past. Hunter isn’t with them.
She spots her son in the parking lot beside a boy she doesn’t recognize. Hunter’s hair is dry, a sign he didn’t shower. Did he even practice with the team? His heavy metal t-shirt depicts a demon-like creature breathing fire upon a city. The unknown boy beside Hunter wears dreadlocks, his face punctured by multiple piercings, a chain drooping off his belt loop. Hunter spots Darcy and bumps fists with the unknown boy. The kid vanishes into a Ford Fusion with tinted windows as Hunter drags his feet to the Prius. The door opens, and Darcy hears the words pussy and scumbag shouted in their direction. One of the football players, a barrel-chested boy with red hair, raises a middle finger. He doesn’t care that Darcy sees.
Hunter tosses his bag in the backseat and slouches down without a word. She stares incredulously at him.
“What the hell was that about?”
“They’re dicks, okay? Let’s drop it.”
“Look at me, Hunter.”
When he huffs and pops his earbuds in, she taps his shoulder and fixes him with a glare that promises consequences if he doesn’t comply. He pulls the earbuds out as she stops the car inside the loading zone along the curb. Two teenage girls in short-shorts mingle on the sidewalk. Hunter turns his head away from them.
“Come on, Mom. Drive.”
“Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
Hunter sighs. His hands won’t sit still, tugging at the tears in his black jeans. That’s another thing. Everything he wears is black. His shirt, jeans, sneakers. Even his hair, dark to begin with, is dyed to a midnight pitch.
“Why weren’t you with your teammates?”
“Because Coach kicked me off the team, okay? Happy now?”
While the news doesn’t surprise Darcy, it still feels like a kick to the stomach. Hunter is good at football, and being part of the team chipped away at the walls he’d fortified after leaving Virginia. Hunter blamed her for the move, and rightfully so. Tearing Hunter away from his friends before junior year forced him to start over. New beginnings were scary during high school. Kids labeled you as an outsider.
“No, I’m not happy. Why did the coach kick you off the team? Did you get into a fight with one of those boys?”
“Thanks for going there. Because of course, I’d start a fight. That’s all I do, right?”
“I never said that.”
“It’s what you were thinking.”
Darcy bites the inside of her cheek.
He shakes his head. Accepting Hunter isn’t ready to talk about it, she yanks the car off the curb and drives down the hill.
“It’s that stupid team rule. We’re supposed to wear a shirt and tie. I’m not dressing like a freaking geek every day until November.”
Darcy wants to tell him he looks good dressed up, but that’s poison to Hunter. She might as well invoke grandma-mode and pinch his cheeks, tell him what a handsome boy he is. In her mind, the conversation isn’t finished. He’s being unreasonable.
“Didn’t Coach Parker move you up to second string wide receiver?”
“I guess,” he says, continuing to pick at his jeans.
“Then he must think you’re good, Hunter. If he didn’t, he’d sit you on the end of the bench and ignore you. Talk to him. I’m sure he’ll let you back on the team if you’re sincere.”
Hunter doesn’t answer. The earbuds pop back in, and she hears guitars squeal and cymbals clash. If the heavy metal sounds this loud to her, what must it be doing to his ears?
They descend the ridge. To the east, early autumn sunlight sparkles across the Atlantic as waves pound the beach. A scattering of sailboats are on the water, but only a few people dot the sand despite the beautiful weather. Blue and green waters converge with white breakers, and for the first time a hint of a grin forms on Hunter’s face. Living by the ocean has its benefits.
The waves perish where the land juts out and forms a cove. Two rocky cliffs loom over the cove and block the westering sun, turning the water an oily black. She understands why the locals refer to Genoa Cove as Darkwater Cove. The water is murky under full sun and a bottomless pit at midnight.
Leaving Virginia after twenty years hadn’t been easy, but there were too many skeletons lurking in those closets. Thirteen years ago, six months after entering the Bureau as a Behavioral Analyst, she lost her husband, Tyler, to an aneurysm. Hunter had been four, Jennifer only one, so she understood why Tyler’s death affected Hunter more. Jennifer had been too young to carry memories of her father, whereas Hunter recalled picnics in the park and Tyler pushing him on the swing set behind their first apartment. After Jennifer was born they bought their first home, a tiny ranch in middle class suburbia, seven miles from Quantico. A year later, Tyler died on the way home from the grocery store. He was working late all week, and Darcy asked him to grab bread and eggs for breakfast on the way home. According to the doctor, Tyler died before the car crunched against the telephone pole.
For several years Darcy sensed Tyler’s ghost around every corner. She entered rooms and expected to find him there, feet up on the sofa, the Redskins game on. She’d needed a change of scenery then, a new start, but she stayed, stasis being one of the universe’s most powerful forces. After the stabbing and retirement, life in Virginia lent nothing but bad memories.
She sneaks a glance at Hunter. His chin rests on his elbow, face against the window. When the car shimmies over a grooved road, his cheeks jiggle. Darcy wishes he could be four again. That was when she began to lose him, she realizes. Subtle changes at first—loss of appetite, disobedience. As the years passed, he frequently spent nights at friends’ houses. His grades dropped during sixth grade and cratered when he reached high school.
Taking the first turn down Main Street, she passes a gazebo set on a grassy island separating oncoming traffic. At the center of the village, a red brick road carries traffic through the commerce district. Genoa Cove is rich with old money, and this is apparent in the upscale clothing and jewelry stores. Every summer, tourism fills the coffers and boosts the village’s economy, but there’s enough money from the year-round residents to support Genoa Cove through a slow year. Even the local banks are powerful enough to stave off their national competitors.
She pulls into a parking spot in front of Antonia’s Pizza and stops the engine. Hunter cuts the music and looks at her cockeyed.
“What are we doing here?”
“Making the most of my cheat meal,” she says, climbing out of the car. Though Darcy watches her calories and bikes, she grants herself a fun meal every week. Doing so kills the cravings and gives her a reward to look forward to. She breathes deeply through her nose. “Smell that? That’s heaven wrapped in dough.”
This elicits a smile from Hunter. Her analogies truly suck. He tries to hide the grin by pulling his hood up, but she notices.
The waitress seats them in a booth and takes their order after a short wait. Darcy scans the faces and doesn’t recognize anyone. Though she feels at home in Genoa Cove, destined to live here, she’s a stranger.
The room is wider than it is long with booths along the wall and tables in the center. Stacks of empty pizza boxes sit on the end of the counter where a man and woman order two slices to go. Scents of dough, cheese, and marinara sauce rumble her stomach. She hasn’t eaten since lunch, and self-defense class left her famished. A jukebox in the corner plays a song from The Chainsmokers. Darcy’s head bobs along to the beat as Hunter rolls his eyes.
“You don’t like your mom keeping up with new music?”
For a moment she’s certain he’ll slip his earbuds in, but he doesn’t. Instead, he shakes his head and runs his eyes across the room. His gaze stops near the jukebox, and he lowers his eyes and places his hand over his face. Not quick enough. The pretty girl in the jean miniskirt recognized him and is coming over with her friend.
Hunter looks like he wants to crawl under the seat. The girl is copper-skinned, dark hair teased into a bun atop her head. She leans her arms on the table with a grin that is at-once shy and mischievous. The epitome of youthful beauty, she’s the type of girl who turns heads at the bat of an eyelash. Her blonde friend, heavyset and dressed in sweatpants and a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, shifts around on her feet like a child who needs to go to the bathroom.
“You must be Hunter’s mom.”
Darcy reaches across the table and shakes the girl’s hand as her mortified son squeezes into the corner.
“Yes, I’m Darcy Gellar.”
“So you go to high school with Hunter?”
“Eleventh grade. I sit next to this guy in Economics.”
Bethany gives Hunter a playful punch on the shoulder. The boy’s face takes on a strawberry coloration.
Darcy is content to sit back and let Bethany lead the conversation. The girl bubbles over with personality, yet she’s genuine, not putting on a show. Everything about the girl feels natural to Darcy, from the laughter and unreserved smile to the lack of makeup. There’s something between Hunter and Bethany, though Darcy doubts they are a couple. The banter is pure courtship. Remembering when she met Tyler at college twists her heart into knots, and she needs to look away until the painful memory recedes.
The small-talk concludes when Bethany’s friend checks the time on her phone, a cue for Bethany to wrap it up.
“Okay, so I’ll see you on the field tomorrow, yeah?”
Hunter locks eyes with Darcy, then buries his face in the menu.
“Sure thing. I’ll see you there.”
After the girls leave, Darcy bites her fist to keep from laughing. If she’s ever seen Hunter this flummoxed, she can’t recall.
“I like her a lot.”
“Don’t say anything, Mom.”
“Come on. She’s cute, and she sure seems to like you.”
He grabs a bottle of red pepper and rolls it nervously between his hands.
“We’re just friends.”
“So, Bethany said she’d see you on the field tomorrow. How are you going to pull that off if you’re unwilling to talk to Coach Parker?”
“I’ll think of something.”
“Is she a cheerleader?”
“Last I checked,” he says. Darcy leans her head back and laughs. “What’s so funny?”
“The king of death metal has a crush on a cheerleader.”
The waitress slides the pies in front of them. Hunter’s pizza is pepperoni and extra cheese. Darcy’s is a thin crust marinara with basil and a balsamic drizzle. Neither will finish an entire pie, but Jennifer will appreciate the leftovers.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” Darcy says between bites. She bats her hand in front of her lips to cool the fire burning the roof of her mouth. “Tomorrow I’ll stop by school and talk to Coach Parker. I need to speak with guidance and get Jennifer switched into a different math class anyhow.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a great idea.”
