Bad Moon: New Excerpt

Bad Moon by Todd Ritter
Bad Moon by Todd Ritter

On the same night that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, nine-year-old Charlie Olmstead jumped on his bike to see if he could get a better look. It was the last anyone ever saw of him. After Perry Hollow Police Chief Jim Campbell found Charlie’s bike caught up above a waterfall, he assumed the worse, and so did everyone else except Charlie’s mother.

Years later, Eric Olmstead—a famous author and Charlie’s brother—has come back to bury his mother and fulfill her last request: Find his brother. To do so he goes to the current police chief and his former sweetheart Kat Campell, and it isn’t long before they discover that finding Charlie was his mother’s secret obsession, and while she never found him she uncovered clues suggesting that he wasn’t the only victim.

 

Prologue

JULY 20, 1969

It was the baby, of all things, that woke her up. Not her husband. Not the police. Just the baby and his crying.

Maggie had grown accustomed to the sound. Having two kids did that to you. Sometimes she’d accidentally sleep right through whatever racket one of them was making. But that night was different. The crying was different. It wasn’t the irritated wail of an infant who was tired or the pained whimper of one who was teething. It was, Maggie realized, a cry of terror, and the noise tugged her out of sleep, out of bed, and out of the room.

Along the way, her bleary eyes caught the clock on her dresser. It was almost eleven. She had been asleep for more than three hours. Not as bad as some days, but not good, either. Not good at all. And despite the rest, she still felt weary as she crossed the hall to the nursery. Still utterly exhausted.

In the nursery, Maggie flicked on the overhead light. The sharp, sudden glow made her eyes sting in addition to being bleary. It didn’t matter. She could navigate the room with her eyes closed, which is exactly what she did. The memories of hundreds of similar trips guided her—rocking chair to the right, dresser to the left, don’t stub your toe on the toy chest. Once she reached the crib, Maggie opened her eyes.

The crib was empty.

The crying, however, continued.

Maggie heard it, loud and fearful. She rotated in the center of the room, looking for a possible explanation. Had the baby somehow escaped the crib and crawled into the closet? The dresser? Another room?

It was only after two more twirls that Maggie’s sleep-addled mind caught up with her spinning body. When it did, she realized the source of the crying wasn’t in the nursery at all. It was coming from downstairs and had been the entire time. Only now it sounded more urgent, more frightened.

Maggie left the nursery and clomped down the stairs. At the bottom, she expected to see Ken reclining in the living-room La-Z-Boy, the baby wriggling in his arms. Instead, the chair was occupied by Ruth Clark, whose spindly arms struggled to stay wrapped around the writhing child.

Ruth, who was only sixty but looked at least a decade older, lived down the street. She and Maggie were friends, but not friendly enough for Ruth to be in her house, holding her child, at almost eleven o’clock at night. Yet there she was, trying to hush the baby in the gray glow of the television.

“Ruth? What’s going on?” Blinking in confusion, Maggie noted what her neighbor was wearing—a nightgown stuffed into threadbare trousers, flip- flops on her feet. She had dressed in a hurry. “Where’s Ken?”

“You were asleep,” Ruth said with forced cheer. “So he asked me to come over and keep an eye on the baby. He had to step out for a minute.”

“Why?”

Ruth stayed silent as she pressed the baby into Maggie’s arms. He had been wrapped tightly in a blanket, which covered everything but his face. Whether it was Ken’s doing or Ruth’s, Maggie didn’t know. Either way, it was a bad move on such a muggy night. Both the baby and the blanket were drenched with cold sweat, which explained the bawling.

The crying softened once Maggie settled onto the couch and loosened the blanket. Ruth sat next to her, uncomfortably close. She was hovering, Maggie realized. And watchful.

“Did Ken say where he was going?”

Ruth’s reply—“He didn’t”— was rushed and unconvincing.

“What about when he’d be back?”

“Soon.”

“I’ll wait up for him. You don’t need to stick around.”

“I think I should stay.”

Maggie didn’t have the energy to protest, not that Ruth would have allowed it. The finality of her tone made it clear she intended to stay. With nothing left to say or do, Maggie stared at the television.

What she saw astounded her.

The screen was mostly a grainy blur—fizzy patches of black and gray. Then an image took shape through the haze. It was a figure in a bulky uniform, looking like a ghost against a background of endless darkness. The figure was on a ladder, hopping downward rung by rung.

It paused at the bottom. It placed a foot onto the ground. It spoke.

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

“Sweet Lord,” Ruth said. “He’s really standing on it.”

He was Neil Armstrong. It was the moon. And Ruth was correct—the astronaut was standing on its surface just as easily as Maggie now sat in her living room.

Eyes fixed on the TV, she immediately thought of Charlie. Nine years older than the baby, he had been moon crazy the past year. Earlier that afternoon, when Apollo 11 actually touched down on the moon’s surface, Charlie had cheered, jumped, and cried until he made himself sick.

