| SMOKY RIDGE CURSE
Winter had come to Bitterwood, Tennessee, roaring in on a cold, damp wind that poured down the mountain passes and shook the remnants of browning leaves from the sugar maples, sweet gums and dogwoods growing at the middle elevations. Delilah Hammond remembered well from childhood the sharp bite of an Appalachian November and dressed warmly when she headed up the winding mountain road to her mother’s place on Smoky Ridge.
Reesa Hammond was on day three of her latest hop on the sobriety wagon, and withdrawal had hit her hard, killing her appetite and leaving her shaking, angry and suffering from a persistent headache no amount of ibuprofen seemed to relieve. Frankly, Delilah was surprised her mother had bothered trying to stop drinking at all at this point, since her previous eight attempts at sobriety had all ended the same way, five fingers deep in a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
Delilah didn’t kid herself that this time Reesa would win the battle with the bottle. But Reesa had taken a hell of a lot of abuse trying to protect Delilah and her brother, Seth, from their sick creep of a sperm donor, so a little barley soup and a few minutes of company wasn’t too much to offer, was it?
Her cell phone beeped as she turned her Camaro into a tight curve. She waited until the road straightened to answer, aware of how dangerous the mountain roads could be, especially at night with rain starting to mix with sleet. “Hammond.”
“Just checking to make sure you hadn’t changed your mind.” The gruff voice on the other end of the line belonged to a former leatherneck named Jesse Cooper, the man who’d been her boss for the past few years, until she’d given her notice two weeks earlier.
“I haven’t,” she answered, tamping down the doubts that had harassed her ever since she’d quit the best job she’d ever had.
“You’re no good at small-town politics.”
“I know that, too.”
“You should have held out for chief of police, at least.”
She grinned at that. “Talk about small-town politics.”
“I can keep the job open for a month or two, but that’s it. Our caseload’s growing, and I can’t afford to work shorthanded.”
“I know. I appreciate the vote of confidence in me, but I’m ready for a change.” She tried not to dwell on just how drastic a change she’d made in the past two weeks. Going from a global security and threat assessment firm to a detective on one of Tennessee’s tiniest police forces was turning out to be a shock to the system even she hadn’t anticipated.
She still wasn’t sure why, exactly, she’d decided to stick around Bitterwood, Tennessee, after so many years away. She only knew that a few weeks ago, when the time had come to go back to work in Alabama after an extended assignment in her old hometown, her feet had planted firmly in the rocky Tennessee soil and refused to budge. She’d returned to Maybridge just long enough to work out her two-week notice, talk her landlord into letting her break her long-term lease, and gather up her sparse belongings. Two days ago, she’d moved into a rental house off Vesper Road at the foot of Smoky Ridge. In a week, she’d start her new job with the Bitterwood Police Department.
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything else about Adam Brand?” she added as the silence between her and her former boss lingered past comfort.
“Nothing yet. We have feelers out. I know you’re worried.”
“Not worried,” she denied, though it was a lie. “More confused than anything. Going AWOL is not an Adam Brand kind of thing to do. And there’s no way in hell he’s a traitor to this country. It’s not in his DNA.”
“Your brother still won’t tell you anything more about the work he did for Brand?”
“I don’t think Seth knows anything more,” Delilah said. “He didn’t ask a lot of questions, and Brand’s not one to shoot off his mouth.” Even when a few well-chosen words might do him a world of good, she added silently.
“Isabel and Ben have both been trying to reach him, but they’re not having much luck. They didn’t keep in close touch with Brand after leaving the bureau.”
“It happens.” Delilah ignored the stinging pain in the center of her chest. “I’ve got to go. I’m taking soup and sympathy to my mom. She’s on the wagon again.”
“Oh.” She could tell by Jesse’s careful tone that he wanted to say something encouraging, but he’d been around for three or four of her mother’s last brief flirtations with sobriety and knew better than to dish out false hope. “I hope she makes it this time.”
“Yeah, me, too. Say hi to everyone. And call me if you get any news about Brand. I don’t think this Davenport case is really over yet, and he seems to know something about it.”
“Will do.” Jesse hung up.
The Davenport case was at least part of the reason she’d stuck around Bitterwood. Two months earlier, the murders had started—four women found stabbed to death in their beds, though they’d clearly been killed elsewhere. A Bitterwood P.D. detective named Ivy Hawkins had made the first clear connection between the murders—all four women had been friends with a woman named Rachel Davenport, whose dying father owned Davenport Trucking in Maryville, Tennessee, a town twenty minutes from Bitterwood.
When Ivy had caught the murderer, he’d admitted he’d been hired to kill the women. With his cryptic dying words, he’d hinted the killings had everything to do with Rachel Davenport, as Ivy had suspected. Someone had wanted to torment Rachel until she broke, and only after several close calls had the police discovered a struggle for control of Davenport Trucking was at the heart of the campaign of emotional torture.
If there was anything good to come out of the whole mess, it was that Delilah’s black sheep of a brother, Seth, had ended up a hero and even won the girl—he and Rachel Davenport were already talking rings and wedding dates, which seemed pretty quick to Delilah. Then again, she was thirty-four and single. Some might say she was a little too cautious about affairs of the heart.
Her mother’s house was a small cabin near the summit of Smoky Ridge, prone to