মুখ্য Whisper of Evil

Whisper of Evil

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মান নির্ণয়ের জন্য বইটি ডাউনলোড করুন
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ক্যাটাগোরিগুলো:
সাল:
2002
সংস্করণ:
Reissue
প্রকাশক:
Bantam
ভাষা:
english
ISBN 10:
0553583468
ISBN 13:
9780553583465
বইয়ের সিরিজ:
Evil 2
ফাইল:
LIT , 213 KB
ডাউনলোড (lit, 213 KB)

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আপনি একটি বুক রিভিউ লিখতে পারেন এবং আপনার অভিজ্ঞতা শেয়ার করতে পারেন. অন্যান্য পাঠকরা আপনার পড়া বইগুলির বিষয়ে আপনার মতামত সম্পর্কে সর্বদা আগ্রহী হবে. বইটি আপনার পছন্দ হোক বা না হোক, আপনি যদি নিজের সৎ ও বিস্তারিত চিন্তাভাবনা ব্যক্ত করেন তাহলে অন্যরা তাদের জন্য উপযুক্ত নতুন বইগুলি খুঁজে পাবে.
1

On Literacy and Its Teaching: Issues in English Education

সাল:
1990
ভাষা:
english
ফাইল:
PDF, 988 KB
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Text Size-- 10-- 11-- 12-- 13-- 14-- 15-- 16-- 17-- 18-- 19-- 20-- 21-- 22-- 23-- 24





Whisper of Evil

By

Kay Hooper





Contents

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

EPILOGUE





MURDER IS ONLY A WHISPER AWAY…



She knows what lurks in the shadows.

She's seen evil face-to-face before.

But this time the terror has struck close to home, in the small town of Silence; where she has her own secrets… where someone has been waiting—to make her pay.





Praise for Kay Hooper's

STEALING SHADOWS

"A fast-paced, suspenseful plot… The story's complicated and intriguing twists and turns keep the reader guessing until the chilling ending."

—Publishers Weekly

"The first book in a 'thrillogy' which will feature back-to-back suspense novels by the awesome Ms. Hooper. If Stealing Shadows is any indication, readers are in for a terrific thrill ride."

—Romantic Times

"This definitely puts Ms. Hooper in a league with Tami Hoag and Iris Johansen and Sandra Brown. Gold-star rating."

—Heartland Critiques

HAUNTING RACHEL

"A stirring and evocative thriller."

—Pah Alto Daily News

"The pace flies, the suspense never lets up. It's great reading."

—The Advocate, Baton Rouge

"An intriguing book with plenty of strange twists that will please the reader."

—Rocky Mountain News

"It passed the 'stay up late to finish it in one night' test."

—The Denver Post

FINDING LAURA

"You always know you are in for an outstanding read when you pick up a Kay Hooper novel, but in Finding Laura, she has created something really special! Simply superb!"

—Romantic Times (gold medal re; view)

"Hooper keeps the intrigue pleasurably complicated, with gothic touches of suspense and a satisfying resolution."

—Publishers Weekly

"A first-class reading experience."

—Affaire de Coeur

"Ms. Hooper throws in one surprise after another… Spellbinding."

—Rendezvous

AFTER CAROLINE

"Harrowing good fun. Readers will shiver and shudder." —Publishers Weekly

"Kay Hooper comes through with thrills, chills, and plenty of romance, this time with an energetic murder mystery with a clever twist. The suspense is sustained admirably right up to the very end."

—Kirkus Reviews

"Peopled with interesting characters and intricately plotted, the novel is both a compelling mystery and a satisfying romance."

—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Kay Hooper has crafted another solid story to keep readers enthralled until the last page is turned."

—Booklist

"Joanna Flynn is appealing, plucky and true to her mission as she probes the mystery that was Caroline."

—Variety

AMANDA

"Amanda seethes and sizzles. A fast-paced, atmospheric tale that vibrates with tension, passion, and mystery. Readers will devour it."

—Jayne Ann Krentz

"Kay Hooper's dialogue rings true; her characters are more three-dimensional than those usually found in this genre. You may think you've guessed the outcome, unraveled all the lies. Then again, you could be as mistaken as I was."

—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Will delight fans of Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt."

—Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

"Kay Hooper knows how to serve tip a latter-day gothic that will hold readers in its brooding grip."

—Publishers Weekly

"I lapped it right up. There aren't enough good books in this genre, so this stands out!"

—Booknews from The Poisoned Pen

"Kay Hooper has given you a darn good ride, and there are far too few of those these days."

—Dayton Daily News





Bantam Books by

KAY HOOPER



Whisper of Evil

Touching Evil

Out of the Shadows

Hiding in the Shadows

Stealing Shadows

Haunting Rachel

Finding Laura

After Caroline

Amanda

On Wings of Magic

The Wizard of Seattle

My Guardian Angel





WHISPER OF EVIL

A Bantam Book/July 2002

All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2002 by Kay Hooper

Cover art © 2002 by Alan Ayers



ISBN 0-553-58346-8



Published simultaneously in the United States and Canada



Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words "Bantam Books" and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.



PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA





This one is for Mama



PROLOGUE





MAY…12 YEARS AGO

She didn't know which was worse, the nausea or the terror. One threatened to choke her, while the other was a cold ache deeper than her bones.

There was so much blood.

How could one body hold so much blood?

She looked down and saw a ribbon of scarlet reaching slowly across the wooden floor for the toe of her pretty shoe. The floor was old and out of level, just enough. Just enough. That was the logical reason, of course, the mind's understanding that the blood wasn't actually reaching out for her, it was just flowing along the line of least resistance, downhill, and she happened to be in the path.

Her mind knew that.

But terror pushed aside logic and all understanding. The blood was a crimson finger curling toward her, searching for her, slow, accusing. It wanted to touch her, wanted to… mark her.

I did it. I did this.

The words echoed in her head as she stared at the accusing finger of blood. It was almost hypnotic, watching the blood inch toward her, waiting for it to touch her. It was almost preferable to looking at what else was in the room.

She moved before the blood reached her, stepping to one side in a slow, jerky motion. Escaping. And made herself look up, look at the room. Look at it.

The room itself was a shambles. Overturned furniture with ripped fabric and scattered cushions, ancient newspapers and musty-smelling magazines tossed about, the few rag rugs on the floor bunched up or draped absurdly across an upended table. And everywhere, crimson smears darkening and turning rusty as they dried.

There was a red, desperate handprint on the wall near where the phone was supposed to be, though that instrument had been ripped from the wall and now lay in an impotent tangle near the fireplace. The pale curtains on the front window also bore a bloody handprint, and the rod had been pulled loose at one side, obviously from the futile attempt to signal for help or even to escape.

There had been no help, no escape.

No escape.

Death hadn't come quickly. There were so many stab wounds, most of them shallow. Painful, but not fatal—at least not immediately. The once-white shirt was almost completely red, glistening here and there where the blood was still wet, darkened to a rusty crimson where it had begun to dry. And the garment was ripped and torn, like the pants, both riddled with those knife slashes of fury.

Rage. So much rage.

She heard a whimpering sound, and for an instant the hairs on the back of her neck rose in the terrifying idea that the dead could make pitiful noises like that. But then she realized the sound came from her own throat, from deep inside where there was no language, only primitive horror.

My fault. My fault. I did it.

That's what her mind kept saying, over and over, dully, like a litany, while from the depths of her soul that wordless whimper quavered like some creature lost and in pain.

She looked around almost blindly, trying not to see the blood, the rage, and the hate, and a glint of something metallic abruptly caught her eye. She focused on that. Silver. A silver chain with a heart-shaped locket lying near the body, just inches from bloodstained fingers.

It took her several long seconds to recognize and understand what she was seeing. Silver chain. Locket.

Silver chain.

Locket.

"No," she whispered.

Numbly, she looked down again and saw the finger of blood turn suddenly, curl toward her with determination, and before she could move, it touched the pale toe of her party shoe. The thin material soaked up the blood quickly, the scarlet stain spreading, wrapping her shrinking flesh.

My fault. My fault.

I did it.

She moaned and lifted shaking hands to cover her face, unable to watch an instant longer. Waiting for the blood to cover her foot and then begin to inch up her bare leg, defying gravity in its determination to swallow her.

She waited for that cold, wet sensation. But it never came. The silence closed over her, thick and curiously muffled, the way a snowy morning sounded when the earth was insulated by inches of the white stuff. She realized she was listening intently, waiting for… something.

It was worse, not seeing. Her imagination saw more than the blood reaching out for her, saw a bloody hand, an accusing face streaked with scarlet lifting toward her, suffering eyes filled with condemnation—

She gasped and jerked her hands away from her face.

There was no body.

No blood.

No violently disturbed room.

She stared around at a room that looked as it always did: spare and a little shabby, the floral fabrics on the couch and at the windows faded by time and the sun, the rag rugs a cheerful attempt to bring in color and hide the bad places on the old wooden floor.

She looked down to find her party shoe pristine, not marked by blood or even dirt, because shed been so careful, so determined to look her best tonight. To be perfect.

Very slowly, she backed out of the house. She gave the undisturbed room another long look, then pulled the door closed with a hand that wouldn't stop shaking. She stood on the porch, staring at the door, and slowly the whimper deep in her throat bubbled into a laugh.

Once it started, she couldn't stop it. Like something with a life of its own, it flowed out of her, the sound of it high, so high she was sure it would fall to the hard wooden porch and break into a million pieces any second. She clapped her hand over her mouth and still the laughter bubbled out, until her throat hurt, until the sound of it frightened her almost more than the inexplicable scene she had witnessed.

Until, finally, it died away.

Her hand fell limply to her side, and she heard herself murmur hoarsely, "God help me."

MARCH…PRESENT DAY

It was late when George Caldwell got to bed, mostly because he'd been surfing the Internet looking for the best travel deals. He was planning a trip to Hawaii.

He was always planning something. He loved lists, loved managing details, loved making plans. Sometimes the event itself was less fun than planning it. Well, most of the time, if he was honest about it. But not this time. This was going to be the trip of a lifetime, that was the plan.

When the phone rang, he answered it from the depths of what had been a pleasant dream. "Yeah, what?"

"You'll pay."

Caldwell fumbled for the lamp on his nightstand and blinked when the light came on and nearly blinded him. It was a moment before he could focus on the clock well enough to see that it was two o'clock. In the morning.

He pushed the covers aside and sat up. "Who is this?" he demanded indignantly.

"You'll pay."

It was a low voice, a whisper really, without identifying characteristics; he couldn't even tell if he was speaking to a man or a woman.

"What are you talking about? Pay for what? Who the hell is this?"

"You'll pay," the caller breathed a final time, then hung up softly.