He would want to see this, Maggie knew. History was taking place.

“I’m going to wake Charlie.”

Ruth trailed her to the stairs. “Maggie, wait!”

Maggie didn’t stop, continuing up the stairs with rushed purpose. At the top, her bare feet made slapping sounds on the hardwood floor as she moved down the hall to Charlie’s bedroom. Ruth remained downstairs, calling up to her.

“Please come back! Charlie’s not there!”

Maggie stopped, hand against the closed bedroom door. “What do you mean?”

“Come back downstairs,” Ruth said. “I’ll explain.”

Maggie did the opposite, pushing into the room instead. The streetlight outside the window cast a rectangle of light that stretched across the floor. Just like in the nursery, she didn’t need it. She knew every inch of the bedroom, from the telescope in the corner to the model rockets lined up on the bookshelf.

The window was open, letting in a rainy breeze that dampened the curtains. Beneath it was Charlie’s bed, draped in a comforter dotted with moons, stars, and planets. Holding the baby with one arm, Maggie used her free hand to lift the comforter and whip it away.

The bed, much like the baby’s crib earlier, was empty.

“Please come downstairs.” Ruth now stood in the doorway, breath heavy, face pinched.

“Where is he? Did Ken take him somewhere?”

Ruth moved into the room and tried to clasp her hand. Maggie yanked it away. “Answer me, Ruth. Where is my son?”

“He’s missing.”

“I don’t understand.”

But Maggie did. She understood quite well as she shuffled backward and plopped onto the empty bed. The bed that should have contained Charlie. Her boy. Whose whereabouts were now unknown.

“Is that where Ken went? To look for him?”

“He called the police,” Ruth said. “Then he woke me and Mort.”

Mort was Ruth’s husband. Maggie presumed he was also looking for Charlie, along with the police and God knows who else. Apparently everyone but her knew her son was gone.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Ken didn’t think you’d wake up. And if you did, he knew you’d be worried.”

Damn right she was worried. Her body might have been motionless on her son’s bed, but her mind was a whirling dervish of fears and bad thoughts. Where was Charlie? How long had he been gone? Was it too late to find him? When Maggie’s brain settled down, her body started up again. She rose from the bed and stomped past Ruth into the hallway.

“I have to look for him,” she said. “I have to find him.”

Again, Ruth tried to stop her. “I’ll take the baby.”

“No.”

Maggie tightened her arms around the infant. One of her children was missing. She wasn’t going to let the other out of her sight until he was found.

She descended the stairs into the living room. The TV was still on, still broadcasting surreal pictures from another world.

A second astronaut had joined Armstrong, both of them leaping like jackrabbits across the moon’s surface. Maggie moved right past it, not caring. Her only concern was her children, not the moon, or the astronauts, or the fact that she was running outside in the rain in bare feet, denim cutoffs, and a T-shirt stained with baby puke.

She made it to the end of the driveway before seeing two men approach the house. One of them was Ken. The other was Mort Clark. Maggie looked past them, hoping to see Charlie lagging behind. He wasn’t.

“Did you find him?” Maggie asked as she met them in the middle of the street. “Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Ken said. “I have no idea.”

He looked pale and haunted— more ghostlike than those astronauts on TV. The rain had flattened his hair. Large drops of it clung to his beard.

“We were watching TV,” he said. “They were showing stuff about the moon landing and Charlie said he wanted to go for a bike ride and look at it. He said he thought he’d be able to see the astronauts from here.”

It was a ridiculous notion, but very much in line with Charlie’s thinking. Maggie easily pictured him hopping on his bike—midnight blue with badly painted stars—and pedaling off in excitement.

“How long ago was that?”

“About an hour.”

“Where did he go?”

“The falls.”

One of Charlie’s favorite places was the creek that rushed through the woods behind their cul-de-sac. There was a dirt path there, perfect for biking, that led to a footbridge. From that perch, you could see the water hurtle over Sunset Falls, which plunged thirty feet into a rock-strewn pool. They had allowed Charlie to ride there alone for the first time this summer. Maggie now regretted that decision.

“Did you check the bridge?” she asked.

When Ken sighed, Maggie suddenly felt the urge to hit her husband. She would have done it, too, had she not been holding the baby. She would have let loose with a few good punches while asking Ken why he didn’t go with their son, why he couldn’t find him, why he was talking to her instead of still looking for Charlie.

“Of course I checked the bridge. It was the first place we went. The police are still there.”

Then they needed to look somewhere else. She needed to look somewhere else, since Ken had made it clear his searching was over for the night. Maggie felt herself moving away from him, compelled to do something. Charlie wouldn’t be found with her just standing there.

“Where are you going?” Ken asked.

Maggie didn’t answer. Wasn’t her destination perfectly clear? She was going to find her son. End of story.