“Give me a chance. If he’s a jerk, I’ll let you retire from football sans press conference.”
Hunter smirks and dabs his crust in a cup of extra sauce.
“Okay, so what’s the deal?”
“I’ll tell Coach Parker what a great but misunderstood kid you are and get you back on the field, and you invite Bethany over for dinner next week.”
“This isn’t a debate. Parents have the final say.”
Darcy finishes the slice and wipes her hands on a napkin.
She reaches out, and Hunter hands her the red pepper. As she sprinkles heat across the next slice, she continues.
“And I’ll speak to the coach about what those boys called you.”
Hunter shakes his head and sips his Pepsi.
“Let it go. It’s not worth it, and it’ll only make things worse.”
He’s right. Darcy hasn’t forgotten schoolyard rules. A bully never forgets a snitch.
Any goodwill she’s gained vanishes on the ride home. Hunter escapes inside his music again, and he’s out the door the second Darcy pulls into the driveway.
“Don’t forget your books.”
She sighs, knowing he can’t hear her over the grinding guitars. She grabs his bag and lugs it with hers to the front door. At least he remembered the pizza.
Beige and silver with cardinal shutters, the ranch-style house sits two blocks from the beach. The previous owners were desperate to sell after Hurricane Florence damaged the roof and flooded the kitchen. Darcy grabbed the ranch at half of its market value and hired the neighborhood handyman to re-shingle the roof. The man also added a small deck off the back door, and it’s there she likes to sit with a glass of wine while the final hour of sun turns the cove golden.
Jennifer bounces past with the phone glued to her ear as Darcy drags the bags into the foyer. If Hunter is the perpetual dark cloud which promises flooding rains, Jennifer is a tornado that strikes out of a clear blue sky. With her dark, wavy hair yanked back in a ponytail, Jennifer is the spitting image of Darcy at fourteen. Although Darcy doubts there was ever a time she could pull off jean shorts cut in a Daisy Duke-style.
“Why do you even bother to wear pants?” Darcy asks, dropping her keys on the kitchen counter. Jennifer shoots her a withering glare and ends the phone call. “No, seriously. If you’re going to show that much, ditch the shorts and save me a night’s worth of laundry.”
“Stop,” Jennifer says, dragging the word out as though someone is twisting her arm. Just as quickly Jennifer sets the phone on the counter and smiles, hands on hips, feet drawn together and back erect, a pose Darcy recognizes from her daughter’s routine with the junior varsity cheerleaders. “Guess who that was on the phone?”
“Based on your outfit, I’ll say the decency police. Who do I send the bail money to?”
“Can’t you be serious for a second?” The yellow tank sags off Jennifer’s shoulder. “That was Kaitlyn. She throws the most epic parties, and she’s having another next Friday night. She’s got a band and a deejay. Everyone’s invited.”
Darcy’s heart skips. She’s used to sleepovers and birthday parties organized by parents. Logically she realizes teenage parties are an inevitability, but Darcy hasn’t met Kaitlyn or her parents.
“And by everyone you mean kids your age.”
“Not necessarily,” Jennifer says with a wink. “Kaitlyn’s brother goes to community college, and sometimes he’s there with his friends.” Darcy raises an eyebrow, and Kaitlyn waves her hands in placation. “No, it’s not creepy or anything. They have their own girlfriends. Ew, Mom.”
“Will there be drinking?”
“I’ll need to speak with Kaitlyn’s parents before I consider this. So you’re telling me the college boys aren’t there to buy you beer. They’re just hanging out to talk about the cool stuff they learned at school.”
“Obviously I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
“It’s a good thing you did.”
“This is ridiculous. You let Hunter go to concerts.”
“Leave me out of it,” Hunter says, grabbing an apple as he cuts through the kitchen toward the den. No doubt to blow three hours playing Call of Duty on Xbox.
“Your brother is seventeen,” Darcy says, watching Hunter disappear around the corner.
“Like that will make a difference when I turn seventeen. You only trust him more because he’s a boy.”
Despite Jennifer’s perk, she can snap and turn nasty without warning. Darcy takes a breath.
“I didn’t want to tell you this, but another girl got raped last week.”
“That was in Smith Town, not Genoa Cove.”
“Smith Town is only ten miles away.”
“It’s a dirt hole.”
“When did you become an elitist?”
“We’ll be totally safe at Kaitlyn’s.”
Darcy raises her hand to cut Jennifer off.
“No, you’re going to listen. The latest rape happened after a party like the one Kaitlyn is holding. One girl walked home alone, a bad idea at night. Even when two girls walk together, a pair of males can overwhelm them. When I was with the FBI—”
“Mom, stop. You’re so over-dramatizing everything. Everyone knows about the rapes in Smith Town. But nothing like that happens in Genoa Cove.”
“Rape happens everywhere, Jennifer. It’s not a socioeconomic problem.”
“Mom, it sucks. I get it. What happened to that girl was terrible, but my friends and I are careful. There will be like fifty people at the party.”
Fifty people. That doesn’t comfort Darcy.
“The police never caught the rapist. He wore a mask so she couldn’t see his face. The girl was only sixteen.”
“Yeah, yeah. She was sixteen, and I’m fourteen, so lock me inside the house for the next four years to keep me safe. Or better yet, put me in a convent.”
“Don’t raise your voice, Jennifer. It’s perfectly reasonable for me to check with Kaitlyn’s parents and see the lay of the land before I decide.”
“It’s perfectly reasonable for you to be a bitch whenever I want something that’s important to me. Why do you fuck my life up every time I’m happy?”
The words stun and sting. Darcy’s fingers twitch as she remembers her mother slapping her across her face for cursing during an argument. She still feels the slap, red and burning. No, she isn’t her mother and won’t strike Jennifer, even if her daughter deserves punishment.
“You don’t talk to me like that,” Darcy says through gritted teeth. “Go to your room.”
But Jennifer is already down the hall, stomping hard enough to jiggle the glassware. The bedroom door slams.
What the hell just happened?
Darcy sniffles and drops onto a chair at the kitchen table, running her hand through her hair as she remembers the fight with her late-mother. Was she this nasty as a teenager? Hormones at that age mess with a girl’s mind, leave her edgy with a twisted belief the world is out to make her miserable. No doubt Darcy was a handful. Yet she doesn’t recognize Jennifer’s vicious streak as one of her own. Times like these make her wonder if Tyler’s death affects Jennifer as much as it does Hunter. At least he has memories. She has nothing, just an empty hole and stories of who her father was.
Between Jennifer’s blow up and Darcy’s worries about Hunter and the football team, she loses track of time. Darkness creeps over the window. Hadn’t it been sunny a moment ago? She checks the clock. After sundown.
At the kitchen window, she sweeps the curtains shut and hurries down the hall to the bedroom. The anxiety isn’t as bad as it was a year ago when she couldn’t step outside at dark without a heavy dose of medication, and the pills turned her into an empty husk. One pill became two, then three, and forced the kids to fend for themselves while Mom slumbered on the couch like a strung-out addict. It kills Darcy that her kids saw her like that. They haven’t forgotten and never will.
Sliding a chair in front of her laptop, she scrolls through her bookmarks and locates the link she seeks. It’s a website which allows the public to search the prison system by inmate ID or a criminal’s name. She chooses New York from a menu and types Michael Rivers’ ID. After three years of searches, she can type the number blindfolded.
He must be incarcerated. If the state released the Full Moon Killer, or he escaped, the news would dominate the headlines.
But she needs to know.
Only one girl escaped the serial killer: Amy Yang, a fifteen-year-old high school student who broke free of Rivers’ grasp during a failed abduction behind a closed Starbucks. A resourceful girl, she ran into traffic and flagged down the first vehicle willing to stop. The killer had been new to the game then and hadn’t honed his technique. Amy was lucky.
After the murderer’s capture, Darcy and Amy stayed in contact for over a year, battling their demons and leaning on each other for support. The weekly phone conversations ended abruptly. Though Darcy wondered about Amy, she didn’t pursue the girl, figuring Amy needed to put the horror behind her. If only Darcy could do the same.
She clicks send, and the browser churns through the data. And churns.
The search never takes this long. Something is wrong.
Darcy backs up one page and reenters the data. Studies the murderer’s number until she’s positive it’s correct.
Her stomach falls. In a moment, the database will return zero results, and she’ll know he’s free.
Finally the information loads. She slides down in her chair and releases her breath.
Michael Rivers is behind bars.
Hunter can’t look more uncomfortable dressed up. He’s buttoned the wrinkled white shirt to his neck, and a black tie flops over his belly like a dead eel. He tugs at the collar, neck red, a choked grimace contorting his face as he fights to pry his fingers under the top button.
“You have to keep it buttoned to the top,” Darcy says while she turns up the hill toward Genoa Cove High School.
“I can’t breathe. This shirt is so tight it’s cutting off my circulation.”
“The more you fight it, the worse it’s going to feel. Relax. Breathe.”
He punches the door. Not hard, but it’s enough to make her jump.
Reflected in the mirror, Jennifer sulks in the backseat. She hasn’t spoken to Darcy since the fight and won’t even look at her. This morning she stomped through the kitchen while Darcy scrambled eggs on the stove. Darcy offered her breakfast, but the girl whipped open the refrigerator and snatched a yogurt off the shelf before retreating to her bedroom.
“So stupid we have to do this,” says Hunter, chewing on his thumbnail. “What’s the point? How am I going to play better if I can’t suck air into my lungs?”