Caldwell held the receiver away from his ear and stared at it for a moment, then slowly hung up the phone.

Pay? Pay for what, for Christ's sake?

He wanted to laugh. Tried to. Just some stupid kid, probably, or a crank caller old enough to know better. Instead of asking if his refrigerator was running, it was just a different idiotic question, that was all it was.

That was all.

Still, Caldwell wasted a minute wondering who he'd pissed off lately. Nobody sprang immediately to mind, and he shrugged as he got back into bed and turned off the lamp.

Just some stupid kid, that's all.

That's all it was.

He put it out of his mind and eventually went back to sleep, dreaming once again about Hawaii, about tropical beaches and white sands and clear blue water.

George Caldwell had plans.

He hadn't planned on dying.



CHAPTER ONE





TUESDAY, MARCH

Whoever had dubbed the town Silence must have gotten a laugh out of it, Nell thought as she closed the door of her Jeep and stood on the curb beside the vehicle. For a relatively small town, it was not what anyone would have called peaceful even on an average day; on this mild weekday in late March, at least three school groups appeared to be trying to raise money for something or other with loud and cheerful car washes in two small parking lots and a bake sale going on in the grassy town square. And there were plenty of willing customers for the kids, even with building clouds promising a storm later on.

Nell hunched her shoulders and slid her cold hands into the pockets of her jacket. Her restless gaze warily scanned the area, studying the occasional face even as she listened to snatches of conversation as people walked past her. Calm faces, innocuous talk. Nothing out of the ordinary.

It didn't look or sound like a town in trouble.

Nell glanced through the window of her Jeep at the newspaper folded on the passenger seat; there hadn't been much in yesterday's local daily to indicate trouble. Not much, but definitely hints, especially for anyone who knew how to read between the lines.

Not far from where she stood was a newspaper vendor selling today's edition, and she could easily make out the headline announcing the town council's decision to acquire property on which to build a new middle school. There was, as far as she could see, no mention on the front page of anything of greater importance than that.

Nell walked over to buy herself a paper and returned to stand beside her Jeep as she quickly scanned the three thin sections. She found it where she expected to find it, among the obituaries.

GEORGE THOMAS CALDWELL,

, UNEXPECTEDLY, AT HOME.

There was more, of course. A long list of accomplishments for the relatively young man, local and state honors, business accolades. He had been very successful, George Caldwell, and unusually well-liked for a man in his position.

But it was the unexpectedly Nell couldn't get past. Someone's idea of a joke in very poor taste? Or was the sheriff's department refusing to confirm media speculation of only a day or so ago about the violent cause of George Caldwell's death?

Unexpected. Oh, yeah. Murder usually was.

"Jesus. Nell."

She refolded the newspaper methodically and tucked it under her arm as she turned to face him. It was easy to keep her expression unrevealing, her voice steady. She'd had a lot of practice—and this was one meeting she had been ready for.

"Hello, Max."

Standing no more than an arm's length away, Max Tanner looked at her, she decided, rather the way he'd look at something distasteful he discovered on the bottom of his shoe. Hardly surprising, she supposed.

"What the hell are you doing here?" His voice was just uneven enough to make it obvious he couldn't sound as impersonal and indifferent as he wanted to.

"I could say I was just passing through."

"You could. What's the truth?"

Nell shrugged, keeping the gesture casual. "I imagine you can guess. The will's finally through probate, so there's a lot I have to do. Go through things, clear out the house, arrange to sell it. If that's what I end up doing, of course."

"You mean you're not sure?"

"About selling out?" Nell allowed her mouth to curve in a wry smile. "I've had a few doubts."

"Banish them," he said tightly. "You don't belong here, Nell. You never did."

She pretended that didn't hurt. "Well, we agree on that much. Still, people change, especially in—what?— a dozen years? Maybe I could learn to belong."

He laughed shortly. "Yeah? Why would you want to? What could there possibly be in this pissant little town to interest you?"

Nell had learned patience in those dozen years, and caution. So all she said in response to that harsh question was a mild "Maybe nothing. We'll see."

Max drew a breath and shoved his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket, gazing off toward the center of town as if the bake sale going on there fascinated him.

While he was deciding what to say next, Nell studied him. He hadn't changed much, she thought. Older, of course. Physically more powerful now in his mid-thirties; he probably still ran, still practiced the martial arts that had been a lifelong interest. In addition, of course, to the daily physical labors of a cattle rancher. Whatever he was doing, it was certainly keeping him in excellent shape.

His lean face was a bit more lived-in than it had been, but just as with so many really good-looking men, the almost-too-pretty features of youth were maturing with age into genuine and striking male beauty—beauty that was hardly spoiled at all by the thin, grim line of his mouth. The passage of the years had barely marked that face in any negative way. There might have been a few threads of silver in the dark hair at his temples, and she didn't remember the laugh lines at the corners of his heavy-lidded brown eyes___

Bedroom eyes. He'd been known for them all through school, for bedroom eyes and a hot temper, both gifts from a Creole grandmother. Maturity had done nothing to dampen the smoldering heat lurking in those dark eyes; she wondered if it had taught him to control the temper.

It had certainly taught her to control hers.

"You've got a hell of a nerve, I'll say that for you," he said finally, that intense gaze returning to her face.

"Because I came back? You must have known I would. With Hailey gone, there was no one else to… take care of things."

"You didn't come back for the funeral."

"No." She offered no explanation, no defense.

His mouth tightened even more. "Most people around here said you wouldn't."

"What did you say?" She asked because she had to.

"I was a fool. I said you would."

"Sorry to disappoint you."

Max shook his head once, an almost violent negation, and his voice was hard. "You can't disappoint me, Nell. I lost ten bucks on a bet, that's all."

Nell didn't know what she would have said to that, but she was saved from replying when an astonished female voice exclaimed her name.

"Nell Gallagher? My God, is that you?"

Nell half turned and managed a faint smile for the stunning redhead hurrying toward her. "It's me, Shelby."

Shelby Theriot shook her head and repeated, "My God," as she joined them beside Nell's car. For a moment, it seemed she would throw her arms around Nell in an exuberant hug, but in the end she just grinned. "I thought you'd probably show up here eventually, what with the house and everything to take care of, but I guess I figured it'd be later, maybe summer or something, though I don't know why. Hey, Max."

"Hey, Shelby." He stood there with his hands in his pockets, expressionless now, dark eyes flicking back and forth between the two women.

Nell kept her own gaze on Shelby's glowing face. "I thought about waiting until fall or until storm season was mostly past," she said easily, "but it worked out that I had some time now before beginning a new job, so I came on down."

"Down from where?" Shelby demanded. "Last we heard, you were out west somewhere."

"Heard from Hailey?"

"Yeah. She said you were—well, I think the word she used was entangled, with some guy in Los Angeles. Or maybe it was Las Vegas. Anyway, out west somewhere. And that you were taking college courses at night. At least, I think that's what she said."

Rather than commenting on the information, Nell merely said, "I live in D.C. now."

"Did you ever get married? Hailey said you came close once or twice."

"No. I never married."

Shelby grimaced. "Me either. Matter of fact, half our graduating class seems to be single these days, even though most of us have hit thirty. Depressing, isn't it?"

"Maybe some of us are better off alone," Nell offered, keeping her tone light.

"I think there's something in the water," Shelby said darkly. "Honest, Nell, this is getting to be a weird place. Have you heard about the murders?"

Nell lifted an eyebrow. "Murders?"

"Yeah. Four so far, if you count George Caldwell— remember him, Nell? 'Course, the sheriff hasn't been eager to put this latest death on the list with the others, but—"

Max cut her off to say, "We've had killings here before, Shelby, just like any other town."

"Not like these," Shelby insisted. "People around here get themselves killed, the reason why is generally pretty obvious, just like who the killer is. No locked-room mysteries or other baffling whodunits, not in Silence. But these deaths? All fine, upstanding men of the town with reputations the next best thing to lily-white, then they're murdered and all their nasty secrets come spilling out like a dam broke wide open."

"Secrets?" Nell asked curiously.

"I'll say. Adultery, embezzlement, gambling, pornog-

WHISPER OP EVIL

raphy—you name it, we've had it. It's been a regular Peyton Place around here. We haven't heard anything about poor George's secrets so far, but it's early days yet. The other three, their secrets became public knowledge within a couple of weeks of their deaths. So I'm afraid it's just a matter of time until we find out more about George than we ever wanted to know."

"Have the killers been caught?"

"Nope. Which is another weird thing, if you ask me. Four prominent citizens killed in the last eight months, and the sheriff can't solve even one of the murders? He's going to have a hell of a time getting himself reelected."

Nell glanced at Max, who was frowning slightly but didn't offer a comment, then looked back at Shelby. "It does sound a little strange, but I'm sure the sheriff knows his job, Shelby. You always did fret too much."

Shelby shook her head but laughed as well. "Yeah, I guess I did at that. Oh, hell—is that the time? I've gotta go, I'm late. Listen, Nell, I really want to catch up—can I give you a call in a day or two, after you've settled in? We can have lunch or something."

"Sure, I'd love to."

"Great. And if you get lonesome in that big old house and want somebody to talk to in the meantime, you call me, okay? I'm still a night owl, so anytime's fine."

"Gotcha. See you later, Shelby."

With a wave to Max, the redhead rushed off, and Nell murmured, "She hasn't changed much."

"No."

Nell knew her best bet would be to get in her car and just leave, but she heard herself saying slowly, "These murders do sound pretty unusual. And to go unsolved for so long… Doesn't the sheriff have at least a few suspects?"

Max uttered an odd little laugh. "Oh, yeah, he has a few. One, in particular."

"One?"

"Yeah, one. Me." With another laugh, he turned on his heel and walked away.

Nell gazed after him until he disappeared around the next corner. Then she looked at the busy little town that seemed oblivious to the storm clouds moving in and, half under her breath, murmured, "Welcome home, Nell. Welcome home."

Ethan Cole stood at the window of his office and looked down on Main Street. He had an excellent view of most of the street, especially the area around the newsstand. So he saw the visibly tense encounter between Nell Gallagher and Max Tanner, saw Shelby Theriot join them for a few moments before hurrying on in a characteristic rush. Saw Max stalk away and Nell watch him until she could no longer see him.

Well, now. How about that?

Ethan had known Nell was coming back to Silence, of course. Wade Keever wasn't as closemouthed as he should have been about the legal affairs he handled, especially with a couple of drinks in him, and Ethan usually bought him a couple or three at least twice a month, just to keep on top of things. So he knew that Nell had—somewhat reluctantly, according to Wade— agreed to come home at least long enough to clear out the old house, see what family possessions she wanted to keep, do whatever else needed doing by the last blood Gallagher left with ties to this place.