Ken called after her, his voice muted in the rain. “I think you should leave the baby with me. I don’t—”

He stopped himself, but it didn’t matter. He might as well have just finished the sentence and let the truth escape. He didn’t trust her with the baby. Not after what happened in May. It’s why he hadn’t bothered to wake her when Charlie went missing. It’s why he had sent Ruth to watch the baby earlier. It’s why he was trying to stop her from leaving now.

But Maggie couldn’t stop. Her body wouldn’t let her. She had no choice but to cross the street, even as the rain increased in force. Even as Ken begged her to come back. And even as the distance between her and her husband grew wider with each passing step.

 

There were four houses on the cul-de-sac, set apart by wide lawns and rows of sycamore trees. Ken and Maggie’s was by far the smallest—practically a cottage—and the most full. Two parents and two kids, crammed together in a house that Maggie struggled to keep clean. Across the street, in a cruel reflection of her own abode, sat the home of Lee and Becky Santangelo. It was everything Maggie’s house was not—large, rambling, spotless.

With Ken watching her from the driveway, Maggie crossed the Santangelos’ yard. It was so much larger than her own, an expanse of crisp green kept trim by a local teenage boy. At the moment, though, it was soggy with rainwater. It squished between her toes as she made her way to the front porch. Once there, she grabbed the giant brass knocker that dominated the door and rapped twice. When no one answered, she knocked again, this time slamming continuously until Lee Santangelo eventually opened it.

Like their disparate houses, Lee was the complete opposite of Ken. He was taller, for one thing, and far more handsome. Strong build, matinee-idol looks, always clean shaven. Normally, he was pleased when Maggie dropped by with Charlie and threw the door wide open for them. But this night was different. The door opened only a crack as Lee peered at her with a mixture of surprise and annoyance.

“Maggie,” he said, pretending to be happy to see her. “What’s going on?”

They were the same three words Maggie had used to greet Ruth Clark. Hearing them directed at her, she realized just how rude and suspicious they sounded.

“It’s Charlie. We can’t find him.”

Music was playing loudly inside. Something psychedelic that Maggie couldn’t place. Beyond that, barely audible, was a constant whirring sound. When Maggie tried to peek inside, Lee blocked her view with a quick side step. Seeing the length of his body, she realized he was wearing next to nothing— a pair of boxer shorts and an unbuttoned shirt, tossed on no doubt for her benefit. It didn’t matter. He could have been stark naked and she wouldn’t have cared.

“And you think he could have come here?” Lee asked.

“With all this moon business going on, I thought he might have stopped by. You know, because—”

Because Lee Santangelo was an astronaut. Or had trained to be one. Or had almost been one. Maggie didn’t know the details. She only knew that Charlie had driven him crazy with questions all summer.

“He hasn’t been by to night. I’m sorry. But I’ll definitely keep an eye out.”

“If you see him, please tell him we’re looking for him. And that we’re worried.”

She added that last part in the hope that Lee would fling open the door and let her look around the place. Instead, he tried to close it. Maggie, thinking fast, blocked the door with her foot. The squeeze of it against her big toe made her wince.

She persisted, despite the pain. “What about Becky?”

“What about her?”

“Maybe she saw him to night.”

Maggie knew Charlie had a crush on Lee’s wife, even if the boy didn’t know it himself. It was well within reason that Charlie could have bypassed Lee and instead sought out Becky, who offered him cookies, tousled his hair, and tut-tutted over his scraped knees.

“She’s not here,” Lee said slowly. “She’s gone until tomorrow. I’m the only one here.”

And that, Maggie realized, was all the information she would get at the moment. Time was ticking, and every second spent with Lee Santangelo was another second wasted in the search for her son. So she thanked him for his time, apologized for bothering him, and moved on.

She was halfway across the lawn when a sudden movement from the Santangelos’ house caught her eye. It was a curtain being rustled in a second-story window. Maggie saw a shadowy face peek out from behind it and stare down at her. She kept walking, pretending she hadn’t noticed. But when she reached the edge of the yard, she allowed herself one last, quick glance. What she saw was a silhouette standing in front of the window. Maggie could make out a thin frame and shaggy, shoulder- length hair.

A woman.

Maggie didn’t have a clear enough view to see if it was Becky Santangelo. But who it was didn’t really concern her. What mattered was that Lee had lied. He was definitely not alone.

 

Pebbles jutted into the soles of Maggie’s bare feet as she crossed the street. Each stone she stepped on caused a small flare of pain. For that, she was grateful. It took her mind off the knot of worry lodged in her chest. The distraction was only momentary, but considering the circumstances, she’d take what she could get.