“It’s about team building,” Darcy says, sweeping the hair out of her eyes. “When I played varsity field hockey, everyone had to dress up on game day. Did we like it? Not really. But when we passed one of our teammates in the hall, we kinda knew we were all in this together, and I think that made us successful. Coach Parker wants you to look the part and represent the school. Give it a chance.”
Jennifer gives an exasperated sigh and jumps out of the car the second Darcy stops behind the buses.
“She’ll get over it,” Hunter says, dragging his bag over his shoulder.
Darcy, who’d been watching Jennifer shove through the crowd toward the main entrance, twists her head toward her son.
“I’ll text you after I speak with the coach.” She leans across the seat and kisses him on the cheek before he can escape. “Love you, Hunter.”
He mutters the words back to her and flies out of the car as though his seat caught fire.
Merging with the crowd, he pops his earbuds in and follows Jennifer’s path. Darcy waits beside the curb in case the football players harass Hunter again. A line of cars circles the lot, and the other parents will expect her to move. A tall boy with a high fade gives Hunter a cautious nod, which he returns. But a small, muscular player with spiked hair slaps his friend on the shoulder and points at Hunter. They share a laugh at her son’s expense.
A horn pulls her eyes to the rear-view mirror. Behind the Prius, a businessman sitting behind the wheel of a Lambo makes an irritated gesture. Darcy gives him a wave and pulls out. She can’t see Hunter or Jennifer anymore as the massing students swallow them. The sudden violent ebb-and-flow of the crowd tells her two kids are shoving each other inside the throng. Darcy cranes her head as she drives past, anxiety amping her blood pressure until she’s certain Hunter isn’t at the heart of the scrum.
After parking in the visitor’s lot, she stops at the main office to sign in, then she’s off to guidance to take care of Jennifer’s class switch. The hallway floor gleams with the shine of a fresh polish, and student drawings of autumn scenes hang from the walls. As the bell rings, she wades through the sea of students toward the stairs.
The high school basement holds a gymnasium and offices for the coaches, all of whom double as teachers. The doors to the gym are closed. Inside, the gym teacher blows a whistle, and a dodge ball bangs off the door.
At the end of the hallway, Coach Parker’s office appears twice the size of the others. A picture of a younger Parker surrounded by teammates and hoisting a championship trophy hangs prominently on the wall beside plaques for various coaching awards. An imposing figure, Parker’s knees barely fit under his desk. He wears running shorts and a gray hooded sweatshirt. His head is shaved, and a black goatee Darcy assumes the coach dyes girds his mouth. Head buried inside a playbook, he doesn’t notice her until she raps on the door.
“Are you Coach Parker?”
His eyes assess her and sneak down to her skirted legs.
“That’s me. Have a seat. What can I do for you?”
“Sorry to bother you, sir. My name is Darcy Gellar.” When he shows no recognition, she adds, “Hunter Gellar’s mother.”
Disgust crosses his face. It’s quick, but she notices. Parker tosses his pencil on the desk and leans back in his chair, fingers interlocked behind his head.
“I must say I pictured you differently.”
Darcy doesn’t like his smile. It feels disingenuous, untrustworthy. His gaze keeps darting to her neckline.
“Well, Hunter is so…”
Parker snaps his fingers.
“That wasn’t the word I was searching for, but it’ll do.” He cocks his head. “Yeah, now that I look closer I can see the resemblance. You moved to the village recently, correct?”
“From Virginia, yes.” She glosses over her reasons for leaving, though Parker prods her for information. “Hunter and his sister lost their father when they were very young.”
“That’s a tragedy. Kids who grow up without fathers have a difficult time fitting in and often lack discipline.”
If Parker intends to slight Hunter, Darcy shrugs it off.
“Hunter was four when Tyler passed. It hasn’t been easy on him. He asks a lot of questions about his father—where he worked, what he was like, if he looked like Hunter when he was a teen.”
Darcy’s throat constricts at the memory.
“If you don’t mind me asking, was your late-husband an athlete?”
“He ran track in high school. Why?”
“Fast, I bet he was. That’s Hunter. Kid can’t catch, but he can run like the wind.”
“That’s why I came to see you, Coach Parker.” Darcy uncrosses her legs and leans forward. “Hunter is good at sports, especially football, though he will never admit it. He’d rather play it cool and act like he doesn’t need a team.”
“Your boy could turn into a fine receiver, Ms. Gellar. May I call you Darcy?”
“Sure,” she says, wishing he wouldn’t.
“Not quite starting material with the senior talent we have this season, but I could have seen Hunter working into that role next season. But…”
He lifts his palms and shrugs.
“He didn’t wear a dress shirt and tie.”
“It’s required of all players. Refusal to comply results in automatic dismissal. This is a team game, not an assemblage of individuals.”
“But certainly you’ve had exceptions over the years. For example, kids who came from less money and couldn’t afford to dress up.”
Parker’s mouth turns up at the corners.
“Now, Darcy. A simple white button down can be had at Wal-Mart for twenty bucks. Even less if you frequent the consignment shops. And the example you gave doesn’t apply in this situation. I won’t pretend to know your financial situation, but Hunter clearly doesn’t come from poverty. His refusal to comply with team rules is a personal choice. And a selfish one at that. You’ve heard the music he listens to. He’s choosing individuality over the good of the team, and a team of individuals is a team of losers. Hunter let down his teammates, he let me down.”
He’s battling her and concocting reasons why Hunter shouldn’t be on the team. Coach Parker passed judgment on the boy for his love of dark metal and can’t get past his prejudice. Darcy doesn’t understand Hunter’s musical choices, but parents rarely do. Her own mother and father looked out the corners of their eyes when Darcy went through her Cure phase and later adopted grunge. Is today’s music so different? She once attempted to listen to one of Hunter’s favorite bands and gave up after thirty seconds of screeching guitars and guttural screams. Maybe she needs to listen again.
“Surely you believe in second chances.”
“I do, but with Hunter it’s a waste of time. I’ve seen the nose piercing, the sick t-shirts he wears. He’s doing it for shock value. See what I’m getting at? That’s not something I want representing this program. We’ve won two state championships in the last fifteen years, and the community takes pride in the team’s accomplishments.”
“What if I told you he is already complying?”
“Hunter Gellar? Dressed up? I’d tell you to prove it.”
“I drove him to school myself.”
“This I must see.” The coach sits forward and clasps his hands on his desk. “You seem like a good mother, Darcy, and though I prefer my players come to me when they have a problem, I appreciate your candor regarding Hunter’s father. I’ll call my captains and ensure Hunter dressed appropriately today. If everything checks out, I’ll allow him to practice.”
“Thank you, Coach Parker. He won’t let you down.”
Parker presses the palms of his hands on his desk and stands up from his chair.
“This is Hunter’s second chance. Understand there won’t be a third.”
Darcy stops for bagels on the way home and picks up a decaf. By the time she pulls into the driveway she regrets the beverage choice. A poor night’s sleep catches up to her, and her legs feel like gelatin as she slogs inside the ranch. The air conditioning hits her with winter’s breath. Someone turned the temperature too low. She adjusts it back to seventy, then she tosses her bag on the floor and lies on the couch, using her toes to pry each heel off. Propping her feet on the armrest, she drags a pillow under her head and closes her eyes.
Did she do the right thing by sticking up for Hunter? Darcy doesn’t want to be one of those parents who fights her kids’ battles.
A lawn mower rumbles down the block. Somewhere a dog barks. Sunlight at the window paints the backs of her eyelids pink as the rays touch her face, melting the chill away. She trusts Hunter will return to the team, especially now that he has Bethany to impress.
Then there’s Jennifer. When Jennifer gets home, Darcy will sit her down and set ground rules. Darcy is overprotective of her daughter and understands it is inherently unfair to deny Jennifer her social life. The girl has done a remarkable job making friends during the few months they’ve lived here. But Darcy won’t allow the outbursts or the vulgar insults. Respect is a two-way street.
Sleep quietly pulls her under. It comes one breath at a time, and then she’s afloat on an ocean of memories and fears which pull her into a nightmare.
In her dream, the lights flick off. She’s alone in the dark. Pitch-black around every corner.
A terrible scent reaches her nose. The smell of burned flesh.
A woman splays in the corner. Blood gushes from the stab wounds on her chest and neck. A familiar symbol marks her neck—a smiley face burned into her skin by a branding iron. The FBI will find the symbol on each of the Full Moon Killer’s victims.
Darcy recognizes the woman: Kelly Anne Collings, the serial killer’s first casualty. Darcy and her partner had observed the body inside the Charlotte morgue, the formaldehyde smell a rancid candy that made her ill.
Why is Collings inside her home?
The ranch is silent until footsteps creep down the hall. She’d known he was inside the house before he approached. Michael Rivers.
The scrape of a knife blade against plaster comes closer. Darcy hurries through the shadows to the front door.
In the strange way of dreams, when she wheels around, he is already upon her.
Before she can cry out for help, the knife plunges toward her chest.
Darcy awakens screaming. The pillow lies on the floor. She’s teetering on the edge of the cushions, a hair’s width from falling off the couch. Pulling herself up, she rushes to the window.
Just a dream. She thought she’d left the nightmares in Virginia, but they’ve trailed her to the North Carolina coast and won’t stay quiet.
The hot sun pulsing through the window cleanses her and washes the horror away. For several minutes she stands in the light until her limbs stop trembling and she gains control over her breathing.
