/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

Disturbed

Kevin OBrien


Kevin O’Brien

DISTURBED

This book is for my friends Terry and Judine Brooks, and John Saul and Mike Sack.

Thanks for twenty-five years of your generous support, writing advice, and friendship.

You guys are the best.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

A great big thank-you goes to my ever-patient, encouraging, intelligent editor and friend, John Scognamiglio, and the wonderful folks at Kensington Publishing — especially the magnetic and magnanimous Doug Mendini. I had a terrific time visiting with everyone at Kensington in May. You guys are the greatest!

Thanks also to my wonderful agents, Meg Ruley and Christina Hogrebe, and all the fantastic folks at Jane Rotrosen Agency, with a special nod to Peggy Gordijn for making sure my books go around the world.

Another huge thank-you to my writers’ group pals, who weathered early drafts of this book and helped whip it into shape. John Flick, Cate Goethals, Soyon Im, David Massengill, and Garth Stein, you guys rule!

Many thanks to Garth and Seattle7Writers for all their support — what a great group of authors! I’m honored to be associated with them.

And don’t even get me started on how much I love the people at Open Road Media. Thank you, guys!

I’m also grateful to all the cool folks at Levy Home Entertainment.

The list of friends who have encouraged me and pushed my books gets longer every year. Thanks to Nancy Abbe, Dan Annear and Chuck Rank, Pam Binder and the folks at PNWA, Marlys Bourm, Amanda Brooks, Kyle Bryan and Dan Monda, George Camper and Shane White, Barbara Riddle Cegielski, Jim and Barbara Church, Anna Cottle and Mary Alice Kier, the terrific Tommy Dreiling, Paul Dwoskin and the gang at Broadway Video, Tom Goodwin, Dennis and Debbie Gotlieb, Cathy Johnson, Elizabeth Kinsella, David Korabik, Stafford Lombard, Roberta Miner, Jim Munchel, Meghan O’Neill, Midge Ortiz, Eva Marie Saint, those crazy kids at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Jennie Shortridge, John Simmons, Dan, Doug and Ann Stutesman, George and Sheila Stydahar, Marc Von Borstel (who always makes me look good), and Michael Wells.

Finally, thanks again to my sensational sibs: Adele, Mary Lou, Cathy, Bill, and Joan. I love you guys like a brother.

PROLOGUE

Sitting at the wheel of his family station wagon, Ray Corson watched the gas gauge needle hover at empty. The red warning light flashed on, and he felt his stomach tighten.

He’d been driving for the last hour, making several loops around Seattle’s Montlake neighborhood. Part of his route wound through the Arboretum along the edge of Lake Washington. But on this rainy April night, Ray couldn’t see the water beyond all the shadowy trees. It was just murky blackness.

At a stoplight, he caught his reflection in the rearview mirror. People often mistook him for someone in his early thirties. At forty-two, Ray loved hearing that. His wavy brown hair hadn’t yet turned gray. It helped that he stayed in shape running laps around the high school track every weeknight; or perhaps just being around all those teenagers kept him thinking young.

But Ray hadn’t been to the school in months. He couldn’t go back there.

That probably explained why the reflection in the rearview mirror was of someone who looked old, haggard — and frightened.

With a sigh, Ray leaned back and cracked the window a bit. His three-year-old son had stepped on a half-full juice box in the backseat over a week ago, and the car still had the sickeningly sweet smell of Hawaiian Punch gone bad.

The light changed, and he drove on. The fresh air revitalized him, and he took a few deep, calming breaths. He was about to drive past the Arboretum’s parking area again. The two light posts didn’t quite illuminate the entire lot, which was about the size of a basketball court. Beyond it lay the woods and the lake. The lot was empty right now. No one in their right mind would be at the Arboretum on such a cold, crummy, wet night.

Still, Ray kept his eyes peeled for a parked car — or maybe the silhouette of a man at the edge of that lot.

He suddenly realized his car was veering off the road. Tires squeaked against the curb and gravel ricocheted against the station wagon’s chassis. Startled, Ray twisted the wheel to one side and swerved back into his lane.

His heart was racing. “Chill out, for chrissakes,” he muttered to himself. He’d thought by now he would be at peace with what was about to happen. But he was still scared.

Ray figured he was good for one more loop around the neighborhood before the station wagon would start to fail on him. He glanced in the rearview mirror at the parking lot again. Then he checked the clock on the dashboard: 12:49 A.M.

He needed to be back there eleven minutes from now.

It would be the end of so many of his problems — including the whole mess at James Monroe High School, where he’d been a guidance counselor. The tension and turmoil with Jenna would be in the past. Jenna and the kids would be covered financially. And maybe his runaway sixteen-year-old daughter would even come home once everything was over and done with.

Ray lowered the window farther and felt the cool rain on his face. He smelled the night air and gazed at the trees swaying along the roadside. All of his senses were suddenly heightened as he took his last loop around the area. Everything seemed so beautiful, each moment so precious. He started to cry; he couldn’t help it.

Just as he’d figured, the station wagon began to sputter as he approached the small parking lot for the ninth time. Wiping the tears from his face, Ray steered into the lot, parked the car, and left the engine running.

The wipers squeaked against the windshield, and rain tapped on the car roof. Ray tipped his head back against the headrest of the driver’s seat. He gazed over toward the shadowy edge of the lot. He couldn’t see it now, but somewhere there in the darkness began a dirt trail. It wove through the trees and shrubs, down to the lake.

He remembered parking his beat-up red VW bug in this same spot on a warm May night nearly twenty years ago. He and Jenna had been sophomores at the University of Washington, out on their first date.

Ray had been admiring her from afar ever since freshman year, when he’d spotted her at a kegger, dancing with this nerdy guy who couldn’t keep up with her. The long-haired, pretty brunette was so sexy and uninhibited. Every once in a while she whispered into her dance partner’s ear, and Ray figured that guy was the luckiest son of a bitch at the party. Ray was so enamored of her that it took him a while to notice her dance partner had one of those shriveled arms resembling a bird wing. And yet he looked so damn happy. Ray kept thinking, she could have any dude in the room, and she picked that guy. It didn’t make her a saint, but it certainly made her more interesting. For nine months, he looked for her in the cafeteria or at different parties. Unfortunately, when he spotted her on occasion, he never got up the nerve to talk with her. She was always surrounded by guys.

Then they’d ended up in the same English lit class, and he’d finally had an excuse to approach Jenna and ask her out on a date.

Ray paced himself when they split a bottle of red wine in her dorm room. He didn’t want to get drunk and smash up his VW on their way to dinner. They ate at My Brother’s Pizza in Wallingford. She loved that he had a car, and wanted to go for a drive afterward. While they aimlessly drove around Montlake, Madison Park, and Capitol Hill, Jenna talked and talked and talked. He loved listening to her, and he loved the subtle, flowery scent of her perfume in his car. At one point, she put her hand on his knee and confessed, “Ever since I first saw you in Converse’s English lit class, I’ve thought you were super cute. . ”

After that, Jenna could have said anything. He didn’t care where they were going. He would have driven to the end of the earth with her if she wanted.

“Well, um, the feeling’s mutual,” Ray managed to reply. He tried to keep his eyes on the road. But her hand was still on his knee, and he felt his erection stirring.

It shrank a bit as Jenna told him about some of the other guys she’d been with — and how horrible they’d treated her. She’d even made a little doll resembling one guy who had really screwed her over, and she used to stick pins in it. She confessed that in high school she’d tried to kill herself twice — the first time with sleeping pills, and the second effort, with a razor blade. Both times she’d called a friend immediately after the final swallow or slash.

“Why did you do it?” Ray whispered, tightening his grip on the steering wheel.

“Call my friend?” she asked. “Or why did I try to kill myself?”

“Both.”

She pulled away from him a bit. Jenna leaned her head against the half-open window and gazed out at the road. Her dark hair blew in the wind. “I guess it seemed like the only way I could take control of things, and — I don’t know — get out. . ”

“Get out of what?”

She shrugged. “Bad relationships, mostly — and other things, too.”

“No guy’s worth killing yourself over, Jenna,” Ray murmured, glancing at her. “You must have figured that out. Is that why you called your friend?”

Still staring outside, she shook her head. “No, I just didn’t want to die all alone.” She let out a sad, little laugh. “But instead of coming over and keeping me company, my stupid friend called the police.”

“Well, I for one am glad she did,” Ray said.

Jenna was quiet for a moment. “You’re right about the guys,” she said at last. “Both those times, they were total jerks. They didn’t really love me. They were just using me. You know, I’m a firm believer in karma. They’ll get theirs — eventually. Time wounds all heels.”

Ray managed to laugh. He didn’t quite know what to think — or where this night would go. The gorgeous creature sitting across from him was pretty screwed up. But he liked her. She was vulnerable and sweet — and in need of someone to rescue her. Ray wanted to be that someone.

Jenna also had a hell of a lot more experience than him. Ray couldn’t help feeling intimidated by that. If things got sexual later on — and he was hoping they would — then, she might find him pretty inept in the lovemaking department. He’d been so crazy about her for so long, he didn’t want to disappoint her.

Jenna scooted over toward him again, and he breathed in the smell of her perfume. She nudged him. “Y’know, you’re the first person I’ve told about my suicide attempts — at least, the first person here at the U.” She rested her head on his shoulder, and fingered the buttons of his blue oxford shirt. “I meant it when I said that I can really talk to you, Ray. . ”

She giggled. “God, I didn’t mean to get so serious on you! We should do something fun. It’s so beautiful and warm out. We should go swimming. . ”

Eyes on the road, Ray thought for a moment. Back in September, he and two other guys from the dorm had gone skinny-dipping in the Arboretum late one warm Friday night. They’d had a blast. At the time, Ray kept thinking how sexy it would be to share this naked, moonlight swim with a girl.

“Well, there’s the Arboretum,” he heard himself say. “This time of night, we’d probably have the place to ourselves. . ”

“God, that sounds fantastic!” Jenna replied. Then she kissed him on the neck. “Let’s do it, let’s do it. . ” Laughing, she pulled away, then leaned out her window and let out a howl.

Jenna had two Jack Daniel’s miniatures in her purse. She guzzled down one on their way to the Arboretum, and the other Ray helped her finish off once they’d parked the car.

Ray’s stomach was in nervous knots as they walked down the dark, winding dirt path toward the lake. At the same time, he was incredibly turned on. Neither one of them had said anything yet about swimsuits — or the lack thereof.

He wondered if she’d keep on her bra and panties to go swimming. Maybe once they reached the lake, if he quickly undressed down to nothing, she’d follow his lead.

They came to a field, where Ray could see the lake ahead, its silvery ripples glimmering in the moonlight. A huge tree loomed at the edge of the shore — some of the branches dipping down into the water. Ray remembered there was a rope hanging from a high limb. He and his dorm buddies had swung from it and jumped into the water several times. The 520 bridge nearby had an arterial route that had never been completed. The abandoned, blocked-off piece of road veered off the bridge and abruptly ended over this secluded section of the lake.

“Oh, good!” she declared. “No one else is around! It’s just us. . ”

Ray didn’t hear any laughter, chatter, or water splashing. She was right. They were alone here. It was what he wanted, but also a little scary. He’d heard stories about drug deals, muggings, and all sorts of creepy goings-on at the Arboretum late at night. The rural oasis in the middle of the city seemed the perfect place for some senseless, grisly murder.

The last time here at night with his three pals, Ray hadn’t been worried. But this was a totally different scenario, because he was here alone with a beautiful girl — and he had to protect her.

As they ventured toward the lake, Jenna seemed oblivious to the potential hazards. Weaving a bit as she walked, she half-sang and half-hummed a Eurythmics tune: “Sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree?” She started to run ahead of him. Ray watched her pull her T-shirt over her head, and then she shook out her long brown hair. Her skin almost looked blue in the moonlight. His mouth open, he gaped at her as she reached back and unhooked her bra.

“No one else is around,” she said again. “This is perfect, Ray. . perfect. .”

Ray started to undress, too. Jenna was already naked — and at the water’s edge. Tossing aside her clothes, she let out a scream and plunged into the lake. Ray got only a brief glimpse of her beautiful, ripe ass before the water came up to her waist. Then she was completely submerged.

Ray shucked down his jeans and undershorts. He hurried into the cold water to catch up with her, but she hadn’t resurfaced yet. The soft bottom of the lake felt slimy between his toes as he made his way toward deeper water. He kept glancing around for her, wondering where she’d swum off to. For a few moments, he panicked — until, finally, she bobbed up, and grabbed the rope that hung from a branch of the huge tree.

Ray felt at once relieved and awestruck by the sight of her. She took his breath away. She was a vision with her long, wet hair slicked back, and her flawless, creamy skin. Her breasts were small, and her nipples — hard from the cold water — looked like gumdrops.

Jenna smiled at him. “If you can catch me,” she called playfully, “you can have me as your love slave! I’ll do anything for you!”

Ray broke into a grin. “Then prepare to be caught, wench!” he announced, trying to sound like a swashbuckling pirate. He started toward her, keeping his head above water so he wouldn’t miss one moment of her in the moonlight.

Jenna scowled at him. “Did you just call me a bitch?”

“No, I said, wench. . wench!” he explained, a little out of breath. “I was like — joking, y’know? I’d never seriously. . ”

Jenna let out a squeal, then splashed him in the face.

Momentarily blinded, Ray heard her swimming away and singing again, “Everybody’s looking for something. Some of them want to use you . .” Blinking, he turned and saw her backstroking farther into the deep end, toward the unfinished arterial road off the 520 bridge. He glanced back at the shore to make sure their clothes were still there. He saw them, still in a pile by the big tree.

But Ray saw something else on the shore, too — something or someone.

The pinpoint of light in the darkness was far away, maybe in the meadow or perhaps in the parking lot. He couldn’t tell if it was someone with a flashlight — or a single headlight. Whatever it was, the thing seemed to be coming toward them and getting brighter. Then suddenly it disappeared.

Ray stared off into the darkness for another few moments. But he didn’t see the strange, solitary light again.

All at once, everything was quiet. He couldn’t hear Jenna singing or splashing in the water anymore. Ray swiveled around and gaped at the end of the aborted roadway jutting over the lake. Jenna was hoisting herself up to one of the support beams. “What are you doing?” he called. “Jenna, are you nuts?”

He swam toward her as fast as he could. But he wasn’t the best swimmer. He lost all sense of direction when his head was underwater. After several frenzied strokes, Ray paused to catch his breath and see where he was going. He’d veered away from the bridge. But he spotted Jenna climbing over the guardrail to the unfinished section of road.

She paused at the abrupt edge, about ten or twelve feet over the water. Headlights from passing cars on the bridge briefly illuminated her lean, nude silhouette. She looked so defiant, uninhibited, and utterly gorgeous as she stood there. Ray was mesmerized — until she slowly raised her hands over her head. He could see she was preparing to dive, and a panic swept through him.

His dad’s best friend in high school was paralyzed after diving into a quarry and hitting a boulder. Ray imagined blocks of concrete under the water by that unfinished road. “Don’t dive in there, Jenna!” he called, swimming toward her. He got water in his mouth and nose, and he began to cough. “You — you could get hurt! It’s too dangerous. . ”

“I don’t care,” she replied, a tremor in her voice. It sounded like she was crying. “It doesn’t matter. . ”

Helplessly, he watched her push off from the edge. She executed a flawless dive, plunging into the lake’s placid surface with only a small splash. Ray anxiously waited for her to emerge again, but there was no sign of her for several, long, unendurable moments.

He imagined having to carry her limp nude body all the way to the car, and then speeding to the UW Hospital.

“Jenna?” he called out, glancing around. He didn’t see her near the shore. But he noticed the little point of light again — closer than before, yet still too far away for him to figure out what it could be.

Right now, he was more concerned about Jenna. He knew she was drunk; but her mood swings were absolutely nuts. Just five minutes ago she’d been so excited, laughing and singing and flirting with him. Then up on the edge of that unfinished road, he could have sworn she was sobbing. Was she trying to commit suicide again?

For all he knew, she’d just succeeded. It had been at least a minute since Jenna had plunged into the inky water — and she still hadn’t resurfaced.

“Jenna?” he yelled, frazzled. “Goddamn it, Jenna. .”

He turned at the sound of splashing water and saw her clutching on to the rope again. This time, there was nothing sexy about it. She was crying and gasping for air.

“Are you okay?” Ray asked, swimming toward her.

She didn’t answer him. She started to pull herself up the rope.

“Jenna, what the hell is going on?” he called. “Why are you acting like this?”

She didn’t even glance at him. A determined expression on her face, Jenna continued to shimmy up the rope. He was amazed at her strength and agility. He knew guys back in high school gym class — even a few of the jocks — who had trouble with the rope climb. Yet Jenna pulled herself up, passing the lower branches. He heard her sobbing the whole time.

“What are you doing?” Ray called, heading toward the shore now. “For God’s sake, Jenna, you’re going too high!”

She disappeared amid the top branches of the tree. But he could still hear her crying.

Naked and shivering, Ray staggered onto the muddy bank. He spotted her again, standing on one of the high branches. Jenna was shivering, too. She still held on to the rope and braced herself against another limb. She hoisted up the thick, braided cord, and then took the slack and wrapped it around her neck.

“Oh, Jesus, no,” Ray murmured, horrified. He raced to the tree and began climbing it. The branches and rough bark scratched his bare feet and scraped against his naked torso. But he pressed on, grabbing one limb and then another, struggling to reach her before she jumped. “NO!” he yelled with what little breath he had.

She gazed down at him. The rope was twisted around her neck.

“Please, Jenna,” he gasped, climbing to a higher branch. “Even if you’re kidding, cut it out. You’re giving me a heart attack here. I don’t want — I don’t want anything bad happening to you. Why are you doing this anyway?”

Numbly, she stared back at him. “Why not?” she muttered. “Who would care?”

“I would, I’d care!” he answered, pulling himself up to the same branch as her. She backed away — farther out on the limb. He didn’t want to scare her off, so he stayed close to the base of the tree. “Listen, if you’re doing this for some kind of attention, you don’t need to. You’ve always had my attention, Jenna. If — if I see you in a room, you’re all I see. I gotta tell you, I–I’m crazy about you.” He clung to the tree branch and let out a frightened laugh. “And I’d be really pissed if I lost you this early in the game. . ”

Jenna cracked an uncertain little smile. “You like me?” she asked quietly.

He nodded. “A lot — even when you’re acting weird, like now. In fact, it makes me like you even more. How screwed up is that?”

She wiped the tears from her eyes and managed to laugh. “Pretty screwed up. .”

“We make a terrific pair,” he said. Despite the fact that she stood precariously on that limb with a rope wound around her neck, Ray couldn’t help looking at Jenna’s beautiful breasts, her long limbs, and that triangle of dark pubic hair.

He noticed she was looking him up and down, as well. She started to unwrap the thick cord from around her neck.

Then she suddenly lost her footing.

Ray heard a branch snap. Jenna let out a shriek. Her arms flailing, she teetered to one side. The rope was still partially looped around her neck as she started to fall.

Paralyzed, Ray watched her careen down toward the lake. Twigs cracked and broke as her body hit them on the way down. For a few moments, everything was a blur. Ray didn’t recall scrambling out on the limb and then diving into the lake to rescue her. He just remembered plunging into the water, then bobbing up to the surface and gasping for air.

Jenna was only a few feet away, amid a whirlpool of leaves and twigs. She held her forehead and laughed while treading water. Somehow, the last loop of the rope had uncoiled during her fall. He noticed some blood on her elbow — and fresh scratch marks on her arms. But her neck and face were unmarred.

“My God, are you okay?” he asked, wiping the water and snot from his nose.

Nodding, she drifted toward him. “I can’t believe you dove in after me,” she murmured. “Do you know how high that was? You risked your life for me. . ”

She put her arm around him, then kissed him.

Ray was too numb to feel aroused. Exhausted, they clung to each other and made their way to the shore. He kept checking her arms for cuts and scratch marks. Jenna said she’d be okay. As they both emerged from the water, they paused to catch their breath. They gazed at each other.

Her eyes seemed to focus on his torso. She gently touched his hip. “You nicked yourself, poor baby,” she whispered.

Ray glanced down at a scrape mark along his right rib cage.

“Should I kiss it and make it better?” she whispered.

Before he could answer, she bowed down. He felt her warm breath against his cold, wet skin as she planted kisses along his rib cage. Ray shuddered gratefully. He was about to close his eyes.

But he noticed that solitary light again — coming closer.

“Wait, no. . wait, Jenna, no,” he whispered, pulling her up. “Someone’s coming. . ”

She looked out toward the meadow — toward the beam of light. “What is that?”

Ray urgently pulled her toward the base of the tree, where they’d left their clothes. “Let’s get dressed, c’mon. . ” He reached for his undershorts.

“What is that?” she repeated. Then she called out, “Who’s there? Is somebody there?”

Ray put on his boxers, then grabbed her bra and shook it at her. “Y’know, Jenna,” he whispered, “it might be a good idea to put some clothes on.”

With a perturbed look, she took the bra and slipped it on.

Ray swiped up her panties and handed them to her. He glanced toward that eerie, single spot of light again. Now he could see a person behind it. Someone with a flashlight was coming toward them. Ray quickly stepped into his jeans and threw on his shirt. To his utter frustration, Jenna was taking her sweet time getting dressed. She stood there in just her bra and panties, squinting at that lone figure with a flashlight.

Ray tried to get a good look at the man, but the flashlight was blinding him. He heard the man’s feet shuffling as the light got closer and brighter. Ray shielded his eyes. “Who’s there? Can I — can I help you?”

The light shined on Jenna. She sneered at the man behind it. “What the hell do you want?”

Now Ray could see the lean, tall man in a police uniform. He was about thirty-five, with black hair and a thin, weather-lined face. His police cap was tucked under his arm. “Seattle Police,” he announced. “Are there any more of you out here? Or is it just you two kids?”

Ray swallowed hard. “It’s just us. . ”

“Is that your red Volkswagen in the lot?” he asked.

Ray nodded. “Yes, that’s my car. I’m sorry. Were we making too much noise?”

“It’s not a case of too much noise,” the cop said, directing the light at him again. “This park closes at ten p.m. So it’s a case of trespassing — and indecent exposure.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Jenna hissed, defiantly standing there in her bra and panties. “Don’t you have anything better to do? It’s not like we—”

Ray swiveled around. “Shut the hell up!” he said under his breath. “You want to get us arrested? Let me handle this. . ” He turned around and shrugged at the cop. “I’m sorry, it was my idea that we come here. If we’ve broken any laws, it’s my fault. I wasn’t thinking. . ”

The cop switched off the flashlight. “I’ll let you folks finish dressing,” he said coolly, “and then I’d like to have a word with you.”

“Yes, sir,” Ray answered.

The tall policeman wandered back a few paces. He took a pack of gum from his shirt pocket and unwrapped a stick.

Ray grabbed his socks and shoes. “Get dressed, and don’t say a word,” he whispered to Jenna. “I know I’m sucking up. But why antagonize him? I don’t want to spend the night in jail or have an arrest record with indecent exposure listed on it. That would kiss off my plans to become a teacher. Please, just let me talk to him. Maybe he’ll let us go with a warning if I apologize and grovel enough.”

Jenna stared at him for a moment; then she nodded. “You handle it.”

Ray apologized profusely while the cop escorted them back to the parking lot. Lagging behind them, Jenna didn’t utter a syllable. The policeman let them go with a warning and a few cautionary tales about the different muggings, rapes, and murders that had occurred at the Arboretum after dark.

An hour later, over pancakes at the Dog House — one of Seattle’s most popular late-hour roadhouse-style diners — Ray and Jenna discussed whether or not any of the cop’s horror stories were really true. Ray felt so elated to have survived the night’s adventures with just a few scratches. All his terror and all of Jenna’s craziness — he’d never felt more alive. And the pancakes he wolfed down were the best he’d ever had — even though they’d been served up by a haggard, geriatric waitress, and the place was a dive. Despite the dim lighting, he could detect a grimy layer of grease and smoke covering everything — from the blown-up sepia photos of old Seattle on the walls to the silver tops of the salt and pepper shakers on their table.

Beneath that table, Jenna had slipped off one shoe, and her foot kept touching his. Her toes wiggled under the cuff of his jeans and worked their way up his shin. “You saved my life tonight,” she said, while nibbling on a piece of bacon. “You rescued me from myself, Ray. I don’t know why I do stuff like that, I really don’t.”

He didn’t dare ask her if she’d truly intended to kill herself earlier. He didn’t want to spoil the moment. He smiled at her. “You know, the Chinese say that once you save someone’s life, you’re henceforth responsible for them.”

Henceforth, huh?” she asked, sipping her glass of milk through a straw. “Well, I kind of like that.” Beneath the table, she scrunched her toes, playfully tugging at the hair on his shin. “Looks like you’re stuck with me, henceforth.”

“I kind of like that, too,” Ray said.

He’d been infatuated with her up until then, but that was the night Ray told himself she was the one—even if she was slightly screwed up. Who wasn’t screwed up in one way or another? She made him feel important.

They were married two years later, the summer after their graduation. It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Her demons emerged from time to time, but she never attempted suicide again.

Then, five months ago, that thing happened at the high school, and it all went to hell. He watched Jenna, his family, his career — everything — unravel. He’d rescued her once, but couldn’t help her this time. Nor could he save his daughter, who had packed up and disappeared amid all the fighting and the misery.

Ray didn’t see any way out — until just recently.

He remembered what Jenna had told him that night about her suicide attempts: “I guess it seemed like the only way I could take control of things, and — I don’t know — get out. . ”

Ray wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting inside the idling station wagon in the Arboretum parking lot. But the rain had stopped tapping on the car roof. He heard the wipers squeaking and the motor purring. He switched off the wipers. Beads of rain surrounded a clean, twin-fan pattern on the windshield. He had a clear view of Lake Washington Boulevard. There wasn’t any traffic at all.

The dashboard clock read 1:04 A.M. Everything was supposed to have happened four minutes ago.

The motor died.

Ray stared at the red warning light on the gas gauge. He didn’t try to restart the engine. Instead, he took out his wallet and looked for his AAA card. In his rearview mirror, he spotted a car coming up the road. A black BMW slowed to a crawl by the parking lot entrance.

Ray started shaking. He could hardly breathe — until the BMW picked up speed and continued down Lake Washington Boulevard. Then it disappeared around a curve in the road.

He finally found the card. With a trembling hand, he punched in the numbers on his iPhone. The AAA operator answered, and Ray told her that he’d run out of gas. “I managed to roll into a parking lot by the Arboretum — off Lake Washington Boulevard,” he said nervously. His heart was racing. “I’ll need some assistance. Do you know how long it will be before you can get a tow out here — or someone with a container of gas?”

Forty-five minutes, the operator said.

“I’ll be here, waiting,” Ray said. “Thanks a lot.”

After he clicked off, Ray shoved the phone in his jacket pocket. He was too anxious to just sit there at the wheel and wait. So he left the keys in the ignition, opened the door, and stepped out of the car. For a moment, he thought he might be sick, but he took a few deep breaths.

From where he stood, Ray could see that old pathway between some bushes at the edge of the lot — the trail Jenna and he had ventured down so long ago. He couldn’t believe it was twenty years. Where the hell had the time gone? He’d brought his young son, Todd, to this park a few months back, and discovered they’d chopped down that tree with the rope. And the Dog House, where Jenna and he had eaten those delicious pancakes, had closed back in 1994.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ray noticed a pinpoint of light in a field south of the parking lot. A chill raced through him as he watched the light get closer — and brighter. He knew this time, it wasn’t a cop.

Ray started shaking again.

At a brisk, businesslike clip, the man approached the edge of the parking lot. He switched off his flashlight. Ray could see him now — about six feet tall and swarthy. He wore a hooded clear rain slicker over dark clothes. Surgical gloves covered his hands. He paused for only a moment at the lot’s edge before he started toward Ray with a determined look on his face.

Ray backed up toward the car. “Hey, listen,” he said, barely able to get the words out. “I–I don’t know what you’re planning exactly, but please. .”

Unresponsive, the man kept coming toward him. He reached for something in the pocket of his slicker.

Shaking his head, Ray backed into his car. “Just — just stop for a second. Please, wait—”

The man pulled out a short piece of metal pipe and slammed it down on Ray’s head.

Ray let out a feeble, garbled cry. He fell against the side of the station wagon and then crumpled to the wet pavement. Dazed, he lay there while the man frisked him. Ray tried to push him away, but he couldn’t lift his hands.

The stranger took Ray’s wallet and iPhone and then pocketed them. He grabbed Ray by the wrists and started pulling him across the lot toward the opening in the bushes. Ray was dragged down the same pathway he’d ventured with Jenna on that warm night twenty years before. He remembered Jenna’s beautiful smile when she said, “No one else is around. . ”

Ray tried to struggle as the man hauled him into the shadowy brush, but he couldn’t move. When he tried to talk, no words came out — just muted moans. It was as if he were having a nightmare, and couldn’t wake himself up. He couldn’t even scream.

His vision was blurred, but he could still see the man, hovering over him with a gun in his hand.

“No. . no. . no. .” Ray managed to whisper.

“Shut the fuck up,” the man grumbled. He pointed the gun down at Ray.

No one else was around.

No one else heard the three gunshots.

CHAPTER ONE

“Erin. . sweetie, eat your waffle,” Jeff Dennehy told his six-year-old daughter.

There were four curved-hardback chairs around the circular, pine table with a lazy Susan in the middle of it. On top of the lazy Susan was a hand-painted vase with a bouquet of pipe-cleaner-and-tissue daisies. The creator of that slightly tacky centerpiece was seated beside Jeff. The cute, solemn-faced blond girl gazed over her shoulder at the TV and a commercial for toilet paper — something with cartoon bears. They’d been watching the Today show on the small TV at the end of the kitchen counter.

“C’mon, Erin,” Jeff said over his coffee cup. “Molly made the waffles from scratch, and you haven’t even put a dent in them.”

With a sigh, Erin turned toward her plate, curled her lip at it, and pressed down on the waffle with the underside of her fork. “It’s mushy,” she murmured. “I want waffles from a toaster.”

Dressed in a T-shirt, sweatpants, and slippers, Molly had her strawberry-blond hair swept back in a ponytail. She leaned against the counter and sipped her coffee. She thought maybe if her stepdaughter hadn’t drowned the waffle in a quart of maple syrup, it wouldn’t be so mushy. But Molly bit her lip, set down her coffee cup, and retreated to the refrigerator. She opened the freezer in search of some Eggos, anything to put an end to the father — daughter standoff. She didn’t need the aggravation this morning.

“You know, peanut,” Jeff was saying patiently. “Fresh waffles are better than ones from the toaster. Good waffles aren’t supposed to have the consistency of old drywall.”

Of course, Jeff wouldn’t touch a waffle — fresh, toasted, or otherwise — if his life depended on it. He was having his usual bran flakes to help maintain his lean, muscular build. Molly’s husband was a bit vain — and had good reason to be. Dressed for work in his black Hugo Boss suit, crisp white shirt, and a striped tie, he looked very handsome. He was forty-four, with a light olive complexion, brown eyes, and black hair that was just starting to cede to gray.

“C’mon, just a few bites,” he coaxed his daughter. “Molly cooked this breakfast, special for you and Chris. You don’t want to hurt her feelings, do you?”

Molly couldn’t find any Eggos in the freezer, so she fetched a box of Corn Pops from the kitchen cabinet.

She and Jeff had been married for ten months. Whenever Erin and her seventeen-year-old brother, Chris, returned from a weekend with their mother, Molly felt extra compelled to show them what a great stepmother she was. So she’d cooked bacon and homemade waffles for their breakfast this Monday morning.

Molly had her theories, but still didn’t know exactly why Angela Dennehy had moved out of her own house, surrendered custody of her kids, and settled for visitation rights. One thing for certain, Angela didn’t want her kids warming up to their dad’s new and younger wife.

Molly was thirty-two and still adjusting to stepmother-hood. Obviously, her breakfast strategy wasn’t scoring points with Jeff’s younger child. Molly poured some Corn Pops and milk into a bowl, took away Erin’s plate, and set the cereal in front of her. She patted Erin’s shoulder. “Eat up, honey. You don’t want to miss your bus.”

Jeff gave his daughter a frown, which she ignored while eating her Corn Pops. On TV, Matt Lauer announced that Today would be right back after a local news break.

Molly set Erin’s plate in the sink, and then unplugged the waffle iron. With a fork, she carefully pried a fresh waffle from the hot grid. “Chris!” she called. “Chris! Your breakfast is ready!”

Her stepson hadn’t yet emerged from his bedroom. This elaborate breakfast — at least, elaborate for a weekday — was mostly for him. One of the first breakfasts she’d cooked in Jeff’s house had been waffles, and Chris had proclaimed they were “awesome.” Maybe he was just being polite, or perhaps Jeff had told him to say that. Nevertheless, Molly always unearthed the waffle iron when she wanted to get in her stepson’s good graces.

“Chris, breakfast!” Molly set the plate in front of his empty chair. “I made waffles. . ”

“Okay, in a minute!” he shouted from upstairs.

On TV, Molly glanced at the pretty, thirtysomething Asian anchorwoman with a pageboy hairstyle. “Seattle’s Arboretum became the site of a grisly murder early this morning,” she announced.

Molly reached for the coffeepot and refilled Jeff’s cup.

“Thanks, babe,” he said, wiping his mouth with his napkin. “C’mon, Chris, your breakfast is getting cold!” he yelled. “Molly’s gone to a lot of trouble this morning!”

She didn’t want him browbeating the kids on her account. That was no way to win them over. “It’s no biggie,” Molly murmured, moving to the counter, and topping off her own cup of coffee.

On the television, they showed an ambulance and several police cars encircling a small parking lot. Yellow police tape was wrapped around some trees at the edge of the lot. It fluttered in the breeze. Paramedics loaded a blanket-covered corpse into the back of the ambulance. “The victim, according to early reports, was robbed and then shot execution-style after his car broke down along Lake Washington Boulevard,” the anchorwoman explained with a somber voiceover. “He has been identified as forty-two-year-old, Raymond Corson, a former guidance counselor at James Monroe High School. .”

“Oh, God, no,” Molly murmured, stunned. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe.

She forgot she was holding the quarter-full coffeepot. It slipped out of her hand and crashed against the tiled floor. Glass shattered, and hot coffee splashed the front of her sweatpants. But it didn’t burn her. Molly glanced down at the mess for only a moment. Then she went right back to staring at the TV — and that covered-up thing they were shoving into the back of an ambulance.

Ray Corson had been Chris’s guidance counselor at the high school — until he’d been forced to leave last December. Chris still blamed himself for that. He blamed her, too.

She was barely aware of Jeff asking if she was all right or of Erin fussing about the glass and coffee on the floor. All Molly really heard was the anchorwoman on TV: “Ray Corson left behind a wife and two children. . ”

“God, no,” Molly whispered again, shaking her head.

“. . Corson telephoned Triple-A, reporting car trouble shortly after one o’clock Monday morning,” the handsome blond-haired TV news correspondent said into his microphone. He was in his mid-thirties and wore a Windbreaker. He stood in front of a parked police car; its red strobe swirled in the early morning light.

On the TV in Chris’s bedroom, another local station covered the same news story Molly had viewed down in the kitchen just two minutes before. She recognized the crime scene, a small parking lot by the Arboretum.

Molly stood in his doorway. With the curtains still closed, Chris’s bedroom was dark. Swimming trophies, graphic novels, and waggle-headed Family Guy figurines occupied his bookcase. On his walls were movie posters for Old School and Inglourious Basterds. One wall panel was corkboard — on which he’d tacked college pennants, pictures of him with his swim team buddies, and about a dozen family photos. Of course, while his mother was in several of the snapshots, Molly wasn’t in any. She often had to remind herself this was his bedroom, and he was free to decorate it any way he wanted. Still, would it kill him to put up one lousy little photo of her? It didn’t even have to be one of her alone, either. She’d be happy if he tacked up a photo of her and Jeff, or her with Erin, or even one with her in the background, for pity’s sake. Throw me a bone here, Chris, she wanted to tell him. Then again, she wasn’t in his bedroom much — except briefly, to put his folded laundry on the end of his bed every few days. Molly told herself that he was a nice kid and certainly polite enough to her.

The TV glowed in one corner of the room, where Chris had a beanbag chair close enough to the set to ensure he’d go blind by age fifty. But he wasn’t sitting in that chair right now. He stood barefoot by his unmade bed, his eyes riveted to the TV screen. He was tall and lean, with unruly brown hair and a sweet, handsome face. His rumpled, half-buttoned blue striped shirt wasn’t tucked into his jeans. He didn’t seem to notice Molly in his doorway.

On TV, they showed a station wagon — with the driver’s door open. Two cops lingered nearby, discussing something. “According to Brad Reece, the Triple-A responder, he pulled into the parking lot here off Lake Washington Boulevard at the Arboretum at 1: 45,” the reporter was saying. “He found this empty station wagon. Reece tried to call Ray Corson’s cell phone, but didn’t get an answer. Then he noticed something down this trail. . ” The camera tracked along a crooked pathway, through some foliage until it reached a strip of yellow police tape stretched across the bushes. In bold black letters, the tape carried a printed warning: CRIME SCENE — DO NOT PASS BEYOND THIS POINT. The image froze on that police barrier — and the darkness that lay beyond it. “Reece discovered the victim a few feet past this point. Ray Corson had been shot. I’m told the police found his wallet in a field just north of this spot. The cash and credit cards were missing. Investigators are still searching for the cell phone Corson used to call Triple-A.” The solemn-faced reporter came back on the screen again. “Reporting from Seattle’s Arboretum, I’m John Flick, KOMO News.”

At that moment, Chris seemed to realize someone else was there. He turned and gazed at her.

“Are you okay, Chris?” she asked, still hesitating in his doorway.

“I’m fine,” he said, his voice raspy. He started making his bed.

“Listen, if you don’t feel like going to school today, I can call and tell them you’re sick,” Molly offered.

“It’s okay, I’m fine,” he murmured, straightening the bed sheets. He looked at her again and blinked. “What happened to you?”

She glanced down at the coffee stains on the front of her gray sweatpants. “I dropped the coffeepot. Your dad’s still cleaning up the mess. There might still be some glass on the floor. So — ah, put your shoes on before you come down to the kitchen, okay?”

He just nodded, then pulled the quilted spread over his bed. He stopped for a moment to wipe his eyes again.

“I made waffles,” she said, suddenly feeling stupid for mentioning it.

“Thanks, Molly, but I’m not really hungry,” he murmured.

She wanted to hug him, and assure him that what happened to Mr. Corson last night had nothing to do with him — and it had nothing to do with the messy business at school five months ago. But the front of her was soaked with cold coffee, and besides, Chris wasn’t big on doling out hugs — at least, not with her. So Molly just tentatively stood in his doorway with her arms folded.

He finished making the bed, then sank down on the end of it, his back to her. “I’ll be down in a minute,” he said, his voice strained. “Could you — could you close the door?”

Molly nodded, even though he couldn’t see her. Stepping back, she shut the door and listened for a moment. She thought he might be crying. But she only heard the TV, and the weatherman, predicting dark skies and rain for the day ahead.

In a stupor, Chris wandered downstairs to the kitchen.

Molly was still up in the master bedroom, changing her clothes. Erin sat at the breakfast table, finishing a bowl of cereal and staring at the TV. Chris’s dad was cleaning up the broken glass and spilt coffee. He had his suit jacket off, sleeves rolled up, and tie tucked inside his shirt to keep it from getting soiled. One faint streak of brown liquid remained on the tiled floor. You missed a spot, Chris wanted to say, as his dad straightened up and set a soaked paper towel on the counter.

He wiped his hands and gave Chris a hug. “Molly said you were watching the news about Ray Corson,” he whispered. Obviously, he didn’t want Erin to hear. “How are you holding up? Are you doing okay?”

“I’m fine, thanks, Dad,” he muttered, starting to back away.

But his father held on to him and looked him in the eye. “You know I wasn’t a big fan of his, but still, I’m — I’m sorry this happened. Do you want to talk about it?”

Chris shook his head. “Not really.”

I don’t want to talk to anybody, he felt like saying. I just want to be left alone. He still couldn’t believe his former guidance counselor and friend was dead. If it weren’t for Mr. Corson, he never would have made it through last year. The only person he wanted to talk to right now was Mr. Corson, and he couldn’t.

His dad hugged him again. He always smelled like the Old Spice cologne Chris gave him every Father’s Day. “Thanks, Dad, I’m okay,” he murmured. He grabbed his books and his jacket.

He heard the car horn honking — four times. That was Courtney’s signal. His ride to school was here. Molly called to him from upstairs to take a couple of her Special K breakfast bars “to keep body and soul together” until lunch — whatever the hell that meant. She had some weird expressions — like that one, and beats having a sharp stick in the eye, and six of one, half a dozen of the other, and a bunch more. Maybe they were Midwestern expressions or something. He wasn’t sure.

His dad had married Molly less than a year ago, and it had seemed way too rushed for Chris. He’d still been adjusting to his mother moving out and his parents divorcing, and then wham, his dad got remarried. Suddenly, this pretty artist was taking his mother’s place. Nice as Molly was to him, Chris still couldn’t get used to her constant presence in the house.

He yelled upstairs to her that he wasn’t hungry; then he hurried out the front door.

“Did you hear about Corson?”

It was Courtney calling to him from the open window of her red Neon.

Chris was halfway up the driveway, but he could see the iPhone in her grasp. Courtney Hahn was always texting or Twittering. That damn iPhone was practically glued to her hand. It didn’t matter to her that it was against the law in Washington state to operate a handheld phone while driving. Courtney considered herself the exception. Her and her iPhone — it was one of several things about her that drove him crazy for the two months they dated last year. Still, she was blond, pretty, and popular — so for a while, he’d convinced himself that he was damn lucky to be her boyfriend. Well, maybe not that lucky. Except for feeling her breasts on a few occasions, and three intense make-out sessions during which he’d come in his jeans, they’d never gotten very far in the sex department. They’d had a pretty amicable breakup, probably because they hadn’t been all that crazy about each other in the first place. But Courtney was a good kisser — and a good sport. As part of her campaign that they remain friends, she still gave him a lift to school in the mornings.

“Did you hear the news about Corson?” she repeated, glancing up from her iPhone keypad for a moment. “Somebody shot him. . ”

Chris nodded glumly, and then he opened the passenger door and scooted into the front seat.

“If you ask me, it just proves Corson was a major perv,” Courtney’s best friend forever, Madison Garvey, remarked from the backseat. “The guy probably went to the Arboretum last night to have sex in the bushes or something. Ha! He went there to get blown, and got blown away instead.”

Chris buckled his seat belt and sighed. “Gosh, Madison, think maybe you could wait until lunch — or at least third period — before you start making bad jokes about our guidance counselor getting murdered last night? I don’t think his body’s cold yet.”

“Yeah, Maddie, shut up,” Courtney said. With a tiny smirk, she glanced in the rearview mirror at her friend.

“Oh, kindly remove the sticks from your butts and get over yourselves,” Madison muttered, eyes on her cell phone. Like Courtney, Madison was blond, but almost albino-pale with a slightly goofy-looking face. She had her feet up on the back of Chris’s seat. She wore her bright orange Converse All Star high-tops today. She’d made that brand of gym shoe her trademark, sporting it in several different colors and patterns. Madison didn’t wear any other kind of shoes in public. She’d even worn Converse All Star high-tops — silver — to the prom last year.

Madison lived with her divorced mother in the three-bedroom house next door to Chris. Courtney’s family was across the street and two houses down. Along with two more families, they all lived on the same North Seattle cul-de-sac, which had been part of an ambitious development that started two years ago — and never got finished. A dozen beautiful, distinctive, modern houses were supposed to go up, but only five were completed. Construction halted when the recession hit. So several lots on the cul-de-sac were bare — or occupied by half-finished skeletons of houses. There still weren’t any sidewalks yet, and not quite enough streetlights. At night, it was always dark and slightly sinister, because the cul-de-sac lay in the shadow of a forest. The street was named Willow Tree Court, which Chris thought was pretty lame, since they never got around to planting the willow trees on the barren divider strip down the middle of the curved, dead-end roadway.

Chris glanced at the NO OUTLET sign as Courtney came to a stop at the end of the block. It amazed him that she managed to navigate the road with only one hand on the steering wheel and her eyes on her iPhone eighty percent of the time. Whenever he rode in the car with her, Chris figured they’d end up dead poster kids for the dangers of driving while texting. Then people at school would be making the bad jokes about them — rather than about Mr. Corson.

“Tiffany thinks one of Ian’s wacko parents shot Corson,” Courtney announced, glancing up from her phone for a few seconds while she turned left at the intersection.

“Shauna agrees with me,” Madison said, consulting her phone from the backseat.

“She thinks Corson was meeting another guy there at the park for some kinky sex thing. I mean, really, his car just happens to break down at a park at night — with a ton of bushes. Major perv alert! Corson was just asking for it.”

“C’mon, shut up,” Courtney said, slowing down to a stop at a traffic light. “You’re talking about Chris’s hero.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right. Chris used to think Corson peed perfume.”

Both girls laughed. But Chris remained silent. He kept his head turned away and stared out the window — at a dead gray cat on the side of the road.

CHAPTER TWO

“Honey, I talked with him,” Jeff sighed. He was wheeling the tall recycle bin toward the end of the driveway. Molly walked alongside him with a Hefty bag full of cans. She’d put Erin on the school bus five minutes before, and now Jeff was about to leave for work.

“Obviously, Chris is shaken up,” Jeff went on, talking over the bin’s squeaky wheels. “But he’ll be okay. We just need to downplay this thing. If he sees you making a big deal out of it, he’ll start thinking it’s a big deal—”

Molly stopped in her tracks and set down the Hefty bag. The cans rattled. “Jeff, honey, it is a big deal. The man was murdered.”

“What I’m saying is, if you — if we make a big to-do about this and fuss over him, Chris will end up rehashing the entire episode from five months ago — and he’ll be blaming himself all over again.”

“He blamed me, too,” Molly murmured.

“You did the right thing,” Jeff said, setting the receptacle by the end of their driveway. He grabbed the Hefty bag from her and leaned it against the bin. “Personally, I’m not shedding any tears over the guy’s demise. I’m not as forgiving as my son is.” He rubbed his hands together to brush off some residue from the bin handle. “Anyway, for Chris, let’s just downplay this whole thing, okay?”

Nodding, Molly glanced down at a crack in the driveway. “Don’t forget to swing by the optical place today,” she murmured. “You wanted to get your glasses tightened for your trip.”

Jeff put his arm around her, and they headed back toward the garage. The automatic garage door was locked in the open position. Earlier, he’d tossed his briefcase into the front seat of his silver Lexus. “You know, I’m not so sure I should go off to Denver tomorrow, not when I think about that family in Renton last week.”

Molly shuddered. “God, don’t remind me.” She’d read all about the Renton killings online and in the Seattle Times.

“Jesus, the whole family.” He sighed. “It’s enough to make you sick. The twin girls were Erin’s age.” He gave Molly’s shoulder a squeeze. “I don’t feel good leaving you and the kids alone for two nights — not while this maniac is on the loose.”

Molly shrugged. “You can’t go changing your work schedule because of some nutcase. It could be a while before the police catch him.” She tried to smile. “Besides, we’ll be okay, because I’m going to that Neighborhood Watch potluck today. I’ll know just what to do in case a serial killer comes knocking on our front door. . ”

The lunch would be across the street at the Hahns’ house. A police detective had been invited to speak to the residents of the cul-de-sac. That included Jeff’s ex-wife’s two best friends, Lynette Hahn and Kay Garvey.

Angela would be attending, too. She was still chummy-chummy with her Willow Tree Court pals, even though she lived on another cul-de-sac — in Bellevue with her new boyfriend and his thirteen-year-old daughter. The new relationship didn’t keep Angela from meddling in Jeff’s life. Apparently, it wasn’t enough that she talked to her kids every day and asked them to convey messages to their dad. At least once a week, she was back in her old stomping grounds to visit Lynette or Kay. She even tried to make friends with Molly early on. But Molly quickly figured out this was just another way for Angela to have some kind of control over Jeff — albeit indirectly. It seemed pretty damn manipulative. So Molly did her best to avoid Jeff’s ex — and stayed distantly polite to her.

She wasn’t looking forward to this Neighborhood Watch potluck with Angela and her cronies. She’d almost just as soon take her chances with a serial killer.

“I thought that lunch wasn’t until tomorrow,” Jeff said, opening the car door. “And aren’t those neighborhood watch things held on weekends and evenings so it doesn’t interfere with people’s work schedules?”

“Not this one. Lynette pulled some strings. It’s in four hours, and I still have to make chocolate chip cookies for it. Do you want me to pass along any messages to the former Mrs. Dennehy?”

“Just that I’m blissfully happy,” he said, kissing her. Then he climbed into the car and buckled his seat belt. “Good luck with that crowd.”

Molly gave him a wry smile. “We who are about to die salute you.”

Shutting his door, he blew her a kiss, and then started up the car. He backed out of the garage. Molly waved at her husband.

The garage door started to descend. As the Lexus drove off, Molly caught a glimpse of a strange car parked in front of Dr. and Mrs. Nguyen’s house. She hadn’t noticed the metallic blue minivan earlier when she’d walked back from Erin’s bus stop. Then again, she hadn’t really been paying attention.

She ducked inside — through the garage entrance, then past the closed door to the basement, through the kitchen area, the dining room, and finally the living room in the front of the house. At the big picture window, she pushed aside the sheer curtain and glanced out at that minivan again. It was too far away for her to tell if someone was in the front seat.

This would probably be one of the first items the cop would address at the Neighborhood Watch potluck in a few hours: Look out for unfamiliar cars parked on your cul-de-sac. The Nguyens lived in Denver eight months out of the year, and sometimes, they had friends using the place. Molly had to remind herself that it wasn’t so unusual to see a strange car parked in front of their house.

Stepping away from the window, she wondered if — before last week — the mother of those twin girls had been on the lookout for strange cars in their cul-de-sac in Renton.

She remembered the front-page headlines in the Seattle Times last Tuesday. She remembered, because she’d looked up the article again online just last night. She’d become a bit fixated on the murders.

RENTON FAMILY SLAIN4 dead in Another Cul-de-Sac KillingPARENTS AND TWIN DAUGHTERS STABBING VICTIMS

A photo of the murdered family ran under the headline. It showed the dark-haired, husky father and his pretty, somewhat mousy, blond wife. Grinning proudly, they posed behind their blond daughters in one of those family portraits from Sears or JCPenney. The twins looked darling. They were laughing in the picture. One of them was missing a front tooth.

SENSELESS MURDER, read the caption. Renton residents, Lyle Winters, 33, and wife, Terri Anne, 31, in a photo taken last October with their 6-year-old twin daughters, Claudia and Colette. The family was brutally slain in their Loretta Court home late Sunday night. This is the fourth in a series of bizarre cul-de-sac killings in the Seattle area since February.

The news article had been broken up with different subheadlines in boldface print: Neighbors Heard Nothing, No Screams — Every Light Was On and Bodies in Closets, A Killer’s Calling Card.

Each time this Cul-de-sac Killer struck, he left nearly all of the lights on inside the house — and his victims shut inside closets.

Lyle Winters, his throat slashed, was found in the closet off their guest room. His wife, strangled and stabbed repeatedly, was discovered in the master bedroom closet, curled up amid some shoes and a pile of blouses that had fallen off their hangers. Both children were stabbed and left — one on top of the other — in their bedroom closet.

Like nearly everyone who lived on a cul-de-sac in the Seattle area, Molly was constantly on her guard now. That was why she walked Erin to the bus stop every morning and waited there with her. It was why she kept a lookout for strange cars on the block. They never used to turn on their house alarm at night, but they did now.

The newspapers didn’t mention if any of the Cul-de-sac Killer’s victims had home security systems.

Molly had read so much about the murders that she’d almost become an expert. She didn’t know why she’d become so preoccupied with the cul-de-sac killings — except perhaps to make sure it didn’t happen to her new family.

The first to die had been an elderly woman, Irene Haskel, who lived alone in a split-level house on a dead-end street in Ballard. A neighbor had noticed nearly all of Irene’s lights were on for three nights in a row. She stopped by to discover Irene’s front door ajar — and a foul odor permeating the seemingly empty house. Irene’s neighbor followed the pungent smell to a bedroom closet in the upper level. The Seattle Times reported that Irene had thirty-eight stab wounds.

The killer struck again a week later, stabbing three coeds who lived in a townhouse on a dead end near Seattle Pacific University. A fourth roommate, who had spent that night at a friend’s apartment, returned the following afternoon to find all the lights on inside the townhouse. She also found all her roommates’ bodies, stashed in closets on the second floor.

A month passed, and it happened again — this time, a married couple in their fifties, who lived at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Queen Anne neighborhood. Coming home from college for a weekend visit, their son discovered the blood — and then their bodies, stuffed in two upstairs closets.

And now this family of four was slaughtered just last week.

Nervously rubbing her arms, Molly returned to the kitchen. Going through the cabinets and the refrigerator, she started to pull out all the ingredients for Toll House cookies. She didn’t want to think about the cul-de-sac murders now, not while she was the only one home. She felt uncomfortable enough in Angela’s house.

The place still seemed to belong to Jeff’s ex-wife. Hell, half the spices in the kitchen cupboard had been bought by Angela. The glasses she drank from, the plates the family used — they were all Angela’s.

Molly started mixing up the white and brown sugar, eggs, and butter in a bowl. She kept glancing over at the sliding glass doors in the big family room off the kitchen area. The backyard was rather small — with just enough room for a gas grill, a patio, and a small strip of grass. The forest started only fifteen or twenty feet behind the house. Some evenings, raccoons came right up to the other side of the sliding glass door. When Molly was alone in the house at night, she occasionally got scared and imagined something else emerging from that dark forest to watch her through the glass, something on two legs instead of four.

She thought about closing the drapes, but they were so damn ugly — maroon with gold fleur-de-lis on a heavy, velvetlike material. Hello, Angela, what were you thinking?