Hell, maybe she'd just have a big-ass yard sale and then set a match to the ancestral home and drive back to D.C. purged of the past.

Ethan doubted she'd want to keep much, at least if all the old stories and rumors had any truth to them. And since she hadn't returned home even for family funerals in the past twelve years, it certainly looked like at least some of those stories were true.

Ethan pursed his lips unconsciously as he watched Nell get back into her very nice Grand Cherokee and drive away. He'd run the plates later, he decided, just to make sure, but he didn't expect there'd be anything he didn't already know.

He knew a lot.

Being sheriff of a small, generally close-knit community required that, of course. Good police work in Lacombe Parish, and particularly here in Silence, so often came down to what he knew about the people here long before he had a crime to solve. So he made it his business to know what most everybody was up to, whether or not it was illegal.

"Sheriff?"

He turned from the window to find one of his CID detectives, Justin Byers, standing in front of the desk. He encouraged his people to come seek him out if they needed to talk, avoiding the outdated intercom system mostly because it was outdated but also because he hated the tinny, almost eerie sounds of voices run through the things.

"What's up, Justin?"

"I'm having a little trouble running down all the financial information on George Caldwell. Nothing really suspicious, just some pretty scattered investments and a few too many details unexplained for my taste. I thought maybe if we got a warrant for his personal records—"

Ethan smiled. "I appreciate your enthusiasm, Justin, but I doubt Judge Buchanan will issue a warrant based on our uneasiness. Find out what you can, but don't push anybody, and don't call on his widow, okay?"

"Does Sue Caldwell even consider herself his widow? I mean, they'd been separated—what?—two or three years?"

"About that." Ethan shrugged. "But they were still married, and she's his legal heir. From what I hear, she's grieving. So leave her alone."

"Okay, sure. Just so you know, it's going to take a while to gather all the info you wanted—"

"Understood." Ethan's easy smile remained until the detective left the room, then faded. He didn't entirely trust Justin Byers. Then again, he didn't entirely trust at least three of the six new people he'd had to hire on since the new highway had made this a far more busy town in the last year. Ethan liked to have people he knew around him, and three of the most recent hires—including Byers—had not been born and raised in Silence.

Not a crime, that, and all had boasted fine credentials and recommendations, to say nothing of experience to spare.

Still.

Returning to his comfortable chair behind the desk, Ethan unlocked and opened the center drawer and drew out a dull brown folder. Inside were copies of three reports his office had submitted, as required, to the district-court prosecutor.

The report of the first death was straightforward enough. Peter Lynch, fifty, had died suddenly, appar-entry of a heart attack. Only at the insistence of a hysterical wife had an autopsy been performed, resulting in the unexpected finding of poison. Since the house hadn't been treated as the scene of a crime at the time, going back to search later had turned up nothing useful in proving what had happened, but the medical examiner believed someone might have slipped a few capsules of nitroglycerin into one of the vitamin bottles. Lynch had been known to take vitamins by the handful, and no other drugs, prescription or recreational, had been found, so there was certainly a possibility the ME was right.

The really interesting thing was that once they began seriously searching his house to find out if Lynch had kept and used any drugs, they had discovered in the bottom of his closet a concealed cubbyhole hiding a stash of truly sick porn.

Little girls dressed up and painted up to look like whores, then photographed with men who might have been their fathers. Or grandfathers. Doing things that still made Ethan's stomach churn just to think about.

"Sick bastard," he muttered under his breath.

Lynch's wife had been understandably appalled and mortified, especially when that first discovery had led to others, including evidence of trips Lynch had taken out of town that had nothing to do with business and everything to do with his abnormal pleasures. Not only had he frequently visited a house down in New Orleans that catered to men with his particular sexual proclivities, he had also kept a mistress in that city. A girl younger than his own youngest daughter.

Frowning, Ethan turned to the second report, which, again, had seemed straightforward in the beginning. Luke Ferrier, thirty-eight, had apparently committed suicide by driving his car into a bayou. Water in his lungs proved he'd drowned, and the conclusion of suicide seemed accurate enough. But a coworker insisted—loudly—that he hadn't been suicidal, so Ethan's people had taken a closer look.

Figuring money was the most likely reason a young and healthy man without many family ties would choose to kill himself, they had looked into his financial records and those of the company he worked for. Again, what they found had surprised them—not because they discovered evidence of embezzlement, but because it appeared Ferrier had repaid every penny he had "borrowed" months before his supposed suicide.

No one had suspected him, and he'd been home-free.

So why commit suicide?

The ME had allowed as how there were certainly barbiturates and muscle relaxers that didn't linger in the body; Ferrier might have been doped and his car pointed at that bayou while he was out cold, with nothing to show up in the autopsy afterward. It was possible.

But the real clincher had come when they dug a little deeper—and discovered not only an apparently chronic gambling habit but also a fat bank account in Baton Rouge and a lockbox containing, among other things, a plane ticket to the south of France dated a month after Ferrier's death. More paperwork in the box further indicated he'd been just about ready to pull up stakes and leave Silence.

So why commit suicide?

"Not suicide," Ethan said, again half under his breath. "Goddammit."

The third report concerned the death of Randal Patterson, forty-six, which had occurred just two months

WHISPER OF EVIL

ago. By that point, with uneasiness in the town palpable and gossip running rampant, Ethan's deputies and detectives hadn't made the mistake of assuming anything—except the worst. Finding a relatively young, seemingly healthy adult male dead of any cause would have been enough to alert them; finding said adult male electrocuted in his Jacuzzi courtesy of a live wire dropped into the tub from a nearby window sent up a huge red flag.

And the flag was fairly waved in their faces when the subsequent investigation uncovered Randal Patterson's dirty little secret: a well-equipped room in his basement containing a number of sadomasochistic apparatus and devices, and a great deal of rubber and black leather. Whips. Masks. Chains.

So far they hadn't been able to find out who Patterson had played his little games with, but it was only a matter of time.

Only a matter of time.

"Shit," Ethan muttered softly.

There was, of course, no complete report on George Caldwell as yet. It had been only a few days, after all, since he'd been found. Shot through the head, with no gun in sight. Hard to call that anything but murder.

But, so far, nothing obscene or illegal had turned up.

So far.

Ethan closed the folder and stared rather grimly across his office. He didn't like this.

He didn't like this one little bit.

Nell got out of her Jeep and stood gazing at the big white clapboard house that was set back from the road and surrounded by towering oak trees. The house sprawled without much architectural integrity, which wasn't surprising considering that the original hundred-year-old building had been remodeled and expanded several times in the past decades as the family within it had also grown.

Ironic, Nell thought, that here she stood, a century after the first Gallaghers had put down roots in this place, presumably with high hopes and determination to build a family. Here she stood. Alone. Last of the line, at least in Silence.

And stood reluctantly, at that.

Nell sighed and went around to open the Jeep's cargo hatch. The space was full, holding her suitcase and laptop case, as well as several bags of groceries she'd stopped off in town to buy. She was just about to grab a couple of the bags and head for the house when a sense other than hearing made her turn and look toward the road.

A sheriff's department cruiser was turning into the driveway.

Not really surprised, Nell leaned back against the floor of the open hatch and waited.

The cruiser pulled up behind her Jeep, and two deputies got out. The taller of the two, unexpectedly, was the woman; she had to be close to six feet tall, Nell judged, and boasted centerfold measurements that had undoubtedly been more of a bane than a blessing in her chosen profession. She was also lovely in a darkly exotic way that spoke of a Creole heritage very common in the area.

Her older partner was probably five-nine or -ten, blond, and good-looking in a boyish way, with a wide and welcoming smile. He was one of those men who would look almost exactly the same between twenty and sixty, only then appearing to age.

"Hey, Miss Gallagher. I'm Kyle Venable, and this is Lauren Champagne."

Nell couldn't help lifting a brow at the woman, who responded with a dry, "One of my many crosses."

"Nice to meet you both," Nell said with a faint smile. "I think. Did I run a stop sign or something?"

"Oh, no, ma'am," Deputy Venable assured her hastily. "Sheriff just wanted us to come out and check the place over for you. It's stood empty awhile, you know, and careful as we are to keep an eye on things, there are still vagrants about—especially out this far. If you'll let us have the key, we'll make sure everything checks out before you move in."

Nell didn't hesitate to reach into the pocket of her jacket and produce a key. "Thanks, I appreciate it," she said.

"It won't take long, ma'am," Venable said, accepting the key and touching his hat brim politely before he and his partner strode up the flagstone walkway to the front door.

Remaining where she was, Nell watched them disappear into the house. Useless to pretend even to herself that she wasn't incredibly tense; all she could do was try not to look it. She felt an all-too-familiar twinge in her left temple and massaged the area in a soothing circular motion with three fingers.

"Not now," she whispered. "Christ, not now." She rubbed harder, willing her body and mind to obey the desperate command.

It was probably no more than ten minutes before the deputies reappeared, though it seemed longer.

"Clear," Venable said cheerfully as they rejoined Nell at the vehicles. "Looks like all the windows and doors have pretty solid locks, but you might want to consider installing a good security system, Miss Gallagher. That or get yourself a big dog."

"Thanks, Deputy." She included them both in her smile and nod of gratitude as he returned the key, adding, "I probably won't be here long enough to do anything permanent, but I'll certainly keep the house locked up while I'm here."

"We'll be passing by pretty often on regular patrols, so we'll keep an eye on the place." Venable gestured toward the packed cargo area. "In the meantime, we'd be happy to help you carry some of this stuff inside."

"Oh, no, thanks, I can manage. I do appreciate the offer, though."

He touched his hat brim again, smiling. "Okay, but don't hesitate to holler if you need anything. Anything at all."

"I won't."

The two deputies got back in their cruiser, and Nell deliberately turned to unload the Jeep rather than watch them leave. By the time she reached the front porch with an armful of groceries, she was aware that the cruiser and its deputies had reached the end of the long drive and pulled out onto the road heading back toward town.

She didn't look after them.

They had left the front door standing open, guarded only by the old screen door, and for just a moment she stood there trying to brace herself both mentally and emotionally.

Another twinge in her temple urged her into the house before she was entirely ready to go, which was probably just as well. Without some sort of spur, she wasn't at all sure she would have been able to do it.

She stepped into an open foyer that was disconcertingly familiar with its polished wooden floor and round, pedestal-leg table. There should have been flowers on the table, of course, and hadn't there been a rug underneath?

Shaking off the vague musings, Nell moved purposefully past the stairs toward the kitchen, deliberately not looking through any doorways she passed. Formal dining room on one side, living room on the other, half bath under the stairs—and no need to check out any of those rooms.