In front of her house again, Maggie noticed that Ken had finally gone inside. Through the front picture window, she saw him pacing in the living room. His mood earlier had been maddeningly unreadable—equal parts annoyance, worry, and prickliness. But the unfiltered view through the picture window showed a man who was clearly distressed. He stared at the floor. He tugged at his beard. He closed his eyes and pressed a thumb and forefinger against the bridge of his nose, which Maggie knew meant he was trying to stave off a headache.

Part of her wanted to return to the house and comfort him. Despite all the mistrust of the past few months, she still loved him deeply. But Maggie needed comfort, too. She knew that would only come once Charlie was found safe and sound. So she pressed on, even though her arms were tired from carrying the baby and her legs were weak with worry.

She was also running out of neighbors. Besides the Clarks and the Santangelos, there was only one other house on the street, and it was the last place she expected to find Charlie. Still, she at least had to ask, even though she dreaded doing it.

Her destination was the house next door to her own. The oldest on the street, it was an exhaustingly ornate Victorian that looked ancient compared with her own home. Charlie liked to pretend it was haunted. He claimed children were buried in the backyard and that their ghosts roamed the house at night. Maggie had no clue what gave him such ideas, but she understood how the house’s appearance played a part in fueling his imagination. Black shutters flanked the tall windows. A widow’s walk on the roof seemed to lean in what ever direction the wind was blowing. The wraparound porch had an unused swing and brittle steps that threatened to break when Maggie climbed them.

Although the house was dark, she knew its owner was home. He was always home.

“Mr. Stewart?” Maggie shifted the baby’s weight to her left shoulder and knocked on the door with her right hand.

No one answered, which didn’t surprise her in the least. Glenn Stewart never answered his door. Nor, as far as Maggie could tell, did he go outside.

“Mr. Stewart? Are you there?”

Maggie knocked again, remembering the last time she had seen him, during that awkward homecoming party. The whole debacle had been her idea. Glenn had no family that she knew of, and she felt sorry he was returning from Vietnam to an empty house inherited from his grandparents. So she baked a cake, rounded up the neighbors, and marched next door, intent on creating a happy homecoming through sheer force of will.

Glenn had wanted nothing to do with it. He wasn’t rude when he opened the door and saw seven people (seven and a half, if you counted Maggie’s very pregnant stomach) applauding on his porch. He looked more scared than anything else, twitching like a rabbit facing a pack of wolves. But he refused to let them inside and declined the cake, which Maggie thrust at him desperately. Not knowing what else to do, she had left the cake on the porch, hoping Glenn would retrieve it later. Then they left, taking the hint. Glenn Stewart wanted to be left alone.

But now Maggie couldn’t leave him alone. Not until she knew if he had seen Charlie. So her knocking turned to pounding.

“Mr. Stewart? It’s Maggie Olmstead from next door.”

Dropping her head in frustration, Maggie noticed something sitting on the porch floor, about a yard away from her feet.

It was the cake—ravaged by birds, bugs, and four long seasons—sitting exactly where she had left it a year earlier.

Retreating from Glenn Stewart’s house, Maggie saw two police cars at the end of the cul-de-sac, where the asphalt ended and the footpath into the woods began. Twin beams of light swooped through the trees. Flashlights, scanning the darkness for her son.

One of the lights suddenly stopped. A voice rose from the woods.

“I think I see something!”

The second light bobbed swiftly toward the still one. Maggie moved, too, running toward the forest. She no longer felt the pebbles under her feet or the rain stinging her face. The only things she felt were the baby wriggling in her arms and the knot of worry expanding to all points of her body.

Her other senses, however, were heightened to an alarming degree. When she reached the path and pushed into the woods, her eyesight never dimmed. The smell of wet earth, moss, and maple sap clogged her nostrils. Her ears practically buzzed at the sound of boots tromping through the underbrush and voices murmuring to each other.

Then there was the creek. She saw the water’s glint, smelled its banks, heard the discordant rush as it approached Sunset Falls and plummeted over.

Two men were standing at the footbridge when Maggie reached it. One of them was Deputy Owen Peale, his face obscured by a hooded poncho. The other was the police chief, Jim Campbell. He eschewed the poncho in favor of a wide-brimmed hat. Maggie’s presence startled both of them.

“You shouldn’t be here, Maggie,” Jim said.

“Did you find Charlie?”

He tried to turn her around, away from the water. “What are you doing out here with the baby? You’re sopping wet.”

Maggie refused to budge. She craned her neck until she could see over the chief’s shoulder. Behind him, Deputy Peale had his flashlight pointed toward the stream.

“Is Charlie there?” she asked. “Is he okay?”

“Let’s get you home,” Chief Campbell said, his voice telling Maggie everything she needed to know. It was falsely optimistic, bordering on condescension. Something was wrong.

The baby began to stir in Maggie’s arms, more forcefully than before. A cry erupted from the infant, as loud and fraught with terror as the one that had awakened Maggie in the first place.