Given her druthers, Molly would have redecorated the entire first floor. She didn’t share Angela’s fondness for hunter green, maroon, and gold — and the charmless, dark, Mediterranean furniture that made the big family room look like the lobby of a small, cheesy Best Western. She also thought the tall grandfather clock that didn’t work was kind of ugly. But Molly told herself that Jeff’s kids were going through enough changes in their lives. They probably didn’t want to see their mother’s house transformed into something else entirely. Nevertheless, every other week, Molly would make a subtle alteration to Angela’s drab, almost impersonal design scheme. One week, she added jazzy throw pillows to the hunter-green sofa. Another week — and about time — she got rid of a tall, ugly standing vase with a dried flower arrangement in it.

Molly figured three dozen cookies were enough for Angela and her pals. They’d probably turn up their noses at dessert anyway. It was a competitively thin crowd.

She left the cookies out to cool and started washing the dishes. The phone rang. She grabbed the kitchen cordless on the third ring. “Yes, hello?”

“It’s above the heart now,” whispered the woman on the other end. At least that was what it sounded like she said.

“Pardon me?” Molly said. She pulled the phone away from her ear for a moment so she could glance at the caller ID screen on the receiver. CALLER UNKNOWN, it said.

“Pardon me?” Molly repeated into the phone. “Hello?”

There was a click on the other end of the line.

Frowning, Molly hung up. She moved over to the glass doors and peered out at the backyard once more. The sky had grown dark, and the woods looked gray and a bit sinister. Trees and shrubs swayed in the wind. She wondered if the cul-de-sacs where the killer had struck were in wooded areas.

“Would you cut it out already, Molly?” she muttered to herself. She checked the lock on the sliding door.

She really wished Jeff hadn’t mentioned the cul-de-sac murders earlier. Of course, before Jeff brought up the serial killings, she’d been unnerved by the news of Ray Corson’s death — another senseless murder.

Molly heard the washing-machine buzzer go off downstairs in the basement. She’d put her coffee-spattered sweatpants and some other clothes in the quick cycle a half hour ago. With a sigh, she plodded to the basement door. Opening it, she switched on the stairwell light. It sputtered and went out.

“Oh, terrific,” she muttered. “I really need this now.”

She could see the overhead in the rec room still worked. The staircase was a bit dark, but Molly held on to the banister and quickly made her way down there. The rec room was the kids’ domain. In one corner sat a rowing machine belonging to Jeff, but in the ten months they’d been married, Molly had yet to see him use it. She guessed Jeff and Angela bought the maroon sectional sofa and black end tables at Ikea. The fat, clunky big-screen TV was from before the day of HD and plasma. Chris must have been in charge of the art on the walls — which included a Mariners poster, a lighted Hamm’s Beer clock, movie posters of Zoolander and Avatar, and four pictures of dogs playing poker. The Ping-Pong table had become a catchall for everything from Erin’s Barbie Dream House to a science-project volcano Chris had built with papier-mâché, paint, and some chemicals.

There was also a small walk-in closet — with shelves full of board games, sports equipment, and toys. The door was open a crack. Molly paused in front of it. She imagined Jeff lying dead on the floor in there, his throat slit — just like Lyle Winters. The thought made her skin crawl. She tried to push it out of her mind.

Nervously rubbing her gooseflesh-covered arms, Molly retreated to the laundry and utility room. With its bare floor, exposed pipes overhead, and shadowy nooks around the furnace and water heater, the big room was kind of creepy. It had become cluttered with unwanted furniture and knickknacks from Jeff’s years with Angela. There were also some collapsed folding chairs leaning against a square support beam, and boxes of Christmas decorations.

Molly emptied out the washer and tossed the damp clothes in the dryer. While she threw in a strip of Bounce, her mind started to wander toward that morbid direction again.

Why does he put the bodies in closets? Why does he leave practically all the lights on inside the houses of his victims? The police must have come up with some theories. Maybe she’d ask the cop at the potluck.

While setting the timer for the dryer, Molly thought she heard a creaking sound above her. Quit it, she told herself. It’s the house settling, stupid — or maybe something outside. You’re all alone here. From everything she’d read, the Cul-de-sac Killer usually struck at night. And right now, it was ten o’clock in the morning. Quit it, she told herself again.

Molly closed the dryer door and pushed the start button. The dryer drum began rolling and roaring. But the sound she heard past the racket was unmistakable.

Upstairs someplace, a door slammed shut.

“Shit,” Molly whispered, a hand over her heart. She quickly reached over and switched off the dryer. The rumbling noise stopped, and the hot air gave out one last wheeze. Molly stood perfectly still, and listened. She didn’t hear anything upstairs.

Glancing over at Jeff’s worktable, she made a beeline for it and snatched the crowbar from a hook on the wall. She took a deep breath and crept back into the rec room. Then she made her way up the darkened stairs to the first floor. She cautiously looked around. Everything seemed just the way she’d left it five minutes ago.

“Hello? Is anyone home?” Molly called, a nervous tremor in her voice. She wondered if maybe Chris had decided not to go to school today after all — and he’d come back. “Chris? Is that you?”

No one answered.

Molly checked the locks on the front door, the garage door entrance, and even the sliding glass doors — which she’d just checked minutes before. All of them were locked. But that didn’t make her feel any better.

Tightening her grip on the crowbar, she headed up to the second floor. At the top of the stairs, she saw Erin’s bedroom door was closed. Erin never shut her door — not even while she was sleeping in there.

Molly tiptoed down the hallway and slowly opened Erin’s door. She felt a cool breeze against her hands and face. The window was open. The lacy white curtain billowed. The wind slammed the door shut, it’s that simple, she told herself. Still, she checked Erin’s closet before she went to the window and shut it with one hand. She wasn’t ready to let go of the crowbar, not just yet.

Molly looked in the guest room and Chris’s bedroom — the closets, too. She poked her head in the kids’ bathroom, and then scurried down the hallway to the master bedroom. It was empty — as was the big walk-in closet and master bath. Molly even peeked behind the closed shower curtain. Nothing.

Jeff had let her redecorate their quarters. But even with the bedroom’s new Mission-style furniture, a recent paint job (sea-foam green), new carpeting, and photos of her and Jeff prominently displayed — it still seemed like Angela’s domain. Angela had been with Jeff in that bedroom first.

Molly still held on to the crowbar, but it was down at her side. She paused at the doorway to the third floor. Maybe she was being silly, but it was worth checking up there — just to put her mind at rest. She climbed up the stairs.

The third floor was the only place in the house Molly felt was totally hers. With her own savings, she took Angela’s unfinished attic and transformed it into an art studio. She’d even had a bathroom installed up there. There was also a very comfortable chaise longue on which life-study models could pose — and Molly could nap.

She glanced inside the bathroom: nothing. Her one closet was so narrow and crammed with easel frames, canvas, and paint supplies, if someone could hide in there, he’d need to be half her size and a contortionist. She was alone up here.

With a sigh, she looked at the painting-in-progress on her easel in front of the dormer window. It showed a shapely, gorgeous, tawny-haired woman in a torn bodice — which still needed some detail painted in. Standing proudly, she looked skyward as a shirtless hunk knelt behind her with his brawny arms wrapped around her trim waist. In the background, a full moon illuminated a castle by the sea. This would be the cover to Desiree’s Destiny, the latest in a series of romance novels. Molly had already gotten the advance money for it: $1,750, minus her agent’s commission. She would get the same amount once she delivered the finished painting. She’d created all seven of the Desiree covers, so far. Both Desiree’s resemblance to Angelina Jolie and the always-shirtless Lord Somerton’s similarity to Jude Law were no mistake.

It wasn’t exactly what Molly had intended to do after six years in art school, but book covers, magazine illustrations, and ads had become her bread and butter. Occasionally, she sold one of her more serious works. She was proud of those paintings, mostly still-life studies or moody portraits that seemed to tell a story. Her Woman Playing Solitaire (at a dinette table with a melancholy look on her face and a cigarette in one hand), went for $2,600 at the Lyman-Eyer Gallery in Provincetown. But sales like that were few and far between.

Before marrying Jeff, she’d barely eked out a living as an artist, so Molly had taken on an assortment of parttime and temp jobs: everything from office worker to waitress to hotel desk clerk. She’d figured she was paying her dues. Molly felt a bit guilty for not needing to work those kinds of jobs anymore. She had quite a nice setup here. She wondered if Angela and her friends said as much behind her back.

She was glad for this space on the third floor, where Angela had no claim. The studio was Molly’s escape, a haven for old family knickknacks she couldn’t part with, photo albums, and her collection of elephants.

When she was a kid, she’d heard elephants brought good luck, so Molly started collecting elephant figurines — in marble, jade, porcelain, mahogany, plastic, you name it. She’d given most of them to Goodwill two years ago, but kept about forty figurines — all of them now neatly arranged on a bookcase along one wall of her studio. No photos of her family were displayed. It just didn’t seem right. Her dad and her brother were dead, and she and her mother weren’t on the best of terms.

Considering how her brother had died, Molly wondered if those elephants were really so lucky. A few of the elephants on that bookshelf had originally belonged to him. He’d collected them, too.

Nearly every time Molly looked through her family albums, she ended up crying. So it seemed pretty masochistic to frame those pictures and put them on display. Jeff and his children were her family now.

Though she sometimes felt like a houseguest they merely tolerated, Molly still really cared for Jeff’s kids. It was why she waited at the bus stop with Erin this morning. And it was why she worried about Chris getting through his school day when Ray Corson had just been murdered last night. It was why she tried to be cordial — albeit distantly cordial — to Jeff’s ex. After all, she was their mother.

At the same time, she dreaded this Neighborhood Watch potluck with Angela and all her pals. Molly glanced at her wristwatch. It was less than an hour from now.

Downstairs, the phone rang, and it startled her. Molly hurried down to the second floor and rushed into her bedroom. She snatched up the cordless from the nightstand. “Yes, hello?” she answered, a bit out of breath. She set the crowbar down on the bed.

“Molly?” the woman whispered. It was the same voice from before. What she murmured next still sounded like gibberish: “It’s above the heart now. . ”

“I can’t understand what you’re saying,” Molly cut in. “Could you talk louder, please? Who is this?”

“I said. .” She still spoke in a whisper, but the words were very clear this time. “It’s about to start now.”

“I don’t understand. What’s about to start? Who—”

Molly heard a click on the other end of the line — and then nothing.

CHAPTER THREE

It was stupid of her to think he might be grieving, too.

Chris Dennehy seemed to go about his morning as if it were a normal day. Walking through the corridors between classes, he didn’t appear disturbed or troubled — only slightly aloof toward all his fellow students, who couldn’t stop staring at him. He didn’t make eye contact with anyone.

He certainly hadn’t seemed to notice her.

She felt invisible in the crowded second-floor hallway of James Monroe High School. Now and then, someone bumped into her and kept walking as if she weren’t even there.

She was just like the others, watching Chris, waiting for him to snap or start crying — or show some kind of emotion, for God’s sake. His former guidance counselor had just been murdered last night. They’d been very close at one time, and everyone knew it.

“Are you — like — totally freaked out, man?” she’d overheard a tall, lanky basketball player ask him in the stairwell an hour before. She’d strained to hear Chris’s answer. But there were too many other students stomping up and down the stairs, and too much noise. Chris had shrugged, muttered something to his classmate, and then he’d continued up the steps. He’d seemed pretty nonchalant about it.

Now he walked down the corridor by himself, close to the lockers on the wall. Even though his brown hair was a mess, and his blue-striped shirt needed ironing, he still looked handsome. He was on his way from Ms. Kinsella’s trigonometry class to third-period study hall.

She knew his class schedule. She knew he occasionally rode his bike to school — though most of the time, he carpooled with those bitches from his cul-de-sac, Courtney Hahn and Madison Garvey. He had swim practice from 3:30 until 5:30, and usually caught a ride home from a teammate or took a bus.

Not counting three empty lots and the skeletal frames of two unfinished homes, the Dennehys’ was the second house down from the start of Willow Tree Court. She knew every inch of that cul-de-sac. From the forest that bordered the backyards, she’d spied on the Dennehys and their neighbors. They never bothered to lower their blinds or shut the drapes on that side. She had a direct look into their day-to-day private lives. She’d thought it might make her more compassionate toward them, but it didn’t change how she felt — not at all.

She didn’t care much that some of them would die soon.

But Chris Dennehy was different — at least, she used to think he was. That was why she’d come to his high school to follow him around today. She wanted to see if he would shed any tears for Ray Corson.

She trailed about twenty feet behind him in the hallway as he shuffled toward the study hall just around the corner.

“Hey, Dennehy!” another student called to him.

She stopped — and so did Chris, up ahead of her.

A handsome, blond-haired jock swaggered toward him. He wore a varsity jacket and carried a backpack. She could see — as he approached — he was a bit shorter than Chris. “Dennehy,” he said, slapping him on the shoulder. “Wow, you must be so glad someone killed that slimy fuck. . ” Then with a cocky grin, he said something else — under his breath.

Chris glared at him. Suddenly, he grabbed the blond-haired jock by the front of his shirt and slammed him into the row of lockers. There was a loud clatter, and a girl nearby screamed. Still holding onto the guy’s shirt collar, Chris had his fist under the jock’s chin. He kept him pinned against the lockers for another moment. Everyone around them froze — and it was suddenly quiet.

She heard Chris growl at the young man: “Get the hell away from me.” Then he let go of the other guy, and turned away.

“What’s your fucking problem?” the jock yelled. He was shaking. “Jesus, you’re crazy! Crazy fuck!”

Chris kept walking.

Her heart racing, she pushed her way through the crowd to catch up with him. She wanted to see his face.

“Can’t you take a joke?” the jock was saying. “What’s wrong with you, man?”

As he started to turn the corner, Chris looked back and scowled at the other guy.

She stopped in her tracks. Chris looked so angry and agitated. But he had tears in his eyes, too.

He turned and disappeared around the corner.

She’d figured he would cry. That was what she’d wanted to see today.

She stood there, invisible to the others, and wondered about him. She still wasn’t quite sure if — once the killing started — Chris Dennehy would die like the others.

He certainly would suffer. That much she knew.

“I really wish you’d let me in, Chris,” Mr. Munson said in his customary mellow tenor, which made him sound slightly stoned. “I’m sensing some hostility from you, and that’s okay. You own those feelings, Chris. They’re valid. But I’m your friend, and I’m here to help you. . ”

Mr. Munson leaned back in his chair and scratched his gray-orange goatee. He was about forty with thinning, red hair, a pasty complexion, and a stud earring. He wore an ugly paisley tie and a denim shirt. Some sort of weird stone charm hung on a chain around his neck.

Chris squirmed in the hardback chair facing Munson’s desk. The little office had a wide window in one wall, looking out to a corridor full of lockers. Munson kept a bunch of self-help books and pamphlets on the shelves behind his desk. There was also a really cheesy poster of a guy dressed as a clown, flying a kite by a lake at sunset. It said: To Thine Own Self Be True

Mr. Munson had pulled Chris out of third-period study hall for this impromptu touchy-feely, new-age, psychobabble session. Chris could barely tolerate the guy, but he kept telling himself that Munson meant well.

Munson was Mr. Corson’s replacement. This was Mr. Corson’s old office. Chris remembered the cool Edward Hopper Nighthawks print — of those lonely-looking people at a café at night — that had been where the stupid-ass clown poster was now. He remembered pouring his heart out to Mr. Corson in this office and feeling better for it. He couldn’t open up in the same way to Munson.

“I’m fine, Mr. Munson, really,” Chris said, slouching in the chair a little. He tried to keep from tapping his foot, but the restless, nervous tic was almost involuntary now. “I’m — I’m sad Mr. Corson is dead, of course. And it’s a real shock. I feel really bad for Mr. Corson’s family, too.” He shrugged, and glanced down at the tiled floor. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”

“How are the other kids at school treating you today?”

Chris kept looking at the floor. “Fine,” he lied. “Just fine. .”

He realized what this session was all about. Somehow, word must have gotten to Munson that he’d shoved Scott Kinkaid against the lockers.

All morning long, Chris had felt people staring at him. In the corridors and classrooms, he heard people whispering about what had happened last December with Mr. Corson and him — and another classmate, Ian Scholl. If they weren’t whispering about it, they were Twittering and texting about it. They rehashed old jokes that had circulated around school after the incident in December. And they told new ones, making fun of Mr. Corson’s brutal murder last night. Madison Garvey’s wiseass comments in the car this morning had been just a sneak preview of the snickering remarks Chris overheard in the school hallways.

Several of his classmates — even kids he barely knew — approached him this morning with comments and questions about Mr. Corson’s death:

“Isn’t it weird what happened to Corson? God, what a trip. . ”

“Have any TV news people talked with you yet? After all, you’re the reason he got fired. . ”

Then there was Scott Kinkaid: “Wow, you must be so glad someone killed that slimy fuck. . ” He added, under his breath: “After he tried to get into your pants, you must figure the faggot had it coming. . ”

That was when Chris lost it. Before he knew it, he grabbed Scott by the front of his shirt and threw him against the lockers. It was all he could do to keep from punching his face in.

And that was why he’d ended up here in Munson’s office. He was certain of it.

“I don’t know if you heard,” Chris muttered, unable to look Munson in the eye. “I kinda shoved Scott Kinkaid, because he said something creepy about Mr. Corson. But it was nothing.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Munson asked.

“Not really,” Chris answered.

“Is there someone else you can talk with?” He leaned forward in his chair. “Have you discussed with anyone how you feel about Mr. Corson’s death?”

“My dad and I talked this morning,” Chris said. “It’s cool.”

“And your mom?”

“They don’t live together anymore,” he replied. “My dad remarried and my mother lives in Bellevue now.”

“Oh, um, well, I see. . ” Munson nervously cleared his throat and started searching through some papers in a file folder on his desk. Obviously, the guy hadn’t done his homework. “Give me a minute here,” he said.

Chris glanced over his shoulder. He caught a glimpse of a girl on the other side of the window to Munson’s office — or it could have been a teacher, he wasn’t sure. She’d ducked away so quickly he didn’t even get a look at her face, just her shoulder-length brown hair and her black coat. She must have run down the corridor.

A stocky young man with thick glasses and brownish-blond hair stopped at the window. He was Chris’s best friend, Elvis Harnett. They’d known each other since sixth grade. A stack of books under one arm, Elvis peered into the office. He looked concerned. “Are you okay?” he mouthed to Chris.

Chris glanced warily at Munson, still searching through his paperwork. He turned toward his friend and nodded furtively.

Elvis half smiled, but then he suddenly looked away and retreated down the corridor.

Chris swiveled around in his chair. Munson was staring at him. Eyes narrowed, he scratched his goatee again. “You had several sessions here with Mr. Corson, didn’t you?”

Chris nodded.

“Did Mr. Corson take any notes during these sessions?”

Chris nodded again. “Yeah, he — he used to scribble stuff down.”

Munson glanced at the papers in front of him. “That’s odd, there aren’t any notes here. These records are from your freshman year. There’s nothing from the last two years.” Shaking his head, Munson got to his feet and grabbed the file. “I need to go figure this out. Be right back. Stay put, okay? While you’re waiting, here. .” He reached for one of the books on his shelf and handed it to Chris. “Take a look at this. I think you’ll find it very useful.”

Chris glanced at the book’s cover. It had bright purple lettering against an orange background. At the very top was the banner: “A breakthrough in getting yourself on the road to happiness and self-fulfillment!”—Dr. Tim, National Syndicated Radio Personality

HELP YOURSELF!A Cathartic Cookbook of Easy Recipes for Overcoming What’s Holding You Back & Finding a Better You

By Dr. Sonya SwintonBestselling Author of You First!

“She’s got a fantastic chapter in there about dealing with anger and grief,” Munson said, on his way out the door.

“Fantastic,” Chris muttered, once he was alone in the office. He glanced up from the book in his hand to the empty chair that used to be Mr. Corson’s.

“Psssst, hey, Chris. .”

He turned to see Elvis poking his head in the doorway. “Is Mellow Man Munson guiding you on a personal-growth journey? Or are you in here because you kicked the crap out of Scott Kinkaid?”

Chris rolled his eyes. “All I did was push him against some lockers.”

“Well, depending on whose Twitter you’re reading,” Elvis said, hovering at the office threshold, “you either had a slight altercation with Scott or you beat him bloody and put him into a coma. Personally, I’d hoped the coma story was true. I’ve always hated that douche bag — ever since eighth grade, when he called me Goodyear Blimp in front of our entire homeroom class. Remember that?”

Chris nodded. “Vividly.”

“Hey, listen, I’m really sorry about Corson,” Elvis whispered, suddenly somber. They hadn’t had a chance to talk this morning. “How are you holding up?”

Chris nodded again. “I’m okay.”

“You’re not going to talk about this, are you?” Elvis whispered. “Even though it’s eating away at you inside.”

“Probably not,” Chris murmured. “Listen, you should scram before Munson comes back. I’ll call you later.”

Elvis sighed. “You better.” Then he headed down the corridor.

Chris turned and faced the empty desk.

Besides Mr. Corson, Elvis was just about the only person who could get him to open up and talk about things that truly upset him. And even then, it took Elvis a lot of prodding.

“You’re so tight-lipped about everything,” Elvis had observed a while back. “You care too much about what people think. Always putting on your best face, no matter what — I think you get that shit from your mom.”

Elvis’s own mother was a lost cause. With her drug and alcohol problems, her terrible taste in men, and her penchant for dressing like a slut, Mrs. Harnett would have been a terrific guest on The Jerry Springer Show. Chris rarely went over to the Harnetts’ place.

While he’d dated Courtney Hahn, his image-conscious girlfriend had wanted very little to do with Elvis. “I’m sorry, but how can you let yourself even be seen with him?” she’d asked at one point toward the end, when they were breaking up. “I mean, he’s a nice guy and all, but he’s poor white trash. You’d think he’d try to lose a little weight or dress in something besides farmer clothes. And when’s he going to get those stupid glasses fixed?”

One of Mrs. Harnett’s loser boyfriends had slapped Elvis for mouthing off to him, and he’d broken the hinge on his glasses. For the next three months, Elvis had silver electric tape bunched around the corner of his progressives.

Elvis couldn’t help that he didn’t have money for new glasses or new clothes. He couldn’t help that he was overweight from being raised on junk food. He never even ate a vegetable until he had dinner at Chris’s house. Elvis slept over at least once a week. Chris felt the overnights gave his friend a taste of what a fairly functional, normal family was like.

Just two weeks before his parents sat down with him for the talk, Chris had watched them at a block party at the Hahns’ house. They looked so happy, and it made him feel lucky — not only compared to Elvis’s situation, but also compared to his neighbors, Courtney and Madison. Madison’s parents had split up three years before; and as for Courtney, she admitted that her father could barely tolerate her mother. Chris could tell, too. Mrs. Hahn would act all lovey-dovey around him, and Mr. Hahn would hardly crack a smile. He’d get a sort of constipated, slightly annoyed look whenever she started to hang on him.

But at that party, Chris watched his parents sitting together on the floor by the Hahns’ fireplace. His mom looked especially pretty that night. Snuggled next to his dad, she whispered in his ear. His father chuckled and kissed her on the cheek.

Two weeks later, on a Friday last March, his mother called him at school on his cell, saying he shouldn’t make plans for the evening. She and his dad needed to talk with him about something. Chris wondered if maybe his mother had discovered the two adult DVDs he’d hidden in his desk drawer: Slutty Betty and Hot Meter Maids 2: Violation! He’d stashed them beneath a collection of old birthday cards, some of which were sent from his now-deceased grandmother. Had he no shame? His parents probably thought he was a major pervert.

But that wasn’t it at all.

He came home from school that Friday at 4:30 to find his dad sitting at the kitchen table with a scotch and soda. He wore his blue suit. His dad never came home from work before six — unless someone got sick or had an accident. Chris’s mom was pouring herself a glass of wine at the counter. It was kind of early for them to be drinking. The house was quiet, no TV blaring in the family room, no sign of his sister.

Hanging his coat in the pantry closet, Chris gave them a wary look and asked where Erin was. His dad hugged him, and said they thought it best Erin spend the night at Aunt Trish’s.

Chris didn’t understand. “Are you guys mad at me about something?”

His dad shook his head.

“We wanted to discuss this with you first — and then we’ll talk to Erin,” his mom explained. She sat down at the breakfast table.

Chris suddenly thought of something he hadn’t considered until just that moment: cancer. Panic swept through him. “Is somebody sick?” he murmured. “Is that what this is about?”

With a sigh, his dad shook his head again. “Nobody’s sick, Chris,” he said. “Sit down, son.”

Numbly he obeyed him, taking his usual spot at the kitchen table. “What’s going on?”

His dad sank down in his chair and reached for his scotch and soda. The ice clinking in his glass seemed loud against the silence. He took a gulp. “It’s this,” he said, clearing his throat. “Your mom and I have decided to live apart for a while. . ”

Chris let out a stunned little laugh. “You’re joking.”

He looked at his mother, whose eyes met his for the first time since he’d walked through the door. She didn’t appear sad or apologetic or angry. It was as if all her feelings had shut down. She quickly looked away — and gazed down at her glass of wine. She took a sip.

Chris realized this was no joke.

He couldn’t remember anything else they’d said — just that his mother was moving out. All the while, he kept looking at his dad’s hands, one around his highball glass and the other clenched in a fist on the kitchen table. His mother kept fiddling with the saltshaker — picking at the little grains of salt stuck in the pour holes. She and his dad wouldn’t look at each other.

When Chris finally asked if he could go upstairs and they let him go, he saw the clock on his nightstand read 4:58. He’d been sitting at that kitchen table with them for only twenty-five minutes, but it had seemed like hours.

He kept thinking of the way they’d seemed so affectionate at the Hahns’ party two weeks before, and he realized it had been a lie. Chris hated admitting that to himself. And he didn’t want to admit it to his friends — especially Elvis. So he didn’t talk about it at all.

He felt bad Elvis had to find out about his parents’ separation from someone in school. Apparently, Mrs. Hahn had told Courtney, who broadcast it on her Facebook page. Chris had kept hoping — right up until the day his mother moved out of the house — that his folks would work things out.

Her new home was a two-bedroom apartment in a tall, eighties-era condominium on Capitol Hill. She showed them the indoor pool off the lobby — and off her balcony, a sweeping view of downtown Seattle, Elliott Bay, and the Olympic Mountains. She kept going on about how they were walking distance from Volunteer Park and all these great restaurants, movie theaters, and shops. So when he and Erin visited, they’d never be bored.

Chris couldn’t figure out why his mother had moved out of the house and given his dad custody. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t practical. His dad was hardly ever home.

It wasn’t as if he liked his mother more than he liked his dad. In fact, he felt a stronger connection to his father — even though his dad was away so often. Chris remembered when he was a kid, and his dad used to give him the white cardboard eleven-by-eight sheets the cleaners put inside his folded dress shirts. It was heavier than regular paper, and Chris used the cardboard inserts for elaborate drawings of Lord of the Rings scenes. But mostly he used them for the posters he created to welcome his dad home from business trips. Chris would post one sign on a tree at the end of their block: WE MISSED YOU, DAD! He’d tape another welcome home sign on the lamppost at the start of their driveway, and another on the front door. It was always special when his dad came home. Chris would get a T-shirt or snow globe from an airport in another city, and he’d bask in his dad’s presence for the next few days — until another business trip took him away.

His dad might not have been home much; but when he was around, he spent a lot of time with Chris — and attended his swim meets (something his mom never did). All of his friends’ mothers had crushes on his dad. So when people told him that he was starting to look like his father, Chris took that as a big compliment.

He wondered what they’d do now whenever his father went away on business. Hire a live-in housekeeper? Go stay with Aunt Trish in Tacoma? Chris didn’t like it there. Aunt Trish had a house that smelled like rotten fruit and a cat who hated him. Plus she was vegan, and there was never anything decent to eat in her place.

It didn’t make any sense that his mother was the one moving out. Was she sick of looking after him and Erin? Was that why she’d decided to leave?

“Your father and I have already told you — several times — this separation has nothing to do with you and Erin,” his mother pointed out. “And neither does my moving out of the house.”

She was behind the wheel of her SUV. Chris, in the passenger seat, couldn’t see her eyes behind her designer sunglasses. Wind through the open window blew her close-cropped hair into disarray. She’d recently highlighted it with some silvery-brown rinse, a new look for her new life.

It was his and Erin’s first weekend visiting her in her new condo. He and his mom were driving on Interstate 5 back from North Seattle, where they’d just dropped off Erin at ballet class.

“You had to know, Mom,” he said, squinting at her. “You had to know that Erin and I would really miss you. It just screws up everything with you moving away. I mean, if Dad was the one who got a new place, I don’t think it would have made that big a difference, because he’s away so much anyway. Y’know?”

“I had to know that you and Erin would really miss me,” she paraphrased him in a cool, ironic tone. She looked stone-faced as she stared at the road ahead. “The way you used to miss your father when he was away? Do you think it was easy for me, raising the two of you practically on my own? Yet every time your father came home, you kids treated him like visiting royalty. You were always so happy to see him. Always the hero’s welcome. .”

“I thought you felt the same way whenever he came home,” Chris murmured numbly.

“See how much of a hero he is to you and Erin when he’s the one who stays put and does all those thankless household chores,” she growled.

Chris swallowed hard. “Then it’s true, you’re sick of us.”

“No, goddamn it, I’m sick of him!” she cried. She twisted the wheel to one side. The driver behind them blasted his horn. Chris braced a hand against the dashboard as his mother pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. She slammed on the brakes and the tires screeched beneath them. “I’m sick of you and Erin thinking he’s so goddamn wonderful when he’s never really been there for you — or for me.”

Stunned, Chris stared at her.

One hand gripping the wheel, she swiveled toward him. “He fucked around. Did you know that? Did you know your father — your hero — can’t keep his dick in his pants?”

Chris just shook his head. He’d never heard his mother use such language, and he couldn’t believe what she was saying. He still braced himself against the dashboard, though the Saturn was idling on the shoulder of the road. Other cars whooshed by.

“Every time he goes out of town, it’s just another opportunity for him to screw whomever he wants. Five years ago, he came back from Boston and gave me a dose of chlamydia — at least I think it was Boston where he must have caught it. I can’t be sure. For a while, he even had regular, steady girlfriends in some of those cities. Of course, he couldn’t stay faithful to them any more than he could stay faithful to me. One, her name was Cassandra, she lived down in Portland, and she was crazy. I’m talking certifiable. She was calling the house day and night, threatening me, for God’s sake. She even left a decapitated squirrel by our front door, the insane bitch. Your father can sure pick them. That was last year. . ”

Chris vaguely remembered for a while the previous May, when his mom had instructed him not to answer the phone and not to let Erin pick it up. She’d said some crackpot had been calling. He couldn’t comprehend that the crackpot had been a woman his father was screwing. He just kept shaking his head at his mother. He couldn’t say anything. He felt sick to his stomach.

“Now you know,” she said, her voice cracking. From behind her dark glasses, tears started down her cheeks. She leaned back in the driver’s seat, took off the glasses, and sobbed. “This is no way for a mother to be talking to her son,” she muttered, plucking a Kleenex from her purse. She wiped her eyes and nose. “But I couldn’t stand to have you go on worshiping him, when — when he’s been a terrible husband and at best, a parttime father.”

A few cars sped by, and Chris cleared his throat. “How long have you known he was — messing around?” he asked timidly.

“It’s been going on since you were about five, maybe even before that. I’m not really sure. He hasn’t exactly been honest with me.” His mother blew her nose, and then turned to him. Her red-rimmed eyes wrestled with his. “You said earlier that my moving away screwed everything up — and that if your father was the one getting a new place, it wouldn’t make such a big difference. Well, sweetie, you’re right. His life wouldn’t change much at all. It would be very easy for him. He’d get a bachelor pad and probably have a live-in girlfriend within six weeks. Well, I’ll be damned if I let that happen. It’s why I moved out, honey. Maybe if he actually had to be a full-time father for a while and keep house for you and Erin — well, perhaps then he’d grow up. He might even begin to appreciate me a little more, though I doubt it.”

“I think he appreciates you already, Mom,” Chris whispered. “I really do. He’s going to want you to come back, I know it.”

His mother took a deep breath, readjusted her seat belt, and put her sunglasses back on. “I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. Your father will cancel his business trips for a while, but he’ll hire a housekeeper to do the cooking and cleaning. After about a month, he’ll need to go out of town, and he’ll get the housekeeper to stay with you and Erin. And pretty soon, he’ll start traveling on a regular basis again. . ”

She glanced over her shoulder and pulled back onto the highway. The SUV began to pick up speed. The sound of the wind through the windows and the motor humming almost drowned her out. But Chris could still hear her. “And then one day,” she muttered, “he’ll come home from one of those trips with a woman he’s very serious about — some woman who’s younger and prettier than me. . ”

It was scary how accurate his mother’s prediction was. His dad did indeed stay home for a few weeks. They went through two housekeepers: one who stole and one who was lazy as hell. Then he found Hildy, an honest, hardworking Russian woman who didn’t speak English very well and smelled like an open can of vegetable soup. Hildy stayed with him and Erin when his dad started traveling again.

What his mother hadn’t predicted was how miserable Chris would be. He was utterly disappointed in his dad — to the point of contempt. His grades started sliding, and he didn’t care. His timing at swim practices and meets was atrocious. He hated disappointing his swim coach, Mr. Chertok, because he was such a nice guy. Mr. Chertok tried to get him to talk about what was bothering him. But Chris was so ashamed. He couldn’t talk to Mr. Chertok, or any of his teachers, or Elvis.

He never uttered a word to his dad about what he knew. At this point, he didn’t want much to do with him.

He wasn’t too happy with his mother, either. In order to get even with his dad, she was willing to screw up his and Erin’s lives. Neither she nor his dad were around to hear Erin crying in her room at night. Hildy, who slept on an air mattress in a curtained-off corner of the basement rec room, didn’t hear her, either. So Chris always came in and sat in a white wicker rocking chair that was usually reserved for a big stuffed giraffe she called Bill. Chris would keep her company until she nodded off.

“At least Erin has you to lean on,” Elvis pointed out to him, while they wandered around Northgate Mall one Saturday night. “But who do you have? Why don’t you ever tell me what’s really going on with you? Something’s bugging you big-time, and it’s more than just your parents’ splitting up. . ” He grabbed hold of Chris’s arm. “Are you even listening to me?” he asked, raising his voice. “I’m worried about you, man. I mean it, you’re acting really weird.”

Frowning, Chris glanced over at the entrance to a clothing store. “A little louder. One or two people in The Gap didn’t hear you.” He started walking again — toward the food court.

Elvis caught up with him. “Listen, if you don’t want to unload on me, then you should talk to a shrink or maybe Mr. Corson at school.”

Chris squinted at him. “Corson? Are you nuts? Only losers, psychos, and problem cases go to him. No thanks.”

Elvis cleared his throat. “Maybe you forgot that I had a few sessions with Corson a while back.”

Chris remembered, and immediately felt bad. After meeting with Elvis, Corson had tried to get Mrs. Harnett to join AA, but it didn’t take. Nevertheless, Elvis liked him a lot — as did most of the kids at school. Corson’s claim to fame was that two years back, he’d decided to quit smoking, and gotten over a hundred students to pledge they’d quit, too. The final number of students who actually stopped smoking was seventy-something, but it was still a big deal.

Chris gave his friend a limp, apologetic smile. “If I buy you a Cinnabon, would you forget that last remark — and drop this whole conversation?”

Elvis frowned at him. “That’s really disgusting. Do you think just because I’m slightly overweight, that I’d trade in my dignity and my deep concern for your psychological well-being — all for a Cinnabon?”

Chris nodded. “Absolutely.”

“Make it a Caramel Pecanbon, and we have a deal.”

As they headed for Cinnabon, Chris thought about Mr. Corson. He couldn’t go to him for help. It was like admitting to himself — and everyone else — that he was indeed very screwed up.

Instead, Chris exercised every day — to the point of exhaustion. After swim practice, he ran laps around the track or lifted weights. It was a good excuse to avoid going home for a while, maybe even miss dinner, especially when his dad was in town. He’d come in late, make himself a sandwich, and then hole up in his room with the TV and his homework.

This routine went on for about three weeks, but it didn’t make him any happier. The only sliver of happiness he knew was a weird, warped satisfaction whenever he made it obvious to his dad that he politely loathed him.

His mother had been right about another thing. Sure enough, his dad brought some woman home from one of his trips. And she was indeed younger and prettier than Chris’s mother. She worked at the Hilton in Washington, D.C., where his dad attended a pharmaceutical convention. But she was really an artist, so his dad said — whatever the hell that meant. The way the two of them talked, they’d known each other only a few weeks. But Chris wondered if his father had been screwing her long before the separation. Was this Molly person the reason his parents had split up?

He was thinking about that as he ran the track at dusk on a chilly Tuesday in early May. It was the second of three laps he intended to make around the football field. But his lungs already burned, and he felt depleted. Cold sweat soaked his jersey. He hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before. He’d spent most of it in Erin’s room, comforting her from nightmares. She’d woken up screaming—twice, for God’s sake.

He started to run faster and faster as he thought about his poor little sister, who was always so frightened at night now. He thought about the last time he’d stayed at his mother’s, when she’d been so concerned about how skinny he’d become — and the dark circles under his eyes. But within moments, she was grilling him about his father’s new girlfriend, Molly. His mother was far more concerned about that situation than she was about his health. She was pathetic. So was his father, already smitten (at least that’s the word he used) with this young woman — just two months after separating from his wife. What an asshole.

Chris poured on the speed until it felt as if his heart was about to burst. He staggered off the track and collapsed onto the cold, damp grass. He started crying.

He didn’t know how long he sat curled up on the ground, shivering and sobbing. But he noticed someone else on the track, rounding the turn and making his way toward him. Chris quickly tugged the bottom of his jersey up to his face and wiped away the tears and sweat. He tried to catch his breath. He recognized the other runner now, in gray sweats. Tall and lean with wavy, dark hair, it was Mr. Corson. Just keep moving, pal, Chris thought. Get the hell away from me. I don’t feel like talking to anybody.

Slowing down, Corson smiled and waved at him. Glaring back, Chris just nodded.

Corson must have gotten the hint, because he trotted past him and started to pick up speed again. Chris let out a sigh. He didn’t mean to be rude. He just wanted to be left alone.

“Goddamn it!” he heard Corson cry out. “Son of a bitch!”

Chris saw him hobble off the track and stumble to the ground. Corson grabbed his right leg below the knee and rubbed it furiously. “Damn it!” he howled. He was wincing in pain.

“Are you okay?” Chris called. His throat was a bit scratchy from crying.

“I think I pulled a muscle or something,” Corson replied, still grimacing. He rocked back and forth while he massaged his calf. “This seriously hurts. . ”

Chris got to his feet. “Maybe it’s just a leg cramp,” he said, approaching him. “I get those when I don’t have enough sleep or I’m stressed. It’s best to walk it off.” He stood over the guidance counselor and held out his hand. “Let me help you.”

Corson frowned at him. “Are you a sadist? Walk it off? I’m practically crippled here.” He continued to rub his calf, then gazed up at Chris again and nodded. “Okay, okay, I’ll try walking on it.”

Chris helped him to his feet and led him back to the track. “Ouch. . ah. . damn it. .” Corson grumbled. With an arm around Chris’s shoulder, he hobbled along. He kept sucking air through his gritted teeth. But his faltering walk seemed to improve. “I think you’re right,” he admitted at last. “Must be a leg cramp. I’ve just never had one this severe. Then again, I’ve been stressed a lot lately. My daughter’s driving me crazy. How old are you — sixteen, seventeen?”

“Sixteen,” Chris replied. Corson was still leaning on him and limping a bit.

“That’s how old Tracy is,” he said. “So — do you hate your parents, too? Does everything they say and do seem stupid or shallow or phony to you?”

“Kinda,” Chris admitted.

Corson pulled away slightly, but still kept a hand on his shoulder. “Well, then maybe it’s normal for the age. Or have you always felt this way about your folks?”

“Not always,” Chris heard himself say. “Just lately.”

“Why the sudden change? That’s what I’d like to know. Tracy used to be such a loving child, and now she acts like she can’t stand me. All she and her mother do is fight.” He broke away and rubbed his calf again. “So — what happened with you? Did you just suddenly decide on your sixteenth birthday that your parents were losers? Is that how it works?”

“No. At least that’s not how it worked with me,” Chris mumbled, glancing down at the ground. “My parents are getting a divorce. And they’re both being pretty selfish, so I’m pissed at them. In fact, lately, I’m pissed all the time — at everyone.”

Corson stared at him. “That sucks.” He seemed to work up a smile, and then held out his hand. “I’m Ray Corson, the guidance counselor.”

Chris suddenly felt his guard go up, and he wasn’t sure why. Still, he shook Corson’s hand. “I know who you are. I’m Chris Dennehy.”

“Well, Chris, if you ever want to talk, just let me know and I’ll block off an hour for you. It’ll get you out of study hall.”

Chris shrugged. “I don’t see how talking about it is going to help. They’re still getting a divorce. And no disrespect, but you can’t even figure out how to connect with your own daughter. So how are you going to help me?”

Corson let out a stunned laugh. “You’re a real wiseass, aren’t you? But I like that. Listen, it’s always easier to help other people with their problems than to solve your own issues. That’s why I was asking how you got along with your folks. I recognize that I need help dealing with my daughter.” He bent down and massaged his calf again. “So — Chris, when you recognize that you need help dealing with your parents, come see me in my office. Or you can usually find me here between five and six on weekdays. I could use a running partner — if for nothing else, in case I ever get another leg cramp.”

He straightened up, and still limping slightly, started toward the school. “Take care!” he called over his shoulder.

Two days later, Chris came and saw him in his office.

Between the scheduled appointments and the impromptu running sessions together, Mr. Corson helped him to understand his parents better and forgive them for not being perfect. Mr. Corson also urged him to give Molly a chance, and Chris realized his soon-to-be stepmother was actually kind of nice. From what he could tell, she had nothing to do with his parents’ breakup. And she was a good artist. In fact, Molly even had him pose as the hero for the cover of a young adult novel that could end up being the start of a series.

Though he liked Molly, he still felt a loyalty to his mother, who clearly disdained her. Mr. Corson helped him deal with those conflicts. Chris took drivers’ education at school during the summer, and he met up with Corson at the track once or twice a week. The guidance counselor had become his friend, and Chris depended on him. He didn’t mean for Mr. Corson to take the place of his father, but that was what sort of happened.

And just as his father ultimately disappointed him, so would Mr. Corson.

In the end, Chris would wish he’d never walked into this office, where he now sat waiting for Munson to return.

Slouched in the chair, he nervously tapped the cover of the self-help book and sneered at the To Thine Own Self Be True clown poster on the wall. He heard someone coming and quickly straightened up in the chair.

“That’s the damnedest thing,” Munson muttered, stepping back into the office with a file folder. He sat down at his desk again. “There are no records of your visits here with Mr. Corson.”

Chris just stared at him and shrugged.

“Corson made evaluations and progress reports of every student who consulted him — even the onetime visits,” Munson explained. “Your evaluation — along with your progress reports and all the notes he took during your sessions — they’re missing.”

Chris shook his head. He remembered all the deep, private conversations he’d had with Mr. Corson in this room, all the things he could admit to his trusted counselor and no one else. Corson was taking notes during all those sessions. “What happened to them?” he asked numbly. “You sure Mr. Corson didn’t just take them with him when he left?”

“No, I checked the files from last semester, and his critiques and progress reports are there for the other students,” Munson said.

“Well, who would want to steal Mr. Corson’s notes on our sessions? Those conversations were private.” Chris felt a pang of dread in his gut — as if realizing he’d lost his wallet. Only this was far more valuable — and personal. “Maybe we should call Mr. Corson, and ask—”

Chris remembered and stopped himself. He swallowed hard. He hated the look of pity in Mr. Munson’s eyes. “I just don’t understand why anyone would take something like that,” he murmured. “Who would do that? What would they want with it?”

Munson continued to study him in a pained and wondering way. He sighed and shook his head. “That’s what I’d like to know, too, Chris,” he replied.

CHAPTER FOUR

“Last night, a stranger to everyone here was cruising up and down this cul-de-sac,” the handsome cop announced. “This man was trying to determine which one of your homes would be the easiest to break into.”

Everyone in the room fell silent. They stopped passing around the tray of cookies. The policeman had them hanging on his next words.

Molly guessed he was about thirty-five. He had short, chestnut-colored hair and pale green eyes. Tall and athletically lean, he looked sexy in his black suit and a blue shirt with the collar open. He was probably a big hit with all the bored, lonely housewives at Neighborhood Watch meetings like this one.

Hands in his pockets, he stood in front of the Hahns’ fireplace, above which hung a large studio portrait of the Hahn family: Jeremy and Lynette and their kids, Courtney, seventeen, Carson, eight, and Dakota, five. They were in front of a forest backdrop. Jeremy and Carson had matching blazers, and the girls were decked out in their yacht-club-dinner best. It was odd to see their frozen smiles in the portrait while the police officer made such a disturbing announcement.

“This stranger checked out every house on the block,” the cop continued. “He made observations of who was home and who wasn’t, how well-lit your backyards were, and whether or not you had home security systems. . ”

The residents of Willow Tree Court were gathered in the Hahns’ family room for the down-to-business portion of the Neighborhood Watch potluck. Molly sat next to Henry Cad-well, a stocky forty-five-year-old work-at-home architect, who lived on the other side of a vacant lot next door to her and Jeff. Henry and his partner, a chiropractor named Frank, had an adopted daughter in Erin’s class, Su-Li. Hank and Frank, Chris called them. They were moving soon, and Molly didn’t want to think about it. Henry was her only real friend on the block. Among this clique, she and Henry were the outsiders. Perhaps that was why they sat in folding chairs while everyone else was ensconced on the sofa or in a cushioned easy chair.

Occupying the chair was Mrs. Kim Nguyen, the quiet, middle-aged, not-altogether-friendly neighbor at the end of the cul-de-sac — on the other side of Hank and Frank. At least, she wasn’t too friendly with Molly. Then again, they’d only met a few times. Molly had asked her earlier — at the buffet table — if she and Dr. Nguyen had had a visitor this morning, someone driving a blue minivan. “I guess I’m already starting to neighborhood-watch,” Molly had explained, trying to make light of it.

Mrs. Nguyen had frowned. “My friend picking us up at airport,” she’d explained in her fractured English. “She driving blue van.”

Molly had been relieved to hear that. Yet Mrs. Nguyen had seemed annoyed by the question. Molly had asked how long she and Dr. Nguyen would be in town.

“Three days,” Mrs. Nguyen had replied curtly. Then she’d moved over to the other end of the buffet table, where Angela had stood.

A few minutes later, Molly had seen Mrs. Nguyen and Angela laughing about something.

Angela had the middle spot on the couch, with her gal pals, Lynette Hahn and Kay Garvey, on either side of her. Her mink-colored hair was perfectly styled, but she’d laid the makeup on a bit thick. Plus she was slightly over-dressed — in black pants and a black V-neck sweater with a shimmering silver striped weave. Her girlfriends, Lynette and Kay, had raved about how gorgeous she looked, and they wanted to hear all about the man in her life — the one with the beautiful house on a cul-de-sac in Bellevue. Angela had brought a quiche to the party — along with a bit of attitude.

“Hi, Molly,” she’d said to her coolly. “You look so pretty — but then, you always do. I love your blouse.” Molly had been in the middle of thanking her and was about to return the phony compliment when Angela had excused herself to instruct Lynette on how to heat up the quiche. That was the extent of their conversation so far, after ninety minutes.

While grazing around the buffet table earlier, Angela, Lynette, and Kay had whispered about Ray Corson’s murder. “I knew something like that would eventually happen,” Lynette had concluded. “You have to wonder what he was doing in that park so late at night. He went there looking for trouble, and he found it.”

Molly had steered clear of the conversation.

The Toll House cookies she’d baked that morning were on a plate in a hard-to-reach spot on the buffet table. Though Lynette knew she was bringing chocolate chip cookies, she’d baked a batch herself. “I thought you might forget or bring store-bought,” Lynette had cheerfully explained. “And besides, I have to admit, I make the best chocolate chip cookies in the universe.”

Molly hated Lynette. She had this phony perkiness to her — like a sitcom mom moonlighting in a commercial for deodorant. She was just a little too self-satisfied cute. She had a slim, tennis-taut figure, and frosted brunette hair with bangs. She seemed to think of herself as Supermom! But her daughter Courtney was shallow and selfish, and the two younger kids were utter brats. On several occasions, Molly had spotted Carson and Dakota and their friends throwing dirt balls at passing cars from an abandoned lot at the start of the cul-de-sac. She’d tried to tell Lynette about it, but Supermom was in total denial: “I’m sure you’re mistaken, Molly.” Her kids could do no wrong. For a while, Lynette had talked about suing a local restaurant, where the owner had had the unmitigated gall to ask if her children could please use their quiet voices so as not to disturb the other patrons.

Madison’s mom was rather plain, with blond hair and a pale complexion. She was friendly enough when Lynette and Angela weren’t around. But Molly was dead certain Kay talked behind her back to the other two. They seemed to regard her as this flaky, vapid successor to Angela — and only a temporary one at that.

And it hurt.

“Why do you care what those bitches think of you?” Henry had asked her at one point.

Molly couldn’t quite explain why. Maybe it was because she was living in their friend’s house, or because their daughters were in Chris’s class. Once Henry moved away, she wouldn’t have any friends on the block. He was her only friend in Seattle.

“Your cookies are infinitely better than Squeaky’s,” Henry had whispered in her ear — after sampling one of Lynette’s from the tray being passed around the family room. Unbeknownst to Lynette, he called her Squeaky — after Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the onetime Manson follower who tried to assassinate Gerald Ford.

The detective had missed the potluck brunch portion of the proceedings earlier. Lynette had gotten up to present him to the group. She’d given a long, sickeningly cute introduction, which included a story about how her dear, sweet Dakota had once mistaken a guard at the zoo for a policeman (“Is he going to arrest the elephant, Mommy?”). Then she’d finally called on their guest speaker, Detective Chet Blazevich.

Molly could tell her neighbors were still wondering about this stranger who had been cruising around their cul-de-sac last night, studying the lay of the land.

“Didn’t any one of you notice a dark green Toyota Camry going up and down your block around eight o’clock?” Detective Blazevich asked, with a hint of a smile.

Angela and her friends glanced at each other and shrugged.

Molly cleared her throat, and half raised her hand. “Do you drive a dark green Toyota Camry, Detective?”

He smiled and nodded. “Very good, Ms. — ?”

Molly tried to ignore Angela out of the corner of her eye. She hesitated. “Dennehy.”

“Ms. Dennehy is correct,” Blazevich announced. “I scoped out your cul-de-sac last night, and found some things that might make you vulnerable to a breakin — just the kind of stuff a burglar would look for. . ”

Molly glanced over at Angela and her pals on the sofa. Lynette shot her a look, and then whispered something in Angela’s ear.

Molly turned away — just as Henry leaned in close to her. “Hell, if I knew this hunk was driving around our block, looking to break in to somebody’s home, I’d have left the front door open.”

Molly patted his knee and then turned her attention to Chet Blazevich. She felt a bit sorry for him. As he explained about their need for more streetlights and recommended spotlights for their back and side yards, the trio on the couch were still whispering to one another. Mrs. Nguyen pulled out some knitting and went to work on an ugly pink and maroon scarf — or maybe it was a sweater, Molly couldn’t tell for sure. Blazevich had to talk loudly over the clink, clink, clink of her knitting needles. Then Henry’s cell phone rang, and he went to talk on it in the kitchen. For a while, Molly felt like the only one paying any attention to the poor cop.

He was talking about how if they noticed any kind of maintenance truck on the block — a plumber, electrician, or a carpet cleaning service — it was best to check with neighbors to make certain the service truck was legitimate. That was when Kay Garvey raised her hand. “Excuse me. Do you know anything about this murder last night at the Arboretum?”

Gaping at her, Blazevich looked stumped for a moment.

“This Ray Corson person who was killed,” Kay explained. “He was the guidance counselor at our kids’ high school. So naturally, we’re concerned.”

Blazevich shoved his hands in his pockets. “I understand, but — um, I can’t tell you any more than what’s been on the news. It’s not my case.”

“Is it really true he just happened to run out of gas by that park?” Lynette pressed. “Or is that something the media is saying to protect his family or his reputation or whatever?”

Blazevich shrugged. “I’m sorry. As I said, it’s not my case.”

“You were talking about service trucks on the block,” Molly spoke up. “Is that something burglars do when they’re casing a house or a neighborhood?”

He smiled at her. “Yes, thank you, Ms. Dennehy.”

“And is that something this Cul-de-sac Killer might do when he’s figuring out where to strike next?”

Blazevich’s smile faded and he nodded somberly. “Yes, we believe these killings are well planned. He knows ahead of time exactly where, when, and how he’s going to gain entry into a house. And we think he has a pretty good idea of how many people are in that house. . ”

Mrs. Nguyen ceased knitting, and Angela’s group suddenly stopped whispering to each other. Henry quietly returned to the folding chair beside Molly.

“So — be cautious, be concerned,” the policeman said. “Just the few extra seconds it takes to watch for strangers driving or walking around your cul-de-sac may be enough to prevent a crime.”

Molly was thinking of all the strangers who house-sat for the Nguyens. It would be tough to keep track of who was supposed to be there and who wasn’t. “Is there anything else we should be on the lookout for?” she asked. “Any warning signs specific to these — killings?”

Folding his arms, the cop hesitated before answering. “This hasn’t been made known to the general public, for reasons I’ll explain later. But if you notice your no-outlet or dead-end sign at the start of the cul-de-sac is missing, report it to the police immediately. With each murder, the sign at the beginning of the street was gone. We believe the killer takes the signs — possibly ahead of time — and keeps them as souvenirs or trophies of his crimes. We’re doing our best to warn people who live on cul-de-sacs like this one. Unfortunately, some teenagers have heard about it, and we’ve had a rise in incidents with kids stealing the dead-end signs as a prank. So — if you do see a sign is missing, don’t panic, but definitely report it to the police right away.”

The policeman glanced around the room. “Now, even if you’re taking all the proper precautions,” he said, “you still might be a bit nervous in the house after dark — especially if your spouse is away, or if one of your children has seen the news stories about these murders, and they’re scared. One thing you don’t want to do is turn on all the lights in the house. Since this has become part of the killer’s ritual, you don’t want to alarm the neighbors. Instead, call a neighbor if you’re scared or you suspect trouble. Count on each other for help. You might even agree on a code word to use if you have reason to believe an intruder is in the house, listening in. . ”

Molly found herself clinging to Henry’s arm. Once he and Frank moved away, she wondered who she’d call if she got scared.