Though she checked Rivers’ status last night, she races to the bedroom and throws the curtains open. At the computer, she verifies the Full Moon Killer is locked away and serving a life sentence. She has contacts at the Behavioral Analysis Unit. People who will tell her about an impending release from prison. She swipes through her contacts and finds the numbers. Sitting beside the window, she taps her nail on the screen, debating.
No, she made a fool of herself last year when she called. Her former coworkers must think she’s gone off the deep end.
She checks the clock. Three hours until school lets out. Add another three hours for football and cheerleader practice, and Darcy has enough time to fortify the house from intruders before she cooks dinner.
She grabs her phone and makes the call she’s been putting off for three months. The woman at the security firm takes Darcy’s information and schedules an appointment for a state-of-the-art home security system installation.
Twenty minutes later, she stands at the Home Depot customer service desk. Their team will deliver and install a gas-powered generator next week.
She tells herself the generator will prove useful when the next hurricane spins up the Atlantic seaboard. And it will serve a purpose in the event of a storm. But the generator is a virtual guarantee she’ll never again be stuck in the dark because of a power outage.
When the front door bangs open at six o’clock, the turkey and stuffing is finishing up in the oven, filling the ranch with the mouth-watering scents of Thanksgiving in October. Darcy sprawls on her back beside the sliding glass door, a screwdriver clenched between her teeth as she works the security bar into place. Most people don’t realize the locks on patio doors are futile. A burglar with a little know-how can rattle the locking mechanism until it disengages. She twists the last screw into place and locks the bar with a satisfied nod.
Two phony alarm system signs adorn the front yard bushes. She won’t need them after the installers activate her system and plant the legitimate signs.
Hunter wears a confused look. Jennifer’s grin shows her pearly whites as she tosses her homework on the table.
“I can’t figure out if this is Fort Knox or if I walked onto the set of an HGTV show,” Jennifer says, giving her brother a high-five over the lame joke.
This is classic Jennifer. She’ll hate Darcy with every ounce of her body and suddenly forget the gripe as if no disagreement occurred. It won’t save the girl from a grounding, but Darcy is happy the Jekyll and Hyde routine has temporarily settled on the former.
“What are you doing, anyway?”
“This is a locking bar,” Darcy tells her as she slides the mechanism open and shut. “Makes it harder for someone to break in.”
“Like those signs are going to fool anyone. Wouldn’t it be easier to buy a dog?”
“Take your books off the table and put them in your room,” Darcy says, climbing to her feet on achy knees. Her jaw tightens, a message to Jennifer that all isn’t forgiven. “Dinner is ready.”
Head lowered, Jennifer retreats to her room. Darcy shifts her attention to Hunter, the boy slouched in his usual chair closest to the deck. The folded dress shirt and pants stick out of his bag. After practice he’d donned shorts and a black t-shirt with another metal band she’d never heard of on the front. His hair glistens from showering.
“Now then, how was practice?”
“Okay, I guess.”
“Coach Parker have anything to say?”
“Why would he?”
“I don’t know. He’s the head coach, isn’t he?”
“We work with the coach who handles receivers and the offensive coordinator.”
“I trust there weren’t any issues with your teammates.”
Hunter blows air through his lips.
“Can we eat? I’m starving.”
“Set the table,” she says, worrying over Hunter’s evasiveness. Twice she’s witnessed his teammates bullying him. Is she overreacting to a couple bad eggs? Maybe she needs to back off and give Hunter space.
The tallest member of the family, Hunter doesn’t require a chair to reach the top shelf dinner plates in the cupboard. As he walks three plates back to the table, Darcy opens the oven and lifts the turkey with a pair of potholders. She sets the turkey on an oval serving dish with handles on the ends and carries it to the table. On his way to the kitchen for utensils, Hunter dodges her. While Darcy places the stuffing beside the turkey, she eyes the fading orange light at the window, weary of the shorter days as Halloween approaches.
Jennifer returns wearing gray, baggy sweatpants and a half-shirt. Darcy can’t fault her daughter for wanting to be comfortable, but this is her third change of clothes today, if Darcy counts the black sweatpants and t-shirt Jennifer wore at breakfast.
“After dinner, you’re doing the laundry,” Darcy says between bites, pointing her fork at Jennifer.
“You make the most laundry, so you get to do the honors. Besides, you don’t question me when I assign chores.”
“Owned,” Hunter grins as he sets his hand on Jennifer’s shoulder and gives it a playful shake.
“And you’re in charge of folding tonight,” Darcy says, narrowing her eyes at Hunter.
The chore score even, the kids stop razzing one another and focus on their plates. The turkey melts in Darcy’s mouth, the stuffing seasoned with just the right amount of salt and pepper. Though Darcy appreciates conversation during dinner, the only time of day she sees the kids, the lack of small talk tells her the food must be good. She hadn’t expected the meal to come out so well, distracted as she was by the new locking mechanism for the deck door.
After eating, Darcy washes the dishes. Jennifer dries, and Hunter puts them away. The kids head to their rooms, but Darcy stops Jennifer.
“Have a seat,” Darcy says, motioning toward the table.
Jennifer scowls but doesn’t protest. Hunter shoots her a sympathetic look from the hallway before he leaves. Darcy loves that her kids stick up for each other when the pressure is on.
Jennifer sits with one leg crossed over the other, her eyes glued to the table top. She bites her lower lip and fiddles with the salt shaker.
Darcy feels as if she looks into a mirror. It’s not so much the physical resemblance but the mannerisms, the way her daughter fidgets when she knows she’s done something wrong, the downward tilt of her head as she braces for punishment.
“You hurt my feelings, you know?”
The apology isn’t out of her mouth before Jennifer starts crying. And it isn’t a sob, but a waterfall of emotion that leaves the girl hitching and hiccuping as she buries her face in a napkin. Darcy reaches for a Kleenex and gently takes the napkin from Jennifer’s hand, trading her the tissue.
“I don’t know what’s happening to me,” Jennifer says, wrestling with every syllable. She blows her nose and stuffs the tissue into her pocket. Darcy hands her the box. “Sometimes it doesn’t even seem like it’s me saying things. It just comes out. I know it’s wrong, and I don’t want to hurt people, but I can’t stop.”
“Shh.” Darcy strokes the hair off her daughter’s eye. “You’re fourteen. There are enough hormones jolting through your body to light a city block. Every girl goes through this. I did. So did Grandma.”
Though Darcy’s mother never admitted as much. She was forever above teen angst and immaturity.
“It doesn’t make sense. This never happens when I’m with my friends. Just with you and teachers.”
Darcy cringes. If Jennifer erupts on one of her teachers, the school will punish her, perhaps suspend Jennifer.
“You have problems with authority, no different from Hunter, except he expresses it in different ways. But Jennifer, you can’t go around thinking the world is against you. That sort of hate eats at you until you’re hollow and alone. I’m not out to get you, and neither are your teachers. I love you and Hunter more than words can express.” Darcy takes a breath while she composes her thoughts. “About these parties. Understand that part of being a parent is saying no when I don’t think you’re ready.” Jennifer slumps her shoulders and tosses another tissue into the trash. “But I never said you couldn’t go to Kaitlyn’s party, only that I want to speak with her parents first.”
Jennifer lifts her head, face brimming with sudden hope.
“I swear to God I’ll be careful and won’t drink, and if things get weird, I promise I’ll call and you can come get me.”
“Slow down. I didn’t say yes…yet.”
Jennifer remains reserved, but she sees the light at the end of the tunnel and desires to rush forth.
“Now let’s talk about your grounding.”
Jennifer clicks her tongue on the roof of her mouth.
“You’re actually grounding me?”
“Don’t start again.”
“Every day after school through next week, you’re to come straight home after cheer practice.”
Jennifer folds her arms and glares at the table again.
“No hanging out afterward, no stopping at friends’ houses. Straight home, dinner, and homework.”
“There’s a dance this Friday after the game.”
“I can’t even watch Hunter play?”
“Of course, you can watch your brother’s game. But you’re sitting with me, not your friends unless they want to join us.”
“That’s the deal, and I’m not negotiating. Stick to the straight and narrow and I’ll consider letting you go to Kaitlyn’s party.”
Jennifer sighs through pouting lips.
“Now give your Mom a hug. She’s had a long day.”
Jennifer leans over and hugs Darcy. They hold each other for a long time, the girl sobbing every few seconds. For the first time in forever, Darcy feels connected with her daughter. Caressing Jennifer’s back, she wishes she could freeze time and stay here forever.
Then both kids lock themselves in their rooms, presumably doing homework. Probably on their phones, Darcy thinks.
Night presses against the windowpane. Darcy draws the curtain and assesses the ranch’s safety. Even with the new lock, the glass door itself is vulnerable, easy for an intruder to smash through, though he’d make a helluva racket doing so.
Or not. The ranch sits on the western edge of the neighborhood loop, the house next door vacant. Would anybody hear the glass break?
Darcy can’t shake the growing dread that something is wrong. Sitting beside her computer, she eyes the closet and chews her nail. A cardboard box rests on the top shelf, the sweatshirt thrown over the lid doing little to conceal the box’s existence. Pulling a step stool beneath the shelf, she climbs up and hauls the container down. After setting the box on the bed, she listens at the door. It’s quiet inside the kids’ rooms.
She edges the door shut. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Darcy reaches inside the box and removes a manila folder containing the notes and pictures from the Michael Rivers case. She shouldn’t have copied the files before leaving the Bureau, but she considers the folder’s contents as protection, ammunition should the Full Moon Killer come after her again. Know your enemy.