“How about you give me the baby,” Jim said. “I’m drier.”

When he held out his arms, Maggie made her move. She swerved past him and sprinted up the path. Deputy Peale lunged for her at the bridge, but she scooted right, just out of his reach. Then she was on the bridge, bounding across it until she was directly over the water. In the distance, about twenty yards away, the creek ended and the falls began.

Looking down at the water, she saw a branch emerge from under the bridge, riding the rain- swollen creek. It floated along the surface before hitting a rock and briefly stopping there. But the persistent current didn’t allow it to stay in place for long. Water swirled around the branch like tentacles until it was dis­lodged. The branch was whisked onward to the edge of the falls, where it slid from view.

Over, down, gone.

Maggie heard Jim Campbell yelling her name. She saw Owen Peale now on the bridge, approaching slowly and saying “It’s okay, Mrs. Olmstead. It’ll be okay.”

Her eyes turned back to the falls, where the branch had just tumbled into darkness. She traced its path, gaze swimming against the current. Soon she was looking off the other side of the bridge, her back to the falls. The creek there looked just as wild. Leaves, sticks, and globs of trash floated toward her and slipped beneath the bridge. There were rocks there, too, large boulders that poked out of the water like icebergs.

Owen Peale had reached her by that point. He clutched her shoulders and shook his head. “Don’t look. Please don’t look.”

That was when Maggie saw what she wasn’t supposed to see. It was an object caught on the rock closest to the bridge, pinned there by the current. It was blue. A blue so dark she could barely make it out.There were spots of white, too, ragged blotches that vaguely resembled stars.

Maggie screamed.

It was Charlie’s bike. Right there in the water. The current caught the spokes of the front tire and rocked it back and forth.

Jim Campbell joined them on the bridge. One of the men, Maggie didn’t know which, took the baby. The other tried to pull her away from the bridge railing. Maggie allowed herself to be moved. She didn’t have the strength to fight it. She simply went limp as she was dragged off the bridge. Along the way, she took one last glance toward the creek, even though she knew she shouldn’t. She had to see it again. Just to make sure it was real.

She saw the water dislodge the bike, just as it had moved the branch earlier. Caught on the current, the bike was sub­merged for a moment. It poked out of the water again on the other side of the bridge, riding inexorably toward the falls. When it reached the edge, the bike overturned, rear tire spinning. Then it slipped away, riding the falls.

Over. Down. Gone.

 

WEDNESDAY

Chapter 1

Five minutes.

That’s how much time Kat Campbell had until she needed to be out the door. Five lousy minutes to brew coffee, feed the dog, pack her son’s lunch, and toast two bagels for them to eat in the car. On a good morning, all of that could be accomplished in ten minutes. But this wasn’t a good morning. Not by a long shot.

The coffee was brewing so slowly it made Kat wish someone would just hurry up and invent a caffeine IV drip. One bagel was trapped in the toaster, quickly turning from golden brown to charcoal black. The other sat on the kitchen counter, waiting to meet the same fate. James’s lunch so far consisted of two slices of bread and a cup of chocolate pudding. His beagle, Scooby, had already given up on the prospect of breakfast and was now chewing an empty toilet paper roll dug out of the bathroom trash.

“James? Are you almost ready?”

Kat didn’t move from the kitchen counter. She was well aware how far lung power traveled in her house, and her voice would have no trouble rushing up the stairs and into her son’s bedroom.

“In a minute,” James called back. It was punctuated by the sound of a dresser drawer slamming shut. Never a good sign.

“It’s the first day of school. We don’t have a minute.”

In reality, they had three, but Kat was too busy making his lunch to correct herself. She slapped some cold cuts on the bread, coated it with mustard, and dropped it into a Ziploc bag. This was tossed into James’s lunchbox with the pudding, a granola bar, and milk money. Then it was on to the bagels. The one stuck in the toaster was freed with some shaking, tapping, and the strategic use of a butter knife. The untoasted one remained that way.

Next came Scooby, who had dropped the toilet paper roll into his dinner bowl, presumably to make Kat feel just a bit more neglectful. She replaced it with kibble, refilled his water dish, and let him go to town.

By that time, the coffeemaker was squeezing out a few last drops. Kat grabbed the pot and poured half of it into a thermos. She was done, with a minute to spare.

Pausing to catch her breath, she turned to the small television sitting on the kitchen counter. James sometimes watched cartoons on it while eating breakfast on Saturday mornings. That day, it was turned to CNN, where a blandly handsome anchor was sharing breaking news.

“The space race has officially restarted,” he said. “Early today, the China National Space Administration successfully launched its first manned voyage to the moon.”

The screen switched from the anchor to a clip of China’s president hailing the launch. That was followed by footage of the launch itself—a distant shot of an ivory tower streaking across the sky. After that was a view of Tiananmen Square, where thousands of spectators cheered.