After Detective Blazevich finished his presentation, he passed around some Neighborhood Watch leaflets and had everyone sign an official attendance form. It was all so they could post a NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH placard by the NO OUTLET sign at the start of Willow Tree Court — as if that would keep away a serial killer.

Henry had to hurry off to an appointment. Molly retreated to the kitchen for the Tupperware container in which she’d brought her Toll House cookies. Only a couple had been eaten, and she didn’t want Squeaky throwing the rest away, which she most certainly would do — out of spite. Jeff, Chris, and Erin would be happy to eat them.

She was at the buffet table, transferring the cookies from Lynette’s plate to the plastic container, when Detective Blazevich came up to her side. Standing this close to him now, Molly felt a certain electricity from him that she hadn’t experienced with anyone since first meeting Jeff a year ago. She could tell he was attracted to her — and it was flattering, embarrassing, and titillating.

“I’d like to thank you, Ms. Dennehy,” he whispered.

“Molly,” she said, with a cordial smile.

“For a while there, Molly, you seemed to be the only one listening to me. . ”

She stole a glance at Angela in the kitchen, watching their every move. From the family room, Kay and Lynette were staring at them, too.

“Well, it seems you certainly have their attention now,” Molly said under her breath.

“Something tells me you’re the new neighbor on the block,” he said, helping himself to one of her Toll House cookies. “You don’t seem to be part of the clique here.”

Molly nodded. “You’re a very good detective.”

“Damn, these are great,” he said, munching on the cookie. “Better than the other batch. Why weren’t they passing these around?”

“Because I baked them,” she replied quietly. “Our hostess made the other batch. It’s a long story, Detective.” Grabbing a napkin from the table, she wrapped a few cookies in it and handed it to him. “Here, take some home with you.”

“Well, thanks.” His fingers grazed hers as he took the napkin.

Molly glanced at Angela in the kitchen and Angela’s gal pals in the Hahns’ family room. They were still staring.

Blazevich reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “Listen — Molly, I appreciated your thoughtful questions earlier.” He handed her the card. “If you have any more questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to call. My cell phone number is on there, too.”

Molly took the card. She saw the others were still watching and took a tiny step back from the cop.

“Well, I should head out,” he said. “Thanks again for the cookies.”

“Good-bye, Detective.”

Molly watched him return to the family room, where he also gave Lynette his card. He thanked everyone for their hospitality and said they should call if they had any questions.

Blazevich wasn’t quite yet out Lynette’s front door when Angela sidled up beside Molly at the buffet table. She took one of Molly’s cookies, broke off a corner, and nibbled at it. “He was very good looking,” she said. “And he was flirting with you.”

“Well, if that’s true, I’m flattered,” Molly replied, not looking at her. She kept busy putting the cookies in the Tupperware. “But he was wasting his time.”

“He gave you his business card,” Angela went on. “The rest of us have to share one. Of course, you’re the youngest and prettiest woman here. Why shouldn’t he pay more attention to you? So — how’s Jeff doing?”

Molly nodded a few more times than necessary. “He’s fine. Everyone’s fine, Angela. Erin’s looking forward to seeing you at her ballet recital on Saturday.”

“I was thinking it must be scary with this killer on the loose, and Jeff going out of town all the time,” Angela remarked. “I know all of his traveling drove me crazy after a while — along with the fact that he couldn’t keep it inside his zipper. . ”

Molly stared at her and blinked.

“I’m sorry, but if I were you, Molly, I’d have flirted more with that detective. Jeff doesn’t have any self-restraint. Why should you?” The way Angela spoke, she almost came off as a concerned friend who had had too many glasses of chardonnay — rather than the bitch she was.

Shaking her head, Molly snapped shut the lid to the plastic container. “I don’t need your advice, Angela,” she said evenly. “That problem doesn’t exist in my marriage.”

Angela gave her a smug smile. “You keep telling yourself that, honey.” Then she turned and joined her friends in the Hahns’ family room.

Molly didn’t waste much time getting out of there. After a few brief good-byes, she was out the door and walking down the cul-de-sac with her Tupperware container and what was left of her dignity. The sky was an ominous gray, and the wind started to kick up. It would be raining soon, she could tell.

She kept thinking that she shouldn’t have let Angela have the last word. She should have said, “The only problem Jeff and I have is you, Angela. Get over him, and get out of our lives.”

But she couldn’t have said anything like that to Angela’s face — not without feeling like a total ass afterward. In truth, Angela had every reason to be bitter. It was true. Jeff had been unfaithful on several occasions during the last few loveless years of their marriage. Jeff had told Molly all about it when they’d first started seeing each other.

At the time, Molly had been working parttime under a real bitch who was the events coordinator at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C. Jeff had been there for the New Drugs in Development Conference with the American Pharmacology Association. Molly was working the registration desk when Jeff walked up, introduced himself, and asked for his badge. She was immediately drawn to him. Not only was he drop-dead handsome, but he had such a warm, friendly, confident manner. She’d grown so tired of dodging passes from businessmen at these conferences, most of them with their wedding rings in their pockets.

Her time in D.C. had been like an exile. She’d gone there to forget — and feel somewhat anonymous. She didn’t know a soul in Washington, D.C. But after a while, the loneliness was too much. All she’d had were a few illustration assignments, a job she tolerated, and a boss she loathed. On more than one occasion, out of sheer desperation, she’d succumb to the charms of some lonely businessman. She didn’t ask too many questions or expect anything more than one or two nights of company.

But Jeff was different. The conference went on for three days, and on day two, he asked if she had time the following afternoon to go with him to the National Gallery. How could she refuse? On top of everything else, he appreciated art.

At the gallery, right in front of a Jackson Pollock painting, Jeff told her that he and his wife had separated only six weeks before. Molly didn’t want to date someone who was on the rebound. Reluctantly, she told him so, and Jeff seemed to understand. Then he showed her pictures of his kids on his cell phone, and he seemed so genuine, so proud of them. She couldn’t help falling for him, despite her resolve.

Jeff said he’d be back in D.C. for another pharmaceutical conference in three weeks. Could he take her out to dinner while he was in town again?

She said yes. Six weeks later, she flew into Seattle to meet Chris and Erin.

Two months after that, they were married. If it seemed rushed, that was probably her fault as much as Jeff’s. She was in love with him and eager to start a new life. She’d been so miserable in Washington, D.C., and the dark, gloomy paintings she’d produced during this period reflected that.

Then into her life stepped this handsome, sweet guy with two kids who was going to change everything around for her.

Yes, he’d had affairs and one-night stands while married to Angela. But Molly had to give him a second chance. She knew what it was like, not being let off the hook. Before her exile to D.C., she’d spent her last weeks in Chicago seeking forgiveness — and not finding it.

She still remembered standing at that woman’s front stoop on West Gunnison Street. She’d come there to tell her how sorry she was. “I don’t mean to bother you,” she’d told the middle-aged woman. “My name is—”

“I know who you are,” the woman had hissed, glaring at her. She’d had tears in her eyes and started trembling. She suddenly spit in Molly’s face. “Don’t come crawling around here, hoping I’ll accept any apologies from you, because I won’t! It’s not going to change a damn thing. Now, get the hell out of here — or I swear to God, I’ll kill you.”

Sometimes, Molly could still feel the woman’s spittle running down her cheek and hear her harsh words. She’d moved to D.C. to forget, but it hadn’t worked. She’d thought her chances might be better in Seattle.

She and Jeff were both starting over. She told him about Chicago. And Jeff kept her secret. There was no reason his kids needed to know about it, not for a while at least.

As she headed home, the wind seemed to whip right through her. Molly felt a few drops of rain. She wished she’d worn a coat for the half-block jaunt down to Lynette Hahn’s house.

She couldn’t get that conversation with Angela out of her head. Molly told herself the Jeff she knew was different from the Jeff who had been married to Angela

Shielding her head with the Tupperware container, she trotted up the walkway, unlocked the front door, and stepped inside the warm foyer. She set the container on the hallway table and headed up to the master bedroom. In Jeff’s closet, Molly started checking the pockets of his suits and his khakis. She was looking for matchbooks or cocktail napkins with phone numbers scribbled on them. But all she found were three wrapped Halls cough drops, a stick of Juicy Fruit, several wads of Kleenex, and about $1.30 in change.

She still felt uncertain and retreated downstairs — to Jeff’s study off the front hallway. The small room had a built-in, U-shaped mahogany desk — along with matching cabinets. A large-screen computer sat in the middle of the desk — in front of a picture window. Photos of her and the kids decorated the walls and desktop.

Molly opened the desk drawers and glanced at old bills and bank statements. She opened his appointment book and browsed through it. Nothing even remotely suspicious.

With a sigh, she plopped down in his chair and switched on the computer. She glanced at his e-mails — the ones he sent and received. Almost all of them were business-related, with a few correspondences to friends she knew. Four were from Angela, all within the last few days. They were curt inquiries about some book or CD that she’d accidentally left behind. Jeff was just as curt with his responses:

I’ll make sure Chris brings the Moody Blues CD to you next time he visits.—J.

Molly had no idea Angela was still bugging him about little things like that. His poor ex-wife just couldn’t let go— and that was why she’d tried to put these doubts about Jeff’s fidelity in her head. Molly felt stupid, listening to her.

She shut off the computer.

Carrying the Tupperware full of cookies into the kitchen, she set it on the counter, and then pulled Detective Blazevich’s card from her jeans pocket. She fixed it to the front of the refrigerator with a magnet.

She had to work on her painting. But before heading upstairs to her studio on the third floor, Molly wandered back into Jeff’s study. She gazed out the window — toward the start of the cul-de-sac. She could see the NO OUTLET sign was still there.

She just needed to make sure.

Incoming Call

206-555-0416

Angela Dwyer

Chris frowned at the little screen on his cell phone. He still wasn’t used to his mother going by her maiden name.

The phone was on vibrate, but it had still startled him. Chris had been slouched over a long desk in the school library, his arms folded on the tabletop, resting his head on them. He was a little out of it, but hadn’t really fallen asleep. He couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Corson.

During swimming season, he was excused from gym, his last class of the day. So he often came here to kill time, get a head start on his homework, or nap before swim practice. He liked the arched windows and the quiet. Plus he had a little crush on the head librarian, Merrill Chertok. The pretty brunette was his swim coach’s wife. She got him hooked on books about time travel. When things hadn’t been so great at home, he’d sometimes stay at the library until it closed at five. Unlike the assistant librarian, who had a burr up her butt, Ms. Chertok let him nap there. He’d wake up and see her behind the desk, and somehow he’d feel all right for a while.

At the moment, Ms. Chertok was at her desk, shaking her head at him. She pointed to the door.

Chris got her drift: no talking on cell phones in the library. Nodding, he quickly got to his feet and stepped out to the empty hallway with his cell. He clicked it on. “Hi, Mom,” he said, leaning against the wall. “What’s going on?”

“I’ve been thinking about you all day — ever since I heard about Mr. Corson,” she said. “How are you doing, sweetie?”

Chris rubbed his eyes. “I’m okay.” He really didn’t want to talk to her about Mr. Corson’s death. His mom had played as pivotal a role as anyone in banishing Mr. Corson from the school.

“Listen,” she said, “if you’re confused or feeling bad, I want you to know that I’m here for you, Chris. You can talk to me. Or you can talk to your father. He’s a smart man, a very compassionate man.”

He couldn’t believe she was actually praising his father to him. It was touching that in order to make sure he had someone to talk to, his mom put aside her personal grievances with his dad.

“Thanks, Mom,” he said into the phone. “Dad and I talked this morning, and I’m okay.” He wanted to change the subject. “How are you? What’s going on?”

“Well, I was in the neighborhood today,” she said. “Lynette Hahn had one of those Neighborhood Watch meetings at her place, and this attractive, young policeman told us all about the Cul-de-sac Killer. Very scary stuff! Oh, and afterwards, he flirted shamelessly with Molly. Of course, she’s so pretty. Still, I didn’t see her do anything to discourage him. Sometimes, I really wonder about her. You get along with her, honey. Has she said anything to you about her family or her past? I mean, I’m absolutely clueless as to who she is or what she did before she met your father. And I’m supposed to entrust you and Erin in her care? It’s crazy.”

Chris wondered why — after all these months — his mother was suddenly dying to find out more about Molly. “Well, I don’t know what to tell you, Mom,” he said. “She doesn’t talk much about her background or her family. . ”

He remembered helping Molly move her stuff up to the third floor after she’d converted it into an art studio. A photo of a good-looking guy in his twenties had fluttered out of an open shoebox full of snapshots and postcards. Chris has asked who it was, and Molly had stared at it for a moment. Her eyes had filled with tears. “That’s my brother, Charlie,” she’d said at last. “He’s dead.”

“How’d he die?” Chris had asked.

“He — ah, he killed himself,” she’d admitted, her voice a little strained.

Not wanting to upset her any more, Chris had decided to stop asking questions about her dead brother.

He never asked Molly about her mother, either. But apparently, she was a widow who lived in St. Petersburg, Florida. Every once in a while, Chris could hear Molly talking on the phone to her — usually behind the closed door of the master bedroom or in her art studio on the third floor. The conversations didn’t last long, and Molly never sounded too happy. “Yes, Mother, I’ll get a check to you this week,” she’d say in a dull monotone.

Chris didn’t want to tell his mother any of this. It seemed wrong somehow. Besides, he needed to get off the phone and go to swim practice.

“Listen, Mom, I gotta wrap it up here, okay?” he said into the phone.

“Well, I’ll see you weekend after next — if not sooner,” she said. “I love you. And call me if you start to feel sad or blue. Promise?”

“I promise,” he said. “Bye, Mom.” Chris clicked off the cell phone.

He ducked back into the library to grab his jacket and books. After a quick wave to Ms. Chertok, he headed out again.

The pool was in a different wing on the other side of the school. Chris kept his head down and eyes to the floor all the way there. It had become his posture of the day. He just didn’t want to talk to anybody.

As he stepped inside the locker room, he was hit with a familiar combo-waft of chlorine-chemical smell and B.O. Most of his teammates had already gone to the pool area, but a few still lingered at their lockers. He could hear them in the next row, belt buckles clinking against the tiled floor, locker doors banging.

“Hey, did you hear this one?” one of the guys was saying. It sounded like Dean Fischer, who was kind of a wiseass jerk. “What was Ray Corson’s favorite song?”

There was a silence. While Chris worked the combination of his locker, he imagined the other guy shaking his head.

“‘Don’t Let Your Son Go Down on Me’!” Fischer said, cackling. “Get it? That old song by Elton John. .”

Chris started to unbutton his shirt. He’d first heard that joke when Mr. Corson was forced to leave the school.

“Don’t you get it, moron?” Fischer was saying. A locker door slammed. “Corson and Ian Scholl, remember back in December? And at the same time, Corson was trying to get into Chris Dennehy’s pants, too. Dennehy’s the one who walked in on them. . ”

In his blue Speedo, George Camper, the captain of the team and a nice guy, strode past Chris. George shot him a concerned look before he disappeared past the row of lockers. “Hey, Fischer,” George said. “Do me a favor and shut the hell up.”

“‘Don’t Let Your Son Go Down on Me’? Get it?” Fischer was saying to his buddy. “Are you brain-dead or something? Don’t you remember? Chris Dennehy and Ian Scholl—”

“Shut up already!” Chris heard George growl. Then there was whispering.

Chris buttoned his shirt back up. He quickly collected his jacket and backpack of books. He just couldn’t stick around there. He closed his locker, spun the combination dial, and then ducked out of the locker room.

It was raining out, so Chris stood under the bus shelter while waiting for the number 331. Only a few other students were at the stop. They looked like freshmen. Chris didn’t have to wait long before the bus showed up. He took a seat near the back. Staring out the rain-beaded window, he thought about Ian Scholl.

Ian was thin and pale with jet-black hair. There was something weird about his looks — he seemed pretty instead of handsome. Courtney claimed he must have sculpted his eyebrows to get them to look the way they did. Yet he didn’t have a metrosexual thing going on. He always dressed very neat and conservatively in what Courtney called Mormon clothes. Ian was a mess of contradictions. He was obviously gay, and just as obviously uncomfortable with it. His effeminate manner — paired with a rabid homophobia — alienated everyone and made him a prime target for teasing.

Chris didn’t talk to him much. They were in the same English lit class, but that was about it. Mostly, he just saw Ian in the hallways, carrying his books like a girl — until some guy inevitably knocked those books out of his grasp or tripped him. On one of those occasions, Chris had felt bad for Ian, and he’d picked up one of Ian’s books for him. “Are you okay?” he’d asked.

Ian had snatched the book out of his hand. “I don’t need any help from some dumb jock,” he’d hissed.

Chris had let out a surprised laugh. “Well, screw you, then.” He’d turned and walked away.

So later, when Mr. Corson had asked him to be nice to Ian, Chris resisted. They’d been jogging around the track together. Chris told him about the episode with the schoolbooks in the hallway. “The guy’s a jerk,” Chris said, between gasps for air. “I already tried to be friendly with him, and he got all pissy on me. And you want me to be his pal? No thanks!”

Mr. Corson slowed to a stop, and then caught his breath. His Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Concert Tour T-shirt was soaked and clinging to him. Jogging in place at his side, Chris had only a few beads of sweat on his forehead.

“You weren’t offering Ian friendship,” Mr. Corson said. “You were offering him your pity. He was mad and humiliated. So he snapped at you. Give him a second chance. I’m not asking you to be best friends with him. Just be nice, and maybe persuade some of your pals to stop tormenting him.”

Chris suddenly stopped running in place. “I’ve never tormented him,” he pointed out. “And the guys who pick on him aren’t my friends, so I doubt they’ll listen to me when I tell them to lay off. I don’t have that much clout around here.” He shook his head. “Really, I’m sorry, but I can’t help you out, Mr. C.”

“Fine, I understand,” Mr. Corson muttered.

“We’ve still got two more laps,” Chris said. He started running in place once more. “You aren’t pooping out on me, are you?”

Mr. Corson nodded. “Yeah, I am,” he sighed. “You go ahead and finish up without me, Chris. I’m beat.” He turned and lumbered toward the school’s athletic wing.

Chris remembered watching him walk away. He’d almost called to him. But instead, he’d just let him go.

Chris heard the bus driver announce his stop. He let out a sigh and started to reach for the signal cord above his head. But then he hesitated. He didn’t want to go home just yet. He couldn’t pretend for Molly that everything was okay. He just didn’t have it in him right now. Slowly, his hand went down and he watched the bus speed past his stop.

He realized there was someplace else he had to go.

The bus made three more stops, and Chris was the only passenger left. He wasn’t too familiar with this part of the route, but he knew they must be getting close to his destination. He’d only been there once before.

Getting to his feet, he made his way toward the front of the bus. The driver was a cinnamon-skinned, thirtysomething woman with short-cropped, shiny, dark auburn hair. Chris caught her looking at him in the mirror.

“Excuse me,” he said, grabbing an overhead strap to keep his balance. “Does this bus go to the — the Evergreen Wasabi Cemetery?”

“Ha!” She grinned up at him in the mirror. “You mean, Evergreen Washelli, honey! Wasabi is Japanese horseradish. Ha!” She gazed at his reflection; and obviously she saw he wasn’t smiling. She shifted in her seat a bit, cleared her throat, and nodded. “Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park is coming up in two more stops. Why don’t you sit down, honey? I’ll tell you when we get there.”

Chris plopped down on the handicapped seat behind her. He figured the bus driver must have thought he was related to someone buried in the cemetery, and maybe that was why she got serious all of the sudden. “Thanks a lot,” he said.

Chris thanked her again a few minutes later as the doors whooshed open and he stepped off the bus. He was about a half block from the open gates of the Memorial Park entrance. By the time Chris started down the private drive of the park, his hair was wet and matted down with rain. His jacket had become soaked. The cold dampness seeped through to his shoulders, and he shuddered. He passed the administration building, which resembled a modern-looking chapel. He’d gone in there on his last visit for help finding the grave.

But he was pretty sure he still remembered where the marker was. Taking a curve in the road, he started up a gentle slope and kept a lookout for a tall statue of St. Joseph. That had been how he’d found his way when he’d been here back in January. The trees were bare then, and the grass had some brown patches. But everything was in bloom now, and the lawn was a lush, misty green — punctuated by squares of gray, rose, and white marble. There were only a few other people in the park, and they’d had the good sense to bring umbrellas. No one was close enough to see him muttering to himself: “I’m sure this is the way. I know St. Joseph is around here someplace. . ”

He finally spotted the statue behind a huge evergreen. Just beyond that was a section of the cemetery with no upright markers. The grave he wanted to find was near one of the two Japanese maples on the far side of the section.

As Chris trudged on the grass, he felt water seeping into his Nikes, soaking his socks. The rain seemed to be getting worse. His hands were wet and cold. He rarely strapped on his backpack, but he resorted to that now — so he could shove both hands in his jacket pockets. Shivering, he imagined catching pneumonia, maybe even dying.

Well, he deserved to die.

Perhaps they would bury him here among these flat markers, where people could walk over the gravestones, as well as the graves — and not give a damn. He realized that without any standing tombstones, it might be tough to find the right grave — a lot tougher than he thought.

Chris reached the Japanese maples — with rain dripping from their red spidery leaves. He started looking for the marker. Near the end of the row, he reminded himself. He couldn’t remember the color. He walked up and down the end row of markers with his head down, looking at the ground. It was his posture of the day, because he didn’t want to talk with anyone.

The only people he wanted to talk to were dead.

And they hadn’t buried Mr. Corson yet.

After a few minutes, the names started to blend together, and Chris retraced his steps. “You’re here someplace,” he whispered, running a hand through his wet hair. “I know you’re here. . ”

Then at last, he saw it — a gray marker, a bit newer than the others. Chris stopped in his tracks and stared down at it. His throat started to tighten.

IAN HAMPTON SCHOLL

1994–2010Beloved Son — Rest with the Angels

As he gazed down at the marker, warm tears mingled with the cold rain on his face. “I’m sorry,” Chris said. He shook his head over and over. “God, I’m so sorry. . ”

CHAPTER FIVE

“Why are you doing this to us?” she heard her friend, Leslie, cry out.

Marianne Bowles sat up in bed for a moment. She was thirty-two and single, with blond hair, blue eyes, and a lovely figure — though Marianne felt she stood to lose about ten pounds. She was in from Boston on business with Microsoft, and decided to spend the weekend with her old college roommate, Leslie and her husband, Kurt.

At the moment, it sounded like the two of them might be having a fight. In a weird way, it was kind of a relief to know Leslie and Kurt Fontaine weren’t so damn perfect after all. Marianne envied her old college pal. Leslie was still a knockout. She and Kurt seemed terribly happy. They lived in a gorgeous little English cottage — style house at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Madrona neighborhood. It had a sweet English garden with a stone pathway to the garage, which Kurt had converted into an office for Leslie and her thriving website-design business. It made ideal guest quarters — with its full bath, mini-fridge, microwave, and comfortable sofa bed, on which Marianne now slept. At least she’d been sleeping — until the voices from the house woke her up.

They’d dined out at Cactus in Madison Park and had a few too many margaritas. But it had been a wonderful time, with lots of laughs and old college stories. Marianne had staggered down the stone pathway to her guest quarters at around 11:30, and she’d been asleep by midnight.

She squinted at the clock on the end table: 1:55 A.M. She couldn’t believe Leslie and Kurt were still awake — and arguing, no less. Maybe they’d hit that wall some people hit after a certain amount of happy drinking — and then they become angry-drunk.

“Oh, God, no!” Kurt yelled. “Wait, wait!”

Marianne slumped back down in the bed and put her hands over her ears. She didn’t want to hear their private discussion, which sounded almost violent. She could still detect some muffled yelling from Kurt. So Marianne rolled over on her side and pressed the extra pillow to the side of her head. That seemed to block it out.

She must have drifted off, because then she heard a tapping noise and glanced at the clock again: 3:17 A.M. It took her a moment to realize someone was knocking on her door. She’d locked it earlier. There was just enough light in the room for her to see the knob turning back and forth a bit.

Pulling back the bedcovers, Marianne was about to climb out of bed. She hesitated — she wasn’t sure why. She already had a bit of a hangover, and didn’t want to have to listen to Leslie’s version of what they’d been arguing about. Marianne was just too tired.

There were a few more taps on the door.

She figured if Leslie wanted to talk that badly, she’d go fetch the key and let herself in. Marianne fell back into bed. After a few moments, she saw a shadow in the window — moving back toward the house.

Her eyelids grew heavy and she felt herself drifting off to sleep again. Marianne’s last thought was about the light coming through the window. Strange, how bright it seemed outside. It was as if every light was on inside the charming English cottage — style home.

* * *

“Chris? Erin?” Molly called from the bottom of the stairs. They were both in their respective bedrooms. Erin had a ballet recital at 2 P.M. Chris was getting together with Elvis this afternoon. Molly had emerged from the shower an hour ago and was still in her bathrobe. She’d promised to drive Erin to her recital and attend the show.

That had been two weeks ago — before she’d found out Angela would be there, too.

Perhaps that was why Molly had been on edge most of the morning. It was Saturday, and the ballet show was in an hour.

“Did either of you take the MapQuest directions from the basket on the kitchen counter?” she called upstairs to them.

No response.

“Erin? Chris?” she yelled.

“I didn’t take’m!” Chris yelled back, his voice muffled by the closed door.

“Me neither, and please, I’m trying to get dressed!” Erin screamed, very much the prima donna ballerina.

Molly checked her purse for the directions. The night before last, she’d printed the MapQuest directions and set the printout by the phone on the kitchen counter. Now it wasn’t there. All she could remember was the recital hall was someplace where God lost his shoes in Mountlake Terrace.

The printout wasn’t in her purse, either.

She didn’t even want to go to this stupid thing. Why the hell couldn’t Angela drive Erin? Wouldn’t a mother want to spend that time with her daughter? What an incredible jerk. Molly really didn’t want to see her today. Angela was probably ready to dole out some more Don’t Trust Jeff advice, too.

It had been a little over a week since Molly had spoken with Angela at the Neighborhood Watch potluck. They’d learned about Ray Corson’s murder that same morning.

The police still hadn’t found his killer yet. Molly heard they’d interviewed Ian Scholl’s parents. They’d even spoken with Jeff at his office that day. They didn’t dare let on that he was a suspect, or even a person of interest. But he must have been — for a brief while anyway.

From what Molly had read, the police figured Corson’s death was the result of a random robbery that had gotten out of hand. The Arboretum was close enough to the University District, where there had been a rash of armed robberies lately.

Chris had told his dad he wanted to attend Mr. Corson’s wake this weekend. He wanted to pay his respects, and maybe even apologize to Mrs. Corson for that whole mess back in December. But Jeff insisted it was a private service, and Chris wouldn’t be welcome there. Besides he didn’t need to apologize to anybody for anything.

In the end, Chris had ceded to his father’s ruling and sulked about it for the better part of an evening.

Jeff had spent the last four nights in Denver. He was coming back in time for dinner tonight — if his flight wasn’t delayed.

Molly had endured the last few nerve-wracking nights without him. The Cul-de-sac Killer had struck again last weekend, slaying a Madrona couple. An old college friend visiting from Boston had been asleep in a guesthouse behind the residence. She hadn’t heard about the Cul-de-sac Killer, so she hadn’t been alarmed when she noticed nearly every light on inside her friends’ house when she awoke Sunday morning. She found her friend’s husband in a coat closet on the first floor. His hands were tied behind him, and he’d been stabbed repeatedly. The wife was in the master bedroom closet with her throat slit. The woman from Boston told police that she’d heard them in the middle of the night — and thought they were arguing. And later, someone had tapped on her door, but she hadn’t answered it.

Of course, Molly read every article she could about the murders — and then she wasn’t able to sleep at night.

Last night had been the worst. Chris had gone out for a movie and pizza with Elvis. Molly had let him take her car. But when Chris still hadn’t come home by midnight, she grew more and more anxious — not only about her stepson but also for Erin and herself. After tucking Erin in bed, she’d been reluctant to go up to her studio and work. If someone broke in, she might not hear anything until it was too late. She imagined coming down from her studio to discover Erin’s empty bed — and her body in the closet.

So Molly sat in the family room with the TV on. She kept expecting to see someone through the glass doors, lurking at the edge of the forest in the back. Finally, she closed Angela’s ugly drapes, blocking the view entirely. She almost telephoned Henry down the block, but stuck it out until 12:25, when Chris finally came home.

Just having a semi-adult in the house made her feel safer — which was also kind of silly, because three of the killer’s victims were adult males. Still, Molly was able to relax a bit with Chris there.

He’d asked to use her car again this afternoon to hang out with Elvis, but she had to drive Erin to her ballet recital.

Molly still couldn’t find the damn MapQuest directions. She decided to go into Jeff’s computer, check the sites she’d last visited, pull up the page, and print it again — a solution she should have thought often minutes ago.

On her way to Jeff’s study, she ran into Chris coming down the stairs. His hair was carefully combed, and he wore a pair of pressed khakis, a crisp-looking blue shirt, and black loafers, shined and buffed. He carried a lightweight, dark jacket.

“Well, you look nice,” Molly commented. “I thought you were getting together with Elvis. You look more like you’re going out on a hot date.”

He frowned at her a bit. “No, we’re just hanging out, that’s all,” he muttered. At the front door, Chris threw on his jacket. “We — um, we might go to the art museum. I just didn’t want to look like a bum.”

“Can I drop you at Elvis’s? It’s on the way, and there’s still time before Erin’s Swan Lake stint.”

“It’s okay. I’m taking the bus downtown and meeting him.”

“Well, try to be back in time for dinner,” Molly said, patting his shoulder. “Your dad’s coming home, and I’m fixing lasagna. Tell Elvis he’s invited, too.”

Chris just nodded distractedly. “I’ll call and let you know. Bye.” Then he headed out the front door.

Molly glanced at her wristwatch. She still had to get dressed. “Erin, honey!” she called upstairs. “Just to let you know, we’re leaving in about twenty minutes!” Then she murmured to herself. “If I can ever track down how to get to this damn place. .”

She headed into Jeff’s study, sat down at his computer, and got online. She clicked on the browsing history arrow. She was about to scroll down to MapQuest.com Search Results when she noticed two sites listed near the top: King County Metro Online Trip Planner and Bonney-Watson Funeral Home, Seattle.

Molly shook her head. “Oh, that sneaky son of a. .”

She stood up and peered out the window. She could see Chris at the end of the cul-de-sac, near the NO OUTLET sign. Molly felt a little sad pang in her stomach as she watched him. His head down as he walked, Chris pulled a tie from his jacket pocket and started to fix it around his neck.

The bus was late.

Chris stood at the stop, by the pole with the route table listed on a small placard. It was a chilly, overcast afternoon, but he wore his sunglasses anyway. He hiked up the collar of his jacket, and then felt his tie knot again. He figured it was crooked, but he could always straighten it out when he got to the funeral home.

He wondered if he’d read the bus schedule wrong when he’d checked it online. From his jacket pocket, he pulled out the piece of scrap paper on which he’d written the bus numbers and pickup times. On the back of the scrap paper was a MapQuest printout to someplace in Mountlake Terrace. He turned it over and glanced at his notes. He had to make three transfers, and it would be a ninety-minute trip each way.

He wondered if attending this wake was such a good idea. He didn’t want to upset Mr. Corson’s family, and chances were good he’d upset them — big-time. But he had to make amends and apologize to someone.

He remembered trying to get ahold of Mr. Corson after he left school in December. But his guidance counselor, who had always been there for him, changed his cell phone number and e-mail address. Chris used to run the high school track alone late afternoons, hoping against hope that Mr. C would surprise him and show up. He knew it was a crazy notion.

Mr. Corson once mentioned he sometimes ran on the Burke-Gilman Trail along north Lake Union in Seattle. So for three nights in mid-February, Chris took two buses to the University Bridge and then strolled along the trail in search of Mr. Corson. He didn’t spot him until the fourth trip.

It was unseasonably warm, and the setting sun marked the sky with streaks of red, orange, and plum. The colors glistened off the lightly rippling water of Lake Union. The trail had a steady stream of people running, walking, and riding their bikes. Chris was momentarily distracted by a pretty blonde in a clingy black jogging suit, and he almost missed Mr. Corson — jogging a few feet behind her.

“Chris?” he said, slowing to a stop.

Chris gaped at him. He looked so different. He had a heavy five o’clock shadow, and his hair was longer. He appeared tired — and older, somehow. He wore a Huskies sweatshirt and black knee-length workout shorts.

“Um, hi, Mr. C,” Chris murmured.

Mr. Corson wiped the sweat from his brow. “What are you doing here?”

“Trying to find you,” Chris admitted. “I–I feel awful about everything that happened.”

Mr. Corson nodded. “So do I, Chris.” Frowning, he glanced over at the sunset and then sighed. “The big difference is you’re still in school and you still have a future — and me, well, I doubt I’ll be able to get a job in any school again. That’s a done deal.”

Chris shook his head. “I’m so sorry, Mr. C,” he said meekly.

Mr. Corson nodded toward a nearby park bench that faced the water. “C’mon, I need to sit down and take a break anyway. I’m so out of shape lately, it’s not even funny.”

He lumbered toward the bench, and Chris walked alongside him. Mr. Corson brought his hand up toward Chris’s shoulder, but then he hesitated. Chris noticed him pull away slightly. They sat down — with a gap between them, big enough for another person.

“I don’t really blame you for anything, Chris,” Mr. Corson said, staring out at the water. “It’s just that Courtney Hahn and her pals made all those accusations about me on Facebook and Rate-a-teacher-dot-com. So many parents — especially the Willow Tree Court group — they got all stirred up, and it was over absolutely nothing.”

He leaned forward and ran a hand through his brown hair. “You know, there’s a big difference between folks who look out for the welfare of their kids, and the ones that spoil them rotten and let them get away with anything, simply because they’re their kids.” He let out a defeated laugh and shook his head. “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for teachers nowadays? We have to put up with kids texting and Twittering during class and then rating us online. We have these self-righteous parents calling us up and screaming at us about why their kid didn’t get a better grade or more time playing in a varsity game or more pages in the yearbook. Shit, I should be glad they fired me. I guess I’ll survive this. But your neighbors on Willow Tree Court and the ones like them, they’ll have to pay. They’ve raised a bunch of coddled, selfish brats who have an overblown sense of entitlement and absolutely no accountability. It’s going to bite them on the ass eventually. It reminds me of this saying my wife has: ‘Time wounds all heels.’

Dumbfounded, Chris just stared at him. He wasn’t quite sure what Mr. Corson meant. He’d never seen him this upset and angry before. Did Mr. Corson consider him a selfish, coddled brat?

It turned darker — and colder — in a matter of minutes. Chris shivered and rubbed his arms to fight off the chill. “Is there anything I can do — anybody I can talk to — that will help you get your job back?”

“No, it’s too late for that,” Mr. Corson sighed. “The damage has been done. When I think of poor Ian Scholl. .” He rubbed his eyes. “No, Chris, you can’t fix it. All the gossip and lies have taken their toll. My marriage is pretty much a shambles now — along with my finances. Plus my daughter, Tracy, this has really hurt her, and she’s been acting out in all sorts of — disturbing ways. I’m really worried about her. Fortunately, Todd is too young to understand what’s happening. I think maybe we’ll sell our home here and move to the East Coast, try to start over. . ”

Biting his lip, Chris tried to think of something he could say to make Mr. Corson feel better — the way Mr. Corson had always seemed to know exactly what to say to him. The only thing that came to mind was one of Molly’s expressions: This too shall pass. But he was worried he might sound like a smart-ass. And besides, it hardly seemed true in this case.

“You didn’t come here to listen to how shitty my life has become,” Mr. Corson said. “You came here because you feel bad and don’t want me blaming you. Well, I don’t blame you, Chris.”

“But you got such a raw deal, Mr. C, and I feel like—”

“You saw something that confused and disturbed you, so you went to your stepmother about it, and things just got out of hand. It wasn’t your fault, Chris.” He gave him a sad smile. “Even if I was mad at you for a while, I couldn’t stay angry at you. It sounds corny, but you’ve been like a son to me — and I’ll always think of you that way.”

Chris could see the tears in his eyes. Mr. Corson cleared his throat and then suddenly stood up. “Listen, I should go. Obviously, your mom and dad don’t know you’re here meeting with me. If it ever got back to them — well, there’d be hell to pay for both of us.”

Chris quickly got to his feet. “Can I get your new e-mail address or — or — or phone number? I don’t want this to be—”

“No,” Mr. Corson said, cutting him off. “That’s a bad idea. Your parents wouldn’t want you communicating with me, Chris.” As he spoke, he kept glancing down at the ground — and not at him. “I don’t want it, either. I don’t think we should see each other again. . ”

“Oh, c’mon, Mr. C, you can’t mean that.”

But Chris saw the tired, defeated look on Mr. Corson’s face — and he knew his beloved guidance counselor meant every word.

Chris’s heart sank. He went to hug him.

“Don’t,” Mr. Corson muttered, backing away. “That’s what got me into trouble in the first place. You should know better than anybody.” He took a deep breath, then grabbed Chris’s hand and shook it. “Good-bye, Chris. Good luck.”

“Bye,” Chris murmured. Dazed, he watched him turn and start toward the trail. “Mr. C!” he called, his voice cracking. “Mr. C, if it weren’t for you, I never would have made it through the last year! Mr. Corson?”

A few people on the track stared at him. But Mr. Corson didn’t even turn around. He started running down the trail, and never looked back.

That was the last time Chris saw him.

And now he was going to his wake.

At least, he hoped to go — if the bus ever showed up. With a lump in his throat, Chris glanced at his wristwatch: 1:35. The bus was fifteen minutes late. He felt so lonely and lost. He hated going to this wake alone — and facing all those people who might hate him. He should have asked Elvis to come with him.

He took off his sunglasses and anxiously peered down the street. No sign of the bus. But he recognized Molly’s dark green Saturn coming up the street. It was close enough that she probably saw him. And from what he could tell, she was alone in the car.

His mouth open, he watched her pull over to the stop. With a hum, the front passenger window descended. Chris leaned toward the car and suddenly remembered he was wearing a tie. His hand came up to cover it, but too late. “Um, what’s going on?” he asked.

“I could ask you the same thing,” Molly said with a wry smile. “I like your tie.”

Mortified, he took his hand away. He noticed she was wearing a dark, formal coat and a black dress. Her blond hair was all done up.

“Where’s Erin?” he asked, still hovering close to the car.

“I called Marlys Bourm to see if Erin could get a ride with Allyse. They just picked her up five minutes ago. She’s a little disappointed I’m not going to the recital, but she’ll survive. Besides, your mother will be there.”

“So — where are you going?”

“To a wake — with you,” Molly said. “C’mon, get in.”

Chris stared at her and blinked. “How did you—”

“I’ll tell you on the way,” she said, cutting him off. “Get in — before we cause a traffic jam.”

Chris quickly opened the passenger door and climbed inside.

“If you’re so determined to go to this wake, despite everything your father told you and all his warnings,” Molly said, glancing in the side mirror, “well, honey, you shouldn’t have to face that crowd all by yourself.”

Chris felt the lump in his throat return. He was so grateful for the company, for the ride, and for her uncanny intuition. He almost went to hug her. But he held back and strapped himself in with the seat belt.

“Thanks, Molly,” was all he said.

“Okay, here’s what I think we should do,” Molly whispered to Chris as they stepped into Bonney-Watson Funeral Home’s elegant lobby. It resembled the foyer of a rich, old estate. Vases of flowers and Kleenex boxes were strategically placed on mahogany tables between cushioned chairs and love seats. “Once you see Mrs. Corson,” Molly continued, “we’ll wait until she’s alone or down to just one person talking to her — and then we’ll make our approach. Say what you need to say, and then let’s beat a hasty retreat.”

Chris looked nervous. “Um, Molly, I–I don’t know what Mrs. Corson looks like. I’ve never met her.”

She was thrown for a loop for a moment, but then she nodded and straightened his tie. “Well, okay, we’ll just figure it out. You look nice.”

By a double doorway at their right, a small placard on the wall had CORSON spelled out in white plastic letters on a ribbed black velvet background. Molly and Chris stepped into the crowded room and made their way toward the closed bronze casket at the far end. Molly guessed there were about a hundred people attending the wake. She stopped and asked a skinny, twentysomething woman if she could point out Mrs. Corson for them.

The woman nodded in the direction of the casket. “Mrs. Corson’s over there in the black dress.” she said. Then she moved on.

“Well, that narrows it down to about twelve women in the general vicinity,” Molly muttered to Chris. “C’mon, let’s see if we can weed her out.”

Hesitating, he glanced around the room. “I’m not so sure about this now.”

“Well, personally, I agree with your dad,” Molly whispered. “It’s a bad idea, Chris. You have no idea how she’s going to react. My guess is we won’t be welcomed with open arms. So just say the word and we’re out of here. If you’re so determined to apologize to her, you can always do it in a sympathy card.”

Biting his lip, he stood there for a few moments. He shifted his weight on one foot and then the other.

Molly remembered over a year ago, going to that woman’s front door on Gunnison Street in Chicago and trying to apologize to her — only to end up with a face full of spittle for her efforts.

“I vote we leave,” Molly said.

But Chris shook his head. “No, I need to do this.” He started toward the casket.

Molly followed him. She spotted a pale, dowdy, brown-haired woman in an unflattering wrap-around black dress. Two people were talking to her — and one of them was holding her hand in a consoling way. Beside her stood a bored-looking teenage girl with heavy Goth eye makeup and stringy black hair. She had on a black skirt and a ratty, black sweater with sleeves that came down to her fingers.

“Do you think that might be her?” Molly whispered.

“I–I guess,” Chris replied under his breath. “It sounds mean, but I always thought Mr. Corson’s wife would be really pretty. They have a daughter around my age — and she’s supposed to be kind of weird. So maybe. .”

The two people moved away from the woman, and Molly meekly approached her. “Mrs. Corson?”

The woman stared at her. “I’m Ms. Corson. I’m Ray’s sister, Sherry.” She held out her hand.

Molly shook it. “Hello, Sherry. I’m so sorry for your loss. My name’s Molly Dennehy.”

“This is my daughter, Serena. . ” Ray Corson’s sister started to gesture toward the teenage girl. But she hesitated. “Did you say Dennehy?”

“Yes,” Chris piped up. “I’m Chris. Mr. Corson was my guidance counselor at James Monroe. I was hoping I could talk with Mrs. Corson. . ”

Dennehy,” the woman repeated, scowling at them. “I know that name. I’ve heard about you from Jenna.”

“I’d like to talk with her — and — and — and explain some things,” Chris said in a shaky voice.

Molly put a hand on his shoulder. She could feel him trembling.

Ray Corson’s sister slowly shook her head. “You have a lot of nerve showing up here.”

Molly cleared her throat. “If we could just talk to your sister-in-law. .”

“Jenna is in Yakima with her sister,” Sherry whispered. “She’s in no condition to see anyone. . ”

“Well, she went there before Uncle Ray was killed even,” the girl piped up. “She was ready to leave him—”

“Serena, please,” her mother growled.

“Well, she was!” the girl said, rolling her eyes. “And still, Uncle Ray left everything to her. Anyway, Aunt Jenna’s not even in Yakima right now—”

“That’s enough, young lady,” her mother hissed. “Why don’t you see if Grandma Berry needs a glass of water or something?”

The girl rolled her eyes again. “Excuse me for living,” she muttered, wandering off.

“Do you happen to have her address in Yakima?” Molly asked. “Someplace we can send a card or flowers?”

“Haven’t you done enough damage?” she asked. “For God’s sake, leave her alone. She’s been through hell, thanks to you people.”

“Is — is their daughter okay?” Chris asked suddenly. “The last time I talked with him, Mr. Corson said he was worried about her, because she was having a lot of problems.”

“Tracy ran away two months ago,” Sherry said. “She hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Now, if you don’t have any more questions, would you please leave? I have nothing more to say to you.”

“I’m sorry,” Chris murmured. “I really am.”

“My condolences,” Molly said to the woman. She gave Chris’s shoulder a squeeze. “C’mon, honey.”

She steered him toward the exit. She noticed Serena, the Goth girl, talking with an old woman. She gave Chris a crooked smile, but he seemed oblivious. Molly waited until they reached the lobby before she patted him on the back. “Are you okay?” she whispered. “I know that was rough. But you have to remember, people say things they don’t really mean when they’re grieving.”

He jerked away from her. “Would you leave me alone?” he grumbled.

Perplexed, Molly backed off. “Fine. . ”

“I’m going to take the bus home, okay?”

“Why? Chris, honey, that doesn’t make sense. Are you upset at me about something?”

Chris hurried for the door and ducked outside. Molly went after him. He paused by the entry — under an awning that was flapping in the wind. He put on his sunglasses.

“Chris, what’s wrong?” Molly asked him. “Are you angry with me?”

“You’re the one who insisted we go to the principal about Mr. Corson.” He shook his head. “I never should have told you what I saw. None of it would have happened if I’d just kept my mouth shut.”

“You’re blaming me?” Molly asked. “For this?” She motioned toward the glass double doors to the funeral parlor. “Chris, Mr. Corson isn’t dead because of us. What happened back in December—”

“Leave me alone!” he yelled, cutting her off. “God!”

A passerby on the sidewalk stared at them. Chris glanced down at the pavement. “I’m taking the bus back,” he said quietly.

Molly sighed. “Suit yourself. But can I say something?”

“What?” he muttered.

“Why is it, Chris, every time I start to feel we’re really connecting, you pull the rug out from under me? And once again, I’m just this stranger you resent, living in your mother’s house.”

Pull the rug out from under me,” he repeated. “Is that another one of your expressions? Because I don’t understand it.”

“Yes, you do,” she replied. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. You did it to me again just now.”

She turned and started down the sidewalk. “Be home in time for supper,” she called over her shoulder. “Your father’s expecting you.”

Molly knew she’d worry about him until then.

CHAPTER SIX

Outside the north entrance to Seattle Central Community College, she blended in with a few other students who had stepped outside for a smoke. But she didn’t talk to them. She was too focused on what was happening across the street in front of Bonney-Watson Funeral Home.

Chris Dennehy was wearing a tie and some nice khaki pants. In all the times she’d followed him, she hadn’t seen him this dressed up before. She’d had a feeling he would be here today.

Chris hadn’t noticed her at all, and neither had anyone else.

He seemed to be having a heated discussion with his stepmother. “Leave me alone! God!” His voice boomed over the traffic noise.

His stepmother said something to him and then walked away. Chris stood there on the sidewalk, rubbing his forehead. He’d certainly gotten his wish. His stepmother had left him alone — and maybe even a bit stranded.

She smiled.

It was just how she would get to him — when he was all alone.

* * *

Chris paced back and forth under the funeral parlor’s awning. He didn’t know why he’d gotten so mad at Molly. Mostly he was disappointed. After coming all this way, he hadn’t even had a chance to see Mrs. Corson.

There had been only Mr. Corson’s sister making him feel horrible.

Despite everything she’d said, he still wanted to talk with Jenna Corson. Part of him wanted to apologize and explain his side of things to her. But mostly, he needed to connect with someone else who grieved for Mr. Corson. Maybe he could even help her somehow. After all, wouldn’t she want to know how important her husband had been to him?

Chris took off his sunglasses and stepped back inside the funeral home. At the doorway of the viewing room, he scanned the crowd for Mr. Corson’s niece, Serena. At the same time, he kept an eye out for her mother. He dreaded another run-in with her.

For a few moments, he found himself just staring at the bronze casket at the far end of the room. It was hard to fathom Mr. Corson lying inside it. Chris imagined the three bullet wounds in him, now plugged up by some mortician.

He went back to looking over the crowd and finally spotted the Goth girl with an elderly man. She nodded at something the old man said, but still had a bored look in her heavily madeup eyes.

Threading through the crowd, Chris made his way to her. She glanced at him and let out a little laugh. Then she looked at the elderly man again. “Really nice talking with you,” she said loudly.

Turning toward Chris, she rolled her eyes. “Shit, there are so many old people here, and all of them are close talkers — with bad breath. And I’m stuck here until seven, too. Please, kill me now.” She sighed, then looked him up and down. “So you’re the one who caused all the fuss. Well, I heard you were cute. That’s certainly true.”

Chris shrugged. “Thanks, I guess. Where did you hear—”

“I have a friend at James Monroe, and she has a blog,” Serena explained before he finished asking the question. “I see you didn’t let my mother, the Wicked Bitch of the West, scare you away. What happened to the woman you were with? She’s not your mother, is she? She looked too young.”

“She’s my stepmother,” Chris explained. “She’s on her way home.” He spied Mr. Corson’s sister across the room and pulled Serena into a corner. He hoped a potted palm by the wall blocked the woman’s view of them. “You said something about your aunt getting ready to leave your uncle before he was killed,” he whispered.

She nodded. “More than ‘getting ready.’ She actually moved out, took my bratty three-year-old cousin, Todd, and went to her sister’s in Yakima. Uncle Ray had to drive to Yakima to visit Todd. But he didn’t complain. In fact, he renewed his life insurance and kept Aunt Jenna on as the beneficiary. My mom’s still pissed off about that.”

“But you said your aunt was back again. . ”

“That’s right. While she was in Yakima, she had movers take her stuff from the house to this apartment she rented in Kent. I guess she wanted to be closer to Seattle in case my crazy cousin, Tracy, ever decides to come home. Aunt Jenna’s there now, only my mother wants everyone to think she’s still in Yakima, crying her eyes out or something like that. Todd’s in Yakima with her sister, but my aunt’s at her new apartment in Kent. She just didn’t want to come to Uncle Ray’s wake.”

“Why not?” Chris asked, frowning.

Serena shrugged. “Beats me. And Aunt Jenna’s paying for this thing. You’d think she’d want to put in an appearance. I heard my mother on the phone with her last night, begging her to come, saying ‘How do you think it’ll look if you don’t show up?’ and shit like that. If you ask me, Aunt Jenna just didn’t want to be a hypocrite.” She squinted at Chris. “Why are you so anxious to see my Aunt Jenna?”

“I want to tell her that I’m sorry,” Chris admitted. “Maybe explain things to her, set the record straight.”

“You mean, about you and Uncle Ray?”

He nodded.

“I heard he was trying to fuck you,” she said.

“You heard wrong,” Chris replied soberly. “Was that on your friend’s blog, too?”

“Yeah,” she said, half smiling.

“Terrific,” he grumbled. He glanced over toward where her mother had been earlier, and she was no longer there. Chris looked around, but didn’t see her. A panic swept through him. He didn’t want another chewing-out from her. He turned toward Serena again. “Listen, do you know where in Kent your aunt is staying? Do you have the address?”

She shrugged. “Well, not on me. It’s one of those new apartment complexes near Southcenter Mall.”

Chris suddenly spotted Mr. Corson’s sister emerging from a group of mourners nearby. She started toward him and Serena.

“Oh, shit,” he murmured. “Listen, I got to go, thanks a lot—”

Ms. Corson was pointing at him. “You. .”

Just then, a smartly dressed older woman with silver hair grabbed her arm. “Sherry? Sherry, dear, I’m so sorry about Ray. I remember when the two of you were just kids, and you had those skateboards. . ”

Ms. Corson stopped and talked to the older woman. Her smile looked forced.

“Thanks again,” Chris whispered to Serena. He almost knocked over the potted palm as he hurried out of the room. He saw a sign on the wall between a tall grandfather clock and the edge of a corridor: RESTROOMS, OFFICES.

Chris retreated down the hallway and into the men’s room. It smelled like cinnamon-scented urinal cakes. Ducking into a stall, he caught his breath and waited for a few minutes. He figured Serena’s mother wouldn’t come after him in there.

He stood by the toilet with hands in his jacket pockets. He wondered why Mr. Corson’s wife hadn’t come to his funeral. Did Mrs. Corson believe the lies broadcast on the blogs?

More than ever, he needed to see her and explain that her dead husband had never done anything inappropriate — at least, not with him. He owed Mr. Corson that much. He wished he could get her address somehow.

He took his hands out of his pockets, and his sunglasses fell out. They landed beside the toilet. He was about to pick them up off the floor, but he heard the bathroom door squeak open, then footsteps. Chris froze. The person seemed to stop just outside the stall. He tried to peek through the gap where the door was hinged, but he couldn’t see anybody.

“Chris?” he heard someone whisper. It was a girl’s voice.

“Serena?” he said, ready to open the door. But when she didn’t answer right away, he hesitated. “Serena?” he asked again.

“Chris, it’s about to start,” she whispered. The voice didn’t belong to Serena, he could tell.

“Who’s there?” He fumbled with the door lock, trying to undo it. “What are you talking about?”

“The killing is about to start.”

“What?” he murmured. A chill raced through him.

There was no response, just footsteps on the tile floor again, and the restroom door yawning.

Chris twisted the lock another way and finally pulled open the stall door. He raced out to the corridor. It was empty. How could she have moved that fast? He knocked on the women’s room door. There was no response, so he peeked inside at the small lounge area with a settee, chairs, and a dressing table — with two boxes of Kleenex on it.

He ventured through the next doorway. He heard a steady drip from one of the sink faucets. The washroom looked empty, but two of the three stall doors were closed. Chris crouched down and peered at the openings between the floor and the bottom of the doors. He didn’t see anybody’s feet. He straightened up.

“What are you doing in here?”

Chris swiveled around and saw a middle-aged woman with stiff-looking platinum-blond hair gaping at him from the doorway.

“Um, sorry,” he managed to say. “I was looking for my sister.”

She just stared at him, a hand on her pearl necklace.

“You didn’t — you didn’t happen to see a girl run up the hallway a minute ago, did you?” he asked. “Maybe she was in the lobby?”

Frowning, the blond lady shook her head. “If you don’t mind, young man, I’d like to use the facilities.”

“Sure, sorry, excuse me,” Chris muttered, brushing past her, and then out the doorway.

He glanced down the corridor again, thinking maybe Serena had ducked into an empty office. That must have been her in the bathroom, playing a joke on him. She knew his name. Who else could it have been? She’d done a good job disguising her voice. But why would she say that? The killing is about to start. Leave it to a Goth girl to think that was funny.