Though she’s reviewed the pictures since the investigation’s nascent days, the brutality takes her breath away. The depths of the stab wounds indicate strength and frenzied rage. A twisted smiley face brands each girl’s neck. Though the tag is the Full Moon Killer’s calling card, Darcy believes the symbol exists to taunt the police and FBI.
The brainstorming session she’d used to construct the original profile is stuffed behind the case notes. Reading the page causes her skin to prickle with goosebumps. It’s the most accurate profile of her FBI career.
White male, thirty-five to forty-five, six feet or taller and muscular. Organized—think Ted Bundy or Dennis Rader. First signs of violence displayed during childhood. Egocentric and without remorse. Lives alone in an isolated location, probably in a rural location with plenty of land. Works a solitary job, possibly a contractor.
Though Rivers had a substantial bank account thanks to inheritance money, he lived in an old, weather-beaten farmhouse. Per the profile, the serial murderer was an electric contractor and utilized his van to transport abducted women back to his house.
Studying the printed map, Darcy examines the circle drawn in red marker, indicating a 150-mile radius stretching from North Carolina down to Myrtle Beach and Murrells Inlet. Darcy was certain the killer lived inside the radius, and this also proved to be true.
Yet she cannot understand how a man becomes a mass murderer. Victims of childhood abuse struggle with demons, but the vast majority lead normal, productive lives. A small percentage become violent offenders. What sets Rivers apart is his seemingly normal childhood. No abuse, no trauma.
She continues thumbing through the notes when her phone rings. The unexpected shrill causes her to spill the gory pictures across the floor, and she gathers them up before one of her kids walks in and sees the horror splayed across the carpet.
Darcy doesn’t recognize the number and considers letting the call go to voice-mail. On the fifth ring, she answers.
The woman on the phone is too distraught to speak clearly, but between the sobs, Darcy identifies the voice.
It’s been a few years since Darcy last spoke to the girl. She must be nineteen by now. Darcy tries to picture the girl four years older and fails. Time moves at blinding speeds.
“It’s all right, Amy. I’m right here. Slow down and tell me what’s wrong.”
Several seconds pass before the girl composes herself. Darcy sits on the carpet with her back against the bed and her knees drawn to her chest, the phone locked between her shoulder and ear as she returns the case folder to the box.
“Nobody believes me, and I don’t know who to turn to.”
“Did someone try to hurt you, Amy?”
“It was him. The Full Moon Killer.”
Amy Yang wears polka-dot pajama bottoms and a heavy sweatshirt when Darcy arrives on her doorstep. An odd twist of fate has brought them together again. Taking a break from college, Amy works for an advertising firm in coastal North Carolina and rents this two-bedroom house in Smith Town.
They hug inside the foyer as Amy’s eyes dart over Darcy’s shoulder.
The young girl locks the door and throws the bolt. Inside, the house looks barely lived in. The foyer leads into the living room where a brown leather couch torn by cat’s claws holds court in the center. It’s the only piece of furniture in the room, and it probably came with the house. There’s no TV, but this isn’t unusual. Many of the younger generation find entertainment in mobile devices and don’t have a need for a legacy item like a television. Darcy takes in the remainder of the downstairs. The adjoining dining room is empty except for a glass cabinet in the corner. There are no glasses or dishes inside. No table, no chairs. Across from the dining room, the kitchen is tiny but functional. The linoleum floor is old and curling up at the edges, and rust stains mar a white electric stove. No table in the kitchen either. Does Amy eat her meals leaning over the sink?
Amy escaped Michael Rivers, but she’s a victim like the others. An intelligent girl, Amy seemed destined for a full scholarship at a private college. The brush with death altered the arc of her life, and now she works a dead-end job when she should be taking notes inside a lecture hall.
Despite the mild October morning, the girl draws a blanket around her arms and collapses on the couch, the space between the cushions almost swallowing Amy’s tiny frame. Her legs bounce as she sits, and her gaze keeps traveling to the curtained picture frame window.
Darcy pulls an ottoman in front of the girl and sits on the edge. She places a hand over Amy’s.
“Start from the beginning. Don’t leave anything out.”
Amy nods once. Her lower lip trembles, and she can’t stop glancing at the door and windows, the house’s most vulnerable entry points. Darcy recognizes the paranoia. She’s lived with it since the stabbing.
Amy feels certain someone has followed her for two weeks. Temptation coaxes Darcy to remove a pen and notepad from her pocket and conduct a full interview. Old habits die hard.
“Where did you first notice the man?”
“At the movie theater last Monday. They have two-dollar matinee specials at noon, and I had the day off from work. Halfway through the movie, I got the feeling someone was watching me. I turned and saw him in the back row. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Probably just a typical creep, nothing to worry myself over. Then afterward, I stopped at the cafe, and he was standing in the bushes across the street and staring at me.”
The second meeting could have been coincidental—Smith Town’s population is half of Genoa Grove—but Darcy knows better than to doubt a stalking victim.
“Did you get a good look at his face?”
Amy shakes her head.
“It was too dark in the theater, and he stayed in the shadows outside the cafe.”
“Was that the last time?”
“No. Two nights ago, I toured the lighthouse with a girl from work. Every time I looked out the windows, he stood beside the ocean staring at me.”
“Did your friend see this man?”
“No. He vanished when I tried to point him out.” The girl averts her eyes and rubs the back of her neck. “You think I’m crazy.”
“Not at all. There’s a chance you have a stalker. On the other hand, it might not be a big deal. Maybe it’s a guy who thinks you’re cute but can’t work up the courage to ask you out.”
Bending over with her elbows on her knees, Amy grabs her hair.
“No, it’s him. He got out. I can’t explain how. Now he wants to finish what he started four years ago.”
Darcy leans forward and levels her face with Amy’s. The girl reminds her of Jennifer, steadfast and convinced of the impossible. Only five years separate Amy and Darcy’s daughter. Is this who Jennifer will become in the near future?
“Amy, I checked the inmate database last night and twice again this morning. Michael Rivers will never get out of prison.”
“No, he’s here. It has to be him.”
“He’s not Houdini. Whoever is following you, it can’t be the Full Moon Killer.”
“I know it doesn’t make sense, but it couldn’t be anybody else.”
“What convinces you this man is Michael Rivers?”
“Come with me.”
The girl’s bony fingers grasp Darcy’s wrist. Amy rises and leads her through the dining room and into the kitchen where a side door Darcy hadn’t noticed opens to a yard of dirt and brown grass. A junk pile of old rakes, rusty car parts, and assorted trash steams in the bushes.
But it’s the red spray paint on the side of the house that stops Darcy’s heart.
It’s an evil smiley face, the calling card of the Full Moon Killer.
The ride home to Genoa Cove is fraught with confusion and creeping dread. Unless Michael Rivers is a phantom who can appear at any location, a stalker is playing a nasty game with Amy. But how did he know the serial killer attempted to capture Amy Yang? The police omitted the minor’s name four years ago. Nobody knows about Amy, not even the press.
Darcy stayed with the girl until she phoned the police. Amy would have to share her past with the officers, and a few loose lips would soon spread her name to the public and media.
Darcy doubted the police would take the girl seriously. What did they have to go on besides graffiti vandalism and an unrecognizable man who might or might not have followed Amy around Smith Town?
The clock reads noon when Darcy pulls into the driveway. In the kitchen, she releases the bar and slides the deck door open. Hands cupping elbows, she walks a full circle around the house, half-expecting to find the leering graffiti painted on the exterior. There’s nothing. Inside, she slides the locking bar into place and opens the kids’ rooms, confirming the rooms are secure. Hunter’s window is open a crack. Darcy shoves the pane down and throws the latch.
Impulse urges her back to the computer, but she recognizes her obsession ballooning toward dangerous levels. She’s doing herself no favors staying locked inside the house with only her fears as company.
After mixing a quick salad, Darcy trades her sneakers for flip-flops and dons a baseball cap. The sun is warm on her face as she crosses the street. With everybody at work, the neighborhood is silent, peaceful. On the opposite side of the loop, a sand path cuts between two grassy dunes and opens to the beach. This is why she chose Genoa Cove.
Half a mile to the south, waves pound the public beach. Here at the cove, water sloshes over the sand in hushed whispers. She’s surprised to see another person on the beach. It’s a large man, his back to her. A planted fishing pole juts out of the wet sand, and a taut line extends into deeper waters. He leans back in a reclining beach chair and nurses a bottle of beer.
When she kicks off her flip-flops and treads through the bathwater-warm shallows, she recognizes the man’s muscular frame and close-cropped hair. Bronson Severson from the dojo.
He appears to be in a state of bliss, his face turned up to the sun, eyes closed to thin slits.
“Ms. Gellar,” he says without looking up. “I thought that was you.”
“Call me Bronson. Please.”
“Only if you call me Darcy.” She sits in the sand with her arms wrapped around her knees. “I didn’t realize you live around here.”
“I don’t. Actually I’m on the west side of the village. You probably saw my truck parked down the road from your house.”
“You know where I live?”
He slips a bucket hat over his head and slides the rim down to his brow.
“Yes, from your sign-up form. I recognized the street when I entered your information into my database. You’re in Steve and Patty Mitchell’s old house.”
Darcy locks her elbows and leans back on her hands, digging her toes into the sand.
“Seems you’ve met everyone in Genoa Cove.”
“Small village. Live here a few decades and you’ll memorize half the population’s birthdays.” A tug on the line grabs Bronson’s attention. He calmly removes his hat and grasps the fishing rod, almost annoyed the fish interrupted his relaxation. “So it’s just you and the kids, that right?”
Darcy shifts her weight. How much does this man know about her?
“My son and daughter, yes,” she says, hoping he didn’t learn about Tyler.