“As the entire nation watched, three Chinese astronauts took off for the moon. They are expected to reach it Friday afternoon. A successful mission would make China only the second country, after the United States, to send a man to the moon. It would also be the first time since 1972 that man has set foot on the moon’s surface.”

Kat checked her watch. Time was up. Switching off the TV, she called upstairs once more. “James, we’ve got to go. Even if you’re still naked, we’re leaving this house.”

Two seconds later, her son stomped into the kitchen wearing jeans, a Phillies T-shirt, and sneakers. The clothes and shoes were new. And expensive. At first, Kat had balked at spending so much on back-to-school clothes, but James swore up and down that he needed them to fit in. Kat realized, sadly, it was most likely true. James was entering fifth grade, a tough year for any kid, let alone one with Down syndrome. But he was a smart boy, able to keep up with the others in his class, and so far he had made it through elementary school with a minimum of teasing. In order to keep it that way, Kat was willing to shell out for new clothes. And sneakers. And a backpack, even though the one James had used last year was in perfectly good condition.

The only holdover was his lunch box, which featured characters from the movie Cars. Kat had assumed James would want a newer, cooler one, just like everything else. But when he didn’t mention it, she didn’t bring it up. She was all too happy to save a few bucks and pack his lunch inside good old Lightning McQueen.

Yet when Kat handed him the lunch box, James looked at her like she had just grown a second head.

“What’s this?”

“Your lunch. Or at least something that resembles lunch.”

James wasn’t amused. “Fifth graders don’t use lunch boxes.”

“I didn’t get that memo. And we don’t have time to deal with it now.”

“But I’ll look stupid,” James protested as he slung his backpack over his shoulder.

“You didn’t look stupid last year.”

“But that was fourth grade. It was cool in fourth grade.”

“And you’ll be cool tomorrow.” Kat handed him his bagel and nudged him toward the back door. “But today it’s either the lunch box or no lunch at all.”

James sighed dramatically. It had become his usual way of demonstrating that he was right and she was wrong. Whenever she heard it, Kat felt a twinge of nostalgia for the boy who used to think everything she did was wonderful.

Once James was out the door, she reached for a small rack on the wall behind it. One hook contained the keys to her patrol car. The other held her holster. Kat removed both, putting the keys in her pocket and the holster around her waist. Below the rack was a small safe that contained her Glock. She opened it, removed the gun, and checked the safety before quickly sliding it into her holster. Then she grabbed her own bagel and thermos and left the house.

Although James didn’t bring up the lunch box again during the drive to school, he was certainly thinking about it. He spent the entire trip staring at it with resignation and, Kat sensed, no small amount of trepidation. He was nervous, which was understandable. Kat was nervous, too. She remembered entering the fifth grade and discovering how different it was from the previous year. It was the same way with sixth grade. And then junior high, which was a whole other world of cliques, peer pressure, and petty cruelties.

“You’ll be fine, Little Bear,” she said as they approached the school. “And we’ll brown-bag your lunch tomorrow.”

James’s ner vousgaze moved from the lunch box to Kat. “Promise?”

“I promise.”

 

After sending James off with a peck on the cheek that he quickly wiped away, Kat headed to work. Perry Hollow’s police station sat a few blocks southeast of the school, but instead of taking a shortcut to get there, she turned onto Main Street and drove its entire length. Taking her time, she scanned the quaint shops and restaurants that lined both sides of the thoroughfare.

They were the heart of Perry Hollow now that the lumber mill that had given the town its name was gone. Part of her job as police chief was to make sure that heart was beating strongly. If Big Joe’s, the town’s de facto Starbucks, was closed, it meant something was wrong with its aged proprietor, Ellen Faye, and that Kat needed to check up on her. When passing Awesome Blossoms, the flower shop, she made a point to note the presence of its delivery van, which had been stolen in the past.

It was still too early for most of the businesses to be open, but the lights were on at Big Joe’s, which meant Ellen was still chugging along. The same was true at the Perry Hollow Diner, where pickup trucks outnumbered cars in the parking lot by a three-to-one margin. And sitting in front of Awesome Blossoms was a white Ford delivery van.

The sight made Kat sigh with relief, considering the hell the town went through when it was stolen. Almost a year had passed since the end of those dark days, and Perry Hollow seemed to have gotten over the worst of it.

For the most part, Kat and James had, too.

Once she finished the inspection of Main Street, Kat maneuvered the Crown Vic down a side street and into the police station’s parking lot. Two other cars were already there. One was a patrol car similar to her own. That was driven by her deputy, Carl Bauersox, who was finishing up his usual night shift. The other was a Volkswagen Beetle that belonged to Louella van Sickle, the station’s dispatcher, secretary, cleaning lady, and all-around indispensable presence.

When Kat entered the station, Lou was already at her desk. She eyed the thermos and blackened bagel in Kat’s hands.