Chris noticed a long window along the wall farther down the hallway. The wooden venetian blinds on the other side of the glass were slanted open wide enough for him to look into an office. A pale, balding, thirtyish man with black-rimmed glasses sat in front of a computer screen on one of the two sleek mahogany desks. The small office was nicely appointed with hunter-green walls, bookcases full of what looked like catalogs, and a window overlooking Cal Anderson Park. In his black suit, black tie, and dark blue shirt ensemble, the man at the desk seemed to take his job in the funeral parlor very seriously.

Chris knocked on the door, and then opened it. “Excuse me, hi,” he said.

The man glanced up at him, thinly disguising his annoyance. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, did you see a girl run down the hallway here a few minutes ago?” Chris asked.

“No, I’m sorry,” he said. He slid a printed sheet of paper inside an eight-by-ten envelope so the address appeared through a little window. It looked like a bill.

Chris stared at it. He remembered something Serena had said: “Aunt Jenna’s paying for this thing. You’d think she’d want to put in an appearance.”

The man gazed at him over the rims of his glasses. “Is there anything else?”

“Yes, sir,” Chris said. “My mother sent me in here to get the address for Jenna Corson. She’s Ray Corson’s widow. It’s a new address in Kent, and my mother wants to send Mrs. Corson some flowers.”

With a pinched smile, the man reached for a business card from a little silver tray on his desk. “Your mother can send the flowers care of us, and we’ll see that Mrs. Corson gets them.”

“Well, that’s just the thing,” Chris said, taking the card with Bonney-Watson Funeral Home and the man’s name on it. “See, the last time she did that here, Mr. Decker, her friend never got the flowers, and my mom was really ticked off. So she sent me in here for the address. Corson. It’s a new address — in Kent.”

Frowning a bit, the man turned to his computer keyboard and started typing. Then he copied down the address on a memo pad.

“And the phone number, too,” Chris thought to say. “The florist is gonna want it.”

The man sighed and scribbled down the address.

Five minutes later, Chris was near the side of the Bonney-Watson building to get some distance from all the traffic noise on the cross street, Broadway. He was dialing the number for Jenna Corson on his cell phone. He wasn’t sure what he’d say if he got her machine, or if he’d even leave a message. He started to count the ringtones.

Someone picked up on the third ring. “Hello?” It was a woman’s voice.

“Hello, is Mrs. Jenna Corson there, please?”

“Speaking.”

Chris covered his free ear as a floral delivery truck pulled into the driveway beside the funeral parlor. “Mrs. Corson, this is. .” He hesitated and glanced at the truck. “This is Emerald City Flowers calling. We have a delivery for you. Are you going to be home for the next hour?”

There was a pause on the other end of the line, and Chris held his breath.

“Yes, I’ll be home,” she said finally.

“We have you at 22013 Forty-second Avenue in Kent, Unit 2-F, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“We’ll be there within the hour, Mrs. Corson, thank you,” he said.

“Thanks,” she said. Then he heard a click on the other end.

Chris switched off the cell phone. He had a strange feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. It had been stupid of him to pretend he was someone else on the phone; but he’d figured she would hang up if she knew it was him. Now she’d be even angrier once she found he’d lied to her.

He heard a door slam and saw a young, heavyset woman with red hair unloading a blooming plant from the back of the truck. “Excuse me?” he called to her. “Is that for Corson?”

She hesitated, and then glanced at the card on the plant. “Yeah,” she said.

“I’ll take it, thanks,” he said, holding out his hand.

She gave him a crooked grin. “Wait a sec. Who are you?”

Chris straightened his tie. Then he pulled out the business card with Bonney-Watson Funeral Home and the man’s name on it. He flashed it at the woman. “We were expecting you an hour ago.”

“Oh, well, sorry.” The redhead handed him the mum plant.

“It’s okay,” Chris said. “Mrs. Corson will be glad to get it.”

Minutes later, Chris sat in the back of a Yellow Cab, balancing the blooming plant in his lap. He was on his way to Kent. The card on the little plastic holder read: To Jenna — Thinking of you, with love, Dennis & Debbie Gotlieb.

Chris felt inside his jacket pocket for his sunglasses, but they weren’t there. Then he remembered — they were on the bathroom floor in the funeral parlor. An eighty-five-dollar pair of Ray-Bans, right down the toilet — or in this case, right beside the toilet. He checked his other pocket just to make sure. No, he had his cell phone in there, and nothing else.

His cell phone.

“Shit!” he whispered. He realized — after thinking he’d been so damn clever with the funeral parlor guy and the florist — he’d done something really bonehead stupid. He’d called Mrs. Corson on his cell phone, pretending to be someone else. She almost certainly had caller ID. She might have forgotten to check it when she’d picked up the phone. But chances were she would check it before he showed up at her door. Maybe she already knew it had been him calling.

He felt that knot in his stomach again and wished he’d just been honest with her. He expected his cell phone to ring any minute — with Mrs. Corson on the other end, ready to chew him out. And he would deserve it.

“Stupid,” Chris muttered to himself. He adjusted the mum plant in his lap and pressed a hand to his stomach.

He felt the knot tightening.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Molly was driving on the interstate, halfway home. “Tuesday Afternoon” played on the car radio, and a cool breeze whipped through the half-open window.

She thought again about calling him, but told herself that Chris was a big boy. He had bus fare and a route schedule. He could get home on his own. He was a responsible kid.

As she watched the road ahead, Molly remembered six months ago and how they’d tried to do the responsible thing. But then it all spiraled out of control.

Before that, back in October, she still hadn’t known Chris well enough to read his various moods. She’d been married to Jeff for only three months. She’d figured most teenagers were sullen and withdrawn all the time. Chris was still getting used to this strange woman in the house, moving in on his mother’s turf. His behavior seemed normal considering the circumstances. But Jeff was deeply concerned about him.

“Since Angela moved out, he’s been getting worse and worse,” Jeff observed. “Every time he comes back from a weekend with her, all he does is snarl at me. I’m sure Angela’s bad-mouthing us to him every chance she gets. And poor Chris is her captive audience.”

Molly tried to reach out to Chris. Having him pose as the teen hero for the cover of the young adult novel, Conquer the Night, helped thaw him out a little. And in early November, when he asked her to come with him to Zales to pick out a bracelet for Courtney, Molly felt she’d finally won him over. She told him in the jewelry store how flattered she was that he’d solicited her opinion.

He shrugged. “Well, Mr. Corson thought I should ask you — since you’re a woman and you know this kind of stuff.”

She and Jeff had been hearing more and more about his guidance counselor, Mr. Corson. At first, Jeff had been grateful Chris was even talking to them — about anything. But after a while, Molly could tell he felt a bit threatened. Ray Corson seemed to have become Chris’s new father figure. “I’m not sure I like Chris going on these late-afternoon runs with this guy — just the two of them,” Jeff told her one night. “It’s just weird.”

But Molly considered Mr. Corson a godsend. Until the guidance counselor came along, Molly hadn’t realized Chris could be so sweet and friendly. She guessed he might have been that way before his parents’ separation; and if so, they had Ray Corson to thank for bringing back the old Chris.

But he started to backslide in late November. His mother had suddenly fallen in love with Larry Keegan, a Bellevue divorced dad. She didn’t waste much time moving in with him. So Chris had a potential stepdad and teenage stepsister, and obviously, he wasn’t crazy about either one of them. Making matters worse, he and Courtney had broken up.

It seemed to come to a head one night the week after Thanksgiving, when Jeff was out of town. Molly had been holding dinner for Chris, who still hadn’t come home from school. He hadn’t answered his cell phone, either. She finally fed Erin at eight-fifteen. Chris crept in at a quarter to nine, while she and Erin were washing the dishes. Erin wanted him to guess what she drew in art class. Molly asked where he’d been and why he hadn’t called.

“Could you both just leave me alone?” he muttered, retreating upstairs to his room.

After tucking Erin in bed, Molly went to his door and gently knocked. “Chris, can I come in?”

“I don’t feel like company, okay?” he replied from the other side of the door.

“Well, I didn’t feel like worrying about you for the last four hours, but I did,” she replied. “You owe me an explanation. I’m coming in.” She opened the door and found him on top of the bed with his hands clasped behind his head, staring up at the ceiling.

“I know you’re having a tough time lately,” she said, standing in the doorway with her arms folded. “What happened today? Why didn’t you call? You were very curt with Erin when you came in. That’s not like you. Her feelings were hurt.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, rolling over on his side. His back was to her.

“Did something happen with Courtney?”

“No. It’s got nothing to do with her,” he murmured.

“But something happened,” she said.

His voice was strained when he finally answered. “I–I can’t talk to you about it, Molly.”

She sat on the edge of his desk. “Well, if this is as serious as it sounds, maybe you should talk to your dad.”

“He’s too busy,” Chris grunted.

“He’s never too busy for you, Chris. You know that. You should call him.”

“It’s almost midnight in D.C. He’s probably asleep. It is D.C. where he’s at this week, right?”

Molly didn’t respond right away. He sounded so bitter. “Well, it’s not too late to call your mother.”

“She can’t be bothered right now. She’s in love.”

“What about Mr. Corson? Do you have his number? You trust him.”

“Not anymore,” he muttered.

“Why? Did something happen with Mr. Corson?” Molly remembered what Jeff had said a while back: “I’m not sure I like Chris going on these late afternoon runs with this guy — just the two of them. It’s just weird.”

She walked around the bed so she was facing him. “Chris, did something happen with Mr. Corson?”

He rubbed his eyes. “Damn it, you’d think I’d learn. People always let you down. What a disappointment — first, my mom and dad, and then Courtney, and now, Mr. C. . ”

Molly sat on the edge of his bed. “Chris, what did Mr. Corson do to you?”

With a sigh, Chris half sat up. He pushed his pillow up against the headboard and leaned back on it. “He didn’t do anything to me. It’s just. . I needed to talk with him. I’ve missed him on the track the last couple of days — and I’ve had a lot of stuff on my mind.”

Molly nodded. “I know you have.”

He picked at a loose thread on his bedspread. “I’m not sure whether or not I told you about Ian Scholl.”

“Isn’t he the boy everyone picks on?” Molly asked. “He snapped at you when you tried to help him pick up his books. . ”

Chris nodded. “Mr. Corson asked me to be nice to him — and be his pal. I wasn’t so gung ho about the idea. I mean, I tried to be nice to him before, and look how he reacted.” Chris shifted on the bed, and the springs squeaked. “Anyway, I went looking for Mr. Corson this afternoon. It was kind of late, and he wasn’t at the track. He sometimes takes a shower in the varsity locker room after his run. So I went looking for him in there. At first, I thought the place was empty. But then I heard this strange, moaning sound a few locker rows down from where I was. I went to check it out and. .” Frowning, he took a deep breath. “Well, Mr. Corson was standing there hugging Ian Scholl. No one else was in the place. Mr. Corson had his shirt off, and it wasn’t buddybuddy hugging, y’know? I mean, it looked like he was kissing the top of Ian’s head. . ”

“Go on,” Molly said somberly.

He shrugged. “Ian suddenly saw me, and he just freaked. He practically knocked me down running out of there. I couldn’t believe it. I just stared at Mr. Corson, and I think he started to say something. But I didn’t stick around. I bolted. I heard Mr. Corson call to me, but I just kept running. A few minutes later, he phoned my cell twice, but I didn’t pick up. I finally switched it off.” Chris shook his head. “It really disgusted me, and I’m not sure why. I don’t think I’m homophobic or anything like that. I just—”

“What if you found him with a female student, doing the exact same thing? How would you have felt?”

He sighed. “Just as disgusted, I guess. I didn’t think of Mr. Corson as the type of guy who would make a move on a student — any student.”

Molly patted his leg. “You’re not homophobic, Chris. You’re just very disappointed in Mr. Corson. So am I — if that hug is what you say it was. Are you sure it was sexual? I mean, don’t guys sometimes hug in the locker room after a game?”

“Not when one of them is half naked, and no one else is around — and there’s no game,” he muttered. “It looked pretty sexual. So now, I’m wondering why he wanted me to be friends with that creepy Ian, and why he’s been so nice to me. I think back to all the times we were alone, and — shit.” Chris shook his head. “How come I feel so pissed off and disgusted about this? I mean, why should I care if they want to get it on?”

“Because you looked up to Mr. Corson, you trusted him,” Molly said. “And then you found him doing this — this wildly inappropriate thing. Ian’s a student — and a minor. It’s not just inappropriate, it’s against the law. What Mr. Corson was doing was wrong.”

Chris turned away and rubbed his eyes.

“You said he tried to call you?” Molly asked quietly. “Did he leave a message?”

Chris frowned. “No, I checked. I was hoping he could explain. . ”

Biting her lip, Molly realized she was out of her element here. This was a matter Jeff needed to handle. The new stepmom had no business trying to resolve it.

So she heated up leftovers from that night’s ham-and-mac dinner for him. Though Chris had claimed he wasn’t hungry, he wolfed it down — alone in his room. Molly retreated downstairs to the kitchen and phoned Jeff at the Hilton in Washington, D.C. Jeff had been sleeping. He sounded groggy at first, but after Molly explained why she was calling, he became wide awake — and angry.

“I knew that guy was bad news!” he declared. “What have I been telling you? There’s something basically wrong with a teacher spending so much time alone after school with a student. Damn it, I should have nipped this in the bud months ago. Jesus, it’s a good thing I’m not there right now. I’d kick the crap out of that SOB.”

“Well, then I’m glad you’re not here,” she said. “Jeff, we can’t be one hundred percent positive about what Chris saw. We should at least listen to what Mr. Corson has to say, maybe get him together with Chris—”

“What? Are you nuts? He’s not getting near Chris again. Listen, listen — put Chris on, honey. I need to talk with him, make sure he’s okay. . ”

She let Chris talk to his father in private for a few minutes. When Molly got back on the line, Jeff explained that Chris had agreed to tell his story to the school principal in the morning. Could she set up the appointment? Could she go with him to see the principal?

They met with the principal during lunch hour the next day. Molly’s heart ached for Chris, who sat across from her in Principal Carney’s office. His foot shook nervously, and he kept glancing down at the ugly gray carpeted floor — unable to look anyone in the eye. Molly’s chair was hard and uncomfortable, and she figured his was, too. They were probably that way on purpose for students being disciplined in there.

Carney was a large, fiftysomething black woman who looked like she didn’t smile much. Behind her desk was a blown-up photo of the Seattle skyline and several framed certificates. She listened solemnly as Chris recounted what he’d seen in the varsity locker room the previous evening.

When he was finished, the principal cleared her throat, reached for her phone, and pressed three numbers. “Shannon, have Ray Corson come to my office. . Yes, right away. .”

Chris seemed to go pale. He shot Molly a panicked look.

She reached over and put her hand on his arm. “Chris and I aren’t comfortable with this,” she said to the principal. “I thought we’d be talking with just you, Principal Carney. We weren’t expecting a face-to-face with Mr. Corson.”

The principal gave her a dubious sidelong glance. “Well, if Mr. Corson has an explanation, you want to hear it from him, don’t you?”

Molly just sighed and said nothing. She noticed Chris’s foot started to shake so bad it looked like a spasm.

Principal Carney began typing on her computer keyboard. Molly wasn’t sure if she was writing up a summary of what Chris had just told her or if she was answering e-mails. The principal didn’t explain. No one said anything. Molly listened to the click-click-click of those fingernails on the keyboard for about five excruciating minutes.

At last, she spotted Ray Corson through the window in the office door. At least, she was pretty sure he was Ray Corson. He reminded her a bit of Jeff, only not quite as handsome — and a few years younger. Still, he was pleasant looking. He wore a blue striped shirt, jeans, and a loosened tie. He knocked on the office door and then opened it.

Chris slinked down in his chair.

When Corson saw him, a sad half smile came to his face. “Hi, Chris,” he said. Then he approached Molly with his hand out for her to shake. “Mrs. Dennehy?”

She hesitated. All she could think about was Jeff, going ballistic because she actually shook the guy’s hand. “Molly,” she said finally. She didn’t want to be mistaken for Angela. She went ahead and shook his hand.

“Have a seat.” Principal Carney nodded at a single chair against the wall. He sat down in it. The principal folded her hands on her desktop. “Mr. Corson, Chris happened to see you in the locker room last night with a student, and he was concerned that something inappropriate might have happened there. Maybe you can clarify for us exactly what was going on.”

Ray Corson frowned. “I was counseling a student on a personal matter.”

“Would you care to elaborate?” the principal asked.

“I don’t see why I should. It’s nobody else’s business.” He glanced at Chris. “I’m disappointed you didn’t come to me about this, Chris.”

Squirming, Chris rubbed his forehead. “I’m sorry—”

“Excuse me,” Molly interrupted, gaping at Corson. “But you’re disappointed? Chris walked in on you and a student — in the locker room, embracing. You had your shirt off, and no one else was around. What was he supposed to think?”

“Ray?” the principal said. “I’ll ask you again. Would you care to elaborate?”

In that isolated chair, he might as well have been sitting on the witness stand. He stared at Chris. “I was running laps around the track when Ian Scholl came to see me about some problems he’s having at home and at school — as you often do, Chris. We spoke for about twenty minutes. He agreed to make an appointment to see me in my office this week. We shook hands good-bye. Then I went to take a shower. . ” He turned toward the principal. “I sometimes shower in the varsity locker room when it’s not in use.”

“Go on,” she said.

He looked at Molly, and she involuntarily shrank back a bit. “I started to undress,” he said. “After I took off my shirt, I realized Ian had followed me into the locker room. He still had some issues he wanted to discuss — very personal, very emotional issues. Maybe you think I should have put my shirt back on, Mrs. Dennehy, but it never crossed my mind. I was listening to this young man, who was hurting. Do you understand?”

Molly almost nodded, but she held back.

“Anyway, Ian started to cry — and I hugged him. That’s when Chris saw us. I know how it must have looked, but I also know Chris. . ” Corson had a wounded look on his face as he turned to him. “I figured you trusted me, and wouldn’t jump to any wrong conclusions about what you saw. I figured you’d talk to me about it if you had any questions or concerns. I guess I figured wrong.”

Chris let out an unsteady sigh. “Why did Ian run away like that?”

Mr. Corson shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. Why did you run away, Chris?”

Chris opened his mouth but didn’t say anything.

Frowning, Principal Carney tapped the end of a pen against her desk. “Mr. Corson, considering the time and place — and how you were dressed — I don’t think hugging this student was an appropriate action.”

He straightened in the chair. “Considering the fact that Ian was crying and in anguish, I think hugging him was very appropriate.” He turned to Molly and then Chris. “Anyway, that’s what happened. Do you believe me, Chris?”

“Yeah — I guess, of course,” he murmured with his head down. Molly barely heard him,

“Then that’s all that matters,” Corson replied, standing. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re done here.” He headed toward the door.

“Wait a minute, Ray,” Principal Carney said.

“Please, let him go,” Chris interjected woefully. “Can we — can we — just drop this?”

Glaring at the principal, Corson paused by the door. “May I go now, Hannah?”

“Yes.” She nodded. “But this isn’t completely over yet.”

Mr. Corson turned and walked out of the office.

As far as Molly was concerned, it was over — mostly because she could tell Chris regretted it had come to this. Still, the principal seemed to have a valid point. Mr. Corson might have inadvertently crossed a line when embracing that boy in the locker room after hours. And didn’t Chris say it looked as if Mr. Corson was kissing the top of Ian Scholl’s head?

Molly didn’t want to analyze it any more. That was Principal Carney’s job. If Chris wanted to drop it, that was fine with Molly. She could tell he was already wishing he’d never confided in her about what he saw.

But Jeff wasn’t quite ready to let it go — though Chris begged him to forget the whole mess. Jeff mentioned to Angela what had happened, and she went nuts. She acted as if Chris had been sexually abused. Molly suspected Angela was trying to show everyone what crappy parents Jeff and his new wife were — allowing her son to consort with a potential pedophile.

Her gal pals, Lynette Hahn and Kay Garvey, got involved, too. Lynette and Kay asked their daughters if they’d heard anything about Mr. Corson making advances on any of the male students. Had Chris said whether or not Corson had ever come on to him?

Courtney Hahn had four hundred thirty-one friends on her Facebook page — all over the United States, and even overseas in London, Sydney, and Paris. On Saturday night, thirty-six hours after Chris and Molly had met with Principal Carney and Mr. Corson, Courtney broke the news to her Facebook friends:

One reason I broke up w/Chris Dennehy was cuz he spent so much time w/Ray Corson & I wasn’t interested in a 3-way! Thursday night, Chris walked in on Corson with his shirt off molesting Ian Scholl (ick!) in the boys’ locker room after hours. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to do the same w/Chris. Pervert alert! Chris’s parents are pissed. I think Corson will be forced to leave the school.

By Sunday night, Courtney, Madison, and all their friends were texting, Twittering, and discussing on Facebook what they thought had really happened between Ray Corson and Ian Scholl — and Chris. That sad, private little moment in the varsity locker room was analyzed, joked about, and condemned by teenagers all over the country.

The word spread fast to many of their parents, too.

By eleven o’clock the following Monday morning, Principal Carney had asked Mr. Corson for his resignation, and he left the school.

That had been almost six months ago, and Chris still hadn’t quite forgiven himself — or her. Molly thought about what he’d said outside the funeral home: “I never should have told you what I saw. None of it would have happened if I’d just kept my mouth shut.”

Molly hadn’t noticed Principal Carney or any of Chris’s peers or their parents at the wake. Then again, why would they attend Mr. Corson’s memorial service? They’d all turned their backs on him months before.

Watching the highway ahead, Molly took her exit toward home. She glanced at her cell phone on the passenger seat. She’d taken it out of her purse just in case Chris called. As she turned into the cul-de-sac, Molly noticed the NO OUTLET sign was still standing. She’d been checking it quite often lately.

That little precautionary habit reminded her of when she was a teenager, babysitting at night in someone else’s house. When she got scared, she’d pick up the phone receiver every once in a while, then listen for a dial tone to make sure no one had cut the wires. The weird part about it was hearing a dial tone didn’t really make her feel safe. It merely reminded her how vulnerable she was.

She passed the NO OUTLET sign and headed toward home.

Molly knew she would check it again before the night was over.

“Hello, is this Mrs. Corson?” Chris said into the intercom. Holding the mum plant, he stood by the gated entrance of a new apartment complex — four uniform beige buildings, each housing about twenty apartments. It was one of those charmless places that looked as if it had gone up in a hurry. He imagined residents coming home drunk probably had a tough time figuring out which building and apartment were theirs. It was in a cul-de-sac, between two more apartment complexes just like it.

The taxicab idled in the driveway in front of the closed electric gate. Chris had paid the man and asked him to wait until he got inside the complex.

He heard a voice though the intercom static: “Yes?”

“Um, floral delivery for you, Mrs. Corson,” Chris said, keeping up his lie.

“C’mon in,” she said. “Second building, second floor, unit 2-F.”

The lock to the tall gate made an obnoxious buzzing sound. Chris pushed at the handle and then waved at the cab.

At the second building, he found an alcove and stairway marked UNITS E — H. He went up the stairs to Unit 2-F, and saw her name handwritten and taped above the doorbell: J. Corson. He adjusted the mum plant, took a deep breath, and rang her bell. The door must have been pretty cheap and thin, because he could hear her coming.

The lock clicked and the door swung open. The woman in 2-F stared at him. She looked skinny in her oversized long-sleeved henley T-shirt and sweatpants. She had shoulder-length, frizzy brown hair, a fair complexion, and a birthmark on her cheek. Chris thought she looked a bit older than Mr. Corson. “Are you Mrs. Corson?” he asked.

Nodding, she held out her hands. “I’ll take that, thanks.”

Chris carefully handed the plant to her. She didn’t look as if she’d been crying or anything. He lingered in the doorway. He could see a stack of unpacked boxes in the front hall.

She looked like she was about to shut the door in his face, but then hesitated. “Am I supposed to sign for it or something?”

He shook his head. “Um, no, I. .”

“Were you expecting a tip?” she asked, adjusting the plant in her grasp. She seemed a bit impatient.

“Mrs. Corson, I’m Chris Dennehy,” he said finally. “I–I’m very sorry about Mr. Corson. He was a really good man.”

She stared back at him and blinked.

“I apologize about coming to see you this way — under false pre — pretenses.” He struggled to get the words out, he was so nervous. “You — you know who I am, don’t you?”

She nodded.

He wished she’d say something. “It’s mostly my fault that Mr. Corson had to leave school back in December. It was all just a misunderstanding. Mr. Corson never did anything wrong. You should know that. I’m not sure if he ever mentioned it to you, but I tracked him down a few months ago, and told him how sorry I was. But I–I never got a chance to apologize to you, Mrs. Corson.”

“Is that it? Are you finished?” she asked.

“I guess,” he said. “Only I hope you don’t think anything — inappropriate ever happened with Mr. Corson and me. He was always — very kind to me. He helped me get through a lot of stuff. . ”

She just kept staring at him over the top of the mum plant in her hands.

“I thought you should know,” he went on, a tremor in his voice. “I mean, you didn’t come to his wake, so in case you’re mad at him or anything, I wanted to tell you he never did anything wrong. He was a nice guy. I miss him.”

“Are you done now?” she asked. Her eyes were dry.

Chris swallowed hard. “Yes, I’m sorry, Mrs. Corson.”

She set the plant on the floor, and wiped her hands on the front of her sweat pants. “Listen. . Chris,” she said in a very quiet voice. “Because of you, my husband lost his job. More than that, our lives were destroyed. All of your sniveling apologies aren’t going to change that. So — leave me alone with my grief. I’m moving to the East Coast soon. But while I’m still here, I don’t want to see you ever again. You make me sick. Is that clear? Do you understand?”

She didn’t wait for him to answer. She shut the door in his face.

Stunned, Chris stood there for a moment. Through the thin door, he listened to her walking away. He felt as if someone had just sucker punched him in the stomach. He didn’t know what he’d expected. He only knew what he’d wished for. He’d hoped to feel some connection with her, because they were both so close to Mr. Corson.

But there was nothing — just the feeling he’d intruded on an angry stranger.

She was right. All his stupid apologies weren’t going to change anything.

Wiping his eyes, he retreated down the staircase and headed toward the exit. He slowed down as he approached the high gate. Something was dangling from one of the gate’s crossbars — at chest level.

Chris stepped closer, and a chill raced through him. He recognized the eighty-five-dollar pair of Ray-Bans.

CHAPTER EIGHT

“I didn’t want to be alone in the house tonight,” Kay Garvey admitted, over her third glass of cabernet. “I’ll admit it, these cul-de-sac killings have made me a nervous wreck.”

Molly sat on the other side of the sofa from her. Between them was an open Pagliacci Pizza box — with three pieces remaining. In front of them, the big flat-screen TV had the frozen images of Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint. Kay had gabbed throughout the first forty-five minutes of Exodus until Molly finally put the movie on pause.

She’d planned to work on a new painting and then treat herself to pizza and a movie to keep her mind off being alone that Saturday night. Jeff had a seminar in Denver, and Chris and Erin were at their mother’s boyfriend’s house in Bellevue for the weekend.

Molly felt even more isolated and anxious, because she’d said good-bye to Hank and Frank that morning. Her only true friends on the cul-de-sac had moved away. Hank had been her designated Neighborhood Watch “Call Me If You Get Scared” buddy. They’d shaken hands on it two weeks before, during the potluck at Lynette Hahn’s place.

Now, Hank and Frank were gone. Their house at the end of the cul-de-sac stood empty and dark.

Kay had phoned her this afternoon, “just to chat,” mentioning several times that she was all by herself, because Madison had gone to her dad’s and stepmother’s place for the weekend. Of Angela and her two gal pals, Kay was the easiest to tolerate. At least, she came across as friendly enough. Molly figured a surface friendship was better than nothing. She just wouldn’t share anything personal with Kay.

That had been her resolve when she’d halfheartedly invited Kay over for dinner. “I’m by myself tonight, too,” she’d admitted. “I rented Exodus, and was about to order a pizza. You’re welcome to join me, Kay.”

“Paul Newman’s in that, isn’t he?” Kay had replied. “Well, I’m all over that! I’ll bring some red wine. We can have a regular slumber party.”

With a little red wine in her, Kay had started talking during the movie about the brief period when Angela’s and Lynette’s kids had dated. Apparently, when the class heartthrob had dumped her, Courtney set her sights on Chris. He wasn’t as popular as her ex, but Chris was handsome and well-liked. It seemed like a pretty good match. But all the while she and Chris were dating, Courtney shamelessly flirted with their guidance counselor.

“Madison told me that Courtney used to come on to Ray Corson like gangbusters,” Kay had said while slouched in the corner of the sofa, finishing her second glass of wine. “She thought it would be really cool to hook up with a teacher, especially one who was so popular. But old Ray wouldn’t give Courtney a tumble. He kept their counseling sessions strictly professional. I used to think he had morals, but — well, obviously, he preferred teenage boys to teenage girls. I think that’s why Courtney really let him have it with her Facebook postings. Hell hath no fury like a teen queen scorned. . ”

At that point, Molly had put the movie on pause. “I noticed Madison had a few choice comments about Mr. Corson on her Facebook page, too,” she’d pointed out.

Kay had just laughed. “Oh, that daughter of mine certainly has a wicked sense of humor!”

“Well, personally, I thought Ray Corson may have gotten a raw deal,” Molly had said, frowning.

That was when Kay had poured a third glass of wine and changed the subject to the Cul-de-sac Killer. She was pretty inebriated. “When’s the last time he killed somebody?” Kay asked.

Molly knew — exactly two weeks ago, when he’d murdered that Madrona couple. But she didn’t want to admit she was keeping track. She felt silly enough checking the NO OUTLET sign at the end of the cul-de-sac earlier tonight. She just shrugged.

“He’s probably overdue to strike again, isn’t he?” Kay said.

“Let’s hope the police catch him before that happens,” Molly replied. She got to her feet and took the pizza box. “Last call before this goes into the fridge.”

Kay shook her head. She turned quiet for a few moments while Molly put the pizza in the refrigerator. “You’re going to think I’m crazy,” Kay said, glancing down into her wineglass. “But I have a feeling someone’s been in the house while Madison and I aren’t there.”

Her hands on her hips, Molly stepped into the family room again. “What do you mean?”

Kay gave a pitiful shrug. “I’m not sure. It’s just a feeling I get. I know for a fact someone has been through our garbage. I’ve double-checked. I can see stuff has been rearranged in the bins.”

“Are you sure it’s not just raccoons?”

Kay frowned. “Raccoons don’t put the trash bin lids back in place.”

“Well, when I was living in an apartment building in Chicago, we used to have these Dumpster divers.” Molly sat down on the sofa again. “They look for credit card or bank statements or anything with a Social Security number on it for identity theft — stuff like that. Maybe that’s what’s happening.”

“Lately, I’ve been getting these really strange phone calls, too,” Kay murmured. “This woman with a scratchy voice has been calling me and saying these weird things — and then hanging up.”

Molly squinted at her. “What kind of weird things?”

“The last two times, she asked me, ‘Kay, do you think you’re a good mother?’ Just like that, she said it. I don’t know who she is or how the hell she knows my name. I think it might be Ted’s wife — or a friend of hers. From what I hear, Madison’s new stepmother doesn’t think much of my parenting skills. Well, screw her and the horse she rode in on.”

Molly didn’t say anything. She was thinking it was a very valid question. Kay wanted everyone to like her — including her own daughter. As a result, she was a pretty ineffectual mother. She spoiled Madison rotten and let her do whatever she wanted.

“Anyway, thanks for having me over tonight,” Kay said. “I’d just as soon not be home in case that creepy bitch calls again.” She drained the rest of her wineglass and sighed. “So — this apartment you had in Chicago, were you living there alone or did you have a roommate?”

Molly hesitated. “I — ah — I was living alone.”

“No boyfriend?”

Molly shook her head.

“With your face and figure?” Kay pressed. “I can’t believe it. What were you doing there, your art thing?”

“Parttime,” Molly said, nodding. “And parttime temp work wherever I could find it.”

“Aren’t you from Chicago originally? Do you still have family there?”

“Not anymore,” Molly said. She picked up the remote and switched off the TV. “You know, speaking of my painting, I really need to work on this new piece. I hate to be a party pooper, but it’s getting late. . ”

Kay just stared at her, looking a bit confused. “What about the movie?”

“Oh, it’s an epic. It has another three hours to go. I think I’ll finish it up tomorrow.” Molly stood up. She took the empty wineglass from her. “Anyway, I’m really glad you could come over, Kay.”

She stayed seated. “Will you be okay by yourself in this big house? Because, listen, I could crash in Erin’s room tonight—”

“Oh, that’s sweet of you, but I’ll be fine,” Molly said.

With a defeated little shrug, Kay got to her feet.

“You’ll be okay, won’t you?” Molly asked, walking her to the door. She knew Kay was a bit scared to go back to her empty house. She wondered how Madison being there could make much of a difference in how secure she felt. Maybe Kay was just lonely. It would have been neighborly of her to invite Kay to spend the night, but Molly just didn’t want her there. She didn’t want to answer any more questions about Chicago.

“You’ll be okay?” Molly asked again.

“Oh, sure, I–I’m hunky-dory,” Kay said.

Molly opened the front door for her, and Kay gave her a hug. It seemed sincere, too — unlike the phony hugs she’d seen Kay share with her pals, Angela and Lynette. “Thanks, Molly,” she said. “Let’s do this again, okay?”

She nodded. “Of course, that would be nice.”

Kay teetered a bit as she stepped down the front stoop and continued along the walk.

Her arms folded, Molly stood in the doorway, looking after her. The night air gave her a chill. “Kay, listen,” she said. “Call me if you get scared or anything, all right?”

Stopping near the end of the driveway, Kay turned. A streetlight was behind her, and she was just a silhouette. But Molly saw her nod.

“We’ll be Neighborhood Watch buddies,” Molly said.

“I’d like that,” Kay replied. Then she moved on.

Molly watched her from the front stoop. She could tell Kay was drunk. She weaved a bit as she walked up the darkened cul-de-sac.

For weeks, someone else had been carefully watching Kay Garvey. And Kay had no idea. She was clueless — as were her neighbors on Willow Tree Court. None of them knew how vulnerable they’d become after a month of constant observation.

The intruder on their cul-de-sac had already figured out that Kay Garvey kept an extra key under the flowerpot by the screen-porch door in the back. That was just one of many things this uninvited visitor to Willow Tree Court knew about its residents.

Kay drank a lot, too. Her daughter, Madison, had once confided in Mr. Corson about the woes of having an alcoholic mother. Ray Corson had taken extensive notes on his sessions with Madison, who had repeatedly gotten into trouble and been sent to him for guidance:

When she has an “audience” of any kind, Madison too often lapses into a Catskills comedy routine — full of bile about her classmates & teachers. She’s very insecure, probably due to her borderline gawky looks. Madison must know, at some level, that if it weren’t for her close friendship with Courtney Hahn & her affectation of wearing Converse All Stars 24/7, no one might notice her at all. There must be some truth to Madison’s claim that her mom has a drinking problem & tries too hard to be her best friend. . Madison loathes her stepmother (often the brunt of her comic quips). I believe this “bitch on wheels” isn’t at all cruel, but rather stuck with the thankless task of correcting years of unchecked bad behavior. More time with the stepmother might help Madison become a better person, but that would mean she would have to move away from her indulging mom & attend a different school. Her whole social identity is wrapped up in being Courtney’s best friend. Without that, I believe Madison would see her popularity plummet & she’d be utterly miserable. .

At this very moment, Kay Garvey had no idea someone planned to make her daughter, Madison, a better person — and for a while utterly miserable.

Kay started up her driveway and glanced back at Molly, still standing on the front stoop of the Dennehy house. It was sweet of her to make sure she got home safe.

Kay kind of felt guilty for all the nasty things she’d said about Molly to Lynette and Angela. She really never had anything against Molly, but had to go along with the others. Until last year, when Angela and Jeff split up, Kay’s two best friends had treated her like a second-class citizen, because she was a divorcee. Both Angela and Lynette had considered themselves happily married — as deluded as that notion might have been. Poor, pathetic Kay, seemed to have been their attitude. But since Angela and Jeff’s marriage had gone kaput, the second-class citizen on Willow Tree Court was Jeff’s new wife. Anything Kay could say to tear down Molly to her two friends raised her stock with them.

“You should see how she fawns over Erin,” she’d told Lynette two weeks ago. “I have a view of the bus stop on the corner. Honestly, she acts like Erin’s her own child. I want to tell her, ‘Hello, you know, her real mother is still around!’ Angela would be livid if she saw how Molly smothers that little girl. It’s creepy.”

Now, Kay felt bad for saying that — and for all the other embellished bits of gossip she spread about Molly Dennehy.

At the front stoop, she paused by some bushes that blocked her view of the Dennehy house. She heard Molly step back inside and close the door.

With the sound of that lock clicking, Kay suddenly felt all alone.

She’d left a few lights on inside the house — as she always did when she stepped out. Pulling her keys from her purse, she put the key in the lock but realized the door was open. “What the hell?” she murmured.

She was almost positive she’d locked it when leaving for the Dennehys’. But that had been a few hours and three glasses of wine ago. She wondered if Madison had come home from her overnight. Kay warily stepped inside. “Madison?” she called. “Maddie, honey, are you here?”

No answer.

For a moment, she stood in the front hallway, listening. The lights were on in the living room and kitchen. She didn’t see any movement in either room, nothing out of place, either. “You’re fine,” Kay told herself. She closed the front door and double-locked it.

Heading into the kitchen, she went right for the liquor cabinet and poured a glass of wine. “A dose of courage,” she murmured, taking a hearty gulp. She always hated it on these rare occasions when Madison spent the night at a friend’s house. Usually, it was Courtney spending the night here. The Garveys’ house got to be known as Party Central. Kay actually liked having a lot of teenagers around. She didn’t mind the noise.

It was being alone in a deathly quiet house that she hated.

She switched on the TV in the family room — just for company. Some movie with Sarah Jessica Parker came on. Kay wasn’t sure what it was; she’d check it later. Right now, she just needed the noise.

Her wineglass was already down to the last few sips. How did that happen so fast? Kay retreated toward the kitchen for a refill. Weaving slightly, she bumped against the edge of the kitchen’s entryway. She knew she was drunk, but that didn’t stop her from emptying the bottle. There was only a little bit left anyway.

On the TV, Sarah Jessica Parker stopped talking for a moment. Kay heard something upstairs. It sounded like water running in one of the bathrooms. She told herself it was just the toilet tank refilling. She must not have flushed it right earlier. That had to be it. Still, she couldn’t relax until she went upstairs and checked it out.

Setting down her wineglass, Kay grabbed the empty cabernet bottle by the neck and brandished it like a weapon. A few drops spilled out and slithered down her arm. She quickly licked it off, then headed up the stairs.

She’d left the light on in the second-floor hallway. In the bathroom at the top of the stairs, the toilet wasn’t making any noise. It seemed to be coming from the master bathroom. It sounded more like a faucet running than a toilet tank.

Moving down the hallway to her bedroom, Kay tightened her grip on the empty wine bottle. She stepped into the bedroom. She’d left the bedside lamp on, but it was still dim in there.

She didn’t see the man standing in the shadowy corner until it was too late.

“Oh, my God,” Kay gasped. Staggering back, she knocked over the nightstand lamp. A brief flash of light blinded her as the shade flew off. Kay dropped the bottle. The lamp hit the carpeted floor, but the bulb didn’t break. The wine bottle rolled next to it, also unbroken.

“Take it easy,” the man whispered. He wore a black jogging suit with a hood — and surgical gloves. He had a gun pointed at her. “I’m not going to hurt you. You’re a little unsteady there. Have you been drinking?”

Terrified, Kay quickly shook her head. She backed into the edge of the bedroom doorway.

She couldn’t really tell what he looked like. The light on the floor cast strange shadows all over the room — and on his face. He stepped toward her. “You look pretty drunk to me, Kay,” he said. “Were you guzzling that wine? Were you a naughty girl? Did you drink the whole bottle, honey?”

Tears stung her eyes as she stared at him. “Yes, I–I’ve had several glasses of wine,” Kay admitted. “In fact, I probably wouldn’t even be able to describe you to the police later, if they asked. I’m so — I’m really so drunk.”

It wasn’t true anymore. She’d been tipsy a few minutes ago, but he’d scared that right out of her. She couldn’t move. Her back was still pressed against the edge of the doorway. “Listen, you — you can help yourself to anything,” she said, her voice cracking. “There’s a silver service in the dining room downstairs. It’s worth a lot. And — and — and my daughter has a new laptop computer in her bedroom. I have some cash and credit cards in my purse. Take whatever you want, really. . please. . ” She started sobbing.

“This works out perfectly,” he said — almost to himself. He pointed the gun at her. “Take off your shoes and unbutton your blouse.”

Kay shook her head. “Please. .” she repeated.

“I just want you to be comfortable,” he said, with a tiny smirk. “C’mon, Kay. .”

Her hands trembling, Kay struggled with the buttons of her lavender blouse until it was open. She had a camisole beneath it. Bracing herself against the doorway, she pried off her shoes. All the while, she kept glancing over at the bedroom closet and wondered if they’d find her body in there.

“I’m not going to hurt you, Kay,” he cooed. “But I do need you to sit there on the floor, right by the nightstand. Okay? There’s a good girl. . ”

Tears streaming down her face, she was obedient. She fell to her knees and then sat down on the floor. He stood over her and began to stroke her hair. “There now, Kay, there now. . ”

All at once, he grabbed her by the hair and slammed her head against the corner of the nightstand. Stunned, Kay flopped down on the floor. Blood from the gash on her temple began to soak the plush, pale yellow carpet. She started blacking out.

“I’m supposed to make it look like an accident,” she heard him murmur as he stood over her.

It was the last thing Kay Garvey ever heard.

Minutes later, her killer took out a small pair of scissors and carefully cut off a corner from the shirttail of her lavender blouse.

It was such a small cutting, no one would notice.

CHAPTER NINE

“So — in all this time that she’s been married to your dad, Molly hasn’t once talked about her family?” his mother asked.

“Not really,” Chris replied, ensconced in front of her boyfriend Larry’s computer.

His mother didn’t see him roll his eyes. She was arranging the sheets on the foldout sofa bed in Larry’s study, which served as Chris’s bedroom whenever his mother had him and Erin for the weekend.

He tolerated Larry Keegan, a stocky, balding older guy who seemed to think they were really connecting because they could talk about sports. Chris hadn’t told his mother, but Larry’s habit of always calling him dude drove him nuts. Larry obviously suffered under the delusion that this made him a very cutting-edge guy. He had a thirteen-year-old daughter, Taylor, who was kind of a pill both times Chris had met her. She was with her mother this weekend, thank God.

Since his mom had moved in with Larry, these alternate weekend visits had become more and more of a drag. Chris didn’t know anyone in Bellevue, so all he could do was bus it to Bellevue Square Mall or hole up in Larry’s study and play computer games. The study was in the basement and had its own bathroom, so at least Chris had his privacy. Larry had gone mallard crazy decorating the place. There were pictures of ducks on the wall, and duck-decoy lamps, and even a duck pattern on the sofa his mother was preparing for him so he could bed down for the night.

It was just past eleven. Erin was already asleep up in Taylor’s room, and Larry had nodded off in his La-Z-Boy recliner in front of one of those CSI shows.

Chris’s mom was tucking the bottom of the sheet under the mattress. “The father’s dead, the mother’s in Florida, and her brother killed himself, is that right?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Chris said, staring at the computer monitor. He was playing Cube Runner, and really didn’t feel like answering questions about Molly. Lately, it seemed every time he saw his mom, she wanted a full report on Molly’s every activity. Did his dad seem happy with her? Did Molly get any calls from her family or old friends?

It had been a week since he’d gone against his dad’s orders and attended Mr. Corson’s wake. Molly had been nice enough to drive him to the funeral parlor, and he’d been pretty creepy toward her. As far as Chris knew, she hadn’t said anything to his dad about it. After Molly had covered for him, it just didn’t seem right to spy on her for his mom. Besides, he really didn’t have much to report.

“And you’ve never met her mother — or even talked to her on the phone?” his mom pressed.

“No, I haven’t,” Chris mumbled, his eyes on the computer screen.

“Don’t you find that odd? I mean, after all. .”

He did think it was pretty strange. The lady was his step-grandmother, and she hadn’t even spoken with him yet. It was like she didn’t exist.

“Do you know how her brother killed himself?” his mom asked. She was slipping a flower-patterned case over the pillow. “Did Molly say anything to you about it?”

“Nope,” Chris said.

“What was his name again?”

“Charlie, I think.”

“Do you know if he killed himself in Chicago or in Washington, D.C.?”

He leaned back in the cushioned swivel chair. “I really don’t know, Mom.”

Frowning, she tossed the pillow on the foldout bed. “You probably wouldn’t tell me even if you did know. You’re starting to like her, I can tell.”

“She’s okay, I guess,” he replied. Chris consciously kept his eyes on the monitor. “It’s just kind of weird that you keep asking me about her, Mom — practically every time I’m here. Molly never asks about you at all.”

His mother clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Well, excuse me if I want to know about this woman who’s looking after my children part of the time. She had a brother who committed suicide and a mother who never calls or visits. Who’s to say some kind of mental illness doesn’t run in her family? I’m just concerned, that’s all. I can’t help thinking about that crazy stalker your father was—seeing, that Cassandra character. He’s not exactly discriminating. . ”

“I think Molly’s pretty normal, Mom,” Chris said quietly. He switched off his computer game, and then faked a yawn. He turned the swivel chair to face her. “Boy, I’m beat. I think I’ll hit the sheets. Thanks for making up the bed.”

She stared at him. He could tell she was hurt he didn’t want to talk anymore. She seemed to work up a smile, and then kissed his forehead. “You know, I love these weekends with you and Erin. Larry really enjoys having you, too. Anything special you’d like to do tomorrow?”

He shrugged. “I can’t think of anything.”

She mussed his hair. “Well, sleep on it. G’night, Chris.”

Twenty minutes later, as he tossed and turned on Larry’s lumpy sofa bed, Chris thought about how it drove him nuts whenever his mom started criticizing his dad. Didn’t she realize that kind of talk only made them both seem awful? It had been one reason he’d come to depend so much on Mr. Corson last year.

Attending his wake a week ago had been pointless and painful. First, Mr. C’s sister had chewed him out, then his widow had told him what a creepy little shit he was. He had to remind himself that Mr. Corson had forgiven him — and so had the niece, Serena. Chris was still baffled over his encounter with her. He was convinced Serena had been the one who had snuck into the funeral parlor men’s room and said whatever she’d said to screw around with his head. She must have picked up his sunglasses and followed him to her aunt’s apartment complex. Chris couldn’t think of anyone else who might have done that.

He’d had a pretty miserable week. It was hard to kick back and have anything resembling a good time when he knew certain people hated him. And he still wasn’t over Mr. Corson’s murder. But finals kept him busy — as did rehearsals for Aquanautics, the show the boys’ and girls’ swim teams put on twice a year to raise money for charity. This time it was for leukemia. There were races, diving competitions, and the girls put on a synchronized swimming routine. Chris was surprised they’d decided to have it again — especially after what had happened at the last show.

He remembered four months ago, throwing himself into rehearsals for the January Aquanautics. He still hadn’t had a chance to talk with Mr. Corson, who had left school about three weeks before. Ian Scholl had lasted only a few days once Mr. Corson had gone. It was all over school and the Internet about the two of them in the boys’ locker room. Even people who assumed Mr. C was merely consoling the kid had figured it was because Ian had finally admitted to his counselor — and himself — that he was gay. He’d spent so much time trying not to be identified as homosexual, and now everyone knew — including his crazy, Bible-thumping parents.

When Ian had failed to show up to school the first Thursday in January, rumors flew about what had happened to him. Elvis heard that Ian’s parents had pulled him out of school and stuck him in some clinic in Encino that was supposed to cure his homosexuality. “They may as well try teaching him to breathe underwater,” Elvis commented. “Even if Ian figured out how to pull off something like that, it would still be a constant struggle.”

By the time Chris was practicing for Aquanautics in mid-January, people had stopped talking about Mr. Corson and Ian. Chris still felt miserable for his part in what had happened. But he couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

So he focused on mastering a reverse one-and-a-half-tuck-position dive for the show — even though he was a swimmer, not a diver. He really punished himself, trying to get the routine right. He went home every night with a headache from all those repeated botched dives from the high board. Coach Chertok kept telling him to lighten up and do a simpler routine. This was for a charity show, not some competition. But Chris was obsessed with getting this particular dive just perfect in time for the show.

All the while, he wondered if Mr. Corson would be in the audience for Aquanautics. It was a popular event at the school, and Mr. Corson had originally suggested the charity they ended up choosing: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound. So it wasn’t totally implausible that he’d attend. Chris imagined himself perched on the high dive, spotting Mr. Corson in the crowded stands. He would salute him, and announce to everyone there, “I dedicate this dive to my guidance counselor, Mr. Corson,” and then he’d perform a flawless gainer-one-half.

But the day before the show, Chris still hadn’t mastered the dive. He’d only been able to pull it off a few times in about sixty attempts. Coach Chertok said his form was poor most of the time. Either his arms weren’t extended high enough at takeoff, or his feet were apart when he hit the water. Chris didn’t have a lot of confidence he could get it right for the show.

He had this weird notion that if Mr. Corson came to Aquanautics, he’d be able to tackle the dive — for him. Chris furtively looked for him in the crowded stands as he filed out of the locker room with the boys’ team. Meanwhile the girls marched out from their locker room on the other side of the pool. Both teams dove into the water in perfect synchronization. All the while, the theme to Hawaii Five-O played over the tinny-sounding intercom. Between his swimming routines, Chris scanned the bleachers again, hoping to see Mr. Corson, but he didn’t spot him. Then came the diving portion of the program, and they turned off the music. Coach Chertok provided color commentary, whispering into a mike a little something about each diver — and how amazing they’d been in this meet and that meet. Chris tried to tune him out as he climbed up the ladder to the high board. He had to focus on his dive. Yet he couldn’t help looking around from his lofty vantage point, still hoping to spot Mr. Corson in the audience. Again, there was no sign of him.

“. . not only that, but Chris is one of the nicest guys you ever could meet,” Coach Chertok finished up.

Chris was really touched by that comment, but he told himself to think about the dive. He paused at the top of the ladder. Push off with your arms high over your head, and then tuck tight — like a little ball. He slowly, deliberately started toward the end of the diving board, ready to raise his hands over his head.

That was when he heard the screams.

Chris stopped dead. The board wobbled beneath him. He gaped down toward the source of the noise and saw someone in the bleachers, pushing his way past people in a row of seats. He barreled toward the aisle. A few women cried out, and there was a rumbling. People ducked and recoiled from him, anything to get out of his way. One mother in the next row up tried to shield her two young children as he passed in front of her.

Precariously standing on the end of the high dive, Chris gazed down at the person causing all the commotion and panic. He recognized Ian Scholl and saw the gun in his hand. It was hard to miss. Ian waved it at everyone around him.

More people started screaming as Ian charged down the aisle steps toward the pool area. In their dark blue one-piece swimsuits and matching bathing caps, the girls’ team had lined up along a dividing wall from the bleachers, right beside those steps. Suddenly the girls scattered in many different directions. The pool area was like an echo chamber, and their horrified shrieks were deafening.

Some of them were too scared to move. They stood there with their backs pressed against the wall. Ian grabbed one of them by the arm. It was Margaret Riddle, a petite, pale girl with freckles. She struggled to pull away from him, but he jabbed the gun barrel against the side of her neck. Margaret let out a scream.

“Shut up!” Ian yelled. “Everyone, shut up!” He hoisted his gun in the air for a second and fired. The shot reverberated through the pool area.

There were more shrieks. “Goddamn it, shut up!” he cried. “All of you!” He held Margaret in front of him — almost like a human shield. He pressed the gun under her chin. She shook and wept uncontrollably.

Everyone turned quiet. The crying from people in the stands became muted. It was as if they were suddenly too scared to make a sound. Margaret’s bare feet squeaked against the tiles as he hauled her closer toward the other side of the pool, where Chris stood paralyzed on the high dive.

Ian looked up at him. Slowly, he took the gun away from Margaret’s chin.

Chris started to tremble. The diving board teetered beneath him. He suddenly felt cold and naked in his blue Speedo — so vulnerable. He clutched his arms in front of his chest. Horrorstruck, he watched Ian point the gun up at him. All at once, he couldn’t breathe.

Chris thought for certain he was a dead man.

“I’M NOT QUEER!” Ian yelled.

His mouth open, Chris shook his head at him. He wanted to say, It doesn’t matter. But he couldn’t get any words out. He took a step back on the board.

Ian glanced around at the people in the bleachers, randomly waving the gun at them. “Do you hear me?” he shouted over the muffled crying. “I’m not a queer! I’m sick of people saying that! You’re all liars!”

Helpless, Chris gazed down at him. Ian turned, and his back was to him for a moment.

Out of the corner of his eye, Chris saw Coach Chertok through the window of his office. He was on the telephone in there. Chris began to notice a few people in the stands furtively whispering into their cell phones. He wondered if all the calls to the police would do any good. Would the cops make it there before Ian started shooting?

“Nothing happened with me and Mr. Corson!” Ian shouted. “You’re all liars! What did I ever do to any of you?” He seemed to clutch Margaret even tighter, and his face was pressed up against hers. He stuck the gun under her chin again.

Squirming, she let out a shriek. “God, somebody help me!”

“Ian, stop it!” Chris managed to say. “Please, you don’t want to do this. . ”

Ian swiveled around and gazed up at him again. All at once, he shoved Margaret away. She screamed again as she hit the tiled floor. He aimed the gun at her.

“No, Ian, don’t!” Chris yelled.

Ian stared up at him. Tilting his head back, he opened his mouth, then stuck the gun barrel in it.

The shot rang out, and Chris recoiled, almost falling off the board. He managed to grab on to the railing.

Stunned, he watched Ian’s body flop down on the tiles. The gun dropped out of his hand, and his head hit the edge of the pool.

Everyone was screaming. Chris could hear Coach Chertok yelling over all the noise that the police were on the way, and everybody should stay calm. Mrs. Chertok hurried from the stands and helped the traumatized Margaret to her feet.

Doubled over, Chris clutched the diving-board rail and gazed down at Ian Scholl’s lifeless body.