Not yet. Not yet.

She put the grocery bags on the kitchen counter and spared only one quick look around the bright yellow-and-white kitchen, then immediately headed back out to the Jeep. She needed to get everything inside, and as soon as possible; the twinges in her temple had become a painful throbbing as rhythmic and inevitable as her heartbeat.

She barely made it, dumping her luggage in the foyer and locking the front door before moving unsteadily back to the kitchen. She fumbled through the bags for the few perishables that needed to go into the refrigerator, fighting the dizziness grimly even as she told herself she should at least find a chair before



—

Blackness washed over her, and Nell crumpled silently to the dusty tile floor.



CHAPTER TWO





It was a bit like meditation, he had decided. If he closed his eyes and concentrated, really concentrated, his body seemed to grow very light, almost weightless, and some part of him was able to float away for a while. Sometimes he just floated without direction, not really caring where he went, enjoying the sensations of drifting along without any ties of the flesh.

True freedom. He'd had no idea.

Sometimes, however, he focused all his energy and will on controlling his direction, concentrated on reaching a particular place, because there was someone special he had to find.

Like her. She was easy to find. The effortless connection established so long ago led him to her quickly.

She was moving about the kitchen, putting groceries away. Preoccupied, maybe even upset or unnerved by the storms rumbling all around on this restless spring night. She looked a little pale, he thought, and there was a square of adhesive bandage on her forehead just above her right eyebrow.

He wondered if she had fallen. Wondered what would happen if he reached out and touched her.

He nearly did reach out but stopped himself. No. Not now. Not yet.

There were things he had to do first. A job he had to finish. He wasn't the sort of man to avoid his responsibilities, after all. That was not the way he'd been raised, and not his character. A man finished what he started.

Besides, there was plenty of time for Nell. Time to find out the truth about why she'd come home. Time to find out how much she remembered.

She walked past him, intent on placing a couple of boxes into an upper cabinet, and he was almost certain he could smell her hair, a clean scent like sunshine.

He almost reached out and touched her.

Almost.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH

Nell woke so abruptly that she heard the broken-off ending of her own strange, muffled cry. She sat there in her bed, staring at the hands that were still raised and stretched out before her as though she had been reaching for something. Her hands were shaking visibly. She felt stiff, so tense her muscles protested with sharp twinges. Her fingers curled slowly, and she made herself relax her arms, lower them. Stop reaching.

The bedroom was flooded with morning light, the previous night's storms long gone, and through her slightly open window a cool, moist breeze fluttered the curtains. It smelled damp and earthy, like spring.

She didn't have to try to remember the dream. It was always the same one. Little details varied, but the basic framework of the dream had never changed. And even though it wasn't an every-night occurrence, it happened often enough to be all too familiar to Nell.

"I shouldn't have come back here," she heard herself murmur.

She had hoped that after so many years, coming back here wouldn't have made it worse. But she should have known better than that. Even driving down here she had known, had felt the wrenching sensation she had lived with for so long begin to intensify, as if a cord tied to something deep inside her were being tugged insistently.

Now the pull was steady, urgent. Impossible to ignore.

Stiffly, Nell slid from the bed and went to take a shower, allowing the hot water to beat down on her while she concentrated on shoring up her defenses. It was hard, harder than it had ever been before, but by the time she was dressed and on her way downstairs, the pull inside her was at least tolerable, pushed down and quieted so that it no longer made her feel she would be torn in half.

I shouldn't have come back here. How can I do what I have to with this inside me?

"Nell."

Halfway across the foyer, she stopped with a jerk and turned completely around, staring behind her, all around her. But there was no one there. Absolutely no one.

"I shouldn't have come back here," she murmured.

"It's a simple enough question." Ethan smiled easily as he gazed across his desk at Max Tanner. "Where were you Saturday night, Max?"

"You mean, where was I when George Caldwell was shot?" Max offered the sheriff a smile no more real than his own. "I was at home, Ethan. Alone."

"No witnesses."

"And so no alibi." Max shrugged, keeping the gesture as relaxed as he could. "Sorry, didn't know I'd need one."

"Didn't you?"

"No."

Ethan nodded, mouth pursed in what was probably supposed to be thoughtful consideration. "You and George had your differences, I believe."

He believed. He fucking well knew but had to play his little games. So Max played along.

"He wanted to buy a piece of property here in town and I didn't want to sell it. He doubled his offer, I said no sale—and that was it. Hardly anything to kill a man over."

Ethan nodded again, lips still pursed. "But there was something else, wasn't there? Something about a note on that ranch of yours?"

"He called in the loan. I paid it. End of story."

"Is it? Way I heard it, you had to sell off a third of your cattle to pay that note."

"So? It left me with two-thirds of the herd and free of any debt to the bank."

"But you lost money on the deal. Prices for beef were way down when you had to sell."

"The timing could have been better," Max admitted. "But it was business, Ethan, nothing more than that. George called in the note; I paid it. He was within his rights; I honored my obligations."

"You were pissed as hell, everybody knew that. Called poor George a bloodsucker, is what I heard."

Max thought grimly how easy it would be to become paranoid in a town where the sheriff "heard" a hell of a lot—including far too many private conversations. But all he said was, "I was pissed. I got over it. And that was two months ago."

Ethan frowned slightly, and Max knew he was, however reluctantly, at least half convinced that although Max might well act violently out of temper, he was unlikely to do anything rash once the anger was past.

Try as he might, the sheriff couldn't even persuade himself that he had found a motive for Max to have murdered George Caldwell, far less any evidence he might have done so. Not yet, anyway.

Still, Max didn't relax. He knew Ethan Cole.

Abruptly, the sheriff said, "So, Nell Gallagher's back in town."

"Yeah. I saw her yesterday."

"Spoke to her too, didn't you?"

Max glanced toward the front window of Ethan's corner office and realized what a nice, clear view of Main Street it offered. "We said hello. Not much more than that."

"I guess she's home to clear out the old house, settle the family estate."

"So she said."

"Home for good?"

"I doubt it."

"She still as pretty as she was back then?"

"I'd call her gorgeous," Max replied calmly. "Just like she always was."

Reflectively, Ethan said, "Yeah, but she was a bit odd, as I remember. Not so much shy as… withdrawn. A loner. With that face, though, she had boys chasing after her from about the age of twelve. All those years, and none of us made much headway with her—except for you, that is."

Since it had been a statement rather than a question, Max merely said, "She wasn't easy to get close to." He wasn't about to admit that he had gotten close in the truest sense only once—and paid a very high price for it. "Considering her family's history and how they tended to isolate themselves out there, probably not so surprising."

Ethan eyed him with lifted brows. "You think that was it? Well, maybe. The family did scare at least a few would-be suitors away from those girls, that's for sure, especially that spooky old grandmother of theirs. And I remember Dad warning me not to do anything to piss off Adam Gallagher—which taking notice of either of his girls was liable to do."

Max shrugged. "He was more possessive of Hailey, I always thought. Maybe because she was older and pretty much took her mother's place after Grace ran off."

"Running off seems to be a family trait."

Knowing what was coming, Max waited.

"It was the night of Nell's senior prom, wasn't it? She packed a bag and ran off—and left you standing there all dressed up nice and fancy with no place to go."

"That's about it," Max replied.

"Rumor had it you two had a big fight."

"Rumor got it wrong, as usual."

"So what did happen?"

"Beats me."

"You really never knew why she bolted?"

"I really never knew." With another shrug, Max said,

"I heard a bunch of garbled rumors afterward just like everybody else. Maybe one of them was true. Maybe her father did throw her out for some reason. Maybe there was someone she liked a lot better than me, and she ran off with him that night. Or maybe she found out where Grace was and wanted to be with her mother, and picked that night to go. Maybe one of those rumors was the truth. Or maybe not. The only person who could have told the truth was far away— and didn't bother to write, at least not to me."

"Ouch." Ethan smiled. "You should have aimed for the older sister instead. I always wondered why you didn't, considering you went through school with her."

"You were always more interested in Hailey than I was."

Dryly, Ethan said, "Everything in pants was interested in Hailey. She wasn't much to look at, but, Christ, that girl did put out some powerful signals. Hard to take your eyes off her when she walked down the street."

Max remained silent.

"Think there's any truth to the stories about her?"

"God knows. Something made her father disinherit her." Max offered the sheriff a wry smile. "I would have thought you'd know the truth about it if anybody would, Ethan, considering how well informed you are about everything else in Silence."

"Oh, I imagine I'll get the truth of it eventually." Ethan returned the smile. "I always do."

Deciding the interview was over, Max rose to his feet. "Yeah, well, I know you have other things to think about these days. With four suspicious—and unsolved—deaths in the last eight months, we all know where your… attention needs to be focused."

Ethan rose as well and didn't offer to shake hands. "I don't need you to remind me what my job is." As Max turned away, he added in the same pleasant tone, "Oh—Max? I did tell you not to leave town, didn't I?"

"You told me. And you don't have to worry. I'm not going anywhere."

"Make sure you don't."

All too aware that the sheriff was determined to get the last word no matter what, Max simply nodded and left the office. He hadn't realized how tense he'd been until he was outside, around the corner, and out of sight of that office window and found himself shifting his shoulders in a half-conscious effort to relax.

Damn Ethan Cole.

Bad enough to watch a boy you'd liked grow up into a man you didn't; give that man a badge and almost unlimited authority, not to mention a grudge, and things could get ugly in a hurry.

Trying to shake off a useless bitterness, Max walked to where he'd left his track parked and got in. He started the engine but didn't put it in gear right away. Instead, he found himself thinking about Nell. Again.

All last night, listening to storms rumbling around and through Silence, he had tossed and turned and thought about Nell. Wondered. What sort of life had she made for herself in the last dozen years? Why had she failed to come home even for the funerals of her father and grandmother? What lay behind Hailey's odd, brittle smile whenever the subject of her younger sister had come up?

Most of all, he had wondered if any other man had managed to get close to her even once.

She had changed, that had been plain to see. Still beautiful, he hadn't lied to Ethan about that. But the incredible green eyes that he remembered with rather terrifying intensity were guarded and wary now, and there was an air of stillness, of composure, about her that had not been present years before.

She had been anything but still back then.

Max thought of the sixteen-year-old girl he had first noticed that hot summer day nearly fourteen years ago, riding a little roan mare bareback, her indecently short shorts baring most of her long, tanned legs and the white cotton blouse she wore far too sheer for his peace of mind. She had seemed wild to him, a little fey, her smile uncertain and her sudden, almost uncontrolled laughter quicksilver in the heavy, damp air. Her honey-colored hair had swung free about her shoulders, glistening in the sunlight, and her wide green eyes had stared at him with a strange look of shock, of… recognition.