“Hunter and Jennifer.” A jolt of electricity shoots through her bones upon hearing her children’s names. He notices her alarm and raises a calming hand. “My nephew plays on the football team, and I guess he was at a party with Jennifer last month.”
A party? Darcy’s brow furrows. How many times has Jennifer sneaked out?
Bronson, in no rush to reel in the fish, nods for several seconds, considering.
“Crap, I probably sound like a creeper. Hope I didn’t throw you off asking about you and your kids.”
“It’s okay. You were a cop.”
“A nosy one apparently.” He jerks the rod, and the line goes slack. “Lost another one. For the record, Genoa Cove is a safe place to raise kids, a lot safer than Smith Town. But the area has its challenges, the occasional hurricane not being the least. Don’t hesitate to call if you or the kids need anything.”
The tension releases from Darcy’s shoulders. Bronson is a retired police officer and her instructor for self-defense class. She should be thankful he’s taken an interest in a single mother and her kids. What if Darcy was in Amy’s shoes, looking over her shoulder for a sick stalker who knows too much about her past? It might be helpful to have a guy like Bronson keeping an eye on them.
“There is something you could help me with.”
She tells Bronson about Amy, leaving out the Michael Rivers angle. It’s a matter of time before he runs an Internet search for Darcy Gellar and learns about her infamous and abbreviated FBI career, but he doesn’t need to find out yet. Amy is the one who needs protection.
“The Smith Town and Genoa Cove police departments never saw eye-to-eye, but I remember a few guys over there. Let me make a call and get back to you. At the very least, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have someone drive past her residence until this stalker thing works itself out.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
“Not at all. We’re neighbors now. People in Genoa Cove look out for each other.”
Bronson packs his fishing gear and groans when he stretches. He grabs his chair and stops as if he remembers something.
“Darcy, do you have an alarm system?”
“As a matter of fact, Gilmore Security will install my system tomorrow.”
“Then you did well. Gilmore is the best in the region. I’ll take them over those national brands any day. What about a gun?”
They walk together along the path back to the neighborhood, the sand too hot for Darcy without her flip-flops. Bronson climbs into his red Dodge pickup with another invitation to phone him at the first sign of trouble. It makes her wonder if Genoa Cove has more problems than he’s letting on.
Inside the ranch, Darcy rubs the chill off her arms as her body adjusts to the air conditioning. She rummages through the refrigerator for a snack and hears a thump from down the hall.
Someone is inside the house.
The kitchen window is open. She checked every window before she left the house.
An image of the serial killer’s tag on the side of Amy Yang’s house flashes in her mind. As she told Bronson, she locks the gun in her bedroom safe. The noise came from her daughter’s room.
Jennifer’s door bangs open.
Darcy throws herself against the wall as her daughter toils down the hallway, rubbing at her eyes. She’s barefoot in a SpongeBob nightshirt, her hair tousled as though she’d been sleeping.
“What are you doing home? It’s not two o’clock yet.”
Jennifer touches her stomach.
“Sick. Jenna drove me home.” Jennifer totters into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator. Scratching her head, she considers an orange and places it back in the crisper drawer. “Word of advice: never trust fish day in a school cafeteria.”
“Why didn’t you call? You need to tell me if you leave school.”
“I called. You didn’t have your phone with you.”
Jennifer fills a glass of water and tilts her head at Darcy’s phone on the table.
“Did you open the kitchen window?”
Jennifer holds up her forefinger as she gulps the water. After finishing, she wipes her mouth on her forearm.
“Jennifer, how many times do I need to tell you to keep the house secure? You were home alone.”
“Seriously, Mom. It’s Genoa Cove. Who’s going to break in? The Kardashians?”
“It’s not a joking matter, especially with a rapist in the area,” Darcy says, cranking the casement window closed. “And you’re letting the hot air inside.”
“I’m letting the fresh air inside. This place smells like an old carpet and Hunter’s feet. Oh, speaking of which.”
Jennifer reaches for a folded sheet of paper on the table and hands it to Darcy.
“You better take a look.”
Darcy unfolds the paper and feels her stomach fall out from under her. It’s a note written in angry reds. Vulgarities. Homophobic slurs. Threats to beat the shit out of the target. Her hands tremble as she scans the vicious note.
“Where did you get this?”
“It was stuffed into Hunter’s locker this morning. Don’t worry. I grabbed the note before he saw.”
“Don’t worry? Whoever wrote this wants to hurt Hunter. Why would somebody write this?”
Jennifer raises her hands.
“Probably because he’s dating the prettiest girl in school, and dumb-ass jocks get jealous.”
“He’s dating Bethany?” Darcy notices Jennifer’s questioning stare. “We ran into her at Antonia’s yesterday. Hunter said they were friends.”
“Friends. Right.” Jennifer burps into her hand. “I’m gonna yak up a fish sandwich. I’ll be in the bathroom if you need me.”
Darcy can’t understand why Jennifer is taking this lightly. The note is hateful and shocking, a decisive leap beyond bullying. This person wants to hurt her son.
Threats of physical violence are a matter for the police. Hunter will hate Darcy for calling the authorities, and perhaps the note is only bluster and empty threats, but she won’t take chances with his life.
An hour later, a police cruiser pulls up in front of the house. Darcy watches through the peephole as two officers emerge from the vehicle. They stand talking across the roof of the cruiser for a moment, then they approach the door together. She recognizes the man. Oh, hell. It’s Julian, the cop who volunteered to attack Darcy at self-defense class. Won’t he be pleased to see the woman who embarrassed him?
A stocky female with short blonde hair accompanies Julian. The woman rings the doorbell. Darcy waits a few heartbeats before answering so they don’t think she poised beside the front door, waiting for them to knock.
“Ms. Gellar?” The female officer flips open a notepad. “You called the department about a threatening letter?”
The female’s name tag reads Faust.
Julian buries his head in his own notepad. When he lifts his gaze, recognition flashes in his eyes. Recognition and annoyance, Darcy thinks.
“Yes,” Darcy says, standing aside. “Come in, please.”
Officer Faust waits in the foyer while Darcy pads to the kitchen. Julian runs his eyes over the downstairs and focuses on the hallway, which leads to a series of closed bedroom doors. His tongue prods at the inside of his cheek, bored.
“My daughter found this note sticking out of my son’s locker at school,” Darcy says, handing Faust the letter.
The female officer performs a quick scan of the letter. She hands the note to Julian, who blinks at the letter before giving it back to Darcy.
“So your daughter didn’t actually see the person who placed the note,” Julian says.
“Not much to go on.”
“I understand, but isn’t that how investigations begin?”
“There’s no way to determine if your son wrote the note himself and intended to drop it in another locker.”
“What? No. My son isn’t violent, and I know his handwriting, anyway. This isn’t his.”
“Does your son have enemies?” Officer Faust asks.
“A couple boys on the football team bullied Hunter when I picked him up two days ago.”
Julian itches his lip to hide his smirk, but Darcy sees. The star of the self-defense class raised a wimp. The irony must be killing him.
“Who were the boys?”
“I don’t know their names,” Darcy says, folding her arms. “We moved to the village three months ago and I’m still learning names.”
“Where did you move from, Ms. Gellar?”
“Virginia,” Officer Faust repeats, jotting down Darcy’s answer. “It says in my notes you’re currently unemployed.”
“You’re quite young for retirement. What sort of work did you do?”
Darcy bites her tongue. They’re more interested in interrogating her than taking the letter seriously.
Officer Faust raises her eyebrows.
Another scribble on the notepad.
“Why did you move to Genoa Cove, Ms. Gellar?”
“I fail to see what my previous line of work has to do with someone threatening my son.”
Julian takes a step forward. Is this an aggressive move meant to intimidate? Up close, he is larger than he seemed while they fought on the mat.
“You’re probably overreacting. This is typical teen stuff, boys getting under each other’s skin. No violence occurred.”
“Boys like to play games with each other,” Julian says. “Nothing ever comes of notes like this. Clearly your son upset someone, and now the other boy is fighting back, not that threats are ever justified. It’s all bluster. Give it time and this will blow over.”
“It sounds to me like you’re blaming the victim.”
“Not at all. If you’ll allow me to take the note, I’ll follow up with the school and see if we can get to the bottom of who wrote it. Problem is there’s no signature. Unless a witness comes forward, there’s no way to prove who wrote the letter. It becomes a he said, she said situation.”
After the officers leave, Darcy leans her back against the door and closes her eyes. She hadn’t expected much to come of the letter, but she’d hoped the officers would take the threat seriously.
Hunter arrives at four. An engine guns as Darcy peeks through the window. She recognizes the tinted windows before tires squeal and the Ford Fusion jets down the road.
“No practice today?” Darcy asks, arranging a stack of mail on the table.
“Nah. Coach says we need a day to heal up before the game.”
“Who dropped you off?”
“Oh, nobody. That’s just Squiggs.”
“Squiggs have a real name, or is he a Scooby Doo character?”
“Sweet,” Hunter says crunching on an apple. He pokes through the refrigerator. “Any cold cuts left?”
“Your sister found a letter in your locker.”
He freezes. So Hunter knew about the note. He shrugs, brushing it off as no big deal.
“Hunter, do you want to talk about it?”
“Talk about what? It’s only a letter. Not like anything is going to happen.”
She tries again, but Hunter won’t budge. He skips out of the kitchen with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. After his door closes, she considers calling around to verify Coach Parker canceled practice. She doesn’t. Darcy trusts Hunter, though her son is hiding something.