Sometimes, when Chris lay in bed in the dark, he could still see Ian — with his eyes open and his face turned sideways against the pool’s edge. Chris remembered the puddle of blood under his head, some of it running into the pool, billowing in the blue water.

He suddenly bolted up in Larry’s sofa bed and tossed back the covers. He started to reach for the duck decoy lamp on the end table, but changed his mind.

He could hear someone walking around upstairs. He wasn’t sure if it was his mother or Larry. Either way, he didn’t want anyone to know he was awake.

So he sat there in the dark.

He didn’t want anyone to come down and see he was crying.

CHAPTER TEN

The teddy bear on the rumpled bed was splattered with blood.

Molly didn’t want too much blood — just enough for people to notice when they saw the book on the store shelves. She stood at her easel in her studio on the third floor, painting the cover to the latest Sally Shortridge mystery, The Teddy Bear Killer. After saying good night to Kay, she’d changed into an old pair of jeans and a paint-stained sweatshirt. Linda Ronstadt’s Greatest Hits spun on her old CD player.

Past Linda’s rendition of “You’re No Good,” Molly thought she heard a noise downstairs.

Putting down her paintbrush, she moved over to the CD and pressed the PAUSE button. Molly listened for a moment, but didn’t hear anything. She told herself it was probably just the house settling.

One of the great things about having a studio on the third floor was that she became oblivious to everything happening two levels down. The kids could have the TV on, and she couldn’t hear it. She was shut off from the rest of the house.

That was also a bad thing sometimes — especially when no one else was home. Since the cul-de-sac killings had started, Molly wasn’t completely comfortable up in her studio during these nights alone.

She almost wished she hadn’t sent Kay home. Having another person in the house would have made her feel better — even if that person was drunk and a bit too inquisitive.

Molly glanced at her wristwatch. It was just past ten o’clock. She’d been up here less than an hour, and this was the third time she’d put her CD player on pause because of a noise downstairs. She hadn’t made much progress with The Teddy Bear Killer cover. It would just have to wait until morning — when she’d be a little less nervous up here.

Putting away her paint and brushes, she switched off Linda Ronstadt and went downstairs to Jeff’s and her bedroom. She pulled her paint-splattered jersey over her head and changed into a long-sleeved tee. Molly glanced out the window at Kay’s house next door. She’d figured Kay would have passed out by now. But several lights were still on inside the house — including one in Kay’s bedroom. There was a glass door and a little balcony off the master bedroom, and through the sheer curtain, Molly noticed a shadow moving around.

Somehow, it made her feel better. In case she got too scared, someone was awake just next door. She wasn’t so alone after all.

Molly decided to check her e-mail on the computer in Jeff’s study. She switched on the radio, and “American Pie” came on while she accessed the Internet. It looked like two junk e-mails, something from her agent, and a message with the subject head “A Blast from the Past” from Dcutland@windycityart.com.

“Oh, wow,” she murmured, staring at the computer monitor. She opened the e-mail.

Dear Molly,

It’s been too long, at least 2 years. The last address I have for you is in Alexandria, VA. Are you still there? If not, you should contact the gallery & update us. We still have 3 of your paintings for sale in our online catalog. Once in a while, I see your work on some book cover, and it’s always fantastic. But you’re way too good for them!

Anyway, there’s a reason for this e-mail (besides the fact that I often think of you). Yesterday this guy came by the gallery, asking about your paintings, but pretty soon he started grilling me on your background & your family. I don’t know who he was, but I told him if he wasn’t interested in buying your art, he could get lost. Anyway, I just thought you should know that someone has been snooping around, asking questions about you. I’m not sure if he knows about Charlie or what, but I have a feeling that’s what he was getting at with all his questions.

I hope I was right to contact you about this. I don’t want to cause you any unnecessary worry or heartache.

Feel free to give me a call. I’d love to catch up & find out how you’re doing.

Take Care,

Doug

At the bottom of the e-mail, he’d included Windy City Art Gallery’s phone number, as well as his cell phone number — the same old one. Molly could see he’d sent the e-mail at 4:52 that afternoon, Chicago time. She glanced at her watch again. It was after midnight in Chicago, but it was also a Saturday, and Doug liked to stay up late. At least, he’d been a night owl back when they’d dated.

She didn’t think she could wait until morning to call him. She had to know more about this man who was snooping into her past.

Getting to her feet, Molly headed into the kitchen, where her purse hung on the back of a chair at the breakfast table. She dug out her cell phone. It just didn’t seem right calling an old boyfriend on the house line — and in Jeff’s study, no less.

She sat down at the table and punched in Doug’s number. She didn’t have to look at it again. She still remembered. She wondered if he still lived in that third-floor apartment on North Kenmore. Doug had curly, light brown hair and Clark Kent glasses that made him look slightly bookish — and very sexy. He was an assistant manager at the gallery that had commissioned six of her pieces years back. They’d dated for almost a month — until he met Charlie. Then things got fouled up.

Charlie had a way of fouling things up.

Molly was counting the ringtones. Doug answered on the third one. “Molly?”

“Hi, Doug,” she replied. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“Of course not,” he said. “It’s great to hear your voice again, Molly. I guess you got my e-mail. I hope it didn’t freak you out or anything.”

“Well, it did — kind of,” she admitted. “You said this man came into the gallery and asked all sorts of questions about me?”

“Yeah. He was about fifty years old with black hair that looked like a bad dye job, and he talked out of one side of his mouth all the time. Does that sound like anybody you know?”

“No, it doesn’t,” Molly murmured.

“He didn’t seem like an art aficionado,” Doug continued. “He didn’t give me his name. He wanted to see your paintings, and asked if I knew you, stuff like that. I showed him the three pieces of yours we still have for sale. But I could tell he wasn’t really interested in the paintings. He started asking about your family — if you’d been married, and didn’t you have a brother who died? That’s when I told him to take a hike.”

The phone to her ear, Molly was frowning. “How did he figure you knew me?”

“My guess is he went on the Internet, looked up Molly Wright, and found your paintings on our website. He didn’t seem like a stalker. There was something kind of snaky about him, but it was more professionally snaky, if you know what I mean. I think he may have been a private detective or something along those lines. Anyway, I didn’t tell him anything about your family — or your brother. Like I say, when his questions started to veer in that direction, I figured something was fishy, and I gave him the heave-ho. I hope I did the right thing to tell you about this — I wasn’t sure.”

“No, I’m glad you did, thanks,” Molly said. She rubbed her forehead. If this guy asking questions about her was indeed a private detective, it didn’t take much guesswork to figure out who had hired him. This had Angela written all over it. Jeff’s ex and her buddies were always trying to stick their noses into her background and personal life. Hell, Kay was just grilling her about Chicago earlier tonight.

“So — are you still living in Alexandria?” Doug asked.

She suddenly realized that they hadn’t said anything for a few moments. “Oh, no, I–I’m married now. I moved to Seattle.”

“So who’s the lucky guy? Another artist?”

“No, Jeff’s an executive for Kendall Pharmaceuticals.”

“Pharmaceuticals? Well, then I guess you guys must be doing okay.”

“We’re doing all right,” Molly said.

“Are you?” he asked, a sudden serious change in his tone. “I think about you a lot, Molly, and everything you’ve been through. I’ve always wished I was more—there for you when things got so horrible. Anyway, I hope you are okay. You deserve to be happy.”

“Thanks, Doug,” she murmured, staring down at the kitchen table.

They talked for another ten minutes. Doug had been seeing a concert cellist named Kate for the last year. She was the one. And if Molly had any new paintings, he wanted her to send him some slides. And should that guy come into the gallery again asking questions, Doug would find out who the hell he was — and who had sent him.

Molly already had a pretty good idea who might have hired the man. She just told Doug to keep in touch.

After she clicked off the phone, she remained seated at the breakfast table. So what if Angela and her gal pals find out about Charlie?

They were bound to learn about him eventually. Jeff already knew. Molly had planned to tell Chris about her brother sometime soon. Still, it was just so damn creepy that Angela had gone to the trouble of hiring someone to go to Chicago and pry into her family past.

Molly imagined some snaky, fiftysomething guy talking out of the side of his mouth as he asked her old family doctor about Charlie’s condition.

Her brother had been bipolar, which seemed like a blanket label for all kinds of emotional problems. Seventeen months younger than her, he was a very handsome, charming little boy with black hair, beautiful blue eyes, and long lashes. Maybe that had been why everybody cut him so much slack. He’d do something wicked, then start crying and apologizing, and people just caved. He was a bit of a manipulator that way.

But by fifth grade, Charlie started getting into trouble at their grade school, and it just wasn’t so forgivable anymore. That was when her parents had him diagnosed. They talked about putting him into a special school. He begged Molly to intercede so they wouldn’t send him away. Early on, she’d felt responsible for him. She was always trying to neutralize things when her crazy, erratic kid brother acted up. Sometimes, he’d go nuts and hit her — or he’d mess up her room, or destroy some drawing she was working on. And then, he’d be so sorry.

Molly always forgave him — eventually. He started collecting elephant figurines — like her. By the time he was thirteen, he had a hundred elephants to Molly’s thirty. Whenever he did something really awful, he’d give her one of his elephants, and tell her it was his favorite — a total lie, of course. She knew Charlie’s favorite: a detailed, six-inch gray marble elephant with its trunk up. But she also knew giving up any of his prized elephants practically killed him. So she always sucked it up, thanked him, and assured him that all was forgiven.

By the time Charlie hit puberty, he became more and more unpredictable. The guys he’d befriended were trouble-making morons. Molly couldn’t have any girlfriends over, because he was always hitting on them — or hitting them, anything to get their attention.

One Friday night while their parents were out at a party, Molly heated up a Lou Malnati’s pizza for the two of them. She was sixteen at the time and had gotten away with renting The Big Easy from the video store. Charlie was so excited, because of the video’s R rating. He anticipated ninety minutes of nonstop sex and violence ahead. He was hyper to the point at which he started to go out of control. Molly kept telling him to calm down. They were waiting for the pizza in the oven when he picked up the pizza cutter and started shaking it at her.

“Cut it out!” she yelled, backing against the kitchen counter.

“Cut out what, your heart?” Laughing, he moved closer to her, waving the cutter in front of her face. “I’m the Pizza Killer, and I’m gonna slice you up!”

But Molly wasn’t laughing. She threw the oven mitt at him. “Stop it! I’m serious, Charlie! I mean it, back off. You’re getting too close with that thing. . ”

He wasn’t listening. He brandished the pizza cutter, slashing an X in the air — just inches away from her nose.

“Damn it, Charlie!” she screamed, putting up her hand. “I said, back off!”

Suddenly, she felt the cutter slice into her arm — inches below her elbow. For a few seconds, Molly thought he’d merely grazed her. She saw a pink line along her pale skin — a long scratch.

Charlie was still laughing. He raised the pizza cutter as if ready to strike again.

Then the two-inch line below her elbow turned red. Blood seeped out and started dripping down her arm.

“Oh, shit!” Charlie said, dropping the pizza cutter.

Grabbing a dish towel, Molly hurried over to the sink and stuck her arm under the cold water. She frantically wrapped the dish towel around the wound. “Damn it, Charlie, what did I tell you?” she cried. “Why do you have to be this way? Oh, God, I think I’m going to need stitches. . ”

She glanced over her shoulder at him. He sat at the breakfast table, sobbing.

Molly kept her arm up over her head, and with a second dish towel, she had Charlie make a tourniquet and wrap it tight above her elbow. She had to coach him through the whole process. Taking her mom’s Chevy Celebrity, Molly drove to Highland Park Hospital. She’d gotten her driver’s license only two months before. While she steered with one hand, she kept her right arm raised. Charlie sat in the passenger seat, silent. By the time they reached the hospital’s emergency room, her makeshift bandage was drenched with blood.

Three hours and fifteen stitches later, Molly was back home, sitting at the breakfast table with a bag of Birds Eye frozen peas on her bandaged arm. And she was lying to her parents about what had happened. A burnt, dried-up Lou Malnati’s pizza sat on the rack inside her mother’s oven. Charlie had retreated to his room, claiming he didn’t feel well.

Molly wasn’t sure if her mom and dad really believed that she’d accidentally cut herself while fooling around with the pizza-slicer.

She tried to convince herself that Charlie’s condition had nothing to do with what had happened. Two years ago, her friend Cathy Brennan had had her nose broken when her brother had accidentally hit her with the rim of a tennis racket. Screwy mishaps like that happened in families all the time. But Cathy’s brother had owned up to it, and he’d been three years younger than Charlie at the time. Cathy didn’t have to cover up for him.

Molly knew Charlie would never take responsibility for cutting her. She was just as certain that her parents would agree to put him on some kind of medication soon, and maybe even send him to a boarding school for kids with special needs. Her dad had been talking about that for a while. Molly almost wished for it. She hated herself for thinking that way.

She remembered going up to her bedroom that night, holding the bag of frozen peas against her sore arm. On her pillow, Charlie had left his prized gray marble elephant, the one with its trunk up. Molly plopped down on the bed. Clutching the elephant figurine, she allowed herself to cry for the first time that evening.

That had been almost twenty years ago.

She still had the scar. Sitting at the kitchen table, Molly rolled up her sleeve and studied the long, pink line below her elbow. The wound looked just like it had that night — for those fleeting seconds before the bleeding started.

Molly glanced at her sad reflection in the darkened window.

Suddenly, something darted across the backyard. Molly only glimpsed the shadow of a person — or a thing — streaking by. It seemed to come from Kay’s house.

“Oh, Jesus,” she gasped. She stood up so quickly, her chair almost tipped over. She hurried to the light switch in the family room and turned on the outside spotlight — illuminating the small backyard and the first few rows of trees to the forest beyond it. A hand over her heart, she peeked out the sliding glass doors. Nothing.

She ran to the other window and looked next door at Kay’s place. There were still some lights on within the house — including one up in the bedroom. Not all the lights were on, thank God.

Molly couldn’t get over the feeling that someone was just outside the house, looking in at her. Earlier tonight, she’d told Kay they were now Neighborhood Watch buddies. Even though it was late, she figured Kay couldn’t be sleeping with all those lights on.

Molly grabbed her cell phone and dialed Kay’s number. It rang twice, and then she heard a click. “Kay?” she said anxiously.

“Hi, you’ve reached the Garveys!” announced a recording of Kay’s voice. “But you’re out of luck, because we can’t come to the phone right now. Leave a message after the beep, and we’ll get back to you. Better luck next time!” A few bars from “Maybe Next Time” from Cabaret played over the recording until the beep finally sounded.

“Kay?” Molly said into the phone. “Kay, this is Molly next door. Can you pick up? I know it’s late, but — well, could you please pick up? I see your lights are still on. . ” She wondered if maybe Kay was in the bathroom. “Listen, call me back once you get this message, okay? I’m kind of concerned about something. Thanks.”

Clicking off the phone, Molly went to the window again and peered out at Kay’s house.

She couldn’t detect any movement over there. She retreated into Jeff’s study and looked out his window — down toward the start of the cul-de-sac. The NO OUTLET sign was still standing.

But she still felt on edge. Wringing her hands, Molly checked to make sure the front, garage, and sliding glass doors were all double-locked.

She really missed Henry right now. If he was still down at the end of the block, she would have called him, and he’d have been over within two minutes. They’d be cracking jokes right now and having a glass of wine.

She decided if Kay called back, she’d invite her over to spend the night. Kay could ask as many questions about her family as she wanted. Molly didn’t care at this point. She just didn’t want to be alone. She kept looking at the phone, hoping it would ring.

Finally, she returned to Jeff’s study and picked up the cordless on his desk. “Sorry, Jeff,” she murmured, dialing his cell number. He was supposed to be in Denver, and it was past midnight there. She would probably wake him. It rang four times before he answered, sounding groggy. “Hey, honey, what’s up?” he whispered. “You okay?”

“I’m so sorry I woke you,” she said with a nervous sigh. “I’m just a little paranoid tonight. I thought I saw something outside the kitchen window just a few minutes ago. It was probably nothing, but I tried calling Kay, and there’s no answer. I know she’s home. Her lights are on. She might be passed out or something. She was over here earlier tonight, and belted back a lot of wine, but still. .”

Molly realized she was babbling. She peered out the window at Kay’s house again.

“Well, Kay does like her cabernet,” Jeff said. “You’re right, she’s probably passed out. I mean, the woman has a problem. You sure you didn’t just see a raccoon or something?”

Molly moved into the family room. Through the sliding glass doors, she stared out at the spotlit, empty backyard. “Whoever or whatever it was — it’s gone now.” She sighed. “I’m sorry, honey. I feel awful for waking you up.”

“Well, if you really think you saw someone outside, don’t hesitate to call the police. I mean it, babe. Don’t take any chances.”

“No, I’m sure it was nothing,” Molly said. She didn’t want to call 911 about a little scare she’d had. She could get a reputation for sounding false alarms. The cops probably had enough residents on cul-de-sacs doing that to them lately.

“I guess I’m just feeling on edge,” she admitted. “I got a strange e-mail from an old almost-boyfriend tonight. He works at an art gallery in Chicago. He said someone was in there, asking all sorts of personal questions about me, my family — and Charlie. He said the guy seemed like some kind of sleazy private detective. I’m sorry, but I can’t help thinking of Angela. I mean, she’s always trying to pry into my past. I wouldn’t be surprised if she hired this — this creep to go to my old hometown and ask questions about me.”

Jeff sighed. “Listen, sweetie, I’ll talk to Angela, and get to the bottom of this. If she’s resorted to this kind of crap — well, I’ll put a stop to it. That’s ridiculous. I’m so sorry. No wonder you’re feeling jumpy. Anyway, Molly, I’m going to take care of it. Okay?”

“Okay,” she said. “Thank you, honey.” The cordless phone to her ear, she was still looking out at the backyard.

“I’ll be home in just about twelve hours,” Jeff said, soothingly. “Why don’t you pour a glass of wine and look for something good on TV, take your mind off things?”

“Well, I’m about a third of the way through Exodus. I think I’ll go back to it and watch until I get sleepy. I’m feeling better already. I think I just needed to hear your voice. . ”

After she said good-bye to Jeff, Molly hung up the phone. Just about twelve hours until he was home.

Molly told herself she could be all right by herself till then.

Sitting in a cushioned chair by the window, Jeff clicked off his cell phone. The room in the Jantzen Beach Red Lion was dim, and from the window he had a view of the Columbia River and the Portland Bridge. He was in his undershorts.

He strolled into the bathroom, took a pee, and washed his hands. Stepping out of his shorts, he slipped back under the covers.

“Was that your wife?” the woman lying beside him in bed asked.

Jeff nodded, and then nuzzled up next to her, kissing her shoulder. “Yeah, she just had a slight case of the jitters. . ”

Their legs were still tangled together under the sheets, and he kissed her shoulder. “I love the way you welcome me home when no one else is around,” Jeff whispered.

Smiling, Molly lazily ran her fingers through his dark hair. The curtains in their bedroom were closed, but she could hear rain tapping against the windows. She felt so satiated — and safe.

Last night, she’d had another glass of wine and watched the rest of Exodus, which went on until nearly three in the morning. Then under a cozy throw from Restoration Hardware, she’d read four chapters of the latest Susan Wiggs. It was starting to get light out when she finally fell asleep on the sofa.

Kay had never called back. But Molly wasn’t too worried about it. The NO OUTLET sign had still been standing at the end of the block when she’d checked shortly after waking up at ten o’clock. And then Jeff had come home a little after one, and suddenly nothing else had mattered.

“I’ll wait until tomorrow to call Angela,” he said, caressing her arm. “I just want you to know I haven’t forgotten. I’ll phone from the office, and find out if she has anything to do with this guy in Chicago. I’d do it today, but I don’t want the kids around, getting wind of this. They shouldn’t know their mother can be pretty awful sometimes. Anyway, rest assured, I’ll get to the bottom of it.”

Molly leaned over and kissed him on the forehead — and then on his lips. “And they say chivalry is dead,” she whispered.

He gave her a wry smile. “You know, another thing I haven’t forgotten about is this old boyfriend e-mailing you. . ”

Molly started to laugh. But then she heard a car coming up the cul-de-sac, and it sounded like it stopped right in front of their house.

“Oh, God, is she bringing the kids back now?” Molly muttered, jumping out of bed. “She’s at least two hours early.” Swiping her discarded jersey top from the floor, Molly held it in front of her as she ran naked to the window. She pushed back the curtain, and peered outside.

An SUV had stopped next door in front of Kay Garvey’s driveway. Madison climbed out of the car, and hurried toward the front door. She was wearing hot-pink Converse All Star high-tops today. She shielded her head from the rain.

With a sigh of relief, Molly turned away from the window and tossed aside the jersey. “False alarm,” she said. She jumped back under the covers and nestled next to Jeff’s warm, naked body. She heard Kay’s front door slam, and the SUV driving away.

Jeff kissed the side of her neck, and she shuddered gratefully. “So — why was your old boyfriend e-mailing you?” he asked. “Should I be worried?”

“He just wanted to tell me about that guy coming around the gallery,” Molly said.

“So what’s this old boyfriend’s name?” Jeff asked, gliding a hand down her stomach. “And how long were you two an item?”

Molly giggled. “You’re jealous, I like that. His name is Doug, and we dated for only a month. But we were pretty crazy about each other for a while.” She nudged Jeff. “As much as I relish torturing you, I have to be honest. He’s now seeing a concert cellist named Kate, and it’s serious. So you have nothing to worry about, sweetie.”

“That’s a relief.” He kissed her cheek. “I was thinking I might have to hire my own private detective to keep tabs on you.”

Molly worked up a smile. It was a little too soon to joke about private detectives. But she decided not to say anything. She just stroked his hair.

Next door, she heard muffled screams. It sounded like Madison was laughing — way too loud — about something. Molly resented the noise. It intruded on this rare quiet moment with her husband.

Jeff sat up halfway, reclining on one elbow. He shot a look over his shoulder toward their window. “Well, that’s annoying as hell. Jesus, listen to her. . ”

Molly realized it wasn’t laughter coming from next door. Those were screams. A chill raced through her.

Tossing back the covers, she climbed out of bed and grabbed her jersey off the floor. She quickly put it on, then went to the window and pulled back the curtain. She peeked out the rain-beaded window.

The door off Kay Garvey’s bedroom flung open, and Madison staggered out to the balcony. Her screams were much louder now. “Oh my God!” she shrieked. “Someone help me! She’s dead! My mom’s dead! Dear God. .”

Stunned, Molly stared out the window at her. Automatically, she glanced toward the start of the block — at the NO OUTLET sign still standing there. She looked over at Madison again, screaming and crying hysterically on her mother’s balcony, the rain drenching her.

“No,” Molly whispered, clutching her stomach. “No, it can’t be. . ”

The dollhouse sat on a worktable in the private little room. It was a perfect replica of Kay Garvey’s house, right down to the small balcony off the master bedroom where Kay was murdered. Constructing the miniature house was the result of two weeks of intense work.

The man who killed Kay Garvey wasn’t much of a photographer. Still, out of the hundred photos he’d taken, he’d managed to snap twenty good shots after breaking in two weeks ago when Kay and Madison weren’t home. Between the photos and the intruder’s description, the dollhouse-builder had a pretty accurate idea of the layout. No time was wasted working on the first-floor rooms. That section of the dollhouse was closed off, boarded up.

The murder was planned for upstairs, and that was where all the detail work was done in the miniature house. Kay’s bedroom, along with its furnishings, was almost an exact match — down to the yellow carpet and the peach-colored curtains and bedspread.

And in that little bedroom was a hard rubber, flesh-colored doll about the size of an index finger. It was a woman — with hair quite close to Kay’s pale straw color. The blond doll was lying on the floor of that miniature bedroom — beside a nightstand.

Wrapped around the small figurine was a tiny piece of lavender silk, cut from Kay’s blouse.

She was just the first.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Six months later

The three seniors primping in front of the lavatory mirrors weren’t the most popular girls at Roosevelt High School, but it wasn’t from lack of trying. They were intensely concerned about their appearances and getting noticed. But they were also just a bit too full of themselves and catty for anyone to really like them. Still, as long as they stayed within their little clique, they didn’t have to worry.

At least that was the snap judgment of the woman who entered the girls’ room and briefly interrupted their conversation. The three girls stopped gossiping and fussing with their hair to stare at her in the mirror. They probably thought she was a teacher. One of them whispered to the other two.

“I don’t care,” remarked the tallest one, a tawny redhead. “It’s between classes. We have every right to be in here.”

The woman stepped into a stall and closed the door. But she didn’t sit down on the toilet. She just stood there, listening to two of them argue about whether or not a popular teen heartthrob was gay. The third one seemed to be having a different conversation — with someone else. The woman figured she must have called another friend on her cell phone.

She flushed the toilet and emerged from the stall to wash her hands at the sink. She was right. One of the girls was on her cell phone, and another had just pulled out her BlackBerry. That left the tall redhead with no one to talk to, but she was busy applying lip gloss to her mouth.

The woman made eye contact with her in the mirror. “You don’t happen to know Madison Garvey, do you?” she asked.

The girl glared at her and shook her head.

Not looking up from her keypad, the one with the BlackBerry piped up: “Oh, God, Madison Garvey? Isn’t she the weird-looking freak with the Converse high-tops?”

“Shit, I know who you’re talking about now,” the redhead said, rolling her eyes. She went back to her lip gloss application. “She wears those dorky Converse shoes all the time. I guess when you look like an albino you have to do something. She thinks she’s really funny, too. As if. . ”

“I hear she used to be a big deal at James Monroe High,” the BlackBerry girl said, eyes still riveted to her apparatus. “But she moved here, because her mother died. Now she’s living with her father and her stepmother. I guess her old lady got really drunk one night and killed herself—”

“Suicide?” the redhead asked, looking at her friend’s reflection in the mirror.

“No, she passed out and hit her head on the toilet or a table or something. Like I say, she was a drunk. She bled to death.”

“If I had a dipshit daughter like that, I’d drink, too.”

The one with the BlackBerry laughed.

“You guys!” the girl on her cell phone said. “We’re going to be late for Lawson’s class. Remember last time?”

“Oh, shit!” the redhead said, throwing the lip gloss tube into her purse. She started giggling, and so did her friends. The three of them hurried out of the bathroom, their laughter echoing off the tiled walls.

The woman stood there for a moment. The tall redhead had merely glanced at her, and the other two hadn’t even bothered to look up from their gadgets. Kids with cell phones and BlackBerries had a way of not noticing things around them.

Obviously, they hadn’t seen under the far stall door, the feet of another girl — and she was wearing a pair of green Converse All Star high-tops.

The woman heard her muffled sobbing.

She knew who was on the other side of that stall door — a slightly gawky-looking girl whose stepmother didn’t let her get away with anything.

Madison Garvey’s onetime counselor, Mr. Corson, would have been happy to know — as miserable as she felt right now — Kay’s daughter was on her way to becoming a better person.

“Stop. . just a sec. . stop it,” she whispered, pushing him away. “Did you hear that?

“Hear what?” Rob Sessions asked. The handsome, blond-haired eighteen-year-old stopped nibbling on her ear for a minute. He was practically on top of Sarah Manning. Tangled up in one corner of the couch in the Sessions’ family room, they had an old Seinfeld rerun on the big-screen, plasma TV.

This was Rob’s third date with the pretty brunette, whose breasts — he thought — could have been bigger. Then Sarah would have been a real knockout. Still, that Thursday night, three days before Halloween, he was discovering that Sarah was a good kisser. Damn good.

“Didn’t you hear the noise outside?” Sarah said, squirming out from beneath him. She grabbed the remote control and turned down the volume on the TV. “It was like somebody walking on gravel. Didn’t you hear it?”

Rob shook his head. But there was a small strip of gravel along the north side of the house — below the family-room windows. Rob squinted at the darkened windows and saw nothing. He listened for a few moments. “I don’t hear anything. Maybe it was the TV.” He leaned over and kissed her. “Now, where were we?”

He started to fondle her breasts over her blouse, and Sarah didn’t protest or push his hands away. This was a very good sign. Rob was beginning to wish he’d sent his best friend, Luke, home — instead of out to score some beer and pot. Rob realized he had a pretty good chance of getting laid tonight. And Luke would be back any minute now, damn it.

He figured once his pal returned with the brew and the bong-feed, he’d allow him a few hits, and then give him his walking papers. Luke was a good buddy. He’d understand. Opportunities like Sarah didn’t come along every day.

Rob’s parents had left two days ago for Phoenix to visit his older sister, Cathy, and her husband, Mike. That left Rob alone in the house for a week, and he intended to make the most of it.

Last night, Luke and two other friends had come over. They’d all eaten McDonald’s and drank Thunderbird while watching porn on the big TV. Tomorrow night, Rob was thinking of having a bunch of friends over. In fact, word was out all over Federal Way High School: Party at Rob Sessions’ house on Laurel Lane.

Maybe that explained why the DEAD END sign at the start of the cul-de-sac had gone missing this morning. Somebody was playing a joke. Just two weeks ago, Rachel Porter, one of the most popular girls in their class, claimed someone had stolen the NO OUTLET sign at the end of Larkdale Court, where she lived. It turned out Jim Hall and some of his buddies from the football team had swiped the sign as a gag.

Sarah had noticed the missing sign when Rob had turned down Laurel Lane in his dad’s BMW on their way here tonight. She’d freaked out a little. But Rob had assured her that someone was just probably playing a gag. Besides, together, he and Luke could take on this Cul-de-sac Killer nut job.

Obviously, Sarah wasn’t totally reassured, and every little noise outside threw her into a panic. Rob didn’t mind her being a little scared and vulnerable, except when it put a crimp in the make-out proceedings.

“Everything’s fine,” he whispered between soft kisses on her neck. He’d read somewhere once that it was a woman’s erogenous zone. “Just chill out and relax. . ” He started to unbutton her blouse.

That was when he heard the noise, too — gravel crunching underfoot. Someone was just on the other side of the windows. “Shit,” Rob said, pulling away from her. “Did you hear that?”

“Yes.” She sat up. “See? I’m not crazy.”

Rob gazed over toward the darkened windows. Again, he didn’t see anything. But he heard the footsteps retreating. Someone was creeping around out there.

Sarah squeezed his hand. “What is that?”

Biting his lip, he reached over and turned off the lamp on the end table so he could get a better look outside. Sarah wouldn’t let go of his hand as he climbed off the sofa. He moved toward the windows — with her hovering behind him. He saw their reflection in the dark glass, and they both looked so scared. Rob studied the bushes alongside the house. They swayed a little with the breeze. “Nobody’s out there,” he told her — and himself, too. His mouth was suddenly dry. He reached up and made sure both windows were locked.

Rob wondered if Luke or one of his buddies from last night was trying to punk him or something. “I bet you anything it’s a gag,” he mumbled. “Luke’s screwing around with us.”

“What do you mean?” She followed him as he headed back for the coffee table, where he’d left his cell phone.

“Check this out,” he said. His hand was a bit shaky as he speed-dialed Luke. If his pal was right outside, Rob would hear the phone go off. Luke’s ringer was the first few bars of Beethoven’s Fifth. Rob crept toward the window again, waiting to hear that ominous tune on the other side of the glass.

But it was dead quiet.

“What are you doing?” Sarah asked. “Are you calling the police?”

Luke’s voice mail clicked on: “Yo, it’s Luke. You know what to do. Talk to you later!”

Rob waited for the beep. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Where are you? Why am I talking to your stupid machine? Call me back, okay?” He clicked off.

Frowning, he turned to Sarah. “That’s weird, Luke’s not picking up.”

She was shaking her head. “I don’t like this. You should call the police. . ”

“Are you nuts?” he asked. “Just because Luke isn’t answering his cell phone?”

“Because the dead end sign at the end of your cul-de-sac is missing!” she said, edgily. “And because we heard someone outside. Those are both pretty damn good reasons for calling the cops.” She glanced toward the windows, and nervously rubbed her arms. “I just want to go home — only not now. What’s going on out there? I swear to God, Rob, if this is some sort of setup to scare me, I’m going to be so pissed off at you.”

Rob headed toward the front of the house to make sure the door was locked. She trailed behind him, her hand clutching his belt along the back of his jeans.

“If it’s a setup, Sarah, I’m not in on it,” he admitted. He prayed to God it was a joke. But obviously Luke wasn’t in on the gag, either.

At the front door, he discovered he hadn’t locked up after Luke. “Oh, shit,” Rob muttered. He quickly turned the lock and deadbolt.

He heard footsteps — just on the other side of the door. Someone was coming up to the front porch of the house. Sarah heard it, too. She gasped and grabbed his arm. Rob automatically backed away from the door for a moment.

The doorbell rang.

Rob swallowed hard. He stepped toward the door again, and checked the peephole. Someone had their hand over it.

The bell rang again — and again.

“Luke, is that you?” he called in a shaky voice. “Stop screwing around, man. Sarah’s scared. . ”

She was squeezing his arm, almost cutting off the circulation.

Rob gazed into the peephole again. It was still blocked. “Goddamn it,” he muttered.

But then he saw his friend take his hand away from the security viewer. Luke was standing so close to the other side of the door that his face filled the viewer. He smiled this weird — almost maniacal — grin.

“Oh, thank God, it’s Luke,” Rob said. He unlocked the door and flung it open.

Then he saw the man standing beside his friend. He saw the tears streaming down Luke’s face — and the desperation behind that fake smile. The man held a gun inches away from Luke’s head.

Sarah gasped.

The man shoved Luke, and he staggered inside, dropping a grocery bag full of beers. With a clamor, the cans rolled across the front hallway’s Oriental rug and hardwood floor. Luke grabbed hold of the newel post at the bottom of the stairs to keep from falling.

Rob and Sarah backed away. Rob hoped against hope this was some kind of sick joke — that Luke had hired this icy-eyed stranger and given him a fake gun. But Rob knew his friend wouldn’t drop a six-pack of beer and let it spill for the sake of a gag. And Luke’s tears weren’t an act. In the five years they had been friends, he’d never seen Luke cry.

The man quickly stepped inside and shut the door behind him. “I don’t want to hurt anybody,” he announced in a calm, quiet voice. He glanced toward Luke. “Get over there with your friends.”

Nodding, Luke obeyed him — until he and Rob were almost shoulder to shoulder. “Please, man,” Luke said. “Just — just don’t shoot, okay?”

The stranger aimed the gun at Rob.

His heart seemed to stop beating. He stood there, paralyzed. Sarah clung to him. He could feel her shaking.

“Just do what I tell you,” the man said. “And I promise, I’ll be out of here in twenty-five minutes. You’ll have a great story to tell your friends at school tomorrow. Now, I need you upstairs.” A tiny smile tugged at the right corner of his mouth. “We’re going to get those nice designer sheets out of your mama’s linen closet and start tearing them into strips. I want to see how good you are at tying each other up. . ”

Terrified, Rob backed toward the stairs, taking Sarah with him. With her face pressed against his shoulder, she sobbed quietly. “C’mon, man, you’re scaring her,” Rob pleaded. “We’ll — we’ll cooperate. Just take whatever you want, okay?”

The stranger nodded. “I intend to.” He nodded at the light-switch plate on the wall by the foot of the stairs. “Is that for the lights down here or outside?” he asked.

“Both,” Rob said.

“Listen, please, you’ve got the gun,” Luke said, his hands half raised. “You don’t have to tie us up. . ”

“I’m not going to tie you up,” the man said — in a gentle, almost condescending tone that some people used on kids. He still had that flicker of a smile on his face. “Weren’t you listening? You’re going to tie each other up. Now, switch off those lights. I don’t want anybody to see me at work down here.”

He’s only going to steal stuff, Rob told himself. Just do what he says.

Obedient, he reached over and turned off the lights.

The front part of the house was suddenly dark.

“Okay, let’s go upstairs,” the stranger said, with his face now in the shadows. His voice was so calm — almost reassuring. “Don’t be scared. I promise you, I won’t hurt anyone. . ”

Within two hours, nearly every light in the Sessions house would be on.

CHAPTER TWELVE

It seemed like the start of a crisp, overcast autumn day as Natalie What’s-Her-Name trotted up the cul-de-sac, back from her morning run. Natalie wore black bicycle shorts and a clingy blue top. Molly guessed the thin, thirtysomething ash-blonde might have been a lot prettier at one time, but she had a hard-edged look to her now. For the last six weeks, Natalie had been house-sitting for Dr. and Mrs. Nguyen. She had guys going in and out of the place at all sorts of hours. Jeff had a theory that Natalie was turning tricks in the Nguyens’ house. But according to Lynette, she was a secretary in an ad agency downtown. Whatever, it was unsettling to have strangers cruising up and down the cul-de-sac — especially after midnight, especially when a serial killer was still on the loose.

Molly had tried to introduce herself to Natalie a while back. She’d been standing just where she was now — at the end of the driveway. And she’d been retrieving the morning-delivered Seattle Times then, too. She’d spotted Natalie, power-walking up the cul-de-sac — with a baseball hat, a Windbreaker, and the bike pants that showed off her bony ass. Two fingers to the side of her neck, Natalie had been consulting her wristwatch.

Molly picked up the newspaper, and waved at her. “Hi, I’m Molly!” she called as Natalie approached her. “I’ve been meaning to welcome you to the block—”

Her lip curled, Natalie glared at her. It was such an annoyed look that Molly fell silent. Natalie pulled her cell phone from her Windbreaker pocket and started muttering into it. Then she continued up the cul-de-sac to the Nguyens’ house.

To this day, Molly still didn’t know if the sneer was directed at her — or at whoever had phoned Natalie at that moment. Molly tried not to take it too personally. Just the same, she never made another effort to introduce herself to Natalie. They nodded to each other on occasion, but that was about it.

Molly didn’t even get that now. She waved at Natalie, who glanced away and ran past her — toward the Nguyens’ house.

“Yeah, good morning to you, too, Nat,” Molly muttered — almost to herself. Rolled-up newspaper in hand, she paused near the start of the driveway. “You’re a real sweetheart. . ”

Molly wasn’t too crazy about her other new neighbor, either. A forty-year-old widow named Jill Emory had moved into Hank and Frank’s house. She had a little boy and worked at the Art Institute of Seattle. Plump, with tawny, auburn hair, she’d seemed down to earth. Molly had hoped to connect with a fellow art lover. But Jill was in Human Resources and pretty much a cold fish — at least, toward her. However, she’d instantly bonded with Lynette — and Angela, who still made her presence felt on Willow Tree Court.

Molly really missed Henry. She still felt so isolated and friendless. Jeff seemed to go out of town on business even more frequently. And whenever she started to feel close to Chris or Erin, they’d spend another weekend with Angela and come back treating her like a housekeeper they barely tolerated.

Glancing next door at Kay Garvey’s house, Molly noticed the fallen leaves scattered across the front lawn, some blowing over onto their driveway. The real estate sign was still standing. It had gone up with the SOLD placard already on it. There had been an offer on the house before it had even gone on the market during the summer. A divorcee with no children had bought the place, but she’d yet to show her face on Willow Tree Court. Her name was Rachel Cross. Molly knew, because she’d already gotten a few pieces of her mail by mistake last week — some junk mail, but also what looked like a personal letter from someone in Portland.

For now, the house next door stood empty.

Molly had blamed herself for letting Kay go home so intoxicated that night six months ago. Of course, Lynette Hahn and Angela just had to get in a few jabs about that. At Kay’s funeral, Molly had overheard Lynette telling the mother of one of Madison’s classmates: “Everyone knew Kay had a drinking problem. At parties, I always used to get some coffee in her before sending her home. Poor Kay, she needed a real friend looking after her that night. . ”

Apparently, Kay had at least one more glass of wine at home before tripping and hitting her head against the nightstand in her bedroom. Madison found an empty wine bottle beside her mother’s body on the bedroom floor. Her mother had passed out and bled to death.

On her Facebook page, Courtney Hahn had provided all the details about her BFF’s mother’s death, and said, “We all have to be real supportive of Madison right now.” Courtney texted several friends from Mrs. Garvey’s wake, and she loaned her cell phone to a friend and had her snap a picture of her comforting Madison at the cemetery. She featured the photo on her Facebook page, too.

Molly attended the funeral and thought Courtney’s behavior was obnoxious. Lynette’s other two children, Carson and Dakota, were extremely bratty, too. One of them got a case of the giggles in the cemetery. Lynette didn’t seem to notice.

Jeff kept telling Molly that she was in no way responsible for Kay drinking too much that night. “You were supposed to walk her home and tuck her into bed?” he’d asked, incredulous. “It’s not like you let her drive home drunk — and I’ve seen Angela and Lynette do just that several times, because they didn’t want to leave a party early. Don’t listen to those bitches. . ”

Jeff had talked to Angela about that mystery man in Chicago, the one asking all those questions. Angela insisted she knew nothing about it. Molly didn’t believe her for a second. She e-mailed Doug at the art gallery, and apparently the nosy guy had never come back. She was pretty certain Jeff’s little talk with his ex had inspired her to call off her private detective.

Molly felt very lucky to be married to such a sweet, considerate guy. Last night Jeff, Erin, and she carved pumpkins together. Even Chris had gotten into the act at the last minute, helping Erin with her jack-o-lantern.

She turned and looked at the carved pumpkins by their front door, a reminder of how good she had it. Molly just wished she had some close girlfriends who could tell her what it was like in the first trimester.

Jeff didn’t know yet. The home pregnancy test had come up positive on Wednesday, and she’d made the doctor’s appointment for the coming week. She’d tell Jeff once she got confirmation from her doctor.

So far, the morning sickness wasn’t too bad at all, just a few mild bouts of nausea. She hadn’t even thrown up yet.

Still, she felt sick to her stomach when she thought about having to see “those bitches” in just a few hours. They were having another Neighborhood Watch potluck at the Hahns’, a Saturday session. Jeff would be missing it, the lucky stiff. Chris had a swim meet this afternoon, and that took precedence. But Angela would be attending again. The same cop as last time, Chet Blazevich, was making a return engagement as their guest speaker. Molly kind of looked forward to talking with him again.

Of course, the handsome cop wasn’t coming there to socialize — or flirt with her. It was all about neighborhood safety.

As far as Molly knew, the last cul-de-sac killing had been over two months ago. In her current condition, she felt even more vulnerable. She couldn’t help thinking about Sharon Tate, the victim of a ritualistic murder while in the last stages of pregnancy. Molly remembered reading that Sharon’s baby had been a boy. She tried to blot out the thought, but with this maniac out there, the same thing could happen to her and her unborn child.

Was it too much to hope — after two months with no murders — that perhaps this killer had moved on or died? This was the longest he’d gone without killing someone. Molly had actually stopped checking the NO OUTLET sign at the beginning of their block every day. She’d stopped obsessing about it.

Now she had something else to obsess about, something good — a baby on the way.

With a contented sigh, Molly headed toward the house. She started to unroll the newspaper and suddenly stopped dead. As she stared at the headline, a wave of nausea swept through her:

3 TXEENS SLAIN IN ANOTHER

CUL-DE-SAC KILLING

An hour before the Neighborhood Watch potluck, Molly was alone in the house. Jeff was dropping Erin at Debi Donahue’s birthday party on the way to Chris’s swim meet.

Sitting on the tiled floor of the master bathroom, Molly listened to the toilet flush. The last time she’d thrown up had been two years before — as a result of some questionable shrimp she’d eaten at the Bounty Buffet in Alexandria. She’d almost forgotten how horrible it felt after vomiting: the burning in her throat, the bilious taste in her mouth, the shakiness, and the awful sensation that she just might hurl again.

Her mother used to give her Saltines and 7UP when she was sick to her stomach. Did that help for morning sickness, too? She missed her mother so much right now. She still felt nauseous, but rode it out.

She hadn’t had this problem until two hours ago. Seeing that newspaper headline triggered something. Before stepping inside the house, she’d paused at the front stoop and scanned the story on the front page. The murdered teens were Chris’s age, two boys and a girl. The girl’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wallace Manning of Federal Way, had become concerned when their daughter, Sarah, hadn’t returned home from a friend’s house by midnight — and on a school night, too. Sarah hadn’t answered her cell. Mr. Manning had finally called one of her friends, and learned Sarah was at the house of a new boyfriend, Rob Sessions, whose parents were out of town. Mr. Manning got the Sessions’ address from his daughter’s friend and drove to the house on Laurel Lane. He noticed all the lights were on.

When no one answered the door, Mr. Manning phoned the police. Officers found the front door unlocked. The bodies of the two boys were discovered, bound and gagged, in the master bedroom closet. They’d been stabbed repeatedly. Sarah Manning’s body was in a guest room closet. Her hands tied behind her, she’d been strangled and stabbed.

The Seattle Times reported that the DEAD END sign at the start of Laurel Lane was missing.

When Molly had come inside with the paper, Jeff had noticed right away that she looked sickly. “You okay, babe?” he’d asked, staring at her. He’d stood at the kitchen counter, pouring coffee into the WORLD’S GREATEST DAD mug Erin had given him last year. “Jesus, you’re white as a ghost. . ”

Her hands shaking, she’d shown him the newspaper. Molly had felt sick for the rest of the morning, but managed to keep from throwing up until just now. She’d vomited three times in a row.

Unsteadily, she got to her feet. She gargled with mouthwash and splashed her face. In the mirror above the sink, Molly could see she was starting to get some of her color back. She took a few deep breaths, and then sprayed the place with Glade. It didn’t quite eliminate the vomit odor. Instead, it merely smelled like someone had puked in a pine forest.

Five minutes later, while picking out what to wear for the potluck, Molly couldn’t believe it, but she was actually hungry.

The doorbell rang, startling her.

Molly glanced out the bedroom window and recognized Angela’s SUV in the driveway. “What the hell?” she muttered.

Zipping her jeans back up, she threw on the periwinkle top she’d planned to wear and hurried down the stairs. Molly unlocked the front door and opened it. “Hi, Angela,” she murmured, puzzled.

Jeff’s ex stood on the front stoop with a tray of hummus, raw vegetables, and pita bread. Her silver-brown hair was slicked back in a small ponytail. She wore big gold earrings and a silky bronze-colored V-neck top over black jeans. She’d laid the makeup on a bit thick.

“The potluck is at Lynette’s,” Molly said, her hand on the doorknob.

“I know,” Angela replied sheepishly. “Can I come in?”

Molly opened the door wider. “I’m just getting ready. It’s in forty-five minutes, isn’t it?”

Angela didn’t seem to hear her. She stood in the front hallway, gazing around. She took a deep breath. “It’s exactly the same. I thought it would be different.”

Suddenly, it dawned on Molly that Angela hadn’t been inside the house for well over eighteen months. She noticed the tears in Angela’s eyes. “Here, let me take that for you,” she said, relieving her of the hors d’oeuvre tray. She carried it into the kitchen and set it on the counter.

Following her, Angela pulled a handkerchief from her purse and blew her nose. Molly watched her assessing the kitchen and family room. Two months ago, Molly had gotten rid of Angela’s ugly maroon drapes with the fleur-de-lis design and replaced them with some heather-green curtains from Pottery Barn.

“I see a few changes,” Angela announced, “but nothing really drastic. If I were you, moving into another woman’s house, I’d have gutted the place and started all over again.”

“The kids were going through enough transitions,” Molly explained. “So — Jeff and I decided to take it slow with the redecorating. I didn’t throw anything out. I put it down in the basement. If you want your old curtains—”

“God, no,” she said, with a wave of dismissal. “I don’t care. Give them to Goodwill.” She wandered over to the breakfast table and stood behind Molly’s chair.

Molly realized it used to be Angela’s chair. She hadn’t thought about it until now.

Angela put her hand on the top of the chair’s backrest and sighed. “I took everything I wanted out of here when I left. Anything you decide to replace, you can throw out. Except one thing — the white wicker rocking chair in Erin’s room — it used to be my mom’s. She rocked me in it when I was a baby, and I rocked Chris and Erin in it when they were babies. I want Erin to have it.”

Molly nodded. “I know, Jeff told me. Erin’s room is just the same as when you left.”

“Would it — would it be okay if I went up there?” Angela asked.

Molly gazed at her. “Is this why you’ve dropped in — because you want to see the house again?”

Angela nodded. “I knew Erin had a birthday party, and Chris had a swim meet — which Jeff wouldn’t miss for the world. I didn’t want to come back here while anyone else was home. I didn’t know how I’d react. . ” Her voice started to quiver. “I lived here for two years, and some of that time was very happy. I’ve missed this place. . ”

Molly didn’t say anything. She wasn’t quite sure she believed Jeff’s ex had dropped in for solely sentimental reasons. Up until now, she’d been so manipulative and catty. She watched Angela dab her eyes with the handkerchief again.

“Sure, you can take a look at Erin’s room,” Molly said finally. She started up the stairs. “For a change, it doesn’t look like a cyclone hit it.” While Angela followed her up the stairs, Molly wondered if she’d ask to see the master bedroom, too. She didn’t want Angela in there. It was just too weird.

Letting Angela step inside Erin’s room first, Molly stood in the doorway. Angela reached down and rearranged two stuffed animals — a giraffe and a pig — on Erin’s pillow. She moved to the empty rocker and tipped the arm, so it rocked back and forth for a few moments. The squeaking sound filled the silence between them.

“I hear you turned the attic into an art studio,” she said, at last. “Would you mind if I took a peek?”

Molly worked up a smile. “Sure, why not?” She led the way up the third-floor stairs to her studio.

“Oh, this is wonderful,” Angela said, glancing around. “You put in a skylight. I didn’t realize how gorgeous the light is up here. What a great use of this space. .”

Molly watched Angela wander over to the bookcase. “I don’t see any pictures of your family around.”

“I have them in photo albums,” Molly said.

“I know your father passed away. But your mother’s still alive, isn’t that right?”

Molly stared at her. “That’s right,” she said steadily. “Are you going to ask about my brother now?”

“What do you mean?” Angela let out a skittish little laugh. “Molly, if I’ve made you uncomfortable, I—”

“Aren’t you going to ask about my brother? Or did you already find out enough about him from your — detective or whoever he was?”

“Jeff said something to me about that a few months ago,” Angela replied with a hand on her hip. “And I’ll tell you what I told him. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I didn’t hire anyone to snoop into your family background, Molly. I’m not getting that much alimony. I really can’t afford to waste my money on something so silly.”

Molly’s eyes wrestled with hers. She could tell Angela was lying.

“Oh, what’s the use? You don’t believe me.” Angela brushed past her on the way to the stairs. “When you first married Jeff, I tried to reach out to you and be your friend, but you were cold and distant. . ” She stomped down the steps.

“Why in the world would I want to be friends with my husband’s ex-wife?” Molly shot back. She trailed after her down the stairs. “My God, practically every time I see you, Angela, you tell me what a lying cheating sack of shit Jeff was to you. Well, I’m sorry, but I really don’t need to hear that!” Molly paused at the top of the second floor landing. “And I don’t think your son needs to hear it, either. . ”

From the bottom of the stairs, Angela glared up at her. She opened her mouth to say something but quickly shook her head. She flounced toward the kitchen.

Molly hurried down the stairs and found Angela by the kitchen counter, the hors d’oeuvre tray in her trembling hands. Angela stared down at it. The bowl full of hummus was moving slightly. Tears ran down her cheeks.

“Goddamn him!” she screamed, throwing down the tray. It hit the tiled floor with a clatter. The bowl of hummus smashed, and the thick brown goo splattered against the lower cabinet. Pieces of pita bread and vegetables scattered across the floor. “God, I’m so stupid!” she cried, bracing a hand on the countertop. She shook her head. “I thought if I gave him custody of the kids, he wouldn’t be able to raise them without me. I thought he’d beg for me to come back, and he’d finally grow up. Instead, Jeff just moved on. And the worst thing is — a part of me knew he would. On a certain level, I knew he’d find someone younger and prettier to replace me — and look after my children. Now I don’t have anything. I gave up my kids, hoping somehow. .” Angela trailed off. She dug out her handkerchief again and blew her nose.

With uncertainty, Molly moved toward the kitchen, but she stopped at the breakfast table, giving Angela a wide berth.

“God, how could I be so stupid?” Angela asked with a pathetic little laugh. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this — you of all people.” She wiped her eyes, and then shook the wadded-up handkerchief at Molly. “You know, I carry these around all the time now. I keep having these — these crying jags. They just sneak up on me sometimes. God, I think I’m losing my mind.” She shook her head. “I shouldn’t even be talking to you about this.”

Molly took a deep breath. “You’re right, Angela, you shouldn’t,” she said, very carefully. “You ought to confide in a therapist or maybe a good friend — like Lynette.”

“Lynette? Are you kidding?” With a sigh, Angela bent down and turned over the serving tray. She started to collect the scattered pieces of pita bread and cut vegetables, and then tossed them on the tray. “Lynette would only say, ‘That’s too bad, I’m so sorry,’ and then she’d tell me about how Jeremy chases her around the bedroom. And that’s such a crock of shit. Have you seen the two of them together? I mean, please, anyone who has half a brain and one good eye could see Jeremy can’t stand her. Talk about stupid — and self-delusional. I don’t need any marital advice from my friend Lynette. No, thank you very much.”

Angela missed some stray pieces of broccoli and baby carrots on the floor. She also left the broken bowl and spilt hummus. But she set the tray on the kitchen counter. “You’re right, Molly. I shouldn’t be telling you any of this. I’ve said too much already. I should go.” She wiped her hands on a dish towel that hung from the oven door handle. “I’m sorry I left you with this mess,” she said in a shaky voice. “Please, make my excuses to the girls at the potluck. I don’t think I could face them right now. I just don’t have it in me.”

She touched Molly’s shoulder as she hurried past her and headed for the front hall.

Bewildered, Molly didn’t walk her to the door. Before she could even react, she heard the door open and slam shut.

From a second-floor window, she watched Angela Dennehy storm out of the house. She spied her through a pair of binoculars, but still couldn’t quite tell whether or not the ex-Mrs. Dennehy was crying. She certainly looked upset as she hurried toward her SUV in the driveway.

Fifteen minutes ago, when Angela had first arrived at her former home, she’d brought in a tray of something that might have been hors d’oeuvres. But she didn’t have it with her now. She jumped into her car, backed out of the driveway, turned around, and headed out of the cul-de-sac.

Funny, she’d thought for sure Angela would be attending the Neighborhood Watch potluck at Lynette Hahn’s house.

She wondered what this visit between the two Mrs. Dennehys had been about — and what exactly had gone on in there. Whatever had happened, it was upsetting enough for Angela that she must have changed her mind about the potluck.