Half eager, half fearful.

Max shook off the memory of that haunting look and grimly put the truck in gear. Enough. Enough of this. Nell Gallagher was back home just long enough to collect a few photographs and dolls from her childhood, and then she'd leave Silence for good.

He wasn't fool enough to get involved with her.

"Not this time," he heard himself mutter. "Not again."

The house roused surprisingly few memories in her, good or bad, possibly because it had been heavily redecorated since she'd last seen it. It was easy to see Hailey's preferences in the dark fabrics and patterned wallpaper most of the rooms boasted, and in fact the sense of her sister was almost overpowering.

It made Nell uncomfortable in a way she hadn't ex-

WHISPER OF EVIL

pected, and that as much as anything else eventually drove her out of the house later that morning.

The Gallagher house sat on property that had once, long ago, been a thriving sugarcane plantation. Over the years, land had been sold off, and what farming was done on the remaining family property was handled by tenant farmers, most of them raising soybeans and sweet potatoes. What family wealth still existed in the last twenty-five years had consisted of income from the tenant farmers and dividends from Adam Gallagher's highly successful ventures into the stock market.

There had almost always been enough money, and frequently more than enough, to live comfortably. She and Hailey had owned horses in childhood and, upon their seventeenth birthdays, had been presented by their father with very nice cars—their use of which had been strictly supervised to the extent of Adam holding the keys most of the time.

According to the inventory Nell had been provided by the family attorney, the horses and cars were long gone; Adam Gallagher's old Lincoln was the only vehicle left, and it was sitting on a car lot in Silence waiting to be sold.

Other things would have to be sold as well. Nell had no idea what would be left by the time debts and taxes were paid, and she didn't think much about it. She hadn't come home hoping to profit from her father's death, after all.

She walked away from the house now without looking back, allowing instinct or her subconscious to choose between one of several faint paths into the woods. There were probably fifty or so acres of forest separating the Gallagher house from the surrounding farms and ranches, the canopy of greenery high above creating a cool, dim haven where Nell had spent many childhood hours, especially during the hot and humid summers.

It didn't feel quite as peaceful now as it had then.

Even so, Nell kept walking, conscious of a restless urge too familiar to be ignored. She stopped several times, looking around her with a searching gaze, but all she saw was the motionless green undergrowth, some of it still wet from the previous night's storms.

That realization had barely crossed her mind when Nell heard a deep, rolling rumble of thunder. She blinked, and between one second and the next the scene around her abruptly changed.

It was night, not day, and it was storming. She could feel the wind-lashed rain stinging her skin, even blinding her momentarily until she could turn her back to the force of it. She wiped the rain from her eyes and blinked, trying to see, in the strobelike flashes of lightning, what she was meant to.

A figure wearing a dark rain slicker moved along a path diverging from the one she stood upon. She thought it was a man but couldn't be sure; the slicker he wore had a hood that covered his head, and since he was moving away from her at an angle, his face wasn't visible.

The body over his shoulder was very visible.

It was a woman, Nell was sure of that. Bare arms dangled, and long, wet hair streamed down. She seemed to be wrapped in a sheet or some other pale cloth that was clinging wetly to her skin, and she was limp. Very limp.

"Nell?"

Ignoring that summons, Nell tried to move forward,

WHISPER OF EVIL

to follow him and find out where he was going. Was he going to bury a murder victim? Was he carrying an unconscious woman deeper into the woods to—do whatever it was he intended to do to her? Who was he? Who was the woman?

She tried to follow, but something grabbed at her, stopped her, and when she looked down it was to see thick vines twining about her wrists, holding her still. She managed to lift her arms slightly, fingers curling into fists with the effort, but the vines held on tightly.

"Nell!"

She looked quickly through the driving rain, trying to at least see which direction the shrouded figure took through the woods. But there was so much movement of the thick, wind-blown undergrowth, and so much distortion caused by the heavy rain and brilliant flashes of lightning, that she couldn't see him now.

He was gone___

"Nell!"

She blinked. The day had returned. The storm was gone. No rain, no thunder or lightning, no wind. And the vines gripping her wrists were two powerful hands.

She looked up to find Max frowning down at her, and she spared a moment to think wryly that the universe had a bizarre sense of humor. Either that, or it was out to torment her.

"I'm all right," she said, dismayed by the unsteadiness of her voice. "You can let go of me now."

"I'm not so sure." If anything, his frown deepened. "What the hell just happened, Nell? You were about a million miles away."

She was tempted to tell him she'd been farther away than miles could ever measure, but instead said,

"Daydreaming, that's all." And immediately went on the defensive. "What are you doing out here?"

"I was out riding and heard something," he said, not apologizing for riding on Gallagher land rather than his own considerable spread. He seemed to realize for the first time that he was holding her wrists and abruptly released them.

"Heard what?" Nell asked, more rattled than she wanted to admit to either of them. She absently massaged her wrists as she noted the presence of a big, muscled bay gelding standing patiently ground-tied a few yards away.

"You. You cried out."

"What did I cry out?" she asked, reluctant but needing to know.

"No. You said it a couple more times before I got to you, then went silent. Daydreaming? Don't give me that bullshit, Nell. You sounded like something or someone was hurting you, and you were white as a sheet. Still white, if it comes to that."

Choosing her words carefully, Nell said, "I have very… vivid… daydreams. But, as you can see, no one is hurting me. No one is bothering me. I'm perfectly all right. I appreciate your concern, but I'm fine."

"Are you? What about that?" He indicated the Band-Aid above her right eyebrow.

Nell shrugged. "I'm not… reacquainted with the house yet, and a cabinet door caught me when I wasn't looking. It's just a scratch."

Max wasn't frowning now, but his gaze was disconcertingly steady. "It's still happening, isn't it?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"The blackouts. You blacked out, that's how you hurt yourself."

She almost denied it but finally shrugged again and made her voice wryly dismissive. "We all have something. I pass out from time to time, that's all."

"Did you ever find out what causes it?"

"Stress, the doctors say. I guess coming back here was more stressful than I realized."

"Is that what happened here, just now?" But he shook his head before she could respond, and answered himself. "No, you weren't unconscious. Your eyes were wide open. But your pupils were dilated, and I got the feeling… you were somewhere else."

"Obviously I wasn't somewhere else. I was right here." Nell wasn't entirely sure why she was clinging stubbornly to the fiction that everything was fine— and normal—with her. Depending on how much he remembered, Max knew things about her that no one else in Silence knew. But as long as he didn't admit to the knowledge, she wasn't about to remind him.

He half nodded as though expecting the denial, but said, "Yeah, you were here. Why, Nell? With everything you have to do at the house, what brought you out here?"

"I wanted to go for a walk, that's all." Again, she went on the defensive. "What's with you, Max? This is still Gallagher land, and I'm perfectly entitled to walk on it. I haven't sold out to you yet."

His mouth tightened. "In case you've forgotten what Shelby told you yesterday, people have been dying around here lately. It's not especially safe for you to wander around out in the woods by yourself."

"Men have been dying, according to you and Shelby. Not women."

"So far. But there's no reason to push your luck, Nell."

"I can take care of myself."

"Can you?" He laughed shortly. "You were oblivious when I got here. Anyone could have walked up and— done anything at all to you."

"I'm fine, and I can take care of myself," she insisted, and took a step back away from him to emphasize that independence. "Don't let me keep you from your ride, Max."

For a moment, it seemed he would argue with her, but then he muttered a curse under his breath and went to remount his horse. He gathered up the reins and turned the horse back toward his own property but paused to deliver a last, flat warning before riding away.

"Be careful, Nell. Whoever killed those men seems to want to get secrets out in the open. And we both know you have plenty of secrets to protect."

She didn't move or say anything in response, just watched him ride away until the forest swallowed him up.

Was his arrival here as casual as it appeared, or more deliberate? And what about the vision he had interrupted? Had she seen the postscript of a murder here in these woods, or something every bit as evil? Who was the man, the woman?

Nell stood where she was for several minutes, looking around her, searching for some sign that might answer her questions. But the forest was peaceful and unrevealing now, and the peculiar doorway in her mind refused to open.

Great. Just great. The universe was willing to give her a glimpse, but no real help.

As usual.

Sighing, Nell looked around once again and only then realized just where she was. Twelve years had changed everything, so perhaps that was why she hadn't immediately recognized it.

The big oak tree didn't look so very different; a dozen years in the life of an oak was hardly any time at all. There were vines twining about its base that hadn't been there before, vines Nell had to pull aside in order to find the roughly carved heart and its two sets of initials.

He had caught her here on an autumn day long ago, carving her hopes into the tree with a rusty pock-etknife, and after that there hadn't been much use in pretending.

Nell watched her fingers trace the NG and MT, then sighed and allowed the vines to hide it once again. And it was only then that she recognized the vines.

Poison ivy.

She had to laugh, albeit ruefully. The universe, she decided, was definitely out to torment her. She turned and made her way back through the woods toward the house, hoping to wash the plant oils off her hands before her lack of caution resulted in a rash.

A bad one.



CHAPTER THREE





Ethan Cole looked up from his desk and only just managed not to scowl as the mayor of Silence walked into his office. Like him, she disliked intercoms; unlike him, she also disliked phones and so tended to arrive with absolutely no warning.

He could have used a little warning.

"Ethan, is there any more information about George Caldwell's death?" she asked without preamble.

Ethan made a token attempt to rise, mostly wasted since she immediately sank into one of his visitor's chairs, then he sat back down and made a show of pulling a folder off a stack in his in-box and frowning over the contents.

"Well, no, Casey, I don't see anything here you don't already know. Which I could have told you and saved you the trip if you'd called me."

Mayor Lattimore shrugged, her dark blue eyes fixed on his face. "I was coming over this way and figured I'd stop in. Ethan, I've had a dozen calls today—and not a single answer for any of the questions I've been asked."

"What questions?"

"What you'd expect. What's going on? Why can't we figure out who killed George Caldwell and the others and stop him before he kills somebody else?"

Ethan stiffened. "Even assuming all four of these men were killed, who's to say they were killed by the same person?"

"Jesus, Ethan, I hope you're not suggesting we've got four separate murderers running around Silence."

"It might be the lesser of two possible evils," he said with a sigh. "All we need is for the phrase serial killer to start making the rounds to damned sure put this town in a panic"

"Maybe we're already in a panic," the mayor suggested. "People are scared, you can hear it in their voices."

"I know that."

"So what do I tell them?"

Irritably, Ethan said, "Tell them to lock their doors at night, be careful, and mind their own business."