The revolving doors routine continues as Darcy boils a pot of water on the stove. Jennifer shuffles into the kitchen with a bit more color on her cheeks.
“What’s for dinner?” she asks.
Darcy knows her daughter well enough to spot disinterest. She couldn’t care less about dinner and has something on her mind.
“Better not be with a cream sauce. My stomach can’t handle anything super heavy.”
Jennifer slides onto a chair and taps her phone on the table.
“What’s on your mind?”
She pauses, biting her nail as the water percolates.
“Kaitlyn knows who wrote the letter.”
Darcy sets the wooden spoon down and sits across from her.
“Oh? How did she find out?”
“Kaitlyn overheard a couple guys bragging about it outside the weight room after school. For what it’s worth, I think the letter was only to scare Hunter.”
“Why would anyone want to scare him?”
“Because he’s new.”
“Yeah, but he isn’t fitting in.”
Darcy parts the curtains, a compulsion she’s followed with increased frequency since she saw the smiley face on Amy’s house.
“Because he dresses different and likes loud music? That’s ludicrous.”
“It’s more than that. The company he keeps…they aren’t good kids.”
“Who is this Squiggs character?”
Jennifer’s eyebrows shoot up.
“You know him?”
“He dropped Hunter off a few minutes ago.”
“I shouldn’t say anything because I don’t have proof. But most of us are pretty sure Squiggs is supplying most of the drugs in school.”
The air rushes out of Darcy’s chest. Losing her son to drugs is her greatest fear. Because a part of her believes it could happen. Isolated, introverted, and balancing on the edge of depression, Hunter is a prime candidate for addiction. And he learned from watching his mother.
“But Hunter doesn’t do drugs,” Jennifer quickly adds. “He’d tell me, I think.”
Darcy makes a mental note to look into Hunter’s new friend.
“What’s this kid’s real name?” Darcy asks, lowering her voice so Hunter can’t eavesdrop.
“Benny Chilton. He’s a senior.”
“Mom, the water is boiling over.”
The hiss of water splashing onto flame brings Darcy’s head around.
She lowers the heat and stirs, calming the roiling water. Satisfied, she dumps the pasta into the pot.
“So who wrote the letter, Jennifer?”
Jennifer pinches the bridge of her nose.
“Aaron Torres. He’s on the team with Hunter.”
“Torres. Where have I heard that name?”
Jennifer swipes through her phone and sets it on the table as though afraid her social contacts can hear.
“As in Bethany Torres.”
The pretty girl she met at Antonia’s.
“Her brother, I take it.”
“Her older brother, yeah. He’s looking out for Bethany and thinks Hunter is bad news.”
“Pot calling the kettle black, in my opinion.”
“Don’t call the police back, okay? Let me talk to Aaron first.”
“I don’t want you talking to this Aaron Torres. And how did you know about the police?”
“I saw them through the window, duh. That wasn’t a good look, Mom. If the cops show up at school and start asking members of the football team questions, it could get a lot worse for Hunter.”
Sweat dripping off her brow, Darcy kneels in front of Jennifer.
“What do you mean it could get worse?”
“Just let me talk to Aaron. Don’t make this harder than it already is.”
Hunter lingers in the kitchen after washing the plates, then he leans against the hallway wall, checking his messages. Jennifer locks herself in her room, hopefully not informing half the world about the letter before Darcy decides the best way to proceed.
Inside her bedroom, Darcy sips from a cup of calming tea as the clock ticks past sunset. From her nightstand, she grabs the anti-anxiety pills and rolls the bottle in her hand. Just one to take the edge off, and then none for the rest of the week. She glances at the window. The reflected face belongs to a liar.
A voice in her head urges her to check on Amy and wonders if Bronson followed through on his promise to call his friends at the Smith Town Police Department.
Hunter looks up when Darcy opens her door.
“Benny seems like a nice boy.”
Hunter halts in place.
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, he’s been driving you home, right?”
“Just a few times.”
“How did you meet?”
Hunter crosses his arms.
“Why the interrogation? We went to a concert together last month, that’s all. He’s a good guy.”
“Don’t get excited, Hunter. I’m just asking how you came to be friends. Maybe you’d like to invite him to dinner some night.”
“I doubt he’d be into that scene. Especially if everyone is judging him.”
“It might be nice.”
“Stop watching everything I do. I’m not one of your criminals.”
Hunter cracks open a Coke and stalks into his room. Darcy braces for the door to slam, but it drifts shut. Still, she hears the lock twist.
That went well.
Darcy sips her tea and pulls back when the heat singes her lips. In the kitchen, night pours against the casement window. She checks the locks and peeks outside, but it’s impossible to see with the lights on.
At that moment, it occurs to Darcy someone could be staring at her from the yard. The grinning face of a lunatic pressed close to the glass.
She clicks the light off and exhales. The yard is empty, tall grass waving with the night breeze outside the vacant two-story bordering the ranch. The moon is full, its face screaming over the cove and tinting everything it touches in a deathly silver.
Grabbing her phone, she dials the girl’s number. The phone doesn’t ring. She tries again and gets the same result.
Damn phone. It’s three years old and failing fast.
A moment later she’s at Hunter’s door. She knocks softly and receives no reply.
“Hey, Hunter, can I borrow your phone for a second?”
It takes several seconds before she hears the springs squeak as he climbs off his bed. The knob twists and the locking mechanism pops open. He leans in the doorway, his face suspicious.
“What’s wrong with yours?”
“It works when it feels like it, and I guess it decided not to tonight. I want to check on a friend who’s having trouble with a guy. It won’t be a second.”
“Yeah, that’s fine. But the battery is toast. Either plug it in or make the call before it dies.”
He starts to shut the door, and she blocks it with her palm.
“Come on, Hunter. I didn’t mean to pry. I meant what I said about inviting your friends to dinner some night. It won’t be creepy. I’ll be on my best behavior.”
This elicits a small grin, a victory in Darcy’s eyes. She waits until she’s inside the kitchen before calling, not wanting her children to hear the Full Moon Killer’s name. Though the call goes through, it rings several times and goes to voice-mail. Her anxiety rising, she dials again.
“Amy, thank goodness. Is everything okay?”
“Sorry, I was checking around the house. I put new locks on the windows like you suggested, and I’ve got a guy coming by tomorrow to paint over that damn…face. You must think I completely lost it. I didn’t mean to freak you out this morning.”
“You’re being cautious. I’d react the same way if I was in your position. But please understand Michael Rivers can’t hurt anyone, not me, not you, and he’ll never get out of prison.”
“Then who painted his symbol on my house?”
Darcy lifts herself up and sits on the kitchen counter, feet dangling above the floor.
“I don’t wish to downplay what you’re going through, but I’m starting to think someone is playing a cruel joke on you. Are you certain you haven’t confided in anyone about the abduction attempt?”
“Nobody knows except the police and my parents, and I’m sure my parents wouldn’t tell anybody.”
“Someone talked, and the wrong person found out and is trying to frighten you.”
Amy’s voice trembles.
“He’s doing a damn good job.”
“Serial killers fascinate the public,” Darcy says, picking at a nail. “To some people, it’s like a movie. They’re bored, and I suppose a part of them wishes their town turned into a Friday the 13th movie. The media won’t leave me alone, and there isn’t a month that goes by without someone offering me a book deal.”
“So what do you think I should do?”
“Exactly what you’re doing. Keep the house locked and watch your back. What did the police say?”
Amy gives a mirthless chuckle.
“Not much. To them, it’s just graffiti, something they see all the time.”
“And you told them about the man following you and the symbol’s meaning?”
“Yes, I’m an open book now. They’re probably at the station laughing about the crazy Asian girl who thinks a ghost is chasing her. Nothing they can do when I haven’t seen the man’s face.”
Darcy hops off the counter and paces the kitchen.
“A friend of mine retired from the Genoa Cove force a few years ago. He teaches my self-defense class, which is another thing you should consider. Bronson knows Smith Town cops and promised to call them, so don’t be surprised if you see a cruiser in your neighborhood checking on the house.”
Amy tries to reply when Hunter’s phone beeps. The battery is close to zero.
“Sorry, Amy. I called you on my son’s phone, and it’s out of juice. If you can’t reach me on my phone, feel free to use this number.”
“Thank you, Darcy.”
The next morning, Darcy gets her phone repaired and swings past the cove on the coast road. The beach is empty, no Bronson today. As she pulls into the driveway, a van labeled Gilmore Security Systems in cursive lettering wheels around the corner. Just in time.
Two men and a woman wearing dark blue polos and gray pants walk through the house before beginning the installation. The leader is a middle aged man with silver hair and a fit physique. He introduces himself as Scott.
They work through lunch and finish at four, and already the tension drains from Darcy’s body. Why didn’t she install an alarm months ago?
“The most important thing you can do is choose a passcode that is easy to remember but nobody else can figure out,” Scott says, demonstrating how to arm the alarm. “Don’t share the code with anybody, and make certain your children keep it secret.”
Under Scott’s supervision, Darcy enters the ranch and inputs the alarm code. Nerves cause her to mess up the code on the first try, but she corrects the error.
“Now,” Scott says, pointing to the alarm. “If you forget the code, don’t panic. We’ll receive notification at our headquarters and call your house before contacting the police, so don’t worry over a squad of police cars swarming the neighborhood if you screw up. On the other hand, in the unlikely event a real break-in occurs, response will be immediate. You couldn’t be more protected.”
Scott gives Darcy a tour around the perimeter of the house, explaining how the system monitors breaches at the windows and doors while he points out the cameras.