It was scheduled for 12:30—fifteen minutes from now.

She knew, because she’d been invited.

Something else she knew: Soon, there would only be one Mrs. Dennehy.

She’d already started building the dollhouse.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

The hors d’oeuvre tray of neatly arranged pita bread and raw vegetables sat on Lynette’s dining room table. Molly had been in such a hurry to make the potluck on time, she’d left some spilt hummus and a few stray baby carrots and broccoli crowns on her kitchen floor. She’d quickly dusted off the bread, and rinsed the vegetables, then dried them in the salad spinner. She’d had a container of low-fat dill dip in her fridge from one of her cravings a few days ago; and she’d substituted that for Angela’s hummus.

A tiny smile on her face, she now watched Lynette help herself to bread and dip for the umpteenth time. “I’ll have to get this dill dip recipe from Angela,” she said to Jill, who stood at the table with her. “It’s fantastic!”

In a bowl beside Angela’s serving tray, the pasta salad Molly had made went untouched.

“Oh, I shouldn’t do this again, but I’m going to!” Lynette was saying, reaching for a raw vegetable now. “Jeremy likes me skinny! In fact, he can’t keep his hands off me. He’s insatiable!” She let out a little laugh. “Ha, maybe I should eat up! Maybe he’ll leave me alone if I gained a few pounds. At least, I’d get a little rest. Honestly, that man of mine. .”

Lynette’s “insatiable” husband was supposed to have attended the Neighborhood Watch potluck, but something had come up at his office at the last minute. Apparently, Natalie had been invited, but Miss Congeniality pulled a no-show. Lynette had told the Realtor for Kay’s house about the potluck, and Molly had wondered if this Rachel Cross person who had bought the place would attend, but no dice.

With Angela suddenly backing out, that brought the Neighborhood Watch attendance down to three: Lynette, Jill, and Molly. Lynette forced her daughter, Courtney, to attend, just for another body in the room, when Chet Blazevich showed up.

Molly felt sorry for the handsome cop, making a special trip to talk to three women — and one teenager who was text-messaging throughout his whole presentation. Jill asked him if the police had any new leads from Thursday night’s triple murder in Federal Way. He admitted they hadn’t made too much progress. After that, no one seemed interested in his Neighborhood Watch safety tips — Molly included.

She tried to pay attention but kept replaying in her head what had happened with Angela less than an hour before. She’d always suspected Jeff’s ex wasn’t really over him. A part of her felt sorry for Angela, but she still didn’t trust her. Before Angela had had her little meltdown, when they’d been talking in the art studio, she’d looked Molly in the eye and claimed she hadn’t hired anyone to investigate her family background: “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The hell she didn’t. Molly knew she’d been lying.

She wondered just how much information Angela’s sleazy investigator had uncovered. He’d probably figured out by now that her brother, Charlie, was the person the news stories from Chicago referred to as Roland Charles Wright. No had ever called him that; he’d always been Charlie ever since he was a baby — just as she’d always been Molly, though Mary Louise was the name on her birth certificate. The only person who called her Mary Louise was her mother when she was mad about something: “Mary Louise, this room is a pigsty!”

Now, that was all her mother ever called her. “I’m fine, Mary Louise, you don’t need to send me any money, thank you,” she’d tell her during those painful, brief conversations over the phone once a month.

Of course, Charlie was why their relationship had deteriorated.

A few weeks after Charlie had cut her with the pizza slicer, Molly’s parents stuck him in a special boarding school called New Horizons. He still came home on weekends. When not hanging out with Molly, he’d get into trouble with his creepy friends. It really put a crimp in Molly’s social life, but she felt responsible for him. It was why she didn’t go away to college.

She day-hopped at Northwestern University for four years, and it was with mixed feelings she went off to the Art Students League of New York. Like it or not, for so many years her main purpose in life had been looking after her needy, troubled kid brother. Suddenly, she was looking after herself, and it felt strange.

Charlie used to write her long, rambling, sometimes incredibly sentimental letters, asking when she’d come home. Occasionally, he even sent her one of his elephants. She felt so guilty — as if she’d deserted him.

Still, Charlie seemed to do all right at New Horizons. He finally got his high school diploma — or at least its equivalency — but stayed on at the school, working as a janitor for his room and board.

Molly planned to stay on in New York after graduation, but then her dad died. The way Charlie dealt with the loss was to get drunk, break several windows in the school, and punch a sixty-two-year-old security guard in the face. New Horizons fired him and sent him packing.

Molly’s mother announced she was too frail to look after Charlie. She wanted to put him in a state-run halfway-house facility. Molly got an unscheduled, unofficial tour of the place. It was a run-down old boardinghouse, full of ex-cons on probation and mentally ill tenants, packed in three to a room. She noticed a pile of feces — which she suspected were human — in the second-floor hallway. Charlie cried and cried, begging her not to let their mother put him in there.

So Molly stayed in Chicago. She sold the occasional painting, got temp work wherever she could find it, and rented a two-bedroom apartment on Clark Street for Charlie and herself.

For a while, it was actually kind of comfortable. After all, Charlie knew her better than anyone else. He was a good cook and handy to have around for chores. In fact, the building manager paid him thirty dollars a week to vacuum the common areas and change burnt-out lightbulbs. People in the building liked him — despite his quirky personality. But sometimes Molly felt like one half of the building’s token weirdo residents: the artist and her handyman brother — with their collection of elephant figurines in the living room. Did she still want this arrangement when she was thirty?

Charlie got a job bagging groceries at the Jewel. He was on medication, which made him pretty manageable. But sometimes Molly felt like she had a kid living with her, a kid who occasionally brought home some skanky woman he’d pick up in a bar. It was easy for Charlie to score with an undiscerning female who didn’t realize he was a little off. He was a handsome guy, despite the fact that he gave himself some pretty terrible haircuts at times.

Often Molly just wanted a break from him. But there was no one to spell her, because their mother had moved to a retirement village in Vero Beach, Florida. She had friends down there.

At least one of them had friends. Molly couldn’t really keep any, not after she brought them home. Each one of her female friends became the object of Charlie’s affection. He deluded himself into thinking they were hot for him. Molly tried, but couldn’t stop him from pestering these women — to the point of stalking them.

Molly didn’t have much of a love life with Charlie around, either. He was boyfriend-repellent — maybe because he’d taken to wearing this ratty, secondhand Hells Angels jacket wherever he went. It was embarrassing. Molly waitressed parttime at T.G.I. Friday’s, the lunch and early dinner shift. She got asked out frequently. But Charlie tried to be best friends with every guy she dated, and he scared them off. Doug Cutland from Windy City Art Gallery valiantly tried to make a go at it. He even took Charlie to two Bears games. But he just didn’t have the patience to put up with a girlfriend who came with a needy, oddball twenty-six-year-old kid brother.

Poor Charlie seemed almost as devastated as she was when Doug had pulled away. On some level, Charlie must have known he was the reason things didn’t work out there. He started drinking more as a way of self-medicating. He even showed up drunk and surly to the Jewel, insisting on wearing his Hells Angels jacket in the store, because his checkout stand was by the automatic doors, and it was cold out. Rather than fire him, the ever-patient manager at the Jewel cut back Charlie’s hours.

To keep him busy on his new days off, Molly enrolled him in a creative writing class at Central Evanston Township Community College. His instructor was an author Molly had never heard of, Nick Sorenson, who published one novel, The Eskimo Pie Breakfast. Molly found his e-mail address in the college catalog’s course description. She wrote to him about Charlie:

. . He’s on medication for bipolar disorder, and may seem a little odd, but he’s very sweet. He’s really looking forward to your class & is hard at work on a short story. If Charlie should disrupt the class or act inappropriately in any way, please don’t hesitate to contact me by phone or e-mail. Thank you very much & I’ll have to buy THE ESKIMO PIE BREAKFAST!

Sincerely,

Molly Wright

Nick Sorenson’s e-mail reply came the next day:

Dear Molly,

Thanks very much for your heads-up about your brother. My favorite niece has special needs, like Charlie. So I’m pretty familiar with the struggles & challenges. I’m looking forward to having Charlie in my creative writing class.

Good luck tracking down a copy of The Eskimo Pie Breakfast. It’s out of print. I think there are some cheap, used copies on Amazon.com. Literally, dozens of people have read it!

Sincerely,

Nick Sorenson

Molly looked up Nick Sorenson, Author on Google.com, and came across a good review of his book, and a photo of him. The three-quarter-profile author portrait showed a trim, thirtysomething man with dark, wavy hair and a relaxed smile. His tie was loosened, and he stood in front of Buckingham Fountain. She knew it was silly, but she didn’t have a crush on anyone, and he seemed like a good candidate — even if it was just a fantasy crush. It would be a nice change of pace if she found a boyfriend because of Charlie instead of losing one because of him.

Molly ordered a used copy of The Eskimo Pie Breakfast on Amazon.com.

She took it as a good sign when Nick Sorenson sent her a friendly, unsolicited e-mail after Charlie had had his first class with him:

Dear Molly,

I know you were concerned about how your brother would get along in my creative writing class. Today, he read his short story, which was rather violent, but entertaining. He seemed to have some difficulty taking criticism of his work during the critique session. But I was impressed by the way Charlie praised a story by one young woman when it didn’t go over well with the others. It was very chivalrous of him. I think he’ll do all right in the class.

Sincerely,

Nick Sorenson

PS: Charlie proudly mentioned to me that you’re an artist & have sold your paintings in a few local galleries. I never miss a First Thursday art walk. Keep me posted on any upcoming exhibits of your work, Molly. I like to support local writers & artists!

She couldn’t help thinking that perhaps Nick was a bit interested in her, too. She asked Charlie about the piece he wrote. He bragged that everyone loved his story, but he didn’t want to show it to her yet, because it was part of a novel he planned on publishing. “It’ll probably be a bestseller,” he said.

When she asked about Mr. Sorenson, all Charlie said was, “He’s pretty cool.”

Charlie says you’re “pretty cool,” she wrote in her e-mail to Nick that night. Molly mentioned she’d shown a few paintings in participating First Thursday art walk galleries, and she’d ordered The Eskimo Pie Breakfast on Amazon.

I could only find a used copy, which means you won’t get a dime out of it. So I hope you’ll let me treat you to coffee sometime. I like supporting local writers & artists, too!

Molly thought she was being pretty damn clever with the oh-so-casual way she’d asked him out. But two days went by without a response. In the meantime, Charlie had had his second class with Nick Sorenson. The reply finally came on that third day:

Dear Molly,

Thanks so much for buying my book. It doesn’t matter if it’s used. I just like the idea that my work is still out there being read.

J. Simmons Gallery & Stafford-Lombard Gallery are 2 of my favorites. Your work must be quite extraordinary if it’s displayed in those galleries.

Would it be possible to get together for lunch or coffee on Monday? The cafeteria here at the school isn’t bad, and as you must know, Charlie seems to like it. Are you available around lunchtime on Monday?

Sincerely,

Nick

Molly wondered what he meant about Charlie liking the cafeteria. She casually asked her brother where he had lunch on the days he had writing class. “The school cafeteria, of course,” he said, looking at her as if it was the dumbest question he’d ever heard. “They’ve got excellent food.”

Molly found someone to fill in for her at T.G.I. Friday’s and e-mailed Nick that she could meet him in the school cafeteria at one. She wondered if this would be purely social or if Nick wanted to talk about Charlie. Maybe he expected Charlie there, too. It wasn’t quite clear. No, it’s a date or at least a semi-date, she told herself. Charlie worked at the Jewel on Mondays. Even if it was just a cafeteria in a community college, she was considering this a date.

Molly received her copy of The Eskimo Pie Breakfast from UPS late Monday morning. She brought it along when she caught the El to Evanston. The overcast skies looked ominous, as if it might snow at any minute. While waiting for a cab at the Evanston station, Molly decided to call Charlie at the Jewel, just to double-check that he wasn’t part of this lunch with Nick.

“You want to talk to Charlie Wright?” asked the woman who picked up the phone at the store.

“Yes, this is his sister,” Molly said into her cell. She covered her other ear as the El started up with a roar.

“Charlie quit,” the woman told her. “He hasn’t been here in — like — two weeks. In fact, we have his last paycheck here. Do you want us to mail it to him?”

Baffled, Molly asked to talk to Charlie’s boss. He got on the line and confirmed that Charlie had given his notice: “He just waltzed in here late two Fridays ago and said he was finished,” the man told her. “He said he’s going to publish a book — or something like that.”

Molly wondered what the hell Charlie was thinking. Where had he been every workday for the last two weeks?

No cabs were stopping, and while she stood there stranded, it started to snow. By the time a taxi pulled over, and she ducked into the backseat, Molly was frazzled. She remembered what Nick had said in his e-mail: The cafeteria here at the school isn’t bad, and as you must know, Charlie seems to like it. She figured her brother must have been hanging out at the community college’s cafeteria all this time, maybe writing his stories or chatting up the other students and the cafeteria workers. He had a way of starting conversations with total strangers wherever he went. About one time in twelve he’d hit the jackpot and find someone who actually didn’t mind talking with him.

She was furious at Charlie for quitting his job and not telling her. Plus the people at the Jewel had been so good to him. Not many places would hire someone like Charlie. What was she going to do with him now?

About six blocks from the college, the snow became thicker, and Molly realized that this date with Nick would almost certainly include her now-unemployed brother. That was one more reason to be furious at Charlie.

And now that she thought about it, she was pretty mad at her mother, too. Why did she have to look after Charlie while her mother played shuffleboard with friends down in Vero Beach? Wasn’t she allowed to have a life? She remembered how her mother had planned to stick Charlie in that horrible halfway house. “Well, it’s either that or you’ll have to be responsible for him, dear,” she remembered her mother saying. “I simply can’t do it anymore.”

Molly glanced at her wristwatch: ten after one. She was already late for this stupid lunch meeting.

Two blocks from the college, the taxi’s windshield wipers had fanned a clearing on the snow-covered glass. Molly noticed something that looked like an accident on the road ahead, right in front of the community college. Ambulances and about a dozen police cars — their red strobes swirling — had arrived on the scene. At least a hundred people stood huddled in the snow just outside the school.

“This is Chicago,” the taxi driver muttered. “You’d think some of these idiots on the road would learn how to drive in the snow. Looks like a pile-up ahead. We’ll get caught in this gridlock if we keep going.”

“It’s okay,” Molly said, reaching for her purse. “I can get out and walk from here.” She paid the man, thanked him, and climbed out of the taxi. With Nick’s book tucked inside her coat, Molly treaded through the snow toward the school. The sidewalk was already starting to get slippery. She didn’t see a car wreck ahead — just the emergency vehicles, and all the bystanders. What were they gaping at?

As she got closer to the school, Molly passed several people who weren’t wearing jackets. They huddled together on the sidewalk and the snow-covered grass. Molly spotted a policeman escorting a young woman to an ambulance, and she was crying hysterically. She wasn’t wearing a jacket, either. There was blood on her white blouse.

“What’s going on?” Molly asked a thin, young Asian man who stood shivering in his shirt and jeans. He clutched some schoolbooks to his chest.

“They evacuated the school,” he said. “There was a shooting in the cafeteria.”

“What?” Molly murmured. Nick Sorenson was waiting for her there — probably with Charlie. She could just see her brother trying to be a hero in a situation like this and getting himself shot. “Do you know if anyone’s hurt?” Molly asked him, panic-stricken. “I think my brother’s in the cafeteria. Do you know what happened?”

“I was there!” gasped a short young woman with stringy blond hair. Tears streaming down her face, she stood beside Molly. She was in a short-sleeved blouse, and she frantically rubbed her bare arms. “I saw it all,” she cried. “This guy walked in the cafeteria and just started shooting people! I don’t know who he was — some creepy guy in a Hells Angels jacket. He pulled out a gun and just started shooting. . ”

Molly shook her head. She told herself she hadn’t heard it right. She glanced around at the police cars and ambulances. In the distance, someone gave instructions over a static-laced police radio. TV-news vans were just arriving on the scene. Molly gazed at the crying, shivering, scared people. She could hear their sobbing. Her brother couldn’t have been responsible for all this.

“How many people did he kill?” Molly heard someone ask.

“At least seven are down, maybe more,” answered an older man standing nearby.

Molly turned toward him. “Do you know what happened to the man doing the shooting? Do the police have him?”

Frowning, the older man shook his head. “A security guard shot the son of a bitch. He’s dead, thank God.”

The man turned away.

Molly numbly stared at his back as he threaded through the crowd. Then she glanced up at the snow. She felt the cold, wet flakes on her face.

Nick Sorenson’s book slipped from under her coat and landed in a puddle on the ground. Molly’s legs buckled.

She had no memory of collapsing and hitting her forehead on the sidewalk. She barely remembered them sewing up the gash at the hospital. Four stitches — the doctor did an exceptional job. Within a few months, the scar disappeared completely.

It was the only thing that ever really healed from that day.

Rubbing her forehead, Molly shifted in the cushioned chair in Lynette Hahn’s living room. She glanced up at Lieutenant Chet Blazevich, standing by Lynette’s fireplace, giving his talk. His pale green eyes seemed to stare right through her, and Molly realized she hadn’t heard a word he’d said. Blinking, she straightened in the chair.

She felt clammy and light-headed, and hoped to God her morning sickness wasn’t coming back. She didn’t want anyone here putting two and two together and guessing she was pregnant. She would have hated for Lynette, Angela, and company to know about the baby before Jeff.

She took a few deep breaths and tried to focus on what the handsome cop was saying. But all the while she wondered how much Angela’s investigator had uncovered about Roland Charles Wright, who shot seven people in a cafeteria at Central Evanston Township Community College — before a security guard put a bullet in his throat. Of the seven people shot on that winter day, two died, one of them his teacher, Nick Sorenson. The other was a twenty-year-old student from the Philippines named Tina Gargullo, who worked parttime in the cafeteria. According to some news reports, Roland Charles Wright had been pestering her for a date, but Tina had refused his advances. He’d also alienated some of his classmates in the creative writing class in which he was enrolled. Five other people were wounded in the shooting spree: a cashier in the cafeteria and four students. All of them were treated and released within a day or two — except for one. Janette Wilder, a divorced thirty-two-year-old mother of two, had been taking a Spanish class at the community college. She was shot twice in her right leg, and then confined to a wheelchair for the next three months. Even after she endured extensive physical therapy sessions, the doctors said Janette would probably walk with a limp for the rest of her life.

Molly sent letters of apology to every one of the wounded — and to Tina Gargullo’s parents in the Philippines. After some research, she found the address of Nick Sorenson’s widowed mother — on Gunnison Street in Chicago — so she could visit her in person. Mrs. Sorenson was the woman who spit in Molly’s face.

Molly had wanted to tell her that she’d read Nick’s book, a coming-of-age story that was sweet and funny and sad. She wanted to impress upon Mrs. Sorenson how sorry she was. But it was a futile gesture. She didn’t blame Nick’s mother for hating her.

But Molly had expected some support from her own mother, who refused to come to Chicago for Charlie’s meager, furtive funeral. “I’m so disappointed in you,” she’d told Molly over the phone. “How could you let this happen? He was your responsibility. How did he get his hands on a gun? For God’s sake, you should have been watching him more closely. . ”

Her mother claimed that if Molly had let her put Charlie in the state-run halfway house, they could have avoided this tragedy.

After that conversation, Molly didn’t talk to her mother for four months.

But she talked to several doctors and psychologists, who assured her there was no way she could have anticipated what Charlie was about to do. They tried to counsel her in grief and guilt, but nothing they said really helped.

Her mother broke the silence when she phoned Molly, needing money. They were polite to each other and kept it brief. From then on, Molly phoned her once a month to ask if she needed funds. Molly always sent the check inside an artsy greeting card, scribbling Hope you’re well — Molly on the inside.

Sixteen months ago, Molly had written inside the card bearing the check: Met a very nice man a while back & was married last week. Please note the new home phone number and address. Hope you’re well — Molly.

Part of her felt horrible for being so impersonal about it. Yet another part of her got a strange satisfaction letting her mother know she wasn’t part of this milestone in her life. Mostly, she was fishing, hoping her mom would care enough to phone and ask about her new son-in-law. But her mother didn’t phone. When Molly called her a month later to inquire if she needed more money, she had to ask, “Did you get the last check — and my note?”

“Yes, thank you, Mary Louise,” she replied coolly. “Congratulations.”

Tears filled Molly’s eyes, and the hand holding the cell phone began to shake. “His name is Jeff Dennehy, and he was married before — and divorced. He has two children — Chris, he just turned seventeen, and Erin, she’s six. They’re really nice kids. And Jeff’s wonderful.” She paused, and then sighed. “Not that you give a damn. Am I right?”

There was silence on the other end of the line.

“I’ll call you next month, Mother,” Molly murmured. Then she clicked off the phone.

Her mom hadn’t always been like that. She used to have a wicked sense of humor. She’d start telling stories at dinner, and soon the whole family would be laughing hysterically — to the point at which whatever Charlie was drinking started coming out of his nose. She was a good artist, too. Molly remembered her designing their family Christmas cards every year. And it was her mother who taught her how to paint and draw. She’d made it so fun.

After her dad had died, when her mother was moving to Florida, Molly had helped clean out her parents’ old house. She’d found dozens of homemade cards her dad had saved that her mother had drawn. They were cute, clever, and very endearing. I’m Crazy About You! she’d written on one of them, under a cartoon of a woman with birds and stars swirling around her head — while she admired a muscle man on the beach. The cartoon characters even had a passing resemblance to Molly’s parents in their younger days.

Her mom’s sense of humor and fun seemed to have died along with her dad. Whatever was left must have died with Charlie.

That was something Angela’s hired snoop couldn’t know about her family.

Molly tried to pay attention as Chet Blazevich talked about what they should do to better protect their homes against intruders. But she was still fighting the nausea and light-headedness. She felt even sicker as she imagined Angela sharing the detective’s findings with her gal pal, Lynette, and the new girl on the block, Jill.

“Excuse me,” she whispered, unsteadily getting to her feet.

Chet Blavevich stopped talking for a moment. But Molly didn’t look up at him — or anyone for that matter. Eyes downcast, she retreated toward Lynette’s powder room, through a hallway off the kitchen. Her legs were wobbly, and once Molly closed the bathroom door, she dropped down to the tiled floor and sat by the toilet. She took a few deep breaths and managed to hold back. She didn’t want to throw up in Lynette’s fancy powder room with its gold fixtures, pedestal sink, and shell-shaped mini-soaps. She rode it out, splashed some cold water on her face, and then sucked on a peppermint Altoid from her purse. She started to feel halfway human again.

By the time she emerged from the bathroom, the detective had finished his talk. Lynette and Jill had migrated to the kitchen, Courtney had disappeared completely, and Chet Blazevich was standing by the buffet table.

“Are you feeling all right?” Lynette asked, with a raised eyebrow.

“Just a headache,” Molly lied. “I hope you don’t mind if I cut out early.”

Lynette frowned a bit. “Of course, if you’re not feeling well.”

Molly brushed past her and worked up a smile for Chet Blazevich in the dining room. She signed his Neighborhood Watch attendance form. “I’m sorry I missed the end of your talk,” she said.

“It’s okay, you didn’t miss much.” He smiled at her. “I was hoping you’d baked cookies again. Those were really good last time.” He turned toward the spread of food on the table. “Which dish is yours? Is it the pasta salad?”

“How did you guess?” Molly asked.

“It’s the one thing on the table that appears untouched. I remember the last time, they didn’t eat your chocolate chip cookies, either.”

“Good memory,” Molly told him.

“So — still not part of the clique?” he said in a quiet voice.

She just shrugged and shook her head.

“Well, it’s their loss.”

Molly smiled. “Can I interest you in taking home some delicious pasta salad?”

He nodded. “You certainly can.”

In the kitchen, she retrieved the Tupperware container in which she’d brought over the pasta salad. Lynette smirked at her. “Well, Molly, I see you weren’t so headachy that you couldn’t stop and chat up our good-looking, green-eyed guest,” she said under her breath.

“I’m just being polite,” Molly replied. She held up the empty Tupperware container. “I’m giving him the pasta salad to take home, since neither one of you touched it. And by the way, Lynette, that recipe for Angela’s ‘fantastic’ dill dip? It’s Nalley low-fat dill dip, which you can buy at any old Safeway. Angela had a meltdown and dropped the hors d’oeuvres tray on my kitchen floor. I’ll be cleaning up spilt hummus when I get home. I rinsed off the vegetables that had been on the floor and, as for the bread — I blew on it, Lynette.”

“What?” Lynette said, scowling at her. “Are you crazy?”

“That’s disgusting,” Jill muttered, a hand on her hip.

“If you want details about Angela’s meltdown, you’ll just have to ask Angela,” Molly said. “I’m sure she’ll tell you. And she’ll probably tell you all about my family, too — if she hasn’t already, Lynette.”

“What are you talking about?” Lynette shot back. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Just my patience — with you, with all of you,” Molly grumbled. She marched into the dining room, where Chet Blazevich gaped at her.

“What’s she talking about?” she heard Lynette saying.

Molly handed him the Tupperware bowl and lid. “Here you go,” she said briskly. “Take as much as you want and keep the container. Thank you for the talk.” She touched his shoulder. “I think you’re very nice,” she whispered, and then she headed for Lynette’s front door.

She hurried down the block toward the house. Fallen leaves drifted across the road, and Molly kept her arms folded to fight off the chilly breeze. She couldn’t believe the crazy things she’d just said to Lynette and Jill. What the hell was wrong with her? Raging hormones, she told herself, just part of the pregnancy package.

That handsome cop probably figured she was crazy.

Heading up the walkway, Molly pulled her keys out of her purse. She was still a bit shaky, and wasn’t looking forward to cleaning up Angela’s mess on the kitchen floor. She was almost at the front stoop when she stopped dead.

Someone had bashed in the faces of their pumpkins.

“Oh, shit,” she murmured. “Who would do this?”

She thought about Angela, but as nasty as she could be at times, Jeff’s ex wouldn’t have done that to her own child’s jack-o-lantern. Erin would be devastated.

Molly wondered if Lynette’s brats might have been the responsible parties. After all, they got their kicks throwing dirt balls at passing cars from the vacant lot at the edge of the cul-de-sac. Smashing pumpkins seemed like a perfect outlet for the little shits. But Lynette’s brother had taken them to a Seahawks game today — along with Jill’s son.

Bending down, Molly ran her fingers over the bashed-in face of Erin’s smiling jack-o-lantern. It was beyond repair. With a sigh, she straightened up and started to unlock the door. But then she balked.

The door was already unlocked.

Molly could have sworn she’d locked the door after leaving the house two hours before. She hesitated and then stepped into the front hall. The house was quiet. She glanced around to make sure nothing was different, and no one was lurking. She headed into the kitchen. As she moved around the island of kitchen cabinets, she looked down at the floor, where Angela had dropped the tray earlier.

The floor was clean — no globs of hummus or shards of glass from the broken dipping bowl, no stray broccoli crowns or baby carrots.

Molly frowned. All she could think was that perhaps Angela had snuck in and cleaned everything up. Maybe Angela still had an old key.

But Angela wouldn’t have smashed those pumpkins.

So it must have been someone else.

She turned toward the sink and saw something that didn’t seem like Angela’s work at all.

On the clean granite counter, three baby carrots were carefully arranged in the shape of a smile — below two broccoli crowns that might have been eyes.

The raw vegetables had been scattered over her kitchen floor earlier.

Now they formed a jack-o-lantern’s grin.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

She glanced over the top of her Vanity Fair magazine as the elevator door opened. Ensconced in the cushioned love seat across from the front desk, she’d been waiting forty-five minutes. The W Hotel’s lobby was all black and gray, with sleek steel and glass. She blended in well in her black power suit and tan trench coat.

She was there for Jeremy Hahn’s last-minute “business meeting” that Saturday — the day before Halloween. Jeremy’s meeting must have ended a few minutes ago. The person with whom he’d been doing business was just now stepping off the elevator.

The thin, nubile blonde in the Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform was a prostitute named Tara. She was sixteen, but trying hard to look even younger. Lynette’s husband met Tara once or twice a week in the same room at the W Hotel in downtown Seattle for an extended lunch hour.

“Why always the same room?” she’d asked Tara a while back.

“Cuz in that room, he’s got like four or five porn magazines stashed under the mattress — in the middle, where the maid can’t see ’em when she changes the sheets,” Tara had explained. “He likes to take ’em out, look at ’em, and warm up before I get there. Usually, by the time I come knocking, he’s so horny and coked out, he practically attacks me.”

It hadn’t made sense why Jeremy planted his porn in the hotel room — rather than just bring it with him. But Tara had enlightened her: “If he was caught with that shit on his person, they’d lock him up and throw away the fucking key. Jeremy likes ’em young — illegal young, if you get what I’m saying. I mean, shit, I’ll be too old for the son of a bitch in a year. Anyway, if anybody finds the porn in that room, Mr. Hahn can always say it’s not his. Ha! He’s a lot less nervous about toting around all the coke he puts away.”

Tara wasn’t adverse to a bit of cocaine herself. That was how the woman in the tan trench coat got her cooperation. She started out by giving Tara eight hundred dollars and two grams of quality cocaine for some information on Jeremy Hahn — and the promise to keep her informed about when these sessions at the W were scheduled. That had been three weeks — and four “business meetings”—ago. Tara could be pretty reliable if the payoff was another gram or two of coke — something the dealer called an eight ball, whatever that was. She just knew it cost over two hundred dollars a pop.

The woman in the lobby thought it was rather amusing that she now consorted with killers, drug dealers, and prostitutes. Just a year ago, she’d been happily married with two children, and she made a little money on the side custom-building dollhouses for people in the neighborhood and their kids.

She stood up as Tara walked through the lobby. She wondered if Jeremy liked Tara to stay dressed in the white blouse, Black Watch plaid skirt, kneesocks, and saddle shoes while they did the deed. But as she seriously thought about it, she really didn’t want to know.

She followed Tara into the ladies’ room. Another woman was in there, putting on some lipstick in front of the mirror. Tara ducked into one of the stalls.

The woman in the trench coat waited until the other woman left. Then she dug the little Baggie out of her purse and slid it under the stall door. She watched it get snatched up. “Anything new to report?” she asked.

“Well, I guess he scheduled me today because he knew his wife would be busy with some block-party meeting or something,” Tara replied. “He wants to see me again on Thursday at one.”

“That’s it?” the woman asked.

There was a silence on the other side of the stall door, and then she heard Tara snorting. According to Tara’s earlier descriptions of her sessions with Jeremy Hahn, the two of them did quite a lot of coke up in that room. She couldn’t believe the girl wanted yet another hit of the stuff. She listened to her snorting again — and then, a long sigh.

“He bought us a bottle of champagne from room service,” Tara finally said. “It cost like two hundred and fifty bucks. I saw the bill, and asked how he could afford it. He said he was charging his company. Isn’t that funny? I wouldn’t be surprised if he puts me on the company expense account, too. Some of these executive pricks think they can get away with just about anything. . ”

In her head, the woman listed the possible charges against Jeremy Hahn: Statutory rape, supplying drugs and liquor to a minor, solicitation, possession of drugs and illegal pornography, and now corporate theft.

“Y’know, I was thinking,” Tara said, “I don’t really understand how you’re friends with his wife, and why you’re keeping tabs on him. I mean, I remember you saying they had an open marriage, but still. .” There was a click, and the stall door opened. Tara was face-to-face with the woman. Her head cocked to one side, Tara stared at her inquisitively. For a moment, she looked eleven years old. “Anyway, I just don’t get it. . ”

The woman in the trench coat smiled. “His wife just wants to make sure he doesn’t get himself into too much trouble,” she explained. “And besides, dear, you don’t have to ‘get it.’ Just call me whenever he schedules you for a session. See you on Thursday.”

She gently pinched the girl on the cheek, and then headed out of the women’s room.

The three murdered teenagers from Federal Way — that was all everyone talked, Twittered, and texted about at school that Monday after Halloween. As he walked down the crowded hallway toward his locker, Chris overheard people chattering. Apparently, a lot of kids from James Monroe High knew Rob Sessions, Sarah Manning, and Luke Brosco.

During first period, they’d announced over the intercom that any students who wanted to attend a group counseling session led by Mr. Munson in the auditorium during sixth period had to sign up by lunchtime in order to be excused from class. Touchy-feely Munson was slated to talk about grief, loss, fear — and how to cope.

Chris didn’t sign up. He didn’t know any of the kids who were murdered.

Courtney started texting and Twittering about it late Friday night, when people first found out about the latest cul-de-sac killings:

I’m pretty sure I met the 3 kids who were murdered. I went to a lot of parties w/that crowd from Federal Way last year. It’s a scary time 4 us people who live on cul-de-sacs!

Just a few minutes ago, as the school day ended, Courtney was really milking the situation with her latest and extremely lengthy Facebook status update:

When I think of my friends Rob, Sarah & Luke, I just want to cry. Munson’s meeting was no help at all, a waste of time. Some of us living on cul-de-sacs are really scared. My dad mentioned over the weekend that he’s thinking of moving us to a hotel until this killer is caught. But we’re sticking it out at home. If we moved or changed our lives around, then the CDS Killer would win.

It was funny about Courtney. She didn’t seem to realize what a major phony she was. Chris remembered all her postings on Facebook and all the texts she’d sent when her “best friend forever” Madison was burying her mother. But once Madison moved in with her dad and her much-loathed stepmother, Courtney saw a lot less of her. And Madison’s dad didn’t live all that far away, either. By the time Madison started senior year at Roosevelt High School in another part of town, Courtney already had a new “best friend forever,” Cindy McBride, whom Chris couldn’t stand.

Of course, why should he have been surprised? Courtney had gotten over him pretty fast, too.

Yet he still had a thing for Courtney, maybe because she was so beautiful — and insecure. She’d admitted to him once that by the time she’d turned thirteen her dad seemed to lose all interest in her. “He used to make me feel so special,” she’d said. “I was his little girl. Now that I’m older, I feel like I’m turning into my mother, and he hates her.”

Chris couldn’t fathom what that was like. As screwed up as his parents were, at least he felt loved.

He walked around a couple who were making out by his locker and then he stopped dead. The combination lock was gone. Chris glanced at the number again: 216. It was his locker, all right. “What the hell?” he murmured. He squinted at some fresh dents and silver scratches near the handle, where the combination lock had been. Someone had knocked it off.

Chris carefully opened the locker door, not sure what to expect. Everything appeared just as he’d left it before last period. His school jacket hung from the hook. His backpack was stashed at the bottom of the locker, and on the upper shelf were his books.

He glanced around the corridor to see if anyone was watching him. Maybe the culprit was still around. The couple making out by his locker had moved on, and the crowd of students had thinned out. But there were still some stragglers by their lockers.

Chris pulled his backpack out and rifled through it. Nothing seemed to be missing. He wondered if maybe the cops had gotten a bad tip, and they’d broken off his lock to search his locker for drugs or something like that. But wouldn’t they have told him?

“This sucks,” he muttered. Now he’d have to clear out his locker if he didn’t want anything stolen tonight. He stuffed the books in his backpack. Then, as he put on his jacket, Chris felt something in the inside breast pocket.

With two fingers, he fished out a folded-up piece of spiral notebook paper. He unfolded it. In an almost childlike handwriting, someone had written a brief, cryptic message:

Ask your stepmother about Tina Gargullo and Nick Sorenson.

Baffled, Chris stared at the note in his hand. He slowly shook his head.

Then something else caught his eye. It was along the red, ribbed cuff of his school jacket.

Someone had cut out a perfect, small square of the material.

Most of the Google results for Nick Sorenson were articles about a Cleveland Browns defense back, Nick Sorensen. It wasn’t even the same spelling. There was another Nick Sorenson from Des Moines, Iowa, on Facebook. He had 231 friends, and neither Molly nor this Tina Gargullo person was listed.

With a sigh, Chris glanced up from the computer screen. Only a few other students were still in the school library at this hour, most of them using the computers. There was a row of monitors and keyboards on a long table by the big windows. Outside, it had started to get dark already — a typical autumn afternoon.

He wondered who had written that weird note about Molly. The only person he could think of was Courtney. She never had anything nice to say about his stepmother, but she was always pretty open about it. Why would she break into his locker to pass along this bizarre message? And why cut off part of the cuff to his jacket? Already one small thread had unraveled along the freshly cut edges.

He tried searching for Tina Gargullo on Google. But a message popped up along the top of the results. Google asked: Did you mean Tina Gargiulo?

He tried that for two pages, but it seemed like a dead end. Pretty soon, Chris was aimlessly staring out the window at the red, brown, and golden treetops. He was thinking of the other mysterious notes he’d gotten — over the summer, when he’d been a lifeguard at the Lake Forest Park Community Pool.

He’d pedaled his bike three miles to the pool every day. One Tuesday, during a hot, dry spell in late July it was particularly crazy — with some loud, unruly kids and their equally obnoxious mothers, who objected to his tone when he reprimanded their darling little brats over his bullhorn. He was glad for the end of the day, near twilight. The pool was closed, and he washed down the lounge chairs and the deck area with a hose. He looked forward to hanging out with Elvis that night and maybe going to a late movie. After locking up, Chris headed for his bike — the only one still at the bicycle rack outside the chain-link fence behind the pool house.

He stopped abruptly when he saw something white on one side of his handlebars. As he got closer to his bike, he noticed it was a piece of paper, rolled up and fixed on there with a rubber band. He unrolled the paper, and read what was scrawled across it:

Meet me here behind the pool house at 9:00. It’s inportant.

Chris looked up from the note and glanced around the empty parking lot. He figured this was some kind of prank. Someone was screwing around with him, some idiot who didn’t even know how to spell important.

“I don’t have time for this shit,” he muttered to himself. He had no desire to wait around there until nine. He shoved the note inside one of the pockets of his cargo shorts, and forgot about it — until the following night.

At quitting time, he found another note wrapped around his bike’s handlebar — in the same spot as before, by the left-hand grip.

Why didn’t you meet me? I’ll be waiting for you here tomorrow night at 9:00. It’s very, very important we talk. I know you are a nice, thoughtful person, and you will be here.

The next day, as Chris sat on his lifeguard perch — slathered with sunscreen, wearing his pith helmet, sunglasses, and red trunks — he looked down at the crowd around the pool. He wondered who was jerking him around with these weird notes. Why didn’t they just tell him who they were? Was it one of a gaggle of girls who hung out at the pool every day? Did one of them have a crush on him? Maybe he was about to get punked, and they were all in on the joke. Or was it that overly tanned older-woman regular who always looked at him kind of weird behind her designer sunglasses? A bunch of guys his own age hung out at the pool, and he’d had to discipline a few of them from time to time when they acted like jerks. Maybe they were setting him up, so they could beat the crap out of him or something. Finally, there was a guy about twenty or so, who may have been gay — and he was always friendly. Was he the one leaving him these notes?

During his lunch break, Chris went out and checked his bike for another note on the handlebars. But there was nothing. So he ducked into the pool house office and wrote his own note, then secured it with a rubber band to his handlebars. It said:

Who are you?

For the rest of the afternoon, Chris kept checking the crowd to see if anyone was watching him. Near closing, he saw a burgundy-haired girl around his age, hanging outside the chain-link fence — near the pool house. She had that Goth look, and wore a black T-shirt, black jeans, and black wrist-bands. She was so pale — almost sickly looking. And he imagined she had to be sweltering as she stood in the sun in those black clothes. She put a hand up to the other side of the fence, her fingers hanging on the crisscrossed chain links. She stared right at him — to the point that Chris became uncomfortable.

He finally had to look away. A few moments later, when he glanced back toward the pool house again, she was gone.

She reminded him of Mr. Corson’s niece — whatever her name was. It had been months before. Sabrina? No, Serena. He’d been convinced she was the one whispering to him in the men’s room at the funeral parlor during Mr. Corson’s wake. Who else but Serena would have left his lost sunglasses — the pair of Ray-Bans he now wore — on that gate outside Mrs. Corson’s apartment complex? It would have been just like her to plant those strange notes for him.

But it wasn’t Mr. Corson’s niece in the community pool’s parking lot. This girl was taller, and so skinny she looked emaciated.

At closing time, Chris checked his bike, and the note he’d left on the handlebars was gone. Nothing was there in its place. After a bit of deliberation, he jumped on his bike and pedaled home. He thought about driving back to the pool at a quarter to nine, but decided to get together with Elvis instead.

For the next few days, he kept an eye out for that Goth-looking girl. And he always expected to find another note on his bicycle handlebars at quitting time every night.

Pretty soon, Chris forgot about the girl in black. He didn’t see her again until late August — on another hot afternoon. He just happened to glance over toward the pool house from his lifeguard’s perch, and there she stood on the other side of the fence. She was glaring at him. It looked like she was wearing the exact same clothes she’d worn last time. And she looked sick, or drugged out, or both. She seemed to hang on to the fence to keep from collapsing.

Chris grabbed his bullhorn: “Office?” he said, holding his hand up. That was the sign that he needed someone to relieve him. One of his coworkers, Karen Linde, a pretty, college-age blonde with a boyfriend, hurried out of the office. “What’s going on?” she asked.

He climbed down from his post to meet her. “I just need to check on something for a few minutes,” he said distractedly. “Thanks, Karen. Be right back.”

He hurried toward the gate by the pool house. The Goth girl started to back up. She weaved a bit, like she was drunk or about to faint. Chris glanced over his shoulder at Karen, taking his place on the lifeguard’s perch. When he looked forward again, the girl was gone. It was as if she’d just vanished. Chris didn’t have any shoes on, but he ventured out to the parking lot with its hot asphalt and pebbles. He scoped the area for any sign of the girl, but didn’t see her.

Before heading back inside the fenced area, Chris checked his bike. There wasn’t anything on the handlebars.

For the rest of the day, he kept his eyes peeled for the Goth girl. But she never returned. Then at quitting time, he went out to his bike. There wasn’t a note on the handlebars.

But someone had slashed both his tires.

Chris never set eyes on the sickly looking Goth girl again. But he thought about her now. It was happening again. Another strange, anonymous note; and someone had broken into his locker to leave it for him: Ask your stepmother about Tina Gargullo and Nick Sorenson.

Chris couldn’t help thinking this was yet another little mystery that would go unsolved. He wondered what would end up slashed this time.

Hunched in front of the computer monitor, he noticed most of the other students had left. Outside the streetlights were on. He glanced over his shoulder at Mrs. Chertok, who gave him a patient half smile and pointed to her wristwatch. Chris checked his own watch: 5:23. The library was closing in seven minutes.

His fingers started working on the keyboard again. Under the Google subject head, he typed in all three names — Molly Wright, Nick Sorenson, Tina Gargullo — and then pressed ENTER.

The first item that came up didn’t show Molly’s name, and yet Chris somehow knew this was what he was supposed to find:

3 Dead, 5 Wounded in Campus Shooting SpreeThe gunman, Roland Charles Wright, 26, was shot by a security guard. . a teacher, Nick Sorenson, 32, and a cafeteria worker, Tina Gargullo, 20, both died on the scene. Wright fired three rounds into Sorenson . .www.thechicagotribune/news/1302007.html

All he could think about was Molly’s younger brother, Charlie, who was supposed to have committed suicide.

“What?” Molly murmured into her cell phone.

She sat on the edge of the chaise longue in her attic art studio. The door at the bottom of the stairs was closed. Two levels down, on the first floor, Erin was parked in front of the TV in the family room and Chris was on the computer in Jeff’s study. Jeff had asked Molly to take her cell where the kids couldn’t hear her. So she’d come up here.

She’d been on edge most of the day. Jeff had kept asking if she wanted him to cancel his trip to Washington, D.C. But she’d insisted he go, and so he’d gone — at 11:35 this morning. She’d tried to act brave about being alone with the kids so soon after the latest cul-de-sac murders. It wouldn’t be for long. Jeff would be back the day after tomorrow — the same day she’d be seeing her doctor.

Chris had come home late and immediately barricaded himself in Jeff’s study. He’d emerged for dinner: sloppy joes, green beans, and fries in front of a Simpsons rerun in the family room. Molly kept weekday dinners without Jeff casual. During a commercial, Chris announced he was spending tomorrow night at Larry’s place. His mother would be there alone, because Larry was helping chaperone an overnight field trip to Olympia with his daughter’s class.

“I think my mom could use the company,” Chris said, gazing at the TV — and not her. “She shouldn’t have to be alone in that house. You’ll be okay with Erin, won’t you?”

“Of course,” Molly said. “If it’s okay with your dad and mom, that’s fine with me,” Molly continued. “I can drop you off in Bellevue tomorrow afternoon.”

“Can I stay with my mom, too?” Erin asked, almost kicking her TV table.

“That’s fine,” Molly said, with a pale smile.

She wasn’t looking forward to tomorrow night all by herself — with an empty, dark house next door. And while Chris’s reason for leaving her alone seemed rational enough — even sweet, in that he was looking out for his mother — there seemed more to it. Molly felt him pulling away. He’d hardly looked at her all night.

After dinner, Chris called his dad from the phone in the study. He had the door closed. Molly was watching TV with Erin, but she could hear him down the hall murmuring. He raised his voice a few times, but the words were indistinguishable. He was talking in there for twenty minutes, which was something of a record. He and his dad usually kept their phone conversations brief.

Finally, Molly heard the study door click open, and Chris lumbered into the family room with the cordless in his hand. Eyes downcast, he gave her the phone. “Dad wants to talk to you,” he muttered. Then he retreated back to the study and closed the door.

“Erin, honey, could you turn down the TV a bit,” Molly said. Then she spoke into the phone. “Hi, there. .”

“Hi, babe, we need to talk,” Jeff said. “If you can get away from the kids for a few minutes, I’ll call you back on your cell. . ”

It was raining lightly; so instead of stepping outside with her phone, Molly had retreated up to her studio. Jeff had called after only a minute or so — and he’d told her what had been bothering Chris tonight.

“What?” Molly repeated into the cell phone. She got up from the chaise longue and clutched a hand to her stomach. “So that’s why he’s been in your study all night. He’s been holed up in there, looking up articles about my brother. My God, no wonder he can’t bring himself to look at me.”

“I think his biggest concern was making sure I knew,” Jeff said gently.

“So — he just assumed I’d keep something like that from you?” Molly asked. She started pacing around the studio space. “Is that the kind of person he thinks I am?”

“Honey, look at it this way. Together, we kept him in the dark about this for well over a year. You can’t blame him for wanting to check with me to find out how much I know.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll tell you who we can blame for this — Angela!” Molly said, exasperated. “God, she’s a piece of work. Is she so out to get me that she doesn’t give a damn about traumatizing her own son? Just the other day, I was starting to feel sorry for her. I was starting to feel she might be halfway human. And then she turns around and smashes our pumpkins. It doesn’t seem to matter that it broke poor Erin’s heart. And now, she’s pulling this shit with Chris. She’s crazy! Breaking into his locker, leaving notes. . ”

“I’ll talk to her,” Jeff said.

“She’ll just deny it,” Molly shot back. “The same way she denied smashing our pumpkins on Saturday, and then using her old key to get back in here and leave that — that weird smiley-face jack-o-lantern arrangement for me to find on the kitchen counter. I’m sorry, but I’ve had it with her. She’s certifiable, she really is.”

“You’re right, you’re right.” Jeff sighed. “You shouldn’t have to put up with this. I’ll have it out with her tomorrow. The gloves are coming off, I promise. By the way, I told Chris that he and Erin are staying home tomorrow night. You shouldn’t be alone there. Besides, I don’t want them spending any time with Angela until I’ve talked to her. I don’t think she realizes how much she’s hurting her own children in her efforts to hurt us.”

Molly plopped down on the chaise longue again. “No,” she said resolutely into the phone. “I’ll have it out with her. It’s high time I handle this. You’re too nice, Jeff.” She took a deep breath. “I’ll talk to Chris tonight and straighten things out with him. And I’ll talk to Angela tomorrow. And when you come home on Wednesday night, this will all be in the past. . ”

As she assured her husband that all their fears and troubles would soon be behind them, Molly almost believed it herself.

Almost.

There was a knock on his bedroom door.

Chris had been expecting it — and dreading it, too. He’d hoped maybe if he came up here and shut the door, she might not bother him. He really didn’t want to talk to Molly right now. He just couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that her brother had shot all those people in that college cafeteria. One of the articles he’d read online said that Roland Charles Wright fired nineteen shots from a handgun, which meant the son of a bitch probably had to stop and reload while people around him were screaming and dying.

And this creep was his uncle.

No wonder Molly and his dad had kept it a secret.

At his desk, Chris turned his swivel chair. “Yeah, come in,” he grunted.

Molly opened the door. She had a photo album tucked under her arm. Chris had glanced through it one night when he’d been bored and alone in the house. Molly kept it on the bookcase in her art studio — along with those elephant figurines. Chris had been a lot more fascinated by the nudes in her figure-study drawing books than snapshots of Molly’s childhood.

She stepped into the room and set the photo album on his bed. “So — now you know why I don’t talk about my family much.”

He frowned at her. “You told me that your brother committed suicide.”

Molly shrugged. “Well, in a way he did. I don’t think he expected to live through that—nightmare he inflicted on so many people. Anyway, it’s easier for me to tell people he killed himself. Usually it shuts them up and keeps them from asking any more questions — at least out loud.” With a sigh, she sat down at the edge of his bed. “I’m sorry I treated you like just people. Your dad and I should have trusted you with the truth, only — well, it’s been difficult enough for you to get used to me without me dragging my family skeletons out of the closet.”

Chris’s eyes narrowed at her. Family skeletons out of the closet, there she went with another one of her weird expressions. It sounded gay-related, but he wasn’t sure.

She opened the photo album and brought it to him. “That’s Charlie and me when we were about eleven and twelve. . ”

Chris glanced at the photos of two kids, bundled up in jackets, earmuffs, scarves, and boots, playing in the snow. They were building a snowman that was taller than both of them. It looked like a scene from the movie A Christmas Story.

“When I look at these pictures,” Molly said, “I still can’t believe he did what he did. But I’m sure your dad explained to you that Charlie was mentally ill. Anyway, if you have anything you’d like to ask me about my brother or my family, feel free.”

“Is that why you and your mother aren’t close?” Chris asked. “Because your brother shot all those people?”

Molly nodded. “Yes. And it’s a shame, too, because I really miss her. But I guess we’re both having a hard time forgiving each other — and ourselves.”

Chris turned the page in the photo album — to some pictures of Molly on what must have been her thirteenth birthday. At least, in the photos, there was a 1 candle and a 3 candle on the cake. She was kind of gawky looking, with braces and braids. At the dinner table with the cake and the stack of presents, it was just Molly, her brother, and one parent. In some photos, it was the mom, in other photos, the dad. The parents must have taken turns snapping the picture. It was sad. There was no one else at her birthday. And there was no one else playing in the snow with them. “Didn’t you guys have any friends?” he heard himself ask.

Chris noticed the slightly pained look on her face. Then he cleared his throat. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” she murmured. She sat back down on his bed. “Charlie didn’t make friends too easily, and I felt responsible for him. It sort of became my job, my role in the family. Plus, to be honest, I was embarrassed to have people over to the house, because of him. So as freakish as it sounds, I guess the two of us were very close growing up.” She glanced down at the bedspread and smoothed it out with her hand. “You’d think I would have known him a little better, and known what he was capable of, but obviously I didn’t.”

“After it happened, did you ever talk to any of the people he shot?”

She nodded soberly. “I wrote to all of them. A couple of them wrote back. This one woman who was severely wounded, God bless her, she said she’d already forgiven Charlie, and she was praying for me. On the opposite side of that, I visited the mother of the man who was killed, and she spit in my face. I’m not sure if I lost a son, I wouldn’t do the exact same thing.”

Chris said nothing. He was thinking of his visit to Mrs. Corson.

“Anyway—” She sighed. “I just couldn’t stay in Chicago after that. So — I moved to Washington, D.C, and tried to put the past behind me. Then I met your dad, and I fell in love. I guess you know the rest.”

Chris closed her photo album and set it on his desk. “So who do you think broke the lock on my locker and left me that note?”

She glanced down at the carpet and shrugged uneasily. “I–I really can’t say.”

Chris stared at her. He’d thought she was being so honest with him, but now he could see she was holding something back. “You can’t think of anybody? I mean, it’s like they have it out for you or something. Could it be one of the people your brother shot — or a relative of one of them?”

“Well, it happened over three years ago, Chris. I can’t imagine they’d wait this long to try to get back at me.” Molly got to her feet. “Anyway, whoever’s responsible, I hope the only damage they did was to the lock on your locker.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Are we okay, Chris?”

He hesitated, but then nodded apathetically. “Sure.”

She started to bend forward — maybe to kiss him on the cheek or hug him. But he turned away in his chair and reached for the photo album. He handed it to her. “Thanks for letting me see this.”

“Oh, yeah, you bet,” she said awkwardly. Clutching the album to her chest, she backed toward the door. “I–I have a lock on my bike that might fit your locker at school. Remind me to get it for you tomorrow morning, okay? The combination should be easy for you to remember. It’s your dad’s birthday — eight-oh-eight.”

“Thanks, Molly,” he said, unsmiling. “Good night.”

“G’night, Chris,” she said. Then she stepped out to the hallway and closed his door.

Part of him felt bad for not being a little friendlier toward her. But he couldn’t help it. She was covering something up, just as she’d covered up for over a year now the fact that her brother was a murderer. He could tell Molly had a pretty good idea who had broken into his locker and left that note. That same person had probably been watching him all day — maybe even longer. They were screwing around with his head, and he didn’t like it.

And he didn’t like Molly, because she wouldn’t tell him who it might be.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

“Are you crazy?” Angela asked, with a glass of white wine in her hand. They sat in a booth at Palomino in the City Center Building. The elegant restaurant was busy and noisy with the lunch-hour crowd. Gorgeous, opulent Chihuly glass vases were strategically placed between booths; and the wait-staff all wore black pants, white shirts, and ties beneath their aprons.

Angela had been sitting in the booth and sipping her wine when Molly had arrived promptly at one-fifteen. It reminded Molly of a line she’d heard in a gangster movie once, something about always arriving extra early when meeting with the enemy. With her navy-blue dress and pearls, Angela looked like she was going to a wedding. Molly felt underdressed in her black slacks and a sage-colored sweater.

She wished she’d chosen another restaurant for their rendezvous, ideally a cafeteria where diners paid up front. This lunch with Angela promised to be very confrontational, and they’d both be stuck there at the table, hating each other and waiting for the bill.