"And what do I say when they ask me why we elected officials aren't doing the job we were voted in to do?"

"Say we're damned well doing our jobs. Look, Casey, I don't know what else to tell you. My people are busting their asses trying to get this thing figured out. I haven't taken a day off since January, and my overtime budget went out the window months ago. We're working the investigations—and that's all we can do. If anybody else has a practical suggestion, I'd love to hear it."

"You still don't have a suspect for even one of the murders?"

He hesitated, then said, "I'm looking at Max Tanner for the Ferrier and Patterson deaths."

She lifted an eyebrow at him. "Last I heard, you weren't even admitting Luke Ferrier's drowning was anything but suicide or an accident."

"A few things have come to light that make murder at least as likely as an accident."

"I see. And what's the connection to Max Tanner?"

Ethan was not required to explain either himself or his investigations to the mayor—not directly, at any rate—but he'd learned that when Casey Lattimore asked questions she expected answers. And she could be a royal pain in the ass until she got them.

So, reluctantly, he answered. "It seems Ferrier borrowed money from Max a few weeks before he died."

"You got that from Max?"

"No. From someone who overheard Max telling Ferrier he wanted the loan repaid pronto."

The mayor frowned. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't killing Ferrier be a stupid way to get a loan repaid?"

"Max has a temper, everybody knows that. He could have struck first and regretted it later."

"Struck by pushing Ferrier's car into a bayou? Wouldn't that theory make more sense if somebody'd beat the hell out of Ferrier rather than trying to drown him? I mean, if you suspect Max of the killing?"

Ethan hated logical women. "I said I was looking at Max, not that I considered him a solid suspect."

Without commenting on his disgruntled tone, she merely said, "And the Patterson death? What makes you suspect Max of being involved in that one?"

"We know the killer stood outside that bathroom window for a while before he dropped the electrical wire in, and we found a footprint. Style and size match up with the boots Max usually wears."

"I assume you checked Max's boots?"

"Yeah."

"And?"

"And nothing. We can't prove just from the print that it was him standing outside that window."

"What else have you got?"

"Not much," Ethan admitted.

Rather than question him further on that point, she merely sighed and said, "I gather you're still against caning in outside help?"

His jaw tightened. "I am. These are grudge killings, and that means all the answers are right here in Silence. Whether there's one killer or more than one, no outsider is going to be better or quicker than we are in putting the pieces together."

"It's been eight months, Ethan."

The sheriff drew a breath and said carefully, "And the first forty-eight hours after a murder are critical. Yes, Casey, I know that. I also know that you feel qualified to comment on the investigation because you took that FBI course last year."

"That isn't—"

"I'm not saying it wasn't a smart thing for you to do. A mayor should feel qualified to oversee most aspects of town management. But law enforcement is a specialty, and one course in Criminal Investigation Techniques 101 hardly equates to fifteen years of experience on the job."

Perfectly aware that he was putting her on the defensive deliberately, Casey Lattimore nevertheless heard herself say, "I never claimed to be an expert, Ethan. And I'm certainly not trying to tell you how to do your job."

"I appreciate that, Casey."

She got to her feet, adding smoothly, "But judging by the phone calls I've been getting, the citizens of Silence want action, and they want it soon. Even so, we can't afford any mistakes. That means you'd better be damned sure of your evidence before you shine a spotlight of suspicion on anybody."

Even Max Tanner. She didn't add that last aloud. She didn't have to.

"Don't worry," the sheriff said. "I know my job."

Instead of agreeing that he did, she merely said, "Keep me advised, will you? The town council is under as much pressure as we are, Ethan; it won't look good to the voters if we all appear to be sitting on our hands."

"Meaning they might take action?"

The mayor kept her tone mild. "Elected officials can't afford to do nothing for long, you know that." She didn't wait for a response but turned toward the door, adding over her shoulder, "We'll be talking, I'm sure."

"Yeah," the sheriff agreed. "I'm sure we will."

THURSDAY, MARCH

What Nell discovered when she wandered around downtown Silence on Thursday morning was that most people had forgotten old scandals and questions. Most people. There were, in fact, quite a few newcomers to the area, especially since the recently completed highway had brought heavier traffic much closer to the city limits the previous year.

She counted a dozen obviously new businesses just in the downtown area, most of them the sort she would have expected, like clothing boutiques and collectibles-type stores. All were enjoying brisk foot traffic. There was also, she noticed, an unusually strong police presence in the town. She counted three different cruisers patrolling, as well as a couple of deputies on foot roaming the sidewalks.

Nell had several reasons for being in town. She had to see the family attorney to sign various papers; she paid a visit to an insurance adjuster for referrals to appraisers she could employ to look over some of the furniture and artwork at the house; and she spent some time at both the library and the courthouse.

It was after lunchtime when Nell emerged from the courthouse, and after a glance at her watch, she picked a downtown cafe and found herself a rather isolated booth in the rear. The waitress was blessedly incurious, the food good, and Nell enjoyed a peaceful half hour or so alone with her thoughts.

"Wade Keever says you've turned down my offer."

She looked up to find Max scowling at her. She sat back and sipped her coffee to give herself a moment, then said, "He's talking out of turn. I said I'd consider it, that's all. I just haven't made up my mind about it."

"It's a fair offer. You won't get a better offer, Nell, not for that land."

"I'm aware of that."

"Then why the hesitation?"

She glanced around, grateful that most of the cafe was deserted and no one appeared to be paying attention to them. Still, she kept her voice low. "I told you. I'm not so sure I want to sell out."

Max slid into the booth, across from her. "Why not?"

Nell didn't waste time or energy commenting on his manners. "Because I'm not sure. Look, Max, I know you want that land and I know you want me gone. But maybe I'm not quite so eager to cut my last ties to this place. You don't have to worry, though—I won't sell the land to anybody else. It adjoins your property, and you'll have first chance at it. If I decide to sell."

Instead of protesting or questioning that, Max abruptly changed the subject. "Any more blackouts?"

Nell shook her head.

"What about that… episode in the woods? Has that happened again?"

"Nothing happened, Max."

"Don't give me that daydreaming bullshit again, Nell. Do you think I don't remember what used to happen to you? The visions?"

With an effort, she summoned a wry smile. "I was sort of hoping you had forgotten."

"It's still happening, isn't it? Just like the blackouts."

"Did you think it would go away? That I'd outgrow it eventually?" Nell had to laugh, however unamused the sound. "Curses are with you for life, Max, didn't you know that?"

"You used to call it that. The Gallagher curse."

"Most families seem to have something. Cousins that can't get along. Squabbles about property. Medical problems. A mad wife locked away in the attic We have a curse."

"You never told me who else in your family had it."

Nell shook her head, reminding herself that it was far too easy to confide in some people. In him. "Never mind. To answer your question, yes, it is still happening to me. I see things that aren't there. I even hear voices sometimes. So if you want to prove I'm unfit to make decisions about the estate, you could probably at least give the judge something to think about."

His mouth tightened. "That is not what this is about, dammit."

"Isn't it?"

"No."

Nell shrugged but kept her gaze on his face. "Well, you'll have to forgive me if I'm a bit touchy about the subject. Keever was indiscreet enough to hint that someone had questioned my fitness to inherit the estate."

"Someone? He didn't say who?"

"He wasn't quite that indiscreet."

Max frowned. "Hailey was disinherited, and from what I heard there were no loopholes in that part of the will. True?"

"True, at least from a legal standpoint. I'm the sole heir."

"Could it have been Hailey?"

"Sure."

"But you don't think it was?"

Nell shrugged again. "I think it isn't like her to lurk in the background if she wants to fight about it, but maybe she's changed in a dozen years."

"But if it isn't her, with no Gallaghers left in Silence, who would stand to benefit if you were declared unfit or barred from inheriting?"

"As far as I know… no one." Her tone was deliberate.

"Except someone who might want to buy land you don't want to sell? Jesus, Nell, I'd think you knew me well enough to know I don't do things that way."

"Until this week, I hadn't seen or talked to you in twelve years, Max."

"Whose fault is that?" he demanded roughly.

For the first time, Nell avoided his dark eyes, fixing her own on the half-empty coffee cup before her. Ignoring the question hanging in the air between them, she said evenly, "How good a judge of character is any of us at seventeen? I thought I knew a lot of things then. And a lot of people. I was mostly wrong."

"Nell—"

She did not want to answer the question she knew he wanted to ask, not here and not now, so she cut him off before he could ask it. "I'll let you know about the land if and when I make up my mind. In the meantime, I don't think there's anything else we need to talk about, do you?" She made sure her voice was completely indifferent.

Max stiffened visibly, then slid from the booth without a word and stalked out of the cafe.

From behind Nell, a low and slightly amused voice murmured, "Looks like you still know how to push all his buttons."

She picked up her cup and sipped the nearly cold coffee, scanning the room to make sure no one noticed her talking to someone she wasn't looking at in the booth beside hers. She kept her voice as quiet as his had been. "His temper was always his Achilles' heel."

"A small but fatal weakness? Let's hope not."

"You have such a literal mind."

He chuckled. "Yeah, so I've been told. My one failing. Did you know, by the way, that Tanner's been following you around town all morning?"

"I was pretty sure he was."

"Any idea why? I mean, besides the obvious possibility?"

"Maybe he's suspicious."

"Of you? Why would he be?"

"I don't know."

"Mmm. You still sure about him?"

Nell drew a breath and let it out slowly. "I have to start with a certainty. That's my certainty."

"Okay. Then I'll stick to the plan."

"Do that. Oh—have you been out to the house, by any chance?"

"Checked out that place in the woods you told me about, but didn't find anything there. I didn't go near the house, though. Why?"

She hesitated, but only briefly. "It's probably nothing. I've just had the feeling a few times that someone was watching me" And calling my name.

"Inside the house?"

"Maybe through a window, I don't know."

"Shit. I don't like the sound of that."

"Look, it's probably just my imagination."

"We both know you don't imagine things."

"I've never come home before. And twelve years is a long time. It's probably just that."

"Or ghosts, maybe?"

"Oh, hell, don't even suggest ghosts. All I need is another reason not to sleep at night."

After a moment, and in an uncharacteristically kind tone, he said, "Bad enough to be dropped into the middle of a situation like this one without dragging your own baggage in as well. It can get… real easy to lose perspective. If this is too difficult for you, just say so."

"I'm fine."

"Be very sure of that, Nell. The stakes are high. People are dying around here, remember?"

"It's hardly something I could forget." She set her cup down, left a tip on the table for the waitress, and prepared to slide from the booth. "Just don't crowd me, okay?"

"Gotcha."