“Stuck in the toaster again?”

“Yup,” Kat said. “It was one of those mornings. I predict the coffee sucks, too.”

She took a sip, proving herself right. The coffee was far too strong, with a bitter aftertaste that stuck in the back of her throat.

Lou shook her gray-haired head. “Bad coffee. Burned bagels. You need a man in that house.”

“And you,” Kat said, “need to get your mind out of the fifties.”

Lou, who had been married for forty-three years, took it as a compliment.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I like not having to worry about making the coffee in the morning. Al does that. And he fixes the toilet. And mows the lawn. Plus, he’s still pretty good in the bed department.”

Kat didn’t need to know that. Nor did she need a man, despite Lou’s insistence otherwise. She had enough on her plate already—job, son, dog. There wasn’t any room on her schedule for finding and keeping a mate.

“All I’m saying is keep an open mind,” Lou told her. “One of these days, the perfect man could walk through that door and you’d dismiss him immediately.”

At that moment, a man did walk through the door. But Carl Bauersox, who was nice enough, wasn’t Kat’s type. Plus, he was married, with two kids and another on the way.

“Do you make coffee?” Lou asked him.

Carl answered with a nod. “And I fix the toilet and mow the lawn.”

“So you heard our conversation.”

“Yes,” Carl said, his baby face growing red. “But I don’t want to talk about the bed stuff.”

“That’s fine,” Lou said. “I’ll call your wife and ask her.”

The deputy looked mortified, as if she’d actually do it. Lou didn’t help matters by reaching for the phone. Kat beat her to it, pressing palm to receiver and assuring Carl that no calls would be made to his wife about their sex life. Ever.

“How was your shift?” she asked him. “Anything to report?”

“Not really. Speeding ticket on Old Mill Road. The Wellington kid again.”

Kat arched an eyebrow. “That’s his third ticket in four months, right?”

“Yup,” Carl said.“I can’t wait until they suspend his license so I can take a break from writing the darn things.”

“And nothing else suspicious?” Kat asked.“Nothing at all?”

She knew she was being paranoid. If something had been amiss during the night, Carl would have told her about it. But she needed to be thorough, especially after the events of the previous year. Once a town goes through the experience of having a serial killer on the loose, it’s hard to return to the way things were.

Carl laid a hand on her shoulder. “Relax, Chief, everything is fine. Now I’m going to go home and give my wife something to brag to Lou about.”

His uncharacteristic stab at bawdy humor made Kat laugh out loud. Lou did her one better: she catcalled at him. Blushing even more than before, Carl waved weakly and left the station.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Lou said. “You need a Carl.”

“What I need is a toaster oven and a gift certificate to Big Joe’s.”

Kat grabbed her bitter coffee and burned bagel and headed to her office. She took two steps before being stopped by another man entering the station.

“Chief Campbell. Just who I wanted to see.”

Once again, it wasn’t Prince Charming. In fact, Burt Hammond, the town’s mayor, was the complete opposite of charming. He was tall, slightly over six feet, and as fit as someone in his early sixties could be. Yet an aura of sleaze always seemed to surround him. Maybe it was his too-white smile. Or the spray-on tan that made him the same shade as a glazed ham. Or the fact that he was a lawn mower salesman who just happened to be holding a half-price sale on election day. He won by a landslide.

Kat didn’t have to deal with him very much, which was good, because she didn’t like him very much, either. She had learned through the grapevine—in which Lou van Sickle was the head grape—that Mayor Hammond felt the same about her. On the occasions when they were forced to meet, their conversations were terse but cordial.

Widening his lips into that fake grin that seemed to afflict all politicians, Burt said, “Sorry for the intrusion, but I was wondering if I could have a word in private.”

“Sure thing.” Kat led him to her office and settled behind her desk. “What can I do for you, Burt?”

The mayor remained standing, hands behind his back, head bowed ever-so-slightly. From her seat, Kat had a dead-on view of the prominent mole on his chin. Burt had been known for the mole long before he was known as the mayor. Roughly the size of a dime, it wasn’t unsightly, nor was it particularly dark. It was just so large that, once you spotted it, you couldn’t stop looking at it. Plus, it made Burt instantly recognizable, a fact he capitalized on in ad campaigns for his lawn mower dealership. There was even talk that the real mole had been removed years ago and that Burt now sported a fake one just so he’d still be recognized.

“We’ve been doing some number crunching,” he said. “Just trying to see where we stand before digging in and starting the budget for next year. You know the drill.”

Kat was well acquainted with submitting requests for more staff, better equipment, new patrol cars. Every year, all but the smallest requests were turned down on the excuse that money was tight across the board and that every department had to share the burden. So while she and Carl got to drink from a new watercooler, their eight-year-old Crown Vics would have to spend another twelve months on the road.