Right now, Molly was waiting for her Diet Coke. They hadn’t even ordered their food yet, and already things were getting a bit hostile.

“Molly, you’re not making any sense,” Angela said, rolling her eyes. “I mean, really, why in God’s name would I break the lock off Chris’s school locker and leave him some snide note about you? Talk about crazy. It’s as nutty as you accusing me of smashing the pumpkins on your front stoop — and then breaking into the house. I know how much Erin loves Halloween. Why on earth would I want to ruin that for her?”

“Well, if you didn’t do it, who did?” Molly pressed. “Who else has a key to the house?”

Angela leaned forward. “I don’t have a key to the house anymore. I gave it to Jeff when I left. And I don’t know where Chris’s locker is at school. If I was sneaking around the school hallways, don’t you think Chris would have noticed — or one of his friends would have seen me and told him? Why would I do something so silly? If I wanted to tell Chris something, I’d sit down with him and tell him — face-to-face.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Molly countered. “You wouldn’t want your son to know you hired a private detective to look into my family background. So you planted that note in his jacket. You have a history of being underhanded and sneaky and. .”

The waitress returned with her Diet Coke, and Molly fell silent. She worked up a smile, shifted in her seat, and tried to look interested in her menu.

“We still haven’t decided on lunch yet,” Angela told the waitress. “Give us a few minutes.”

“Certainly, take your time,” the waitress said.

Angela waited until the waitress walked away, and then she turned toward Molly. “You know, I’m getting pretty sick of all your accusations,” she said. “And I don’t appreciate the threatening phone calls on my cell, either.”

“What calls?” Molly scowled at her.

“Are you on the level?”

“Yes,” Molly said. “I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”

Angela took a sip of wine. “Someone called me on my cell three or four times this week. It was one of those blocked numbers, and all they said was, ‘You’re going to pay for what you did.’ That wasn’t you?”

Baffled, Molly shook her head.

“It’s a woman’s voice — all raspy and crawly. At first, I thought it was that crazy Cassandra, who Jeff was seeing on the sly while we were married. But then I figured, why would she call me? She’d be calling and harassing you now. So — then I figured you had to be the crank caller.”

“Well, it’s not me,” Molly murmured.

“I have a tough time believing you,” Angela replied. “I mean, who else would be calling me like that? You’re the one accusing me of doing all these bizarre things — things that hurt my own children. It doesn’t make any sense.” She shook her head. “You need help, Molly. I’m serious. Insanity must run in your family.”

The reference to Charlie stung. At the same time, Angela was finally admitting that she knew about him. Molly glared at Jeff’s ex and told herself she wasn’t going to tear up. “Nice, Angela,” she said in a low voice. “Now that you found out from your private detective what my brother did, I suppose from now on you’ll get your little digs in wherever you can. Have you sprung the news on Lynette and Jill yet? Is it going to turn up in one of Courtney Hahn’s texts or Facebook announcements soon?”

Frowning, Angela didn’t say anything for a moment. She glanced down at the tablecloth. “I’m sorry, Molly,” she whispered finally. “I apologize. That was — that was a terrible thing to say. You should know, I haven’t told anyone about your brother.” She sipped her wine, and then shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong, that’s just what I intended to do when I — when I hired a private detective to dig up whatever he could on you. I’d hoped he’d find something to make you look bad, some good dirt I could share with Jeff and your neighbors. I didn’t expect something so — tragic and awful. It made me ashamed that I hired someone in the first place.”

Molly studied her, and as much as she felt sorry for Angela, she didn’t trust her one bit.

“Believe it or not, Molly, I used to be a nice person,” she said. “I think having an unfaithful husband turned me bitter. Maybe you’re luckier than me. Maybe Jeff has changed his ways. I suppose some people can change.” Angela leaned forward. “I’m being honest with you now. So can you return the favor? Tell me the truth about these calls on my cell. You really don’t know anything about them?”

Molly shook her head.

Angela slumped back in the booth. “Damn, I was almost hoping it was you,” she admitted. “Then at least I’d know who was threatening me. I’m a nervous wreck. It’s no help that someone tried to break into Larry’s house two weeks ago. They didn’t get in — at least the police didn’t think so. Nothing was missing. But they’d pried a screen off a kitchen window. Don’t say anything to the kids. I don’t want them worried about me — or about staying there. I thought I’d have to be alone in that house tonight. Larry was supposed to chaperone an overnight in Olympia with Taylor’s class. Thank God it got canceled.”

At that moment, the waitress returned to their booth.

“I’ll have another one of these,” Angela said, pointing to her near-empty wineglass. “And the chop salad, dressing on the side.”

The waitress looked at Molly, who shook her head. “Nothing else for me, thank you.” She had no intention of sticking around.

As the waitress left, Angela nervously drummed her fingertips on the tabletop. “Listen, Molly. Let’s call a truce and put our heads together on this. I didn’t break into Chris’s locker and leave that note. And I didn’t smash the pumpkins on the front stoop or let myself into the house. And you say you’re not the one calling and threatening me. That means someone else is behind all this, some woman — at least it was a woman calling me. Do you think it’s possible somebody is trying to pit us against each other?”

Molly frowned. “For what purpose?”

“I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem to matter to her if my kids get hurt, and that really scares me. We’ve both been married to Jeff — you in the present tense, and me in the past. I wonder if that crazy Cassandra woman is back in his life — or if maybe Jeff has found someone new, and she wants to sit back and watch us scratch each other’s eyes out. I don’t know.”

Shaking her head, Molly grabbed her purse. “Okay, I’ve had enough.” She fished a five out of her wallet and slapped it down on the table. “I’m sick of you implying that Jeff is screwing around on me. I don’t need to hear it — and it’s not true. Of course, the truth and you have always been strangers. Lying seems to come easily to you. . ”

“Now, wait a minute—”

“Screw you, Angela.” She scooted out of the booth. “Last May, you denied over and over again that you’d hired a private detective. And now, you admit you did. You’re a real piece of work. Why should I believe anything you say?”

“Molly, wait!” she said loudly.

A few people at nearby tables stopped and gaped at them. Molly hesitated.

Angela glanced around for a moment, and then she cleared her throat. “I didn’t hire a private detective in May,” she whispered. “I was telling the truth back then.” She nodded at the other side of the booth. “Please, Molly, sit down.”

She didn’t budge. She stood by the booth, scowling at Angela.

Jeff’s ex-wife stared right back at her. “I hired my guy last month,” she explained carefully. “I got the idea after Jeff accused me. But I didn’t act upon it until last month. My guy got all his information off the Internet. It only took him two days. He never went to Chicago.”

Bewildered, Molly sat down at the booth’s edge. “But back in May, who. .”

“That’s just what I’m saying,” Angela whispered. “It’s someone else doing all this.”

Molly shook her head. She felt a little sick.

She had the horrible feeling Angela was telling the truth.

With her tan trench coat draped over the back of her chair, the woman sat at a small table in Palomino. She hadn’t touched the Cobb salad set in front of her ten minutes ago. There wasn’t much chance of anyone recognizing her, but she wore a black pageboy wig just to be on the safe side. She watched the two Mrs. Dennehys talking heatedly in a booth on the other side of the crowded restaurant. She wished she could hear what they were saying.

She wondered if Angela Dennehy realized how pathetic she was. Ray Corson had figured her out immediately. Chris Dennehy’s old guidance counselor had taken some notes after meeting her:

I’m guessing Angela Dennehy was very beautiful once. She still has some panache, but there’s a lot of bitterness in her, and it shows on her face. Clearly, her husband’s womanizing has taken a toll, and she’s trying to turn Chris against him. As difficult as it was for Chris to adjust to his father’s remarrying, it must have been utterly defeating for Chris’s mother. The new Mrs. Dennehy is younger & prettier. Plus she seems like a good person. Chris’s mother can’t be happy about that. I don’t know why she gave up custody of her children, but clearly, she’s doing all she can to poison Chris’s relationship with his dad. It’s horrible to say this, but in many ways, Chris would be better off without her. .

She sipped her merlot, and thought, Not just Chris, the whole world would be better off. .

She was careful not to spill any wine on the small square of cotton material she’d set by her place setting. The little patch had a pattern of tiny blue rosebuds on it. She couldn’t resist gently running her fingertips over the fabric as she focused on Angela Dennehy across the room. She imagined the material wrapped around a little doll with silver-brown hair.

Had Angela noticed yet that her nightgown had a small square cut from the hem? It had been that way for two weeks now.

She thought about what Ray Corson had written in his private journal, after Angela and her friends on Willow Tree Court had waged their campaign against him:

Molly Dennehy handled things rather quietly & it might have stayed under the radar. But the former Mrs. Dennehy has really gone on the warpath. I wonder how much of her animosity toward me is based on genuine concern for her son. Or is it a means for Angela Dennehy to reestablish her maternal turf & show up her successor as an ineffectual & incompetent mother? I used to feel sorry for Angela Dennehy, but not anymore. .

The woman carefully folded the small patch cut from Angela Dennehy’s nightgown. She slipped it inside a little plastic bag and stashed it into her purse. She gazed over at the two Mrs. Dennehys again.

She decided that Ray Corson was a better person than her. She never felt sorry for Angela Dennehy. In fact, it gave her great satisfaction telling Angela over the phone that she was going to pay for what she’d done.

The digital clock on her nightstand read 1:42 A.M. Molly was pretty certain both Chris and Erin were asleep. She was the only one hearing the sounds of the house settling and that one tree branch scraping against the bathroom window screen every time the wind kicked up. She pulled the sheets up around her neck and rolled over to face the bedroom door. The glow from Erin’s Cinderella night-light spilled beyond her room, bathing the hallway in dim blue shadows.

Molly thought about how she’d given away all of Charlie’s things to charity — except for a dozen of the two hundred elephant figurines he’d collected in his lifetime. Those were the only things from her past that she wanted to hold on to.

But now someone had dug everything up again. She’d thought Angela was behind it. She’d thought Jeff’s ex was responsible for all the recent strange occurrences. But it was someone else.

Molly had a feeling they were just getting started.

The last thing on her mind right now was the Cul-de-sac Killer.

In a split-level home on a Bellevue cul-de-sac called Alder Court, another woman, a year older than Molly, was also lying in bed alone. Her husband was out of town on business, too. The pretty redhead named Paulette LaBlanc had two children asleep down the hall from her, Matt, six, and Brendan, three. Brendan was getting over a cold.

After putting the kids to bed, Paulette had caught up on some editing she’d been contracted to do for Boeing. Then she’d made the mistake of watching the eleven o’clock news. They’d released one of those creepy composite sketches of a “person of interest” spotted Thursday night near Laurel Lane in Federal Way, where those three teenagers were slaughtered. The man they sought had been seen emerging from a silver Honda Civic. He was about six feet tall, approximately one hundred eighty pounds, between thirty and forty years old, and had thinning brown hair. He was wearing a tan jacket. The sketch showed a cold-eyed man with thin lips and a very high forehead. The news segment featured a brief clip of paramedics at night carrying one of the covered corpses from the house — amid swirling police lights and popping flashes.

Paulette was kicking herself for watching the news story. As she tried to sleep, she kept seeing the cold-eyed man in that police sketch again. She imagined getting out of bed and finding him in her hallway. Stop it, she told herself. She and the kids were safe. She’d locked up and double-checked all the windows downstairs. She even had a little canister of pepper-spray on her nightstand — within reach. Yet Paulette still felt on edge. She kept tossing and turning. She thought about taking a sleeping pill. But what if Brendan woke up coughing again — as he had last night? She’d given him two spoonfuls of children’s cough syrup, and took him into the bathroom, where she let the hot water go full blast until the place was like a steam room. She’d lowered the toilet seat lid and sat there with him in her lap, telling him a story until he’d stopped coughing and fallen asleep again.

If she took a pill, and he needed her again tonight, she wouldn’t be able to wake up — much less function.

She desperately needed her sleep, too. Matt would be up for school in less than five hours. Plus she still had eighty-seven pages to edit, and it was due in two days.

As she lay there in bed, Paulette tried to assure herself that the Cul-de-sac Killer couldn’t possibly come to her house tonight. After all, she’d just watched that story on the news. It would be way too much of a coincidence if he broke into their home tonight. Her being scared was her insurance that it wouldn’t really happen. It was like taking an umbrella outside with her to make sure it wouldn’t rain.

As Paulette drifted off to sleep, she realized that kind of logic made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

“Mom? Mom, wake up!” Matt whispered.

Paulette sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes. Her son was at her bedside in his Pirates of the Caribbean pajamas, doing a little dance like he had to go to the bathroom. She glanced over at the clock on her nightstand: 3:21 A.M. “Honey, what’s going on?” she asked, her head in a fog. “Is it Brendan?”

“There’s a man in our room,” he said in a scared, tiny voice.

Suddenly, Paulette was wide awake. “What?”

“I saw him sneak in, and now he’s hiding in there,” Matt said.

Paulette grabbed the pepper spray off her nightstand and climbed out of bed. She was wearing one of her husband’s Tshirts and a pair of panties. Matt clung on to the hem of her T-shirt as she walked across the room. “It’s okay, Matt,” she said, trying to act brave for him. Yet her heart was racing. “You probably just had a bad dream. And sometimes they seem so real, I know. . ”

Pausing in her doorway, Paulette reminded herself that Matt recently had monsters under the bed, clowns hiding in his closet, and a vampire outside his window. Still, she couldn’t help wondering, What if it’s real this time?

He hovered beside her, whimpering. She could feel him shaking.

“Is Brendan asleep?” she whispered.

“I don’t know,” Matt whined. “I couldn’t see him. The man was standing between our beds.”

The very notion sent a chill racing through her. Suddenly, Paulette couldn’t get her breath. She started shaking now, too. She thought about telling Matt to go lock himself in her bathroom. But that might just scare him even more.

“Brendan, honey?” she called nervously. She switched on the hallway light.

There was no response. Her hands trembling, Paulette took the cap off the pepper spray. She padded down the hall with Matt trailing after her. He still clutched the bottom of her oversized T-shirt. She stepped across the threshold to her sons’ room and flicked on the light switch.

She stared down at Brendan in his bed. He stirred and coughed a little, but he didn’t awaken.

Paulette let out a sigh, and put the cap back on the pepper spray. She glanced around the room — with the Mariners, Seahawks, and Sonics posters on the walls and the matching Transformers covers on the beds. The toys and books on their bookshelves were undisturbed, and the goldfish were peacefully swimming around their bowl on Matt’s desk.

“No one’s in here, honey,” Paulette whispered. “Now, it’s late—”

“Check behind the door!” he cried.

“Hush, you’ll wake Brendan,” she said quietly. Obliging him, she peeked behind the door, then half closed it — so he could see no one was hiding behind it. “Okay?”

“What about under the bed?” he whispered.

With a sigh, she got down on her knees, and lifted the dust ruffle. “Candy wrappers. Have you been eating candy in bed?”

“Just on Halloween,” he murmured, sheepishly.

Paulette gathered up the Reese’s and Hershey’s wrappers, and tossed them in the trash pail by Matt’s desk. “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“Into bed now, c’mon,” she whispered. “You have school in a few hours.”

Matt climbed under the covers, and she switched off the light. Paulette checked on Brendan again, feeling his forehead to make sure he wasn’t running a fever. Then she came over to Matt and tucked him in.

“Could you check the closet, Mom?” he asked in a hushed voice.

Paulette hesitated for a second. Suddenly, she was scared again. She glanced across the dark bedroom at the closed closet door — with a poster of the Seahawks symbol on it. The boys had a fairly large closet. She couldn’t help thinking about the Cul-de-sac Killer. He left the bodies of his victims in closets. Was that where he liked to hide, too?

She took a deep breath and moved across the room. She took the cap off the pepper spray again, then reached for the doorknob with her other hand. The hinges squeaked as she opened the door. In front of her, she could barely make out the clothes on hangers on each side of the dark closet. They were just black, bulky shapes. Her hand waved at the air as she blindly reached for the pull-string to the overhead light. At any minute, she expected someone to grab her wrist.

She found the string and pulled it. The closet light went on. Paulette glanced around. “It’s all clear in here, honey. Nothing to worry about,” she announced — to both her son and herself.

Paulette kissed Matt good night, and he asked if she could leave the hallway light on. “No problem,” she whispered. “Now, get to sleep — and no candy in bed.”

Paulette figured she wasn’t going to fall asleep now. Her heart was still pounding furiously. Maybe a hit of brandy and about fifteen minutes of infomercials would calm her a bit.

She headed downstairs, and checked the front door dead bolt again. In the kitchen, she tested the back door. It was still locked. She switched on the TV in the family room, and glimpsed some before-and-after photos of a middle-aged woman whose crow’s-feet, eye bags, and turkey neck had miraculously vanished.

Paulette set the pepper spray on the kitchen counter, and she poured some brandy into a jelly glass, filling it halfway. She took a belt. It burned a little, but she immediately felt better. How did she let herself get so scared?

She glanced out the kitchen window — at her neighbor’s house, a two-story Colonial. The lights were on. People were still up next door in Larry’s house. If she’d known that, she might not have been so nervous earlier.

Standing at the window, Paulette took another swig of brandy. She was wondering if Larry’s girlfriend Angela had her two kids over tonight — the sweet little girl and that cute teenager. Was he the one who was up so late?

But it wasn’t just one window with the light on.

“Oh, Jesus, all the lights are on,” she whispered.

The jelly glass slipped out of her grasp and broke on the floor. But Paulette didn’t look down at it.

She was staring at a tall, shadowy figure darting past the lights from Larry’s front window.

He was running away from the house.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

When the phone rang, Molly automatically looked at the digital clock on the microwave oven. She wondered who would be calling at 7:04 A.M.

In her T-shirt, sweatpants, and thick wool socks, she was at the stove, craving a verboten cup of coffee and heating up some SpaghettiOs for Erin’s lunch thermos. Both Chris and Erin were up and getting dressed. In about fifteen minutes, they’d be eating their cereal at the breakfast table, and the TV in the family room would be blaring. Molly had been cherishing the quiet — until the damn phone rang.

She thought about screening the call, but figured it might be Jeff. He was due back from D.C. late tonight. Maybe he was getting an earlier flight.

Without looking at the caller ID, Molly snatched up the phone on the third ring. “Yes, hello?”

“Is this Molly?” asked the woman on the other end of the line.

“Yes. Who—”

“Molly, this is Trish, Angela’s sister,” she explained hurriedly. “I need to speak with Jeff.”

“I’m sorry, Trish,” she replied, a bit mystified. She’d heard both Chris and Erin talk about their Aunt Trish, but Molly had never spoken to her before. “Jeff’s out of town. He’s in Washington, D.C. He’s due back tonight. Can I give him a message?”

There was silence on the other end.

“Trish?” Molly asked.

“Angela was killed last night,” she said in a shaky voice. “She was murdered — along with Larry and his daughter. The police say it’s one of those cul-de-sac killings.”

“What?” Molly murmured. “Good Lord, no. . ”

She told herself it was a joke — or maybe she hadn’t heard Trish right. But she listened to the quiet sobbing on the other end of the line. Her legs suddenly felt wobbly, and she put a hand on the kitchen counter to brace herself. “Trish, I–I’m so sorry. . ”

“Listen, could you track down Jeff and let him know?” she asked. “You — you’ll have some police coming by this morning. I’ll try to make it over there later in the afternoon to see Chris and Erin. Tell them I love them. . ”

“Oh, Trish, I’m so sorry,” she repeated, a hand on her heart. “I just had lunch with Angela yesterday. I can’t believe it.”

Angela’s sister was sobbing on the other end of the line. “I have to go,” she said. Then she hung up.

Dazed, Molly listened to the line go dead. She finally clicked off, and then dialed Jeff’s cell number. She started pacing back and forth in the kitchen. Angela’s children were upstairs. How was she going to tell them their mother was dead?

Jeff wasn’t picking up. It went to voice mail. Molly impatiently waited for the beep. “Hi, honey, it’s me,” she said, her mouth suddenly dry. “Can you call me as soon as you get this? It — it’s very important, okay? Thanks. Bye.”

Even though she’d worked there for nearly two years, she couldn’t remember the number for the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C. So she retreated to Jeff’s study, got online, and found the number off the Hilton website. From the cordless phone in his study, she called the hotel and asked for Jeff Dennehy’s room.

It took the operator a minute. “Could you spell that for me, please?”

Molly spelled it out. “He’s there for a pharmaceutical convention,” she said.

There was another silent lapse. “We don’t show a Jeff Dennehy staying here. And we don’t have anything on our schedule this week for any pharmaceutical or medical groups. Are you sure you have the right Hilton? This is the Capital Hilton on Sixteenth Street Northwest.”

“Yes, that’s the one I want. I—”

Molly heard a beep on the line, the call-waiting signal. “Just a second, please. .” She glanced at the caller ID screen and saw Jeff’s cell number. She put the receiver back to her ear. “Never mind, I’ve got him on the other line right now. Thank you.”

As she clicked on the call-waiting button, she heard one of the kids coming down the stairs. “Jeff?” she whispered into the phone.

“What’s going on? You sounded pretty grim on that message. Are the kids okay?”

Molly hesitated. She could hear the TV go on in the family room. “The kids are okay — for now,” she said carefully. “It’s Angela, honey. Trish just called. Angela’s dead. She and Larry and his daughter were murdered last night. The police — they think it’s a cul-de-sac killing.”

She heard a sigh on the other end of the line. “Oh, my God. .”

“I think the police are supposed to be over here pretty soon,” Molly continued. “I just got off the phone with Trish about five minutes ago. I haven’t said anything to the kids yet. . ”

“Molly!” Erin yelled from the kitchen. “My SpaghettiOs are burning! And I can’t reach the Cocoa Puffs!”

She turned and saw Chris treading down the front stairs with his backpack slung over his shoulder. He wore a wrinkled blue shirt and jeans. He glanced at her. He must have seen something was wrong from the expression on her face. “Is that Dad?” he asked.

With the phone to her ear, she nodded. “Chris, could you do me a favor? Could you turn off the stove in the kitchen, and move the pan? And then could you get Erin her cereal, please? I’ll be there in just a second.”

He frowned at her. “Is Dad okay?”

She felt like such a coward, but she just nodded. She waited until Chris headed toward the kitchen before she got back on the line with Jeff. “Honey, are you still there?”

She heard muffled crying on the other end of the line. She swallowed hard. “Jeff, honey, what do you want me to do?”

“There are Snap, Crackle, and Pop pencil pals inside this unopened box of Rice Krispies,” Chris announced as he sat down at the breakfast table with his little sister. “I’ll trade you them for the remote.”

Erin thought about it for a moment. He’d already poured her a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, and she was watching some inane preteen situation-comedy on ABC Family or the Disney Channel, he wasn’t sure. He just knew that all the kids looked like catalog models and none of them could act worth shit.

“ ’Kay,” she said, at last. She set the remote on the lazy Susan and gave it a gentle spin. Then she went back to eating her Cocoa Puffs.

“Thanks,” Chris said, grabbing the remote. He switched over to news for the latest sports.

He was trying to feel normal again after all the weirdness that went down the day before yesterday. He’d already replaced the combination lock on his locker. He’d had no desire to borrow Molly’s bike lock. The less he had to do with Molly right now, the better. He just couldn’t get over the fact that her brother had shot those people.

He really wished he’d been able to get out of the house and away from her for an evening. Apparently Larry and Taylor had canceled their field trip, so his mom hadn’t been alone last night after all.

Right now Molly was in the study on the phone with his dad, whispering and acting weird.

Chris poured himself some Rice Krispies, and then fished the little packet of pencil pals out of the box. “There you go, kitten, knock yourself out,” he said, pushing the packet across the table at his little sister.

“Thanks, Chris!” she replied. She ripped the packet open with her teeth.

He was reaching for the milk to pour over his cereal when he heard the newscaster on TV. “Breaking News this morning from a cul-de-sac in Bellevue,” a pretty Latino reporter announced grimly. Dressed in a red coat, she stood in front of a swarm of police cars with their lights flashing. They partially blocked any view of the house in the distance. “Three people are dead in what police sources here say has all the earmarks of another cul-de-sac killing. The identities of the three victims are being withheld for now, but I can tell you that two of the victims are adults — one male and one female. And the third victim is a teenage girl. The last time the Cul-de-sac Killer struck, three teens were slain in Federal Way. This is a quiet street in a family neighborhood—”

Chris hit the mute button. He didn’t want his little sister traumatized by this grisly news report. He was about to switch channels when he glanced across the table at Erin. She didn’t seem to understand the gravity of the news story. Smiling, she scratched the top of her blond head, and then pointed at the TV screen. “Look! Isn’t that Uncle Larry’s house?”

Chris turned toward the TV. From the roof and the location of the trees, the house behind that pretty reporter might have indeed been Larry’s. But it couldn’t be. No, so many of the houses in those Bellevue subdivisions looked alike.

Yet Chris unsteadily got to his feet. He looked at the TV, and that roof of that two-story Colonial — so much like the one he’d slept under every other weekend for the last few months. He kept thinking of the reporter’s description of the Cul-de-sac Killer’s latest casualties: a teenage girl, and two adults — one male, one female.

Chris told himself that they would have heard from the police by now. But then, that was why the names were being withheld. The families still didn’t know.

With the sound muted on the TV, he could hear Molly down the hall in the study, whispering to his dad on the phone. He couldn’t make out the words, but she sounded so worried — even panicked, as if she might have just heard some disturbing news.

Chris started toward the front of the house. He saw Molly step out of his dad’s study. She held the cordless phone to her ear. Biting her lip, she gazed at him with pity. “Honey,” she whispered into the cordless. “I’m going to put Chris on.”

He numbly stared at his stepmother. He couldn’t move.

She handed him the phone. “Chris, your dad needs to talk to you.”

For the next few hours, all Molly could think about was holding on until Jeff came home. It was a grueling, sad nightmare. When she and Chris had sat down with Erin to tell her that her mother was dead, the six-year-old didn’t just cry, she shrieked at the top of her voice — as if she were being attacked. It seemed to take forever for Chris to calm her down. Every time Molly even touched her, Erin went into a fit — maybe it was because Molly had been the one who had actually told her that her mother had been killed. Chris rocked her to sleep in the rocking chair in her room, the same chair that had once been her mother’s.

Two plainclothes police detectives arrived around ninethirty. Molly had barely enough time to run a brush through her hair and throw on some jeans and a sweater. Chris talked with them at the breakfast table. Meanwhile Molly made them coffee and screened calls. The phone wouldn’t stop ringing. One of the calls was from her doctor’s office. She was being charged for missing her appointment. She didn’t bother arguing with them.

Another call was from Lynette. Apparently Trish had her number, too. Lynette said she was coming over with some lunch for them in a couple of hours, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Molly didn’t argue with her, either.

Chris told the police that he hadn’t seen his mother in over a week. He hadn’t noticed anything unusual the last time he’d stayed at Larry’s house. Once the detectives were finished with their questions, Chris retreated to his room and shut the door.

Molly was so frazzled by the time she sat down with the two cops, her thinking was muddled. She told them about her lunch with Angela the day before. She thought they’d want to know about the strange, threatening calls Angela had gotten on her cell — from that woman. But she didn’t know much beyond what Angela had told her. To Molly, it seemed totally unrelated to the cul-de-sac murders. She’d read all there was to read on those killings, and at no time was it mentioned that any of the victims had been threatened beforehand.

The police asked if Angela had mentioned any other strange goings-on. Molly remembered the attempted breakin at Larry’s house two weeks ago. “She said the kitchen window screen had been removed,” Molly recalled. “But it didn’t look like anything was missing.”

The police already knew about it. Angela and Larry had reported the incident twelve days before.

The two detectives said they wanted to talk to Jeff as soon as he came home. His flight was due into SeaTac at 3:55. “Where’s Mr. Dennehy flying in from?” one of the cops asked.

“Washington, D.C.,” Molly replied. “He’s been there since Monday.”

“Where was he staying?”

“The Capital Hilton,” Molly answered. But then she remembered talking to the hotel operator earlier. Molly watched the police detective writing it down, and decided not to say anything.

The cops said they’d be back to talk with Jeff.

As Molly showed them to the front door, she glanced outside. Two TV news vans were parked in front of the house. No one had rung the bell yet. But the vans had attracted a few onlookers. Three strange cars were parked on the block, and about a dozen people stood in the middle of the street, gawking at the news vans and the house. An older couple had their bikes with them. They must have been out for a ride when they spotted the TV news trucks.

Half hiding behind the door, Molly watched the reporters and cameramen rush out of their vans to interview the two policemen.

Molly noticed yet another van crawling down the cul-de-sac, but this one was a moving van.

The vehicle made an incessant beeping noise over a chorus of hissing and grinding as it backed into Kay’s old driveway next door. Molly couldn’t help thinking that the new neighbor had picked one hell of a lousy day to move in.

The police hadn’t been gone five minutes when Lynette Hahn came by with Courtney, Carson, and Dakota in tow. She’d pulled the kids out of school so they could help Chris and Erin through this awful tragedy. Just in time for lunch, she’d also brought along enough McDonald’s to feed a small army. It was actually a good call. With a Happy Meal and Lynette’s bratty kids to distract her, Erin seemed to perk up a little. She and the little monsters parked themselves in front of some cartoons on the Disney Channel.

Chris remained barricaded in his room. He didn’t want to see anyone — including Courtney. So she spent most of the time sitting at the breakfast table, sipping a milk shake and texting friends on her iPhone.

Molly never thought she’d be grateful for Lynette Hahn’s company, but she was. Lynette helped screen the calls, and twice she chased away reporters who dared to ring the doorbell. And having not had a scrap of food all morning — when she was eating for two — Molly was glad for the cheeseburger and fries. She devoured them.

She was able to steal a moment and brought some of the food up to Chris’s room. She gently knocked on his door.

“Could you go away, please?” Chris called, in a voice hoarse from crying.

“I know you don’t want to see anybody,” Molly said, leaning close to his door. “But you need to eat something. There’s a double cheeseburger, large fries, and a Coke for you. I’m leaving it outside the door here.”

He didn’t respond.

“Chris?” she said. “I just want you to know, you were so good with Erin this morning. The way you took care of her and got her to calm down, I think your mom would have been very proud of you.”

“Thank you, Molly,” he said, still raspy. “Can you leave me alone now?”

“Sure, Chris,” she said. Then she left the McDonald’s bag and the Coke by his door.

In the upstairs hallway, she could hear Lynette down in the family room, chiding one of her children: “If you want to make yourself sick to your stomach with even more candy and more soda pop, Dakota, you just go right ahead.”

Molly felt a little sick herself. Either she’d eaten that burger too fast, or the baby was stirring things up. She hurried into the master bathroom and stood over the toilet for a few minutes, hoping the nausea would pass. As she tentatively stood there, Molly began to weep. She wasn’t sure why. She’d never liked Angela very much.

She remembered Angela telling her at lunch yesterday how scared she was. She’d talked about calling a truce. The person calling Angela must have been responsible for hiring the investigator in Chicago, for the smashed pumpkins, and for Chris’s broken locker.

Molly hadn’t told the policemen about any of those things. They just didn’t seem to have anything to do with the cul-de-sac killings.

But maybe they did.

Suddenly, she felt her stomach churn, and she thought for certain she was going to throw up. But she held back and took a few deep breaths. The awful sensation passed — for now.

When she came back out to the hallway, she smiled a little. The McDonald’s bag outside Chris’s door wasn’t there anymore. At least he was eating something.

In Erin’s room, the bed covering was askew. Molly stepped in to straighten the quilt on the bed. Leaning beside Angela’s rocker, she glanced out the window — at the crowd in front of the house. Now there were three TV news vans, a cop car, and about thirty people just gaping at the house.

Next door, movers were unloading furniture from the van and hauling it into Kay’s old house.

Natalie, in her usual running attire, jogged down the block, passing people on her way back to the Nguyens’ house. Her dark blond hair, in a ponytail, slapped back and forth between her shoulder blades. She barely slowed down to see what everyone was gawking at.

Down the block at Hank and Frank’s old place, Jill’s car was parked in the driveway. In a first-floor window, Molly could see the flickering light of a big-screen TV.

Stepping away from the window, she put a hand on the back of Angela’s rocking chair. Molly remembered something else the now-dead Mrs. Dennehy had said to her yesterday.

“Do you think it’s possible somebody is trying to pit us against each other?”

She easily blended in with the rest of the crowd loitering in front of the Dennehys’ house. Another patrol car had come up the street and parked beside the TV news vehicles. For a while, the only thing the crowd had to look at was the furniture being unloaded from the moving van parked next door. But now, Lynette Hahn was giving them a show.

Standing on the Dennehys’ front stoop as if the place were hers, Lynette held her youngest child, Dakota, in her arms while the TV news cameras rolled. “Angela was a wonderful mother, a great neighbor, and my dear, dear friend,” she announced with tears in her eyes. She patted Dakota on the back. “It’s such a tragedy, and so senseless. Two of the nicest kids you’d ever want to meet are now without a mother. We’re on a cul-de-sac here. Angela moved from one cul-de-sac to another. You never think anything like this will happen to someone you know, someone you care about and love. But it just goes to show — until this maniac is caught, none of us who live on a cul-de-sac in the Seattle area is safe. . ”

The crowd seemed pretty mesmerized. But then, what did they know, a bunch of idiots who had nothing better to do than follow TV news vans around?

They had no idea what Lynette Hahn was really like.

Courtney Hahn’s former guidance counselor at the high school had referred to Lynette as a “royal pain in the ass.” She used to phone Ray Corson constantly with complaints — and at his home, too. Why wasn’t her daughter given the solo in the school concert? How could the coach let Courtney sit on the bench for the entire first half of the volleyball game? Why did she only get a C+ on that English literature test?

Mr. Corson wrote in his notes after a parent-teacher conference with Lynette Hahn, to which she’d brought along Dakota:

For someone who considers herself Supermom, she does very little to keep her kids in line. Dakota was a terror throughout the whole session. Lynette Hahn is one of those parents who suffers under the delusion that everyone should think their children are cute. It’s as if the rest of the world has to make concessions for her coddled, bratty kids. No wonder Courtney’s so screwed up and selfish. Lynette Hahn’s brand of motherhood is helping to turn out a generation of spoiled snotty kids with an exaggerated sense of entitlement and no accountability. .

Ray Corson wrote about the only time he met Courtney’s dad. It was another parent — teacher conference:

I don’t like Jeremy Hahn at all. The guy is very arrogant. He had his BlackBerry on throughout the entire parent-teacher session. He made one call and took two — neither of which were related to his business or his daughter. For one of those calls, he was talking about getting tickets to a Mariners game. Courtney once told me that she thought her father cared more about his fancy car, his clothes, and his high-tech toys than he did for his family. I don’t think she was exaggerating about him, and that’s very disturbing. It gives credence to the more sordid things she has told me about her father — like his fondness for teen porn (she claims he has a collection of adult DVDs hidden in the back of a cabinet in his study), and the way he sometimes looks at her girlfriends. Courtney said her mother has totally blinded herself to it. I thought she might be making it up to get my attention & sympathy. Now, after meeting the SOB, I’m not so sure. .

She observed Lynette Hahn in front of the Dennehys’ door, holding her daughter in her arms. “I’m just stunned,” she told the TV newspeople, her voice choked with emotion. “I’m overwhelmed with grief. . ”

Watching Lynette in action, she wondered how the self-delusional Supermom would handle the press next time — when they’d be gathering outside her door.

Molly didn’t say anything.

She just slumped back in her chair and smiled at Jeff, who sat beside her at the head of the kitchen table. She held on to his hand.

On the countertop behind her was a large Pagliacci Pizza box with one piece of discarded crust in it and an emptiedout salad container. Chris and Erin had cleared their plates away. Erin was now parked in front of the TV in the family room. Chris was upstairs in his room with Elvis, who had stopped by after dinner.

It almost seemed like a normal night.

Jeff looked tired. He was finishing off his second glass of merlot. As much as she could have used a nice, big glass of wine, Molly had insisted she was in the mood for a 7UP. “I get the worst headache after drinking wine lately,” she’d said. And Jeff had seemed to buy the excuse.

Apparently, Jeff had managed to catch an earlier plane. There had been some confusion when the cops had gone to meet him at the gate at SeaTac for his original 3:55 flight. But it all got straightened out, and the police detectives interviewed Jeff in the living room for ninety minutes.

While the police were still talking to Jeff, Lynette and her tribe headed home. Molly thanked her for the lunch, for talking to the TV reporters, and for being such a good neighbor. She felt beholden to Lynette — until she caught her little speech on the 5:30 news. It was tough not to take it personally when Lynette said, “Two of the nicest kids you’d ever want to meet are now without a mother.”

The TV news vans and the crowd of onlookers had dispersed a while ago. It was quiet out there now.

Molly didn’t want to talk. She just wanted to sit and hold Jeff’s hand.

The doorbell rang.

Molly closed her eyes. “Oh, go away,” she muttered.

Jeff sighed, and got to his feet. “I’ll get it. You stay put.”

But Molly followed him into the front hallway and watched him open the door.

Chet Blazevich stood on the front stoop in jeans, a rumpled shirt, a jacket, and a tie. His short brown hair was a bit messy. He had his wallet out with his police ID to show Jeff. “Mr. Dennehy? I’m Detective Blazevich, Seattle Police.”

Molly could tell from his stance that Jeff was tensing up. “Oh, c’mon, give me a break,” he grumbled. “It’s been a lousy day, and I’ve already spent two hours talking to you guys.”

“My sympathies, Mr. Dennehy,” he said. Then he glanced over Jeff’s shoulder, and shyly smiled at her. “Actually, I was hoping to talk with you, Molly. It would just be a few minutes.”

“Molly?” Jeff repeated, obviously confused.

Molly stepped toward the door, and put her hand on Jeff’s shoulder. “Detective Blazevich and I are veterans of two Neighborhood Watch potlucks at Lynette Hahn’s house, which makes us like war buddies. Please, come in, Detective.”

Jeff and the handsome cop awkwardly shook hands. Molly led him into the living room and offered him something to drink. All the while she wondered why he wanted to talk with her.

“No, thanks, I’m fine,” Chet Blazevich said. “I just had a cup of coffee at the Hahns’ house.” He sat down in the easy chair while Molly and Jeff settled back on the sofa in front of the picture window. She put her hand on Jeff’s knee and watched the detective take a little notebook and pen from his inside jacket pocket.

“Mrs. Hahn called me,” he continued. “She wanted to tell me some things she thought might be relevant to our investigation into the deaths of the first Mrs. Dennehy, her companion, and his daughter.”

“Angela went back to using her maiden name, which was Dwyer,” Jeff said coolly.

Chet Blazevich nodded. “Thank you. Mrs. Hahn was telling me about some phone calls that Ms. Dwyer had been getting.” He turned to Molly. “Apparently, Angela thought you might have been the one calling her.”

“Yes, I know,” Molly said. “I had lunch with Angela yesterday, and we straightened that out. I didn’t make those calls. But I know Angela was concerned, because the calls were sort of threatening. I discussed this already with the two policemen who were here earlier today.”

“Mrs. Hahn said that Angela had hired a private detective to uncover some information on your family, your brother in particular.” He glanced at his notes and winced a little. “I haven’t verified this yet, but according to Mrs. Hahn, Angela said your brother was responsible for shooting several people in a college in Evanston, Illinois.”

“Oh, shit,” Molly muttered angrily. She rubbed her forehead. She could still see Angela sitting across from her at their booth in the restaurant, a hand on her heart, so sincere: “You should know, I haven’t told anyone about your brother.”

She didn’t want to think ill of the dead, but what a goddamn liar.

“Mrs. Dennehy?” the handsome cop asked, leaning forward.

“Nothing,” Molly muttered. “Yes, that’s true about my brother. He was mentally ill. He shot seven people in a cafeteria at a community college in Evanston. Two of those people died. Angela led me to believe she hadn’t shared that information with anyone else.”

“Mrs. Hahn said you accused Angela of breaking into her son’s school locker and—”

“Yes, yes, I did, I accused her of that,” Molly said, nodding emphatically. “And I accused her of smashing some pumpkins on our front stoop. I’m sure Lynette told you about that, too. During our lunch together, Angela claimed she didn’t do any of it. And I believed her. Though now, I’m not so sure.”

Beside her, Jeff restlessly shifted on the sofa. “I don’t understand the purpose of these questions.”

“I’m just trying to verify what Mrs. Hahn told me,” Blazevich said.

“Well, I’m verifying it,” Molly said edgily. “And if Mrs. Hahn told you that Angela and I really didn’t like each other, I’ll verify that, too.”

“What is this anyway?” Jeff asked hotly. “Is my wife a suspect or something? Do you think she’s in cahoots with the Cul-de-sac Killer?”

Chet Blazevich shook his head. “No, Mr. Dennehy. I’m just trying to cover all the bases here. I didn’t mean to upset you folks, especially after what you’ve been through today. I just have one more question, and then I’ll be out of your hair.”

“Go ahead,” Molly said with a sigh.

He looked at Jeff. “Where were you when you got the news about your ex-wife?”

Jeff hesitated.

Molly impatiently chimed in: “He’s been in Washington, D.C., since Monday. He was staying at the Capital Hilton. I already told that to the two policemen I spoke with this afternoon.”

Nodding, the handsome cop quickly got to his feet. “Well, thank you, Mr. Dennehy. . Mrs. Dennehy. Once again, I’m sorry to have intruded on you during this difficult time.” He stuffed his pen and notebook inside his jacket pocket.

Molly walked him to the door. “It sounds crazy, but should I be worried? Do the police really think I had anything to do with—”

“No, not at all,” he assured her. “Like I say, I’m just following up on things.”

Molly nodded, and opened the door for him. “Well, I apologize if I got a little snippy. It’s been a long, tough day, and I’m a bit on edge. You’re just doing your job.”

“You shouldn’t apologize,” Blazevich said with a kind smile.

“You’re damn right she shouldn’t apologize,” Jeff said, standing behind her.

Chet Blazevich nodded at him sheepishly. Then he turned and retreated down the walkway.

The November night air was chilly, but Molly remained in the doorway with her arms folded. Behind her, Jeff put his hands on her shoulders. She reached up and took hold of his hand. “You know, his last question reminded me of something,” she said. “It’s weird, but this morning, when you didn’t pick up on your cell right away, I phoned the Capital Hilton. The operator said you weren’t registered there.”

“Oh, I should have let you know, this thing was at the other Hilton,” Jeff said.

“Well, I’ve told the police you were at the Capital Hilton. You better let them know I had it wrong.” She sighed. “That’s all we need, one more thing to make us look suspicious.”

Jeff gave her shoulders a squeeze. “Like Blazevich said, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. C’mon, let’s get inside. You’ll catch your death standing here.”

“In a minute,” Molly murmured. She lingered in the doorway while Jeff headed toward the kitchen.

A cool breeze whipped through her, and she shuddered. Rubbing her arms, Molly watched the cop walk down the darkened cul-de-sac to his Toyota Camry. It was parked in front of Lynette’s house.

There was room for only one car in his two-car garage. Every time he opened the big, automatic door, his neighbors probably caught a glimpse of the storage unit he’d built in there. One half of his garage had been boarded up from floor to ceiling. The reinforced, unpainted thick sheets of wood created another room — accessible through a thick door that had a padlock on it.

He’d made the most of the small space, creating a maze of closets and cabinets — most of them with padlocks on the doors. In one closet, he had jumpsuits and uniforms of every kind: janitor, paramedic, cable service, pest-control service, UPS delivery, and mailman — to name a few. There was also a cabinet exclusively dedicated to holding coils of rope, and duct tape — though lately, he’d come to rely on torn-up bedsheets in lieu of rope. Watching people rip apart the sheets from their linen closets to make their own restraints had become an important part of the ritual for him.

One door, which looked as if it led to another closet, merely opened up to a wooden wall. On the wall he’d displayed several NO OUTLET and DEAD END signs. He’d hammered nails into that wooden wall, carefully spacing them like brackets so they held up the signs. He didn’t want any glue or tape compromising the integrity of his trophies. Beneath each sign, he’d written in black laundry marker the dead-end street from which he’d taken it, the cul-de-sac where he’d cleaned a house, as he liked to think of it. He knew it was risky to hold on to such hard evidence, but he was sentimental.

Beneath the most recent NO OUTLET sign, he’d printed in block letters: LAUREL LANE.

He didn’t have a dead-end sign from Alder Court in Bellevue.

That was because he’d never set foot on Alder Court in Bellevue. He didn’t kill those people. It was staged to look like one of his killings. The person who had killed Angela Dennehy, Larry Keegan, and his daughter Taylor may have slit their throats, stuffed each body into a closet, left all the lights on, and stolen the NO OUTLET sign at the end of Alder Court. But it wasn’t a cul-de-sac killing. The murderer of those three people had another agenda.

Could it be he’d had a personal or professional grudge against one of his victims?

According to all the early news stories, Larry Keegan had been divorced for four years, and his ex-wife, who had since remarried, was devastated by the news. His business associates spoke very highly of him, too.

That left Angela Dennehy. He couldn’t help thinking that someone wanted her dead, and then made it look like a cul-de-sac killing. Perhaps Larry and Taylor were just collateral damage.

The hinges squeaked as he closed the door to his makeshift trophy case.

As far as he could tell, the police hadn’t yet figured out that the Alder Court murders were the work of a copycat. Right now, he was the only one who knew — along with the real murderer, of course.

Frowning, he put the padlock back on the door to his trophy case. He wasn’t happy someone had decided to imitate him.

He’d have to do something about that.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Something hit the side of her car, and Molly flinched. She was driving back from the doctor’s office, and about to turn onto Willow Tree Court. Thwack! It happened again, this time on her car door. “Good God, what is that?” she asked no one in particular.

She almost stepped on the brake, but a BMW was on her tail, and it was sure to rear-end her. So she kept moving, turning left onto the cul-de-sac. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw some movement in the vacant lot at the corner. It was Carson and Dakota Hahn — along with Jill’s son, Darren. The little brats were throwing dirt balls at passing cars. Molly wanted to roll down her window and scream at them, but she was afraid she’d end up with a mouthful of dirt. So she just kept driving.

The doctor had agreed to squeeze her in for an appointment this afternoon. She’d gone on the sly while Jeff and the kids visited Trish to make funeral plans for Angela.

The latest cul-de-sac killings had been the top news story since yesterday. So the receptionist at the doctor’s office had taken pity on Molly and not charged her for missing yesterday’s appointment. The doctor had recommended an ob-gyn, with whom Molly now had an appointment in a month.

That seemed like such a long time away. Molly figured she’d wait until after Angela’s funeral to tell Jeff about the baby.

As she turned into her driveway, she spotted a woman at her front stoop. A pretty brunette in her mid-thirties, she held a pie in her hands. Her jeans and the clingy waffle-pattern pale blue top showed off her trim, aerobicized figure. She came down the front walkway to meet her.

Molly climbed out of the car, and shut the door.

“Are you Mrs. Dennehy?” the woman asked.

Molly nodded. “Yes.”

“I’m Rachel Cross, your new neighbor.”

Molly smiled. “Oh, hello, it’s nice to meet you.”

“What happened to your door?” she asked, nodding at the car.

Molly glanced at the dirt smudges where Lynette’s and Jill’s brood had hit the bull’s-eye with their dirt balls. “That’s the handiwork of the little darlings down the block,” Molly explained. “There’s a vacant lot by the intersection at the end of the cul-de-sac, and the kids sometimes throw dirt balls at passing cars.”

“Sweet,” Rachel said. “Well, I stand warned. I’ll make sure to drive with the windows rolled up.”

“Good idea,” Molly said. She smiled at her. “I’m Molly, by the way. Is that pie for us?”

“Yes, it’s apple,” Rachel said. “I made it myself — that is, if removing it from the bakery box and covering the pie with Handi-Wrap constitutes making it.”

Molly took the pie from her. “In my book, it does, definitely. This is so nice of you. I should be bringing a pie over to you, welcoming you to the neighborhood.”

“Well, I heard the news about your husband’s first wife, and according to the mailman, her kids live with you now. So — well, my mother always used to bring a pie over to the neighbors if there was an illness or a death in the family.”

“That’s sweet, thank you. And it’s good to know the mailman has his finger on the pulse of what’s happening around here. Too bad he can’t always get the mail to the right address — which reminds me, I have something for you. . ” Molly balanced the pie in one hand while she unlocked the door. “Would you like to come in?”

“Oh, thanks,” Rachel said, shaking her head. “But I still have a ton of unpacking to do.”

“Be right back.” Molly scurried inside the house. She set the pie down on the kitchen counter, then grabbed the mail — rubber-banded together — that she’d gotten by mistake. There were only five pieces of mail, mostly junk; but there was something that looked like a personal letter. She left the door open as she brought it back outside to Rachel. “We got these by mistake last week. They’re addressed to you.”

“Well, that’s mighty neighborly of you to keep them for me,” Rachel said. “And about that pie, the woman at the bakery said if you heat it in a conventional oven for fifteen minutes before serving, it’s incredible.”

Molly nodded. “Thanks again, Rachel. I hope you’ll take a rain check, and drop in any time.”

Rachel gave her a nervous smile and shrugged. “I’m glad to hear you say that. I don’t know a lot of people in Seattle. I moved here from Tampa, Florida. I looked at a map of the United States and figured Seattle was just about as far as I could get from Tampa — and my ex-husband.”

“Sounds like an interesting story,” Molly said.

She nodded. “We’ll save it for some snowy night by the fire. Anyway, I dealt with this Realtor over the phone, and he sent me photos of the house over the Internet. I fell in love with it while I was still in Florida. I didn’t hear about these — these cul-de-sac murders until after I bought the house.” She let out a long sigh. “I’m a little nervous about being alone in a new place as it is. I feel a lot better knowing I have a nice neighbor next door.”

“Well, vice versa,” Molly said with a smile. “Feel free to call up if you ever get scared or you need anything.”

Rachel nodded and waved to her as she started down the walkway. “Nice meeting you, Molly!”

As Molly waved back, she remembered her last conversation with Kay, in which she had promised to be Kay’s Neighborhood Watch buddy.

Molly’s smile waned.

Stepping inside, she closed the door and went back to the kitchen. The pie looked pretty damn good. She wondered if she should give in to her craving and have a slice. She was searching through the utensil drawer for a knife when the phone rang.

Molly snatched up the receiver. “Yes, hello?”

There was no response on the other end.

“Hello?” she repeated.

“Ask him where he really was,” a woman whispered.

“What?”

The woman didn’t reply. But Molly heard her breathing — like someone with asthma.

“Who is this?” Molly asked.

She heard a click on the other end of the line and then nothing.

The next afternoon, Jeff and Chris drove to Northgate Mall so Chris could get a decent suit for the funeral. The services were delayed until next week because of the autopsy.

Molly planned to work on her latest painting, still in the early stages. It was for a national soft-drink company’s print ad. The client wanted an illustration with twenty people, all drinking cola at a party; but each person was from a certain period from the 1920s to the current day. It was to represent the ninety years people had been enjoying that soft drink brand. Molly thought it was a corny idea, but the money and the exposure were good.

From the basement she’d gotten Erin some watercolors and paper, so they could work together up in her studio. If the phone rang, she’d let the machine answer it.

She was still a little unhinged by yesterday’s call, mostly because Angela had gotten those strange phone calls not long before she’d been murdered. Molly had told Jeff about it: “ ‘Ask him where he really was.’ What do you suppose she meant by that?”

Jeff had seemed unfazed. “Yesterday, we got how many hang-ups and how many people calling just to hear our voices? We’re in the news, and we’re in the phone book, not a good combination. We’re going to get some weird calls. You really need to screen them, hon.”

Molly had taken his advice today. There had been several hang-ups.

She and Erin were about to head upstairs when she heard shrieking outside. It sounded like Carson and Dakota Hahn.

Molly peered out the living room window and gasped.

A man was running up the cul-de-sac with Dakota Hahn in his arms. Screaming and squirming, she was covered with blood and dirt.

“Stay here,” Molly said to Erin.

She hurried outside. Next door, Rachel stepped out of the house as well.

Molly raced up the walkway. She saw Carson and Darren trailing behind the man, crying. They had blood all over their hands. Carson stumbled and fell on the pavement. He let out a loud wail.

Molly ran out to the street and scooped him up. The sleeve of his jacket was torn, and Molly could see blood. It looked like he’d skinned his arm in the fall. He was crying so hard, he couldn’t seem to get a breath.

The man holding Dakota swiveled around to face her. He was about thirty, and borderline handsome, with wavy dark blond hair and a cleft in his chin. He looked panic stricken. “Are you the mother?” he asked, over the children’s screams.

Breathless, Molly gaped at him — and then at Dakota, whose chubby, dirt-smudged face was lined with bloody scratches. She wouldn’t stop shrieking.

“Are you the mother?” the stranger repeated, louder this time.

With Carson writhing in her arms, Molly shook her head and pointed to Lynette’s house. “They live over there. What happened?”

“I don’t know,” the stranger yelled. “I was driving by, and I heard the screams. Then I saw the kids on that lot at the corner, and they were bleeding—”

“Ye gods, look, he’s got pieces of glass in his hands!” Rachel exclaimed. Hovering over Jill’s son, Darren, she held him by his wrists. The plump, brown-haired six-year-old wriggled in her grasp and cried softly — a miserable staccato moan.

Within moments, Lynette and Jill ran out of their respective houses, adding to the chorus of screams. Lynette tried to take Dakota from the Good Samaritan stranger, but when her daughter reached up to wrap a hand around her mother’s neck, the glass embedded in her palm scratched her. Lynette automatically recoiled.

“God, now you’re bleeding, too,” the man said. “Better let me carry her inside. . ”

Jill looked slightly crazed with her unkempt auburn hair and her too-tight black tee and purple pajama pants. She practically pushed Rachel out of the way to tend to her son. “What happened?” she demanded to know, grabbing him by the wrist. She examined his hands. “Who did this?”

“We were just playing!” Darren sobbed. “The dirt had glass in it. . ”

Jill rushed Darren to her house at the end of the block.

Once inside Lynette’s house, the stranger propped Dakota on the kitchen counter near the sink. Molly sat Carson down in a chair at the breakfast table. She carefully peeled off his jacket and checked the scrape on his arm from when he fell. It wasn’t too bad. She kept telling him that he would be all right, and he calmed down a little. His jacket got the worst of it. Then she looked at his hands. Past the blood and dirt, she could see about three little pieces of glass in one hand, and two in the other. His right-hand index finger had a bad cut on it. “We’ll need some tweezers, Lynette,” she announced.