Nell didn't look back or indicate any interest whatsoever in that other rear booth, just walked up front to pay her check and then left the cafe.

Justin Byers hadn't had much trouble fitting in since he had come to Silence a couple of months before. He'd always liked small towns, choosing them over cities whenever there was a choice to be made, and so he felt entirely comfortable here. And his duties as a detective in the Criminal Investigation Division of the sheriff's department were both familiar and absorbing—especially these days.

But the major reason he liked this town went by the name of Lauren Champagne. Deputy Lauren Champagne.

Justin had never been given to fantasies—at least no more than the average male—but he'd discovered that his subconscious had a mind of its own. He was waking up virtually every morning in a tangle of sheets with his heart pounding and with the disconcerting realization that his dreams had been more than a little… raw.

Which made it damned hard to be cool and professional when he encountered Lauren in the course of the day.

"Hey, Justin," she offered easily when they met on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse on Thursday afternoon.

"Hey, Lauren." He hastily quashed a fleeting mental image of creamy bare flesh and strove to be professional. "Where's Kyle?"

"Inside. We had some paperwork for the clerk of court." She shrugged. "What're you up to?"

"Still trying to run down all the financial info on George Caldwell. You know, for a fine, upstanding banker, he sure had tangled finances."

Lauren smiled wryly, her dark eyes grave. "Isn't that par for the course where these killings are concerned?"

"Yeah, there always seems to be a mess left behind. Except we haven't stumbled over any of George's secret vices yet."

"You think you will?"

Quite without planning to, he heard himself say, "Well, let's just say I'm a little bothered by a few things. These scattered financial records, for one, all of which I still haven't been able to track down. As for his personal accounts at the bank where he worked, there've been some regular deposits to at least one of them with no explanation of where the income originated. It wasn't salary or bonuses, and so far it doesn't look like investment income."

"Maybe his wife knows."

"Maybe, but I'm under orders not to bother her with questions."

With a lifted brow, Lauren said, "Sheriff's orders?"

"Yeah."

"Well," she said after a moment, "I'm sure he has his reasons."

Justin was worried that the sheriff did have his reasons but reminded himself that Lauren had been here longer than he had and might well feel loyal to Ethan Cole, so all he said was, "It's making things a little difficult, that's all. Caldwell knew how to handle money, and that included how to hide it."

"To avoid paying taxes, you think?"

"Maybe. Or to squirrel some of it away in case he and Sue finally decided to divorce. What she couldn't find, he wouldn't have to share."

"Not so unusual for a man contemplating divorce."

"No," Justin agreed. "But it would be nice to know for sure if that was his motive."

Lauren nodded but didn't comment, since her partner, Kyle Venable, joined them then to say dryly, "We have a couple of warrants to serve. Doesn't that sound like fun?"

"Loads," she agreed in the same tone. "Justin, good luck with your investigation."

"Thanks. See you, Lauren. Kyle."

"We'll be around," Kyle told him cheerfully, then followed his tall and striking partner back toward their cruiser.

Justin watched them—well, Lauren—until they got into the patrol car and left the courthouse, then continued on his way. He spent nearly an hour in the courthouse checking over property records, then paid a third visit to the bank where George Caldwell had been a VP.

By the time he came out and headed back toward the sheriff's department, he was feeling more than a little frustrated. It wasn't that he was being stonewalled, exactly; with Caldwell's death a clear murder, the judge hadn't hesitated to order the bank to make its records available to the investigators. Problem was, the bank records looked clean.

It was Caldwell's personal financial records that looked suspect, but there was nothing firm Justin could point to in order to explain why he had this itching on the back of his neck that told him to keep digging.

He just knew, dammit. Knew there was more to the story than he had yet discovered.

The problem was how in hell to find it.

The sheriff could have made it easier on him but instead had virtually tied his hands, and much as he wanted to it wasn't something Justin intended to complain about. He was treading carefully with the sheriff, perfectly aware that Ethan Cole didn't really trust him and equally aware that the sheriff was hiding something. Or trying to.

That was something else Justin knew but couldn't prove. And wasn't really sure he wanted to try and prove, all things considered. But he didn't have much of a choice.

Not really eager to return to the station any sooner than he had to, Justin stopped off on the way back for a cup of decent coffee at the downtown cafe. He sat alone at a front table and gazed broodingly out at the passing traffic.

Such a nice little town.

"Hey, Detective Byers—" One of the young waitresses he'd spoken to maybe twice stood by his table holding an envelope. "This was left for you." She handed it over.

His name was block-printed on the front—just his name, nothing to identify him as a cop. For some reason, that bothered him.

"Who left it, Emily?"

She shrugged and popped her gum. "Dunno. Vinny just found it on the counter and told me to bring it over to you. Guess somebody figured you'd stop by. You usually do, most afternoons."

"Yeah. Thanks, Emily."

"Welcome."

As she wandered away, Justin made a mental note to stop being so goddamned predictable, then stared at the envelope, turning it in his hands. The usual number-ten business-type, treated for security so what lay inside wasn't easily visible, at least through the paper. But what lay inside clearly had shape and bulk, something like a small notebook from the feel of it.

The envelope had been handled by so many people he knew it was useless to worry about fingerprints. As for what was inside…

He wasted a couple of minutes trying to convince himself somebody had sent him an early birthday card—okay, maybe an early birthday booklet—sighed, and carefully pried up the lightly sealed flap.

It was indeed a small, black notebook, the sort some people carried around in their pockets or purses to jot down phone numbers or whatever. Justin handled it carefully by the edges, even though his instincts and training told him the polished surface was polished for a reason and would yield no fingerprints whatsoever. Inside, a number of the lined pages contained notes. Two initials at the top of each page, followed by what looked like a list of dates and dollar amounts.

The dates on each page were spaced no less than a month apart, with some only every three or four months, and at least one page contained only two dates, more than six months apart.

He was no expert, but the spiky handwriting—different from the block-printing on the envelope— looked familiar. It looked like George Caldwell's handwriting.

Frowning, Justin pulled out his own notebook and made a careful list of all the dates, in chronological order. What he ended up with was a date for almost every month spanning the past three years. And when he compared the dates to earlier notes he had made, he was grimly unsurprised to find that they matched the dates of the regular deposits into one of Caldwell's bank accounts.

Those unexplained deposits.

That unexplained income.

"Blackmail," Justin muttered under his breath. It was possible. Maybe more than possible. Every one of the dead men had led a double life, a secret life, their crimes and sins hidden until their deaths had exposed those dark truths.

It appeared that someone had become impatient with Justin's failure to uncover George Caldwell's nasty little secret and had decided to help the investigation himself. Or herself.

One of the blackmail victims?

The killer?

And if either, why give the book to him? Why hand evidence like this over to a detective investigating the murder of George Caldwell? To ensure justice?

Or something else?

Justin looked at the initials that headed each page. Each, presumably, represented a name. Most were unfamiliar to him, or at least suggested no one he knew. Two did suggest names that he knew, or thought he knew.

M.T.—Max Tanner?

And E.C.—Ethan Cole?

"Ah, shit," Justin muttered.



CHAPTER FOUR





Max hadn't planned on following Nell around all day. He really hadn't. And after her cool dismissal at the cafe, seeking her out again should have been the last thing on his mind. But he found himself hanging around where he could watch her Jeep, and when she left town a few minutes later, he followed her at a discreet distance until she turned off into the driveway of the old Gallagher house.

It was late afternoon by then, and he had a dozen things that needed doing at the ranch, but even though he went back home and tried to concentrate on his work, he found his mind wandering again and again. An uneasy sense that he needed to be somewhere else nagged at him.

It had happened before, years ago, an urge he hadn't heeded—something he would forever regret. And it had happened again recently when he'd felt driven to saddle his horse and head toward Gallagher land, discovering Nell in the middle of the woods and in the middle of one of those "visions" of hers that left her frighteningly vulnerable.

He had almost forgotten how unsettling they were, those episodes of hers. She was physically there, eyes open, breathing—but somewhere else as well. Somewhere no one else could follow. And wherever it was, either the effort of getting there or simply what she saw left her pale and shaking.

She had told him once, hesitantly, that she had no control over what happened to her and had no idea what it was that triggered the episodes—but what she saw during them was invariably something that frightened her. When he had pressed her for details all those years ago, she had said only that "some places remember" what had happened in them—or would happen.

It had made no sense to him then. It still didn't.

But whatever he felt about her peculiar abilities, it didn't change his uneasiness and anxiety now. There was someplace he needed to be, and it wasn't here at the ranch. As a mild spring night fell, that restless urge to be somewhere else, to do something, was driving him crazy. He resisted as long as he could, but the feelings just kept intensifying until he couldn't ignore them any longer.

And he was only mildly surprised when his truck rounded the curve near the Gallagher driveway, to see Nell's Jeep pulling out onto the road.

Eight P.M. Where was she going?

In just a few minutes, it became obvious she was heading away from Silence; she took the new highway and headed south, in the general direction of New Orleans.

Max followed cautiously, not even bothering to find reasonable excuses for what he was doing. There weren't any. There was nothing in the least reasonable about any of this, and he damned well knew it.

Traffic wasn't especially heavy on this Thursday evening, so Max stayed back as far as he dared without losing sight of the taillights of Nell's Jeep. Which is why he nearly missed it when she took an off-ramp about a dozen miles from Silence.

Forced to close the distance between them or risk losing her in the darkness, Max followed her for several miles along a winding country road until she pulled off at a small and distinctly seedy motel where, the sign proclaimed, rooms were for rent at an hourly as well as nightly rate. Since only two cars were parked in front of two of the units, it appeared business wasn't exactly booming.

Whatever Max had expected, it wasn't this.

He cut his lights and pulled a little past the turnoff, watching as her Jeep bypassed the flickering neon sign indicating the office and went directly to the last unit at the end of the building. She parked in front, got out, and apparently used a key to let herself into unit number ten.





Max watched a dim light come on inside the room. The curtains were drawn, so it was impossible to see what was going on in there. He drummed his fingers against the steering wheel, frowning, then swore under his breath and turned his own truck back toward the motel.

He parked off to the side and crept toward the unit on foot, being very careful not to give away his approach with the slightest sound.

Not careful enough.

He heard a click he recognized and froze even before he felt the cold steel of a gun barrel against his neck.

"See, what I don't get is why you'd want to spend most of a day and night following me all over the place." Nell moved around where he could see her but kept the gun pointed at him. It was a big gun; and she held it with expert ease.

All he could think to say was, "How'd you get out here? I've been watching the door."

"Window in back." Nell took another step, then gestured with the gun toward the unit's door. "Shall we?"