Then they sit in front of her laptop. She clicks the Gilmore icon, a padlock with a lightning bolt through the center, and a series of windows load.
“You can switch between the cameras and system monitor with one mouse click,” he says, demonstrating. “Provided you have Internet connectivity, you can monitor these screens from anywhere. Go on vacation, visit friends, and you can always check on the house while you’re away. And it’s not just about thwarting criminals. You never need to worry about a burst pipe or what a thunderstorm did to your home while you were away. Click the app and check for yourself. That’s what I call peace of mind.”
“And if the kids throw a party?”
“Oh, yes,” Scott says, laughing. “It works for that too.”
For the first hour after the team departs, Darcy can’t keep herself from checking the monitor screens as if they’re a cool new toy. She loads the phone application, and the camera views appear. For fun, she steps outside and waves to the camera aimed at the front door. After a short lag, she appears in the picture.
“Best thing ever,” she says, forcing herself to shut down the app so she can work on dinner.
The next few days are the best she’s experienced since moving in. Jennifer obeys curfew and remains in a good mood. On Friday night, Coach Parker puts Hunter into the game at the end of the third quarter, and Hunter catches a pass for a first down. After the game, Bethany rides home with the family and roasts marshmallows with Hunter in the backyard. Even the dark of night fails to rattle Darcy, who realizes she hasn’t taken her anti-anxiety medicine.
Three days after the installation, a skinny man with red hair and a tiny scar over his right eye knocks on the door. Evidenced by his uniform, he’s a Gilmore technician. The man ensures she’s satisfied with the new system, tours the ranch and ensures the alarms and cameras work, and asks her if she has any questions. She doesn’t. Darcy couldn’t be more happy with the thoroughness of the Gilmore team.
Amy’s stalker disappears, the smiley face painted over, and the girl agrees to join Darcy at self-defense class. Bronson calls, confirming the Smith Town PD makes twice-daily checks on Amy’s house.
All good things must come to an end.
It’s a gloomy Monday morning with Halloween on the wind when Darcy glances through the rain-streaked window and sees the police cruiser pull curbside.
Darcy’s first reaction is something terrible has happened to Hunter or Jennifer. The doors open, and Julian climbs out of the vehicle. The man who accompanies Julian wears dark blue slacks and a gray jacket. His black tie is too long and tucked between the buttons of a bargain store dress shirt. Like a private investigator from a sixties television sitcom, the man’s hair parts on the side, slicked and oily. His exhausted eyes droop, his slightly wrinkled forehead marking him as a veteran of the force. A detective.
“Ms. Gellar?” The detective’s face is grim, jaw grinding from side to side.
Julian flanks the detective, one hand touching the radio, the other at his side. Close to his holster.
“I’m Detective Ames,” the man says, holding up his badge. “And you’ve met Officer Haines. Is there somewhere we can talk?”
Again her chest fills with butterflies as she wonders what happened to her kids. Did Aaron Torres hurt Hunter?
“Would you like to come in?”
Darcy stands aside and motions them into the foyer. They follow her to the kitchen and take seats around the table. Julian studies the room, looking over the stack of mail between them. Darcy pulls the envelopes aside and sets them on the counter.
“Were you at home last night?”
Thank goodness nothing happened to the kids at school.
“Sure, I was in all night.”
“A jogger found a woman’s body beside the cove at dawn,” Detective Ames says, leaning forward with his hands clasped on his lap. “Did you see or hear anything unusual last night, particularly between the hours of midnight and two?”
Darcy’s heart hammers. She’s letting her imagination run wild. It’s a drowning incident, nothing more.
“I was asleep by eleven,” Darcy says, stammering. “What happened?”
“Think very hard. Did a noise awaken you in the night?”
“Nothing. I got up to use the bathroom once, but that was after three.”
“I see you have two teenage children—Hunter and Jennifer. Are they home today?”
“Well, no. They’re in school and won’t be home until after football and cheer practice.”
“I see.” Detective Ames removes his glasses and wipes them on his tie. “Would it be all right if I spoke with them?”
“Yes, but as I said they won’t be home until later. You’re welcome to come back.”
“Not necessary, Ms. Gellar. I may swing past the school and speak with them sooner.” Why would the detective need to talk to her kids about a woman who drowned two blocks from their house in the middle of the night? “How about strangers or unfamiliar vehicles parked in your neighborhood last evening? Anyone you didn’t recognize?”
“No. People who want to use the beach tend to park further down the block near the cove.”
“Of course. It’s a shorter walk. Notice anyone at the cove the last few days who isn’t from your neighborhood?”
She thinks of Bronson, but she’s not about to bring the ex-cop into this.
“No, it’s been quiet this week.”
Ames gives an unconvinced grunt. His phone buzzes. The detective glances at it and slips the phone into his jacket.
“I’ll cut to the chase, Ms. Gellar. I’m aware of your FBI career and your relationship with Michael Rivers.”
Darcy glances away and touches her stomach, the detective’s words twitching the old wound.
“If by relationship you mean I’m the agent he stabbed, then yes.”
“My apologies. Not the best choice of words. But you were the agent who shot the Full Moon Killer.”
“I don’t understand what my previous career has to do with your case.”
And then it hits her. This wasn’t a drowning.
Ames pauses, then begins to speak. Darcy’s world tears in half.
Darcy has overcome a lot during her adult life, losing Tyler, surviving the stabbing, and forever battling anxiety, addiction, and a tendency to distrust people’s intentions. Yet she’s raised two children on her own, and despite not being the most present mother while she fought her inner demons, Jennifer and Hunter are good kids.
What’s happening can’t be possible: a series of rapes in Smith Town, a man stalking Amy and painting the Full Moon Killer’s signature on her house, and now a woman murdered two blocks from her front door. These occurrences are linked, but she can’t think straight.
By now Ames is at the school, meeting with Jennifer and Hunter. They learned about Michael Rivers and lived their own nightmares imagining what happened to their mother, but they’ve maintained a safe distance from the violence. Until now. Crouching beside the front door, she holds the phone on her lap and scrolls through her contacts until she locates Eric Hensel. She pictures her former partner—blonde hair trimmed short, trim for his late-forties, designer suit and shoes, round bifocals which he often wears on top of his head.
The call goes through after a short pause. Hensel answers as though he’d been expecting her.
“I was about to call you,” Hensel says, short of breath as if he just ran inside.
“How can this happen again, Eric?”
“Slow down. Are you and the kids safe?”
“We’re fine, but Amy Yang…”
“I know. For your information, Genoa Cove PD called an hour ago asking about you. A detective named Ames.”
“I just met him.”
“Yeah, he seems like a barrel of laughs. He asked a lot of questions about you and what your involvement was in the Rivers case, though I’m certain he knows exactly who you are. He also asked why you left the FBI and what you’re doing in his village. I blew him off regarding your retirement. Not his business, and I hardly think it’s relevant to his case. Just a second, Darcy.” Eric presses the phone against his body and talks to someone. “Sorry about that. I’m training one of the new recruits. Give me a second to get to a quiet location.”
Darcy hears Hensel walking, then a door closes. He’s gone where others can’t overhear his conversation, and this worries her. He shouldn’t have anything to hide.
“Okay,” he says. “Now I can speak.”
“I don’t understand why Ames thinks I know something. This can’t have anything to do with the Rivers case. The bastard is in jail.”
“Ames didn’t tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
“The woman they found last night was twenty-two.”
“Teens and early twenties, that’s the age group Rivers targeted. But that’s hardly unique to serial killers.”
“Darcy, someone stabbed the woman repeatedly and burned a face into her neck.”
The news rocks Darcy on her heels. It’s a long time before she can stand without her legs buckling.
“You think Rivers is working with somebody on the outside?”
“The thought occurred to me. I’ll make a few calls, check if anyone took an unhealthy interest in the Full Moon Killer in the last year. In the interim, stay calm, but watch your back, Darcy.”
When she arrives at the cove, the police have cleared the crime scene and departed. Their footprints are everywhere, spreading across the sand as if a small army converged on the cove. Somewhere within the chaos, the killer left his footprints.
The former investigator inside Darcy awakens from dormancy. She walks the shoreline, picturing the cove in the moonlight—silver and blue, the dunes casting humpbacked shadows toward the water. The Full Moon Killer killed his victims and left his disgusting tag burned on their flesh before dumping their bodies elsewhere. This killer must have done the same, and that would be obvious to the ME and crime scene technicians.
He couldn’t have murdered the woman this close to the neighborhood. Two houses sit on the other side of the dunes. Someone would have heard the girl scream.
The ocean sloshes against the shore, the sky gunmetal gray and threatening more rain. She turns from the sea and looks back toward the dunes. This is the only path to the cove unless one arrives by boat. The killer visited her neighborhood.
He located Amy, and now he’s found Darcy.
A moment after Darcy punches the alarm code onto the keypad at the house, her phone rings. It’s an unrecognized number, the area code the same as hers. She considers the call for a moment. It might be the police checking on her. Except it isn’t.
The woman with the disingenuous, flowery voice identifies herself as Gail Shipley, lead reporter with the Genoa Standard.
“Ms. Gellar, or is it Agent Gellar?”
“How did you get this number?”
“What are your thoughts on the murder, Agent Gellar?”
“I don’t know any details about the murder. Maybe you should contact Detective Ames at the Genoa Cove Police Department. He’s handling the case.”
“The markings on her neck are identical to the branding Michael Rivers put on his victims. Agent Gellar, is the Full Moon Killer back?”
The question dangles in the air unanswered.
“However you got this information, a phone call will confirm Michael Rivers rema