Running water over some paper towels, Lynette didn’t seem to hear her past Dakota’s incessant screams. The stranger held the little girl’s arms down while Lynette cleaned off her scratched, filthy face.

Molly had a pretty good idea of what must have happened. Obviously, the kids were in the vacant lot again, scooping up dirt balls to hurl at passing cars. They must have stumbled upon a patch of dirt with broken glass scattered about.

Molly glanced over at Rachel, standing in the doorway to Lynette’s kitchen, wringing her hands. “Do you need some antiseptic?” she asked, over Dakota’s sobbing. “I have Neosporin at home. . ”

Lynette didn’t seem to be listening. She put down the wet paper towel and reached for her daughter. “You’re scaring her,” she snapped at the man. “I’ve got her now. There, there, sweetie. .”

“That’s Lynette’s way of saying thank you,” Molly murmured to the man. Lynette didn’t seem to catch the remark. Molly led Carson to the sink and ran his hands under the water.

Lynette turned toward her. “Did you do this?” she hissed.

Molly frowned at her. “Of course not, my God. . ”

“You’re always complaining about the kids playing in that lot. Maybe you decided to do something about it—”

“Lynette, I wouldn’t plant broken glass in there. Give me a break.”

Yet Molly wouldn’t have been surprised if someone whose car had been pelted by dirt balls often enough had scattered the glass in that spot — perhaps someone on the cross street. Or maybe some slob had just tossed a bunch of bottles out of a car passing by the lot.

Lynette turned to Rachel and the man. “I’ve got it under control, people. I’m fine. You can go now.”

“Well, you’re welcome, and it was awfully nice meeting you,” Rachel said, with a jaunty little salute. “We’ll see ourselves out.”

The blond-haired stranger just looked baffled as he sheepishly followed Rachel out the door.

“Lynette, that was our new neighbor, Rachel Cross,” Molly said, rinsing Carson’s hands under the cold water. With her fingernails, she carefully picked out some of the bits of glass. The bleeding wasn’t bad, but Carson kept squirming. “And the man was a total stranger who stopped to rescue your injured children. He got his jacket all bloody carrying your daughter around, and all you did was snap at him like he was your indentured servant. I know you’re under duress, but really, a thank-you might have been nice.”

“I’m pretty sure what this is all about,” Lynette whispered, rocking Dakota in her arms. “Well, I’m sorry, but I felt it was my duty to talk to that police detective the other night. I wasn’t looking to get you in trouble.”

“You didn’t get me into trouble,” Molly said. “So don’t worry about it.” She gently dabbed Carson’s hands with a paper towel. “He’s going to need some antiseptic on this scrape from when he fell. . ”

“So — you expect me to believe you’re not upset?” Lynette pressed. “And you’re not the one who called me?”

“What are you talking about?” Molly asked, concerned. “What call?”

Lynette quickly shook her head. “Nothing, forget it. I–I can carry on from here.” She nodded toward the door. “Thank you, Molly.”

Her tone sounded more like a fuck you than a thank you. But Molly just let it go. She needed to get home to Erin. She quickly dried off her hands and then headed for the door. Outside, she found Rachel standing at the end of the Hahns’ driveway. “Are the kids okay?” Rachel asked.

Molly nodded tiredly. “Where did that man go?”

“Oh, he slinked off into the sunset with his tail between his legs.” She nodded toward Lynette’s house. “Well, I’m not too crazy about her. I can’t believe she actually accused you of cutting up her kids. Who would do something like that? And the other one — with the chubby kid who looks like Pugsley on The Addams Family—she practically gave me a full body check to get at her kid. I guess I shouldn’t judge them during a situation like this.”

“Oh, you’ll find once you really get to know them—”

“That they’re both bitches?” Rachel finished for her.

Molly laughed.

“Seriously,” Rachel said. “I think you’re the only nice person on this block. I mean, look over there at that one.” She nodded toward the Nguyens’ house. “After all the screaming and commotion, it was enough to wake the dead. You’d figure any normal person would offer to help — or at least be curious about what happened. But she didn’t even bother to step outside.”

Molly noticed Natalie in the second-floor window. She was slouched in a rocker with one leg over the chair arm. It looked like she was reading a magazine.

He glanced in his rearview mirror at the turnoff to Willow Tree Court.

He’d known beforehand that it was a cul-de-sac. Lynette Hahn had told him — on the TV news, when she’d talked to reporters in front of her dead friend’s former residence: “We’re on a cul-de-sac here. Angela moved from one cul-de-sac to another. You never think anything like this will happen to someone you know, someone you care about and love. . ”

The brief news clip hadn’t given him a very good idea of the street’s layout. It wasn’t until last night, when he’d done a brief survey, that he realized most of the houses on the street were at the edge of a forest. He liked that. And the vacant lots — two of them with half-built houses — gave him so many places to hide while he studied the habits of the residents.

Of course, the house that piqued his interest the most was the Dennehys’. Angela’s ex-husband seemed like the most logical suspect in the Alder Court murders. The man in the driver’s seat intended to find his copycat — which meant watching the house and following around the ex-husband.

With Willow Tree Court behind him now, he studied the road ahead. It was starting to get dark. He switched on his headlights.

He glanced down at his beige jacket — at the blood on his sleeves.

Lynette Hahn’s little brat had bled on him. That was what he got for being a hero. He wondered if the broken glass scattered through that lot had been planted there on purpose. Perhaps someone had a grudge against Lynette and her children. Did the same person have a grudge against Angela Dennehy?

Maybe he wasn’t the only one with a score to settle on Willow Tree Court.

He rather liked the cul-de-sac. He’d already been inside the Hahns’ place. He thought about coming back. Or maybe he’d find a way to get inside one of the other homes — a night visit.

He glanced at the stains on his sleeves again.

Funny, he was usually so careful when he left a cul-de-sac. He hardly ever had a speck of blood on him.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

He caught only fleeting glimpses of her. She was down on her knees, working in the garden on the other side of the bushes. He couldn’t really tell what she looked like. In the middle of the backyard with the rake in his hand, he was too far away.

Chris was curious about her — maybe because Molly had mentioned at dinner the other night that the new neighbor was “quite a dish.” She and Molly were getting to be fast friends. Molly had nothing nice to say about the other two women who moved onto the cul-de-sac over the summer: Jill Somebody and Natalie Something. Chris still hadn’t met either one yet. He’d only seen Jill at a distance — or in her car. And he’d yet to lay eyes on the unfriendly jogger woman, Natalie. He figured he’d probably meet them eventually. He wasn’t in any hurry.

But he was kind of intrigued by this Rachel person. Through the foliage, he could just make out that she had brown hair and fair skin.

Chris wiped the sweat off his forehead and went back to work. His dad had asked him to do something about all the leaves in the backyard. They were having people over for brunch after the funeral on Tuesday. Molly was freaking out, deep-cleaning every room in the house. Apparently, she wanted it looking immaculate, which didn’t make any sense. If ever they had a good excuse for letting the place go to shit for a few days, it was now. Chris imagined telling company, “Sorry I didn’t get around to raking the backyard, but my mother died.”

It was nuts, because he just wanted to be alone to think about his mom — and maybe even have a good cry. Instead, he was running around doing all these chores for the wake tomorrow and the funeral the next day, and the reception after the funeral. They were busting their humps to make sure they were — as Molly put it—“dressed to the nines” in different outfits for each service. She needed to prepare about a dozen different dishes for the brunch, and his dad was stocking up on booze for the fifty or so guests. And the place had to look like House Beautiful. All these distant relatives and old friends his dad hadn’t talked to in years were coming to this thing. Were they ever going to see these people again? Chris wondered if these “mourners” would have cared as much or even known about his mom dying if she hadn’t been murdered.

As he raked the leaves into a big pile, it occurred to him that his mom — more than anybody — would want them to put on a first-class funeral and brunch for her. She was always big on impressing people and keeping up appearances.

He was doing this for her. Suddenly it mattered that the backyard looked nice. He felt tears in his eyes, but kept on working.

Up until last year, he’d attended only two funerals in his whole life — and both of those were for grandparents. His mother’s funeral on Tuesday would be his third in six months: first Mr. Corson, then Mrs. Garvey, and now his mom. He still felt awful every time he thought about what Mr. Corson’s sister and his widow had said to him. He knew it was stupid, but he couldn’t help wondering if they were right. Maybe he was just a lousy guy, and his mother’s murder was some kind of karmic punishment directed at him.

He wished like hell for another dull weekend in Bellevue, another night on Larry’s lumpy foldout bed in the mallard shrine of a study, just one more weekend with his mom.

“Hey, how’s it going over there?”

Chris glanced over toward the neighbor’s yard. At a break in the bushes dividing their yards, the pretty brunette smiled at him. She wore a gray sweatshirt, jeans, and gardening gloves. “Are you Chris?” she asked.

He quickly wiped the tears from his eyes. “Hi, yeah, hi,” he replied awkwardly. With the rake in his hand, he stepped over toward her.

“I’m Rachel,” the woman said. “I was really sorry to hear about your mom.”

He nodded. “You’re the one who brought over the apple pie, right? It was really good, thanks.”

“Well, you’re very welcome,” she said. “I got to meet Erin the other day. Now, except for your dad, I’ve met the whole family.”

“Dad’s at the office today,” Chris explained. “He figured he’d catch up on stuff for a few hours while it was dead there, being Sunday and all.”

Frowning, she glanced past him at the yard. “Are you burning leaves?”

He shook his head.

“Oh, I thought I smelled smoke. Well, the yard’s looking good. Maybe next summer, if you’ve got time, you could mow the front and back here. No pressure. Knock it around and name your price. We can haggle over it later.”

“That sounds good. I used to mow the lawn for Mrs. Garvey.”

“Garvey?” She seemed puzzled for a moment. “Oh, of course, Garvey, that’s the woman who used to live here— with a teenage daughter. The Realtor told me about her. Were you close to the daughter?”

Chris shrugged. “We hung out sometimes. I haven’t really seen her since she moved in with her dad and her stepmother.”

Rachel blinked. “Oh, really? What happened to her mother?”

“Well, she’s dead,” Chris replied, matter-of-factly. Then he saw her stunned expression and immediately regretted it. “I’m sorry. Didn’t you know that? There was an accident. Mrs. Garvey fell and hit her head.”

Rachel stared at him. “In the house? My God, did she die in the house?”

He gulped. “I’m sorry, I figured you knew. . ”

She shook her head. “That damn Realtor, he should have told me,” she muttered. “I think he’s legally obligated to inform me, the son of a. .” She trailed off, and rubbed her forehead. “I’m sorry, Chris. Do you know what room she died in?”

He hesitated.

“No, don’t tell me.” She put up her gloved hand. “I don’t want to know. Besides, I already have a feeling where. I’ll bet it happened in the big bedroom. There’s a cold spot in there, right by the door. I get chills every time I stand there.”

Chris just stared at her. He couldn’t believe it. From what he’d heard, that was exactly where Mrs. Garvey had fallen and bashed her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said with a long sigh. “I don’t mean to act like such a baby about it — especially in front of you, after what you’ve been through. It’s still a beautiful home. I’ll just hire a shaman and have the place smudged and blessed.”

She made a face, wrinkling her nose. “Somebody’s burning leaves, because I can smell it. Can’t you?”

Chris glanced over her shoulder and saw black smoke billowing out from the other side of her screened porch. “Oh, Jesus!” he cried. “The house. . ”

Rachel turned and let out a scream, “Oh, my God!”

Without thinking, Chris tore through the bushes and rushed past her. From working in Mrs. Garvey’s yard, he knew the hose connection was by the screen-porch door. As he got closer to the house, the smoke became thicker. Every time he took in a breath, he tasted it. He heard a crackling sound. “Call nine-one-one!” he yelled.

“I don’t have my cell phone with me!” Rachel replied helplessly. “Oh, God. . ”

“Our back door’s open. Use our phone!” Chris reached the outside spigot and saw the garden hose was connected to it. He quickly twisted the valve open. With a hiss, water shot out of the nozzle end. Grabbing the hose, he ran around to the other side of the screen porch, toward all the smoke. He prayed the hose was long enough and didn’t snag on him.

“Chris, be careful!” he heard her call.

His eyes hurt, and he tried to hold his breath as he got the hose ready. He suddenly stopped in his tracks. The smoke wasn’t coming from the house, but from Mrs. Garvey’s toolshed — about ten feet away from the screened porch. A rope of fire shot up from a pile of what looked like old newspapers by the shed’s door. Little scraps of burning paper floated around the shed. Flames licked at the mossy roof, creating plumes of black smoke. But the roof hadn’t caught on fire yet.

Coughing, Chris staggered back from the smoke. He directed the hose toward the shed — aiming near the roof and working his way down the line of fire. For a few moments, it didn’t seem to do any good. The smoke only grew thicker. But then the flames started dying under the jet spray of water.

Chris heard Rachel clearing her throat, and he glanced over his shoulder. “It’s okay,” he gasped. “I think we’ve got it under control. Did you call nine-one-one?”

“No, I didn’t want to leave you out here all alone.” She fanned the air in front of her face.

Chris kept the hose on, dousing the side of the shed. The smoke started to clear. The corner of the little shed was charred black; it looked like the shadow of a ghost against the blistered wood. At the base of the door, amid a smoldering pile of soot, he could see some patches of wet newspaper that hadn’t burned up.

Chris finally twisted the hose nozzle, shutting off the flow of water.

“God, thank you, Chris,” Rachael said, squeezing his arm. “You’re a lifesaver. I wouldn’t have known what to do. Hell, I didn’t have a clue! If you weren’t here, I think the whole house might have burned down.”

She took a step toward the shed. “What is that anyway?” she asked, pointing to the mound of refuse by the door. “That wasn’t there earlier. I walked by this shed a half hour ago and didn’t see any newspapers there. What’s going on? Did you see anybody else out here?”

Chris just shrugged and shook his head.

“This is crazy,” she muttered, a hand at the base of her throat. “They — they must have snuck back here while I was planting the annuals. I don’t understand. Why would anybody do something like this?”

“I don’t know,” Chris said, baffled.

“Is this normal around here?” she pressed. “I mean, two days ago, those kids got cut up by all that glass in the vacant lot, and now, someone decided to set fire to my toolshed. What’s going on?”

Chris glanced over at the mound of burnt debris by the shed’s door.

He had no idea how to answer her.

Molly wondered where Lynette Hahn was.

Despite some residual tension after the glass-in-the-dirt incident, Lynette had offered to co-host the funeral brunch. Bizarre as the arrangement was, it made sense to Molly that Angela’s best friend play hostess in Angela’s old house. Molly really didn’t mind taking on the role of caterer. It kept her busy — and gave her an excuse to keep the awkward small talk with Angela’s friends and relatives down to a minimum. Lynette had invited some of Larry’s friends, too.

A light, misty rain had descended on the burial service in Lakeview Cemetery, where Jeff and Chris remained stoic and unshielded by the drizzle. But Erin sobbed quietly from and clung to her Aunt Trish, who held a red umbrella for both of them. Molly stood behind Trish.

Lynette’s husband, Jeremy, had a sudden business thing and couldn’t attend. But Lynette promised he would be at the Dennehys’ in plenty of time to set up the bar and start passing out drinks to the first arrivals. She’d brought Carson and Dakota to the cemetery. They were fidgety as ever, fighting over their umbrella and picking at the Band-Aids on their hands. Courtney had her iPhone out most of the time, texting through most of the service.

Molly slipped away early to set up for the reception. She’d asked Rachel if she would like to attend. “Thanks anyway,” Rachel had told her. “I didn’t even know Angela. Besides, I’m giving Lynette and her kids a wide berth for a while. I can’t help thinking those kids had something to do with my toolshed catching on fire. It’s not that big a leap from throwing dirt balls at cars to playing with matches and setting toolsheds on fire. The cops said it was definitely arson — and sloppy arson, at that.”

Just the same, Rachel had been nice enough to make a rice salad for the party — wild rice with sun-dried cranberries, smoked turkey, and green onion. Giving in to a craving, Molly had had three helpings that morning before the funeral.

She’d managed to set out all the food and plates before the first wave of guests started drifting in. Jeremy Hahn had never shown up, and Molly had played bartender for the first half hour — until Jeff had taken over, thank God.

Now she was playing hostess and fighting some morning sickness as she smiled through several Angela stories told to her by total strangers. For two hours, she made sure her guests’ glasses were filled and took their empty plates. All the while, she wondered what the hell had happened to Lynette. She even asked a few people. Apparently, Lynette and the three kids had disappeared right after the burial.

Molly started to feel so sick and light-headed that she snuck upstairs to lie down. But there were about forty coats piled on Jeff’s and her bed. Some woman — Molly was pretty sure she was Angela’s cousin — was breast-feeding her baby in Erin’s room. A man she didn’t recognize was sitting on one of the twin beds in the guest room, talking on his cell phone. Chris’s door was closed. She knocked and poked her head in. Chris was at his desk, and Elvis sat in the beanbag chair. They both had beers and plates of food. Chris’s sweet, four-eyed portly pal gave her a goofy smile. “Hi, Mrs. Dennehy. Great rice salad!”

“Thanks, Elvis,” she said weakly. She turned to Chris. “If your dad should ask, I’m not feeling well. I’m going upstairs to rest for a few minutes. And I never saw the beers.”

She closed the door, and heard Elvis call out: “Thanks, Mrs. Dennehy!”

As she turned away, Molly almost bumped into Jill Emory standing at the top of the stairs. The tawny-haired forty-year-old wore a loose black pantsuit that camouflaged her plump figure. She was frowning at Molly. “Why did you leave the cemetery early?” she asked.

Molly put a hand over her mouth and suppressed a burp. “I beg your pardon, Jill?”

“You left before the burial service ended. Why?”

“To set the food out for this stupid reception,” Molly shot back. She was feeling too sickly to be patient with her. “And I could have used some help from Lynette — or you. The two of you were better friends with Angela than I ever was. Where is Lynette anyway? Where’s Jeremy?”

“Oh, like you don’t know,” Jill sneered.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Lynette says you’ve always resented her, because she was best friends with Angela. You’ve always been out to get her.”

“I don’t understand—”

“One of the reporters told Lynette that a woman phoned the police with a tip. The anonymous call came in not very long after you left the cemetery.”

“What tip? What are you talking about?”

“I was just on the phone with Lynette,” Jill said, clutching the post at the top of the stairs. “She’s still at the police station. She said the whole thing was a frame-up. The reporters were tipped off, too. They were waiting outside the hotel when the police brought Jeremy down in the elevator with that prostitute. Are you trying to tell me you had nothing to do with it?”

Molly shook her head. She almost wanted to laugh, she was so stunned. “So Jeremy Hahn was arrested — for buying himself a hooker? Was that his ‘sudden business thing’? Is that why he missed the funeral?” All she could think was, What an asshole, he deserved to be arrested!

At the same time, Molly wondered why the police and reporters were treating the incident as if it were a major sting operation.

Jill didn’t explain why.

Molly had to wait for an explanation from a reporter on the six o’clock news. It was a bit surreal to see the story unfold on television while two TV news vans were parked in front of Lynette’s house down the block. About a dozen people loitered in front of Lynette’s to see what the fuss was about.

On TV, the pretty, thirtysomething blond reporter wasn’t posted outside Lynette’s house. Instead, she stood in the light drizzle in front of the W Hotel, speaking into her handheld microphone: “Seattle Police arrested local businessman Jeremy Hahn at the W Hotel this afternoon, after receiving an anonymous tip that Hahn, an executive vice president for Sea-Merit Financial, was engaged in sexual activity with a minor in one of the rooms. . ”

The image on the TV screen switched to show two uniformed officers leading Lynette’s handcuffed husband into a police car, parked in front of the luxury hotel. Jeremy looked angry. His casual Brooks Brothers clothes were disheveled and his thinning brown hair was uncombed so the bald spots weren’t covered. Behind him, a young woman in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform was being led out of the hotel as well. But her face had been blurred digitally, which of course, made the scene appear even more lurid.

“We’ve protected the identity of the minor,” the reporter said. “But police sources say she is sixteen, and accepted money from Hahn in exchange for sexual favors.”

The picture switched back to the blond reporter in front of the hotel. “I’m told the police found a substantial amount of cocaine in the hotel room — along with some child pornography. This will only add to the number of serious charges Jeremy Hahn is already facing. . ”

On another local newscast, they indicated that Sea-Merit Financial would be investigating if Hahn had used company funds for his sexual trysts with underage girls.

Even though she hated her guts, all Molly could think was, Poor Lynette.

The house was still a disaster area from the party. As she moved into the living room, Molly turned a blind eye to the dirty plates, cups, and glasses on every table. Instead, she gazed out the window at the TV news vans and the people in front of Lynette’s house.

She remembered Lynette coming to her rescue, dropping by with McDonald’s and her take-charge attitude the day after Angela’s murder. Molly still had some food left over from the party. Taking over some dinner to the Hahns would have been the neighborly thing to do. But like Rachel, she was giving Lynette a wide berth today. After all, Lynette clearly blamed her for Jeremy’s arrest — all because some woman had phoned in that tip to the police.

Molly remembered once again something Angela had told her over lunch on the last day of her life: “Someone else is behind this, some woman. . Do you think it’s possible somebody is trying to pit us against each other?”

Staring out at the Hahns’ house, Molly spotted a jogger in a sweat suit running up the street. It was Natalie, from down the block, out for her run — at night this time. She seemed to ignore the news vans and the onlookers outside Lynette’s.

Molly recalled her doing the exact same thing last week, when the TV trucks and gawkers were there because of Angela’s murder. Natalie had jogged by, barely glancing at them.

It was almost as if on both occasions Natalie knew ahead of time they’d be there.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Molly wasn’t thinking when she answered her cell phone.

Since Angela’s murder, she’d been screening nearly all incoming calls on the house line. But this call had come in at eight-thirty that night, and she was dead tired. With some help from Jeff, Chris, and Elvis, she’d cleaned up most of the mess from the party.

She was trying to pay bills online in Jeff’s study but kept nodding off in front of the monitor. She had her cell phone on his desk, so when it rang, it startled her. She grabbed it and switched it on: “Yes, hello?”

“Mrs. Dennehy?” It was a woman on the other end of the line. Her voice sounded raspy, almost demented in the singsong way she talked.

Molly quickly took the cell phone away from her ear and glanced at the caller ID box. The number was blocked.

“Who is this?” she asked.

“Mrs. Dennehy, ask your husband where he was when his ex-wife was murdered.”

Then there was a click.

Molly stared at the phone in her hand. She knew it was the same woman who had called last week. “Ask him where he really was,” had been the message. This time, the woman was less cryptic.

Chances were pretty good the same woman had phoned Angela and threatened her. Maybe she’d also tipped off the police regarding Jeremy Hahn’s clandestine activities, too.

The scary thing about it was this woman had known something about Lynette’s husband that even Lynette didn’t know. What did she have on Jeff?

Molly got to her feet and wandered into the family room. Jeff was asleep in his easy chair in front of a reality show on TV. It had been a long, grueling day for everyone, and she didn’t want to wake him and grill him about where he’d been on the night of Angela’s murder.

Molly remembered the mixup about which Washington, D.C., Hilton Jeff had stayed at that week. He said he hadn’t been at the Capital Hilton that trip, but at another Hilton hotel.

Retreating back to Jeff’s study, she went on the Internet to refresh her memory about the three other Hilton hotels in Washington, D.C. She called the Washington Hilton in Dupont Circle and got the operator.

“Hi, I’m not sure if I have the right Washington Hilton,” Molly said. “But my husband was staying at a Hilton last week. He checked out Wednesday morning. He thinks he left his iPod in his room. I’m trying to track it down. Could you check if I have the right Hilton? His name is Dennehy, Jeffrey.” She spelled it, and waited.

She knew the business, and hotel clerks sometimes got calls like this from wives, trying to get the goods on cheating husbands. If the clerks were smart and discreet enough, they often came back with, “We’re sorry, we can’t give out that kind of information.” But most of the time, the hotel clerk really didn’t give a damn if they were getting some cheating spouse in trouble.

“Mrs. Dennehy?” the clerk said after a minute. “I’m sorry, but we have no record of Jeffrey Dennehy staying here last week. You might try the Capital Hilton on Sixteenth.”

“I will,” Molly said. “Thank you.” Then she clicked off.

The Capital Hilton wasn’t where Jeff had been staying. She knew that much. So Molly called the Hilton Washington Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue, and the Hilton Garden Inn on Fourteenth Street Northwest. She gave them the same story and got the same answer.

Jeff wasn’t staying at any of the Hilton Hotels in Washington, D.C., on the night of Angela’s death.

Molly kept thinking about that woman with the raspy voice.

Ask him where he really was.

She waited until morning to ask him.

Jeff had finished with his shower, and he was shaving in front of the mirror with a towel around his waist. Her arms folded, Molly stood in the bathroom doorway in her nightgown. She studied his reflection in the steamy mirror. He kept wiping it with his hand every few moments. He still had shaving cream on one side of his jaw and on his neck.

“I was at the Hilton on Dupont Circle,” he said, eying her in the mirror for a moment. He worked the safety razor under his chin. “They just don’t give out information like that. Jesus, Molly, I can’t believe you called all the Hiltons in D.C. Why didn’t you just ask me?”

“Because I think you’re covering something up — something really horrible,” she admitted.

His reflection gazed back at her with a raised eyebrow. “Like what? Don’t tell me you think I killed Angela. . ”

“No, but the police might think that,” she replied steadily, “especially if they realize you’re lying about where you were that night. Jeff, what’s to keep this woman from calling the police and saying to them what she said to me?”

He nicked himself. Blood oozed from the cut along his left jaw. “Oh, crap, now look what you’ve made me do,” he grumbled. He plucked a Kleenex from the dispenser on the counter and dabbed it on the cut. “Here we go with that whack-job woman caller again. I told you that we’d get some crank calls—”

“Jeff, Angela was getting calls the week before she was killed — from a woman, telling her that she was going to pay for what she did.”

“Well, what the hell is that supposed to mean?” Jeff countered, dabbing the cut again. “What exactly did Angela do? Are you telling me this crazy woman caller is somehow working with the Cul-de-sac Killer?”

Molly hesitated. She didn’t know how to answer him.

“You told me yourself that Angela lied to you during that lunch. Didn’t she give you some song and dance about not telling anyone about your brother?”

“Well, maybe not everything she said was a lie,” Molly murmured.

He washed off his face, grabbed another Kleenex, tore off a piece, and applied it to his cut. “Listen, Molly.” He sighed, pat-drying his face. “Do me a favor and screen all your calls from now on. You’re letting this nutcase get to you, and I’m sorry, honey, but I don’t need this shit, not now.”

Molly stepped aside as he brushed past her in the bathroom doorway. He whipped off his towel and tossed it on the bed. After pulling a clean pair of boxer shorts from his dresser, he slammed the drawer shut. He stepped into the shorts and let the elastic banding go snap against his torso as he finished putting them on. “Yesterday, I buried the mother of my children, and now I have to schlep my ass to work. Can we cease and desist with all the questions? I wouldn’t have told the police I was at the Hilton in D.C. if I wasn’t really there. They seemed to believe me. Why the hell can’t you?”

Molly opened her mouth to speak but hesitated. She retrieved her robe from the foot of their bed and put it on. “I’ll go start the coffee and make sure the kids are up.” She sighed. Then she headed out of the bedroom.

It was strange to see Courtney behind the wheel of her Neon without an iPhone in her hand.

Chris had been surprised to hear her car horn honking this morning. He’d figured after her father’s arrest yesterday afternoon, she wouldn’t be showing her face at school today. But there she was, waiting in the driveway for him.

“I know everybody will be gossiping about me,” she muttered, pulling out of the cul-de-sac. “I was going to stay home for a day or two, but then I figured I might as well go to school and get it over with. Plus my mother’s driving me crazy. I’m ready to kill her.”

Courtney may have texted and Twittered up a storm at his mom’s funeral, but her family’s public humiliation had shut down all communications since yesterday afternoon. Courtney’s last Facebook update had been two nights ago. She was very subdued today. She wore a black pullover sweater and jeans, and her blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail. It looked like she wasn’t wearing any makeup at all. Chris kind of liked her better without it.

“I’m sorry about your dad,” he said, slouching in the passenger seat. “Must have been a real shock for you. That’s a raw deal.”

“I wasn’t too shocked,” she said, eying the road ahead. “I mean, he never did anything weird with me, nothing I remember, at least. Still, I’ve always suspected my father had a — a thing for young girls. But it was just too creepy for me to even think about. I didn’t tell anybody — except Mr. Corson.” She glanced at him briefly. “Can I confess something to you? I was kind of jealous of what you and Mr. Corson had. I could have used a — a regular father figure. I was kind of hoping Mr. Corson would pay more attention to me if I dug deep and told him something really, really personal like that. Then again, I guess we all spilled our guts to him, didn’t we?”

“I wouldn’t mind having Mr. Corson to lean on right now,” Chris said — almost under his breath.

If Courtney heard him, she didn’t say anything.

They approached a stoplight. Courtney came to a stop, and she let out a long sigh. “Well, I guess between your mom getting murdered and my dad getting arrested, you and I are going to be the focus of attention at school today.”

Chris smiled sadly. “You usually like being the center of attention,” he remarked.

“Not this time, Chris,” she replied. “Not this time.”

“You can’t rush genius,” he said. “This is a very delicate operation.”

The arrogant punk was in his late twenties and went by the name Wolf. He had short, buzz-cut black hair — except for his long bangs, which fell over one side of his face. She’d given up counting how many piercings he had besides the big hole in his stretched-out right earlobe. There were rings in his lip, his eyebrow, his nostril — and probably a lot more below the neck. He wore a ratty gray jacket that had YOU SUCK stenciled on the back.

Even if they weren’t conspiring to commit murder right now, she wouldn’t have wanted to be seen with him. Driving together to James Monroe High School, she’d barely tolerated his wretched body odor and his blasting heavy-metal music on her car radio. She kept reminding herself that Wolf had come highly recommended.

She made him turn off the radio once she’d parked the car near the high school’s playfield. A bunch of boys in their school sweats were playing soccer. She could hear them grunting, yelling, and laughing. Every few minutes, the coach blew his whistle. Stepping out of the car, she instructed Wolf to stay put and leave the radio off. They didn’t want to call attention to themselves.

By now, she’d become very skilled at maintaining a low profile. She was pretty certain no one had noticed her in the girls’ locker room earlier. But she’d noticed Courtney Hahn — and the location of Courtney’s locker.

Almost two weeks before, she’d managed to cut the padlock off Chris Dennehy’s locker in about forty seconds. With the same pair of fourteen-inch bolt cutters, she’d had Courtney’s locker door open in twenty-five seconds.

But it seemed to take Wolf forever to fulfill his part of the plan. He sat in the passenger seat of her car with a tray in his lap, working on the iPhone, which she’d removed from Courtney’s purse. With the precision pliers and a tiny-head screwdriver from his tool kit, he manipulated some wires and charges, which he set inside Courtney’s cell phone. He seemed to know what he was doing. Every once in a while, he’d brush the bangs away from his face and pull out one of those jeweler monocles and check on the progress of his work.

Sitting behind the wheel of the parked car, she studied the little patch of black fabric she’d cut from the bottom of Courtney’s pullover. She figured Courtney wouldn’t notice. And if she did, there wouldn’t be much time or opportunity to tell anyone about it before she was dead — or at least, severely maimed.

She carefully folded up the cutting and slipped it inside a plastic bag. She’d already bought a little blond doll that resembled Courtney.

With a sigh, she glanced at her wristwatch. “I know I ‘can’t rush genius,’ ” she said. “But I need to return that phone to her locker in five minutes. If that doesn’t happen, you don’t get paid, genius.”

He had it finished in two minutes. “Done,” he said, handing her the cell phone.

She studied the phone, felt its weight in her hand. She’d seen how tiny the charges were, and couldn’t help wondering out loud. “Will there really be that much damage?”

Wolf started putting his instruments away in his little kit. He nodded distractedly. “When she presses the Talk button, I wouldn’t be surprised if she blows her hand off, maybe even part of her arm. And if she’s holding the phone anywhere near her head — well, let’s just say, it’s not going to be pretty. We’re talking closed casket here.”

Leaving him behind in the car, she stashed Courtney’s cell in her coat pocket and started back into the sports wing of James Monroe High School. She paused at the double doors to the smaller gym, where Courtney was playing volleyball. She peeked through the windows — with crisscrossed chicken wire — in the doors.

Her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, Courtney was looking pretty, bored, and a bit forlorn as she sat on the sidelines in her pale blue gym uniform. About a dozen other girls shared the bench with her while the two teams scrimmaged on the court. One of the girls near the net kept yelling: “Set it up! Set it up!”

The woman moved on, heading toward the girls’ locker room. She thought about how much damage Courtney had done to her former guidance counselor with all the talking, texting and Twittering she’d done on her iPhone.

She couldn’t help thinking, Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Courtney had only played the last five minutes of gym period, but for that brief interlude, she’d forgotten all about her father’s arrest. She’d forgotten about the kids at school today, looking at her and whispering to each other.

She’d spiked two balls over the net, and her team had won.

She was still on a high about it as she headed into the locker room with the other girls. Their laughter and chatter echoed off the tiled walls. Rounding the corner to her locker row, she started to unbutton her gym uniform.

Then Courtney saw her locker and stopped dead.

Considering the day she’d had so far, she should have been expecting something like this. She should have figured some asshole might want to rip her off or just screw around with her head — now that she was feeling so vulnerable.

“Damn it,” Courtney hissed, taking the broken padlock off the locker handle.

She quickly opened her locker, wondering what had been stolen. But all her clothes were there, along with her shoes and her purse. She reached inside the purse and found her iPhone — and her wallet. The money was still in the wallet.

She wondered if some narc in school administration had decided to search her locker for drugs — now that her dad was a known cocaine user. Maybe that was what had happened.

Courtney quickly shoved her wallet back in her purse. But she held on to her cell phone. She wanted to call her friend, Cindy, and tell her what happened. Maybe Cindy already knew something about this. After all, no one could keep a secret around this crummy school.

The phone suddenly vibrated in her hand, giving her a start.

The caller ID lit up: Incoming Call: Blocked Number. Courtney decided to answer it anyway. Maybe it was the asshole who had broken into her locker.

“No cell phone use in the locker room, Courtney!” chided one of her classmates. “Can’t you see all the signs, stupid?”

It was that tall, obnoxious Monica Beller, thinking she was so cool with her long black hair and her big tits. Courtney couldn’t stand her. Naked, Monica sauntered by on her way to the showers. Monica’s friend, brown-haired and skinny Doreen Rustin, walked alongside her, wrapped in a towel.

Courtney hesitated, then threw her vibrating phone into her purse. She flipped Monica and Doreen the bird, but they didn’t notice. “She’s probably going to use the phone to take our pictures so she can give them to her father the pedophile,” Monica was saying.

Doreen giggled.

Courtney decided not to take a shower. She’d barely broken a sweat for the few minutes she’d played volleyball. So she just applied some deodorant and got dressed. As she pulled her black sweater over her head, she noticed a small square patch cut out along the bottom. She hadn’t noticed it earlier. Had her pullover come back from the cleaners like that?

“Oh, screw it,” Courtney muttered. She finished dressing. Maybe she shouldn’t have come to school today, after all.

In the hallway, she took out her phone again but then decided she didn’t want to talk to anyone right now. She didn’t even want to check if that caller with the blocked number had left a message. Shoving her phone back into her purse, she stuffed her knapsack full of gym clothes in her regular locker and then headed to Mr. Florian’s world history class.

But walking down the hallway and then sitting there in that boring class, Courtney couldn’t ignore so many of her classmates who stared at her, whispered to each other, and giggled. She tried to hold her head up and act above it all. But she just wanted to go home and lock herself in her room. The only good part of today had been driving to school with Chris.

He understood what it was like to be the unwilling subject of everyone’s gossip. He was going through it now, the week after his mother’s murder; and he’d been through it last year, after the scandal with Corson.

She remembered her mother talking last week about someone breaking into Chris’s locker. She hadn’t paid much attention to what her mother was saying. She hadn’t been very interested at the time. But now she was.

She heard her phone vibrating against something in her purse. She involuntarily went to reach for it to see who was calling. But Mr. Florian looked over the rims of his glasses at her, and she froze. She’d let it go to message.

She really didn’t want to talk to anybody right now anyway — except for maybe Chris.

Courtney waited for class to end. As soon as she stepped out to the hallway, she reached inside her purse and took out her cell. Someone in the crowded hallway bumped into her, and she almost dropped the phone. “Hey, watch it,” she muttered, looking up.

She noticed Chris. He was on the other side of the busy corridor, walking away. Courtney quickly zigzagged through the crowd. “Hey, Chris!” she called.

He turned and gave her a dazed half smile. “Hey. .”

She still had her cell phone in her hand. “I was just going to call you,” she said — over all the banter and banging locker doors. “Listen, I can’t stand to be here another minute. Let’s get out of here. Let’s ditch the rest of our classes and just go someplace where we can be alone.”

Chris looked stumped for a moment. “Courtney, I’d love to, but really, I can’t. I missed so many classes last week, because of my mom. I can’t just take off. Plus I told Elvis I’d get together with him after school.”

She pouted. “But I really need to talk to you. It’s important.” She handed him her cell phone. “Here, call Elvis and tell him you can’t make it. He’ll understand.”

Chris looked at the phone in his hand and hesitated.

“C’mon,” she insisted, stroking his arm. “You’re the only person I want to be with right now. I absolutely hate everybody else. I really need you, Chris. . ”

Chris’s thumb hovered over the Talk button.

“Plus you owe me,” she continued. “I was there for you after your Mom got killed. Remember, I came over?” She tugged at his arm. “Just call him. You can see him later tonight.”

Chris glanced at the phone again. But then he shook his head and gave the phone back to her. “Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll meet you after school, and we can hang out. I’m seeing Elvis next period anyway. I’ll tell him we can get together another time.”

The phone vibrated in her hand. Courtney checked the caller ID. The blocked number again. She tossed the phone in her purse and then smiled at Chris. “Okay, then I’ll just drive around until school’s out, and I’ll pick you up in front of the music building.” It was where they used to meet after school while they’d been dating those few weeks.

She got on her tiptoes and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks, Chris.”

Blushing, he gave her a shy smile and said good-bye.

After that, it was easy to ignore the people in the hallways talking behind her back. She no longer felt like a freak. Chris made her feel important again. He’d had the same effect on her last year after she’d been dumped by Shane White. Chris was so good for her ego.

She decided to kill the next two hours at Northgate Mall. According to her mom, they’d have to start pinching pennies, because her father would certainly lose his job. So — this might be her last chance to go on a shopping bender.

In her car, when she hit the first traffic light, Courtney came to a stop and fished her iPhone out of her purse. She switched the phone back to the ring setting. Then the light changed. She noticed a cop car parked on the other side of the street — near the intersection. She put the iPhone down on the passenger seat. She didn’t want to get a fine for using her cell phone while driving.

For the time being, Courtney focused her attention on the road ahead. She was still in a residential area near the school — with tree-lined parkways on either side of the road. She had about five more stoplights to go until the on-ramp to Interstate 5. She picked up a little speed — and sailed through one of those lights.

Her cell phone rang.

Blindly, she reached over and grabbed it. Glancing in her rearview mirror, she didn’t see any police cars. She checked the caller ID. That stupid blocked number again. “Goddamn it, leave me alone, asshole,” she muttered over the ringing.

Courtney decided she’d tell them just that.

The speedometer on her dashboard read 37 MPH.

She brought the cell up toward her face and pressed the Talk button.

All at once, the phone exploded in her hand. All at once, her face was on fire.

Courtney shrieked. But she couldn’t even hear her own screams. The deafening blast incinerated her right ear. In the ear that remained, she heard only a high-pitched ringing — almost like the phone.

She choked on the smoke — and the smell of her own burning flesh. Blinded, Courtney couldn’t see that she was careening toward a large maple tree. The pain was so excruciating, she just wanted to die.

When the Neon slammed into the tree, Courtney didn’t hear the glass shattering and metal twisting. She didn’t hear the car horn blare from the impact. All she heard was that constant ringing.

The air bag deployed and hit her in the face — like a hard punch with a big pillow.

It was the last thing she felt before she lost consciousness.

In her last thought, Courtney hoped to God she would never wake up.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Her cell phone rang.

Molly put down her artist’s brush and reached for her phone. Another blocked number, and another hang-up without a message. It was the fourth time in an hour. That was how long she’d been up in her attic studio working on her painting with all the partygoing cola drinkers through the ages. Her man from the fifties had an intentional resemblance to James Dean; but the woman from the twenties — in the foreground of the ensemble — looked way too much like Jean Harlow. Molly didn’t want the piece to look like one of those paintings from Spencer’s with Elvis, Bogart, Marilyn, and James Dean all hanging out at the drive-in. The painting was so complex, it drove her crazy. And the phone interrupting every few minutes certainly didn’t help.

She kept thinking it was probably that creepy woman calling again.

Ask him where he really was.

Everything Jeff had said this morning made sense, and yet Molly still felt he was hiding something from her. Maybe all this doubt and suspicion was hormonal or something.

She went back to the painting and picked up her paintbrush once more.

The phone rang again.

“Shit,” Molly muttered. She swiped up the phone and switched it on. “Yes, hello?” she said impatiently.

She heard that asthmatic breathing again.

“Listen, stop calling me,” Molly growled.

“Do you know where Jeff was that night, Mrs. Dennehy?” That raspy, singsong voice sent a chill through her.

“Yes,” she shot back. “He was at the Hilton in Washington, D.C. What the hell business is it of yours?”

“He wasn’t in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Dennehy,” the woman replied. “Check the hotel.”

“I did check the hotel, and they confirmed it,” Molly lied.

She heard the woman laughing quietly. Then there was a click on the other end.

Molly switched off the phone. “Goddamn it,” she muttered.

The woman seemed to know she was lying. She felt so pathetic and stupid. She’d even admitted to the insane bitch that she’d doubted her husband enough to phone the hotel where he’d claimed to have stayed.

All right, she got to you, she’s happy, Molly told herself. Chances were she wouldn’t call again for a while.

Molly forced herself to look at the painting again, but she just shook her head. She couldn’t concentrate. She quickly rinsed out her paintbrushes and retreated downstairs with her cell phone in hand. She was about to pull her sweatshirt over her head when she heard a noise in the foyer.

For a second, she froze. But then she saw the mail on the floor — below the slot. She hated that slot in the door. Whenever she was home alone, and the mail came, it always caught her off guard and gave her a start. On top of that, she sometimes thought how easy it would be for some stranger to squat down by the door, lift up that little brass lid and peek inside the house. She imagined someone doing it at night, while they were all asleep upstairs.

She went down to the foyer to check the mail — nothing but bills: Seattle City Light, Premera Blue Cross, Visa. .

Molly let the other bills drop to the floor. The Visa bill was addressed to Jeff. She tore open the envelope. Unfolding the bill, she scanned the most recent purchases for a Hilton in Washington, D.C., or any purchases at all in D.C. There were none.

The bill didn’t show any activity on his card from the period he was supposed to be at the Hilton on Dupont Circle to when he came home. The gap went from Monday, November 1 through Wednesday, November 3. There was a Shell station gas purchase in Fife, Washington, on the fourth, from when he’d taken the kids down to their Aunt Trish’s house in Tacoma. And he must have bought some flowers for Trish, because a $35.10 charge that same day came from Blooms by Beth in Tacoma, Washington.

Molly checked, and she found hotel, restaurant, limo, and rental car charges in Boston and Philadelphia for his other recent business trips. So Jeff did indeed use this credit card for business. Why was there a gap for his trip to Washington, D.C.? Did he pay for everything in cash? What was he hiding?

He had an American Express card, too. Rummaging through the desk in his study, Molly found his last American Express bill. The billing period stopped in mid-October. So she phoned customer service, and after punching several numbers, she finally got a real person. Molly asked for a list of charges made between November 1 and 3, the day after Angela had been murdered.

There was nothing.

Ask him where he really was.

Frustrated, Molly started to cry. She dug a Kleenex from the pocket of her jeans and blew her nose. Maybe she just had to get out of the house for a while and leave her cell phone behind. Even if it was just for a walk around the neighborhood, she needed to go stretch her legs. It didn’t matter she was wearing her sloppy painting clothes. She went to the closet and pulled out her Windbreaker.

“Get while the getting’s good,” she muttered to herself. “I’d just as soon be gone when that crazy bitch calls again. . ”

She hesitated at the door. Where had she heard that before? She remembered six months ago, that night Kay had come over. She could still see Kay, sitting on her sofa with a glass of wine in her hand: “Thanks for having me over tonight. I’d just as soon not be home in case that creepy bitch calls again. . ”

That was just hours before her death.

Molly couldn’t remember exactly what the woman had said to Kay on the phone. It was something about Kay being an unfit mother.

The house phone rang, giving her a start.

Molly marched into Jeff’s study and snatched up the cordless. “What? What do you want?” she barked.

“Molly?”

She recognized Lynette’s voice. “Oh, hi, Lynette,” she said. “I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else. I’ve been getting these crank calls—”

“Molly, I need a favor,” she interrupted. “I need you to pick up Carson and Dakota from school today. I already cleared it with their teachers that you’d be by. I wouldn’t be asking you, but Jill can’t get away from work today.”

“Well, ah, sure, I guess,” Molly replied, confused. “Lynette, I’m very sorry about what’s happening with Jeremy. I—”

“Thanks,” she said with a tremor in her voice. “But I really can’t talk. Courtney’s been in an accident. She wrecked her car. They took her to UW Hospital. I’m on my way there now.”

“Oh, my God, I’m so sorry,” Molly murmured.

“Just pick up Carson and Dakota for me, and don’t tell them anything. I don’t know when I’ll be back. I’ll call you when I find out more. Okay?”

“Of course,” Molly replied numbly.

She heard Lynette start to sob. “Thank you,” she said, tearfully.

Then she hung up.

Eight-year-old Carson Hahn picked up a large pebble by the entrance to the play area outside Burger King. It looked like he was about to hurl it at a car in the parking lot.

“Carson!” Molly yelled. She was sitting outside at a red and yellow plastic picnic-style table with Rachel. It had grown chilly with nightfall, and though the play area was well-lit, she’d buttoned up her coat to stay warm. She nibbled on some fries that had gotten cold while Rachel ate a salad.

Molly hadn’t had any problems with Carson’s and Dakota’s teachers when she’d gone to pick them up. Lynette had called around 5:30 to report that Courtney’s condition was critical. Chris had come to the hospital to keep her company while Courtney was in surgery. Lynette couldn’t say when she’d be back to pick up the kids.

Molly had kept Carson and Dakota in line by promising to take them to Burger King. She’d had to separate Carson from Erin twice, because he liked to tease her. But the three kids had behaved themselves during their November night picnic dinner. Now they were working it off in the play area. The girls seemed to like the slide, and Carson seemed to like trouble. Molly knew — as soon as she saw him pick up that pebble.

She quickly got to her feet. “Carson, you put that down right now or you’ll be very sorry!”

He sneered at her. “I don’t have to listen to you!” he shot back. “And you can’t hit me, because my mom will be real mad if you do!”

For a moment, Molly didn’t know what to say.

Rachel threw her plastic fork into the plastic salad receptacle and stood up. “Well, I don’t know your mother and I don’t care if she gets mad at me. So do what Molly says before I come over there and slap your face!”

His mouth open, Carson gaped at her. He shrugged awkwardly, then tossed aside the pebble. He gave the fence around the play area a kick, and then wandered inside and plopped down on a swing.

“Thank you!” Rachel sweetly called to him. She looked at Molly and sighed. “Something tells me that’s going to come back to haunt me.”

Molly chuckled. “Oh, he’s so going to tell his mother on you. But I for one thank you. I’m really glad you could come along.”

“No sweat,” Rachel said, picking a crouton out of her salad and nibbling it. “I think we have an easier job here than Chris does — holding Lynette’s hand at the hospital, the poor guy. I’m not a big fan of hers, and I hate hospitals. My mom was in and out of hospitals for so many months. She had cancer.” Rachel tilted her head to one side and squinted at Molly. “Are your parents still around?”

“My mother is,” Molly admitted. “But we — well, we’re kind of estranged.”

“I’m sorry, that’s too bad,” Rachel said, fingering the straw to her vanilla shake. “My mom and I were close. She practically raised me by herself. Never mind about my dad. He’s not worth going into. Anyway, they’d discovered the cancer too late. Toward the end, I moved her into my house, and took a leave of absence from my job. I was a financial forecaster for this investment firm in Tampa. The money was really good, and I had a nice house — and a gorgeous, sexy husband, an actor by the name of Owen Banner. Have you heard of him?”

Molly shrugged. “Sorry, no, I haven’t.”

Rachel nodded glumly. “And you never will. I basically supported him while he spent my money on booze and other women. He did three commercials and dinner theater for the geriatric crowd. Talk about a loser. He’s very immature, and I guess in some warped way that appealed to my maternal side. I wanted to take care of him. But Owen didn’t like having my sick mother in the house. He finally issued me an ultimatum: either my mother went or he went. So I started divorce proceedings. In the meantime, my mom died. I had no idea that I’d gotten all my financial savvy from her. Thanks to her investments, my mother left me with about nine hundred thousand bucks. When Owen got wind of this, oh, boy, did he come running back to me, ready to make amends. I know he’s bad news, and that’s why I moved away — as far as I could. I already had ex-sex with him about two months ago. That’s one more reason I made the move here to Seattle.”

Rachel slurped the last of her milk shake through the straw, then sighed. “Anyway, that brings you up to date on moi—motherless, jobless, divorced, and independently wealthy for the time being.”

Molly shrugged. “Wow. Well, I’m glad you told me. Thanks.”

Rachel reached for her purse. “Don’t thank me yet, Molly. I just wanted to let you know about me and my background and my mistakes before I showed you this. . ” She pulled an envelope from her purse, and set it on the table. “Remember, this came to your house by mistake? You gave it to me last week when we first met.”

Molly remembered. It was the only piece of mail that looked like a personal letter.

Rachel pointed to the handwritten address in the corner of the envelope.

785 NW Fleischel Ave.

Portland, OR 97232

“That address is a fake,” she said. “I looked it up on Google. There is no Fleischel Avenue in Portland. And see, the postmark is Kent, Washington. Somebody in Kent wants me to think they’re in Portland — and they’re not doing a very good job. Anyway, open it up. . ”

Molly took out the letter. “Oh, my God,” she murmured.

It was a folded photocopy — in negative — from a microfiche file of the Chicago Tribune’s front page, from January 30, 2007. The headline read: 3 DEAD, 5 WOUNDED IN CAMPUS SHOOTING SPREE. There was a photo beneath it, which Molly knew very well by now: a cop comforting a crying woman with blood on her blouse. They stood in front of the community college’s front entrance with the crowd that had been evacuated from the school.

Someone had stuck a Post-it to the page. You might ask your new neighbor about this, it said.

“Isn’t your maiden name Wright?” Rachel asked gently.

Molly just nodded. The piece of paper began to shake in her hand

“I didn’t want to ask you about it until I knew you a little better,” Rachel said. “But I looked it up. So — this Roland Charles Wright, was he related to you?”

Molly nodded again. “He was my brother. He — he had some emotional problems, obviously.”

“I’m sorry,” Rachel said, putting a hand on her arm. “Who would send me something like this? Do you have any idea?”

Molly just shook her head. She couldn’t blame Angela anymore. The letter might have arrived at her house by mistake when Angela was still alive, but she knew Jeff’s late ex-wife hadn’t sent it. She couldn’t blame a dead woman for those strange phone calls she was getting. Sure, Angela had lied to her at that lunch when she’d claimed not to have told anyone else about Charlie. But what if that had been her only lie?

Someone else is behind all this….

This someone seemed to know everyone’s secrets. This woman knew about Charlie — and she also had something on Jeff, concerning his whereabouts the night Angela had been murdered. When Lynette’s kids were cut up by the glass in the vacant lot, Lynette had asked her, “You’re not the one who called me?” That had been a few days before Jeremy’s arrest. Had this woman hounded Lynette about Jeremy’s secret the same way she was now tormenting her about Jeff? A raspy-voiced stranger’s phone calls had haunted both Angela and Kay just days before they were killed. Angela was going to pay for something she’d done. And she’d asked Kay if she was a good mother or something along those lines.

“You know,” Rachel said. “I think this cul-de-sac must be cursed. I mean, the woman who lived in the house before me, your friend, Kay — she fell, hit her head, and bled to death. And the mother of your stepchildren was murdered. And just in the last week, Lynette’s little darlings. .” She nodded toward the play area, where Carson was teasing Dakota and Erin. “They were cut up in that empty lot. Then my toolshed mysteriously caught on fire. Lynette’s husband got arrested yesterday. And now this afternoon, Lynette’s daughter gets in a freak car accident. It’s like Willow Tree Court is one big bad insurance risk. I mean, please, tell me this isn’t normal.”

Molly’s cell phone rang. She immediately thought of the crazy woman caller, but when she checked the caller ID, she saw it was Lynette. She clicked on the phone: “Hi, Lynette. How’s Courtney?”

“In recovery,” she answered edgily. “They sent us home. So — I’m here at your house with Chris, and I don’t see my children. Where are my kids?”

“I took them out for dinner here at Burger King,” Molly said. “They’re fine, Lynette—”

“I need to be with my kids right now,” she said, her voice cracking.

“All right, we — we’ll leave now,” Molly said. “Do you want me to bring you something from Burger King? Does Chris want anything?”

“I just want my kids!” Lynette cried.

“All right, we’re leaving right now. Bye, Lynette.” She clicked off the cell and looked at Rachel. “God, she sounds absolutely crazed.”

“I could hear her,” Rachel said. She put her fingers in her mouth and let out a loud whistle. “C’mon, kids,” she called. “Your mom’s waiting for you.”

She folded up the microfiche photocopy with the Post-it attached and shoved it inside the envelope. “Do you want this?” she asked, offering the envelope to Molly. “It was addressed to me, but I think, well. . I think it was really meant for you, Molly.”

“Please, throw it away,” Molly said.