Max went ahead of her, half afraid of what might await them in the room. What met his searching gaze inside was merely a cheap motel room, the one bed sagging in the middle beside a scarred nightstand, small TV bolted to the shabby dresser on the other side of the room, and the open bathroom door showing him that the tiny room was bare of any threat.

Nell shut the door behind them, then went to lean against the dresser. She still held the gun, though no longer pointed it at him. "Let's hear it, Max. Why've you been following me around all day today?"

"You going to explain that gun?"

She shrugged, smiling just a little. "A woman alone has to be careful. Your turn."

"Maybe I don't have anything better to do than follow you around."

"I remember enough about ranching to know that's a lie. You've got more than enough to do. Try again, Max."

He really didn't want to confess the truth, but something about her eyes and that little smile she wore warned him to take both her and that gun she was holding with such seeming negligence very seriously. "I was worried," he said finally. "I thought somebody should keep an eye on you."

"Why?"

"People are dying, remember?"

"Not good enough. Men are dying, four in eight months. And even if women became targets, what makes you so sure I'd be one of them? I've been gone for twelve years, only back here a few days, and only to take care of a little business before leaving again. I'm just passing through. So why would anyone want to kill me?"

"You said yourself someone had questioned your fitness to inherit the estate."

"Yeah, but nobody's challenged me legally, and the will's through probate. I inherit. And I have a will, which now takes precedence. So if anybody's after any of the property, killing me won't get it for them."

"The killer doesn't necessarily know that," Max pointed out.

"I'd think he'd make sure before getting rid of me. And since I told Wade Keever about my will today, I imagine most of Silence will know by, say, tomorrow afternoon. Sooner, if somebody buys him drinks tonight."

She paused a moment, her green eyes steady on his face, then said, "Besides, this killer doesn't seem to be acting for personal gain. No, whatever your reasons for following me around, they don't include concern about the disposition of my father's estate. So I'd like to know what those reasons are, Max. And the truth would be nice."

"I told you the truth. I was worried about you."

"Then tell me why."

He hesitated, then drew in a breath and let it out roughly. "Because you're a threat to the killer, Nell. And I'm not sure how many people know that."

Anyone who had ever lived in a small town— especially a small Southern town—would probably be quick to admit that skulking around at night for any reason wasn't the easiest thing in the world. There were lots of streetlights, for one thing, and people tended to leave their porch lights on as well.

Welcome, neighbor. Come on in and kill me.

She shook her head as she stood back from a too-lighted area at the edge of downtown Silence and warily watched the passing traffic. For a nervous town, there were sure as hell a lot of people out doing things on a weeknight.

Human nature, of course. No matter how nervous they might feel, most people simply never expected the really bad things to happen to them.

Until they did.

Hearing footsteps, she immediately withdrew deeper into the shadows and watched a young couple as they walked past her, holding hands. Oblivious to any possible threat.

Conscious of the gun tucked at the small of her back, she shifted her weight and breathed a sigh. Just because only men had been victims so far didn't mean the women of this town were safe, but none of them seemed to realize that. There needed to be a curfew at the very least—

All her senses flared suddenly, and she went perfectly still. Waiting. The traffic noises faded, and she no longer smelled exhaust fumes on the damp breeze. The harsh brightness of the streetlights seemed to dim everywhere—except a block away, where a lone man walked, shoulders hunched and hands in his pockets. As he passed beneath each streetlight, it seemed to brighten, almost as if a spotlight followed him.

She smiled unconsciously, her gaze intent on him. The damp breeze brought her now the scent of his cologne. He was wearing Polo. She could almost feel the faint tremors of the earth beneath her feet as he walked.

Or maybe that was her own heartbeat.

She watched him walk toward her. His head was bent, and he was obviously deep in thought. Oblivious. She unconsciously shook her head. Bad to be so wrapped up in thought that you left yourself vulnerable. Worse to do that when living in a town where nice, seemingly respectable men were ending up in the morgue.

She glanced around warily to make certain there was no one else in the area, and then waited until he had nearly reached her before stepping out of the shadows.

"Hey," she said.

He jumped a foot. "Jesus1. You scared the hell out of me."

"Oh, sorry," she said mildly, her fingers closing around the grip of her gun as she began to draw it from the waistband of her jeans. "I certainly didn't mean to do that."

Nell didn't appear to be alarmed by Max's warning. "Why would I be a threat to anyone?"

"Tell me something. What did you see in the woods yesterday? What did your vision show you?"

She didn't blink or look away, but it was a long moment before she finally answered. "I saw a stormy night. A man in a slicker carrying a woman over his shoulder. I don't know who he was. I don't know who she was. I don't know if she was dead or alive."

"So it could have been the killer you saw."

"Could have. Or someone else, maybe even doing something entirely innocent."

"Do you think so?"

Still without looking away from his face, Nell shook her head slowly. "Not really. Whatever he was doing… there was nothing innocent about it."

"Now for the big question. Did you see the past? Or the future?"

"I don't know that either."

'You still can't tell?"

"Usually, no. Not unless there's something in the vision to place it in time."

"What about other kinds of control? Can you… trigger… one of these things if you want to?"

"Not really. I can put myself in a place where one is more likely, a place where something violent happened, but it doesn't always work. There's no button I can push, Max, no switch to flip when I want to see something."

"Which makes you vulnerable as hell, whether you'll admit it or not. If you could see the killer, identify him, point the cops to him, then maybe you'd be safe. Safer, anyway. But you can't do that. And the thing is, other people don't understand your abilities, Nell. They don't understand—and yet they're talking. Speculating. Wondering just what the Gallagher curse really is. I've heard at least three people wondering out loud if this elusive killer has a chance of hiding now that our very own local witch has come home."

Quietly, she said, "So maybe he's wondering too."

"Maybe he is."

"Or maybe," she suggested, "he doesn't know a damned thing about the Gallagher curse."

"He knows about secrets, Nell, remember? Every man he's killed has had secrets, and those secrets are out or coming out. I don't know much about killers, but this one seems to have his game plan all worked out, and that plan includes exposing the dark sides of people's private lives. So if you ask me, you've got a double chance of becoming a target. Because you've got a secret, and because that secret—that ability—is a threat to him."

"It's no secret if people are talking about it."

"It's something you try to hide, and that makes it a secretive thing."

"A… dark and secretive thing?"

"Some people would call it that. This town hasn't changed all that much, Nell, and your family never did anything to make this curse of yours something to understand and not fear. People fear what they don't understand, and some people still call psychic abilities dark. Even evil."

"Which is why they call me a witch."

"Which is why some do, yes."

She drew a breath. "And that's why you've been following me? Because you believe what I can do makes me a target?"

"That's why." He smiled faintly. "Of course, I didn't know you had a gun. I suppose you know how to use it?"

"Yeah, I know how." She turned her head slightly, looking toward the door with a faint frown. "They teach us how to do that."

"They? Who are they?"

Before Nell could answer, the door opened quietly and Casey Lattimore stepped into the room. Closing the door behind her, the mayor of Silence said dryly to Max, "They are the FBI. The training academy for agents is at Quantico. Right, Nell?"

"Right."

"Last year," Mayor Lattimore said from her position in the room's one armchair, "weeks after Peter Lynch died, I was feeling frustrated. Not that anybody could have been sure it was murder, not then, but nothing seemed to be happening in the investigation. Worse, I didn't really understand police procedure. I thought it was something I needed to understand."

"So you went up to Quantico," Max finished slowly. "Took that course for civilian authorities." He was sitting on the bed, rather gingerly.

She nodded. "And that's where I ran into Nell."

Nell, still leaning back against the dresser, said, "My unit operates out of Quantico, and sometimes we're tapped to help teach some of the courses offered. I was between assignments and ended up helping the instructor speaking to Casey's group that week. We recognized each other."

"After twelve years?" Max asked.

Casey said, "Don't forget, I taught both of you in high school. Not to swell your head, Max, but some students really are more memorable than others. You and Nell, I remembered."

Max decided not to ask why. "Okay, so you recognized Nell. And then?"

"Well, nothing much happened then. We had lunch a couple of times. Talked, briefly, about Silence. I told Nell about my concerns, about this recent death that seemed so difficult for our sheriff and his people to resolve."

"But there wasn't much to go on," Nell continued, "especially not at a distance. So there really wasn't anything I could do, even offer anything helpful in the way of advice. Casey finished her course, and we said good-bye. Then, a couple of months ago, she called me. By then, three men were dead, and the odd little twist about their sins coming to light afterward seemed to pretty strongly indicate there was one killer. A very unusual sort of killer."

"Which attracted the interest of the Bureau?" Max lifted a brow at her.

"Which attracted the interest of my boss, the leader of the unit I belong to. He's a profiler, instinctive as well as trained. When I gave him all the information Casey had passed along to me, he was able to develop a tentative profile of the sort of person likely to be the killer."

"And?"

Nell looked at the mayor, who said, "And we immediately had a problem. According to Agent Bishop's profile, the killer was likely to be a cop."

Max whistled softly. "Which might explain why the murders are going unsolved."

"Which might explain why." Casey sighed. "Worse, what it meant was that I couldn't trust the local police—any of the police. They were all suspect, from Sheriff Cole down to his deputies, and even those not directly suspected are likely to have loyalties that could color their thinking. So I could hardly go to any of them with the information that our killer might well be a cop." She shook her head. "We needed help from investigators outside the town, outside the parish, and we had to keep it quiet because we certainly couldn't let it be known that our own sheriff's department was under suspicion."

"But the Bureau is very picky about sending in agents if the local authorities haven't asked for our help," Nell continued. "States' rights, various jurisdictions—it can get tangled and ugly in a hurry if we aren't very, very careful how we handle things. Still, Casey was in a position to ask for our help in a unique situation and to authorize us to begin investigating, so the decision was made."

"To send you in?" Max was still trying to wrap his mind around the idea that Nell—the half-wild, fey girl he remembered so vividly—was now a federal cop.

"To launch an undercover investigation," she corrected. "No agents wandering around in town flashing their badges or muscling in on the local cops. Since we knew we'd have to investigate those local cops while also working to solve this series of murders, we could hardly operate openly.

"Something much quieter and a lot more subtle was needed. Obviously. And an agent who wouldn't stand out like a sore thumb. I was chosen partly because I have a nice, innocent—and authentic—reason to be here. Settling my father's estate." She spoke without emotion. "Even the most suspicious person would be unlikely to figure me for anything other than a reluctant daughter returning home because there were things I had to take care of here. So I was perfect for the job."

Max shook his head. "They didn't send you down here alone, surely?"

"No."

He stared at her for a moment, then looked at Casey.

"Nell is my contact," she said. "I don't know the other agent—or agents—involved."

"Which is the way it stays," Nel