“This year,” Burt continued,“you’re asking for new patrol cars.”

“New Dodge Chargers,” Kat added.

Top-of-the-line ones at that. The department in Mercerville, the next town over, got some two years ago. They were sleek and safe and fast as hell, an asset Kat never really thought was necessary until the events of last year.

“Unfortunately,” Burt said,“you’re not getting them. There’s just not enough money in the budget. Nor is there any money for a new hire, even though you’ve made it abundantly clear that you want another officer in the ranks.”

“I need another officer.”

Burt never stopped smiling. Kat had seen more sincere grins on corpses, and she wanted to wipe it off Burt’s face with the back of her hand.

“I’m just doing my job,” he said.

“And I’m doing mine. Which is looking out for my department.”

“This isn’t just about your department. We’re all making sacrifices here.”

The word made Kat roll her eyes. “Sacrifices? Talk to the families of the people who died last year. They’ll tell you all about sacrifice, Burt.”

“I know things were bad—”

“It was a serial killer.” Kat spoke slowly, elongating every word. “Living in this town. And every day I think about the lives I could have saved if there had been one more cop on the streets.”

“Considering that death toll, you should feel lucky to still have a job at all.”

Jumping out of her chair, Kat stood chest to chest with Burt. It didn’t matter that he was a foot taller than her. Nor did it matter that the mayor, along with the rest of the town council, was technically her boss. He was implying that she hadn’t done everything in her power to protect her town at the height of the Grim Reaper killings, and Kat couldn’t let that slide.

“I don’t like you, Burt,” she said, anger heating her cheeks. “You don’t like me. That’s fine. Neither of us gives a damn. But if you ever doubt my commitment to this town again, I swear to God, I’ll—”

Kat didn’t know what she was going to say next. A thousand different responses popped into her head, each more risky than the last. The one on the tip of her tongue, just waiting to be set free, was “yank that mole right off your face.”

Fortunately, she never got the chance. Just as she was about to say it, her cell phone rang, cutting off her torrent of anger. Saved by the bell. Literally.

She paused, breathing hard, as the cell phone continued to ring. She backed away from Burt Hammond, finally noticing just how much he towered over her five-foot-tall frame.

“I think you should go now,” she said.

Burt nodded and said tersely, “That’s a good idea. We’ll discuss this later. Hopefully after you learn to control your emotions.”

He left Kat alone with her pounding heartbeat and her ringing cell phone. She answered it with a rattled “Hello?”

“I’m just outside of town.”

The caller was Nick Donnelly, who had never met a greeting he didn’t like to forsake. The lead state police investigator during the Grim Reaper killings, he was fired after assaulting an employee at the county hospital. Normally, Kat frowned upon such behavior, but since his actions saved her life, she cut him some slack.

“Outside of what town?” Kat asked.

“Yours. I’m meeting a client there.”

When he was booted from the Pennsylvania State Police, Nick started a nonprofit foundation devoted to cracking unsolved cases. His clients were mostly families of victims seeking answers to long-forgotten mysteries. If one of his clients was in Perry Hollow, that meant the crime most likely occurred there, too.

Only there weren’t any unsolved crimes in Perry Hollow. It was a tiny town, a speck of commerce amid the mountains and forests of southeast Pennsylvania. Before the Grim Reaper murders, the crime rate had been almost non existent. If there was a cold case buried among the old files that filled the station’s basement, Kat didn’t know about it.

“Who’s the client?”

Nick played coy. “I’ll tell you when I get there. Let’s meet at Big Joe’s in fifteen minutes.”

“Not until you tell me who hired you.”

“I’ll do you one better and tell you who the case is about.”

“Fine. Who?”

“Charles Olmstead.”

The name made Kat gasp. She couldn’t tell if Nick heard it or not. Knowing him, he did. But at that moment, she didn’t care. She was too busy wondering why someone was interested in the Olmstead case—and how Nick’s involvement would quickly and inevitably drag her into it.

 

Copyright © 2011  by  Todd Ritter


Todd Ritter, author of Death Notice, has been a journalist for fifteen years and is currently at the The Star-Ledger. He lives in suburban New Jersey. This is his second novel. 

Comments

  1. Sarah Gifford

    Huh, sounds intriguing, and I’ll probably buy it. But why, oh why, that ridiculous beginning with the neighbor and the baby? Talk about completely unbelievable to any parent! And what’s the point? Why turn your readers all skeptical on ya for no reason whatsoever?

  2. R S

    It does sound highly intriguing. And while I agree with the commenter above that the scene with the baby does sound surreal, I would like to learn more about Charlie’s disappearance.

    I’d love to get a review copy, if possible, for my blog http://abookbloggersdiary.blogspot.com.

    abookblogger at gmail dot com

    Thanks!

  3. Clare 2e

    You might try contacting the author through the link to his website in his sig line- good luck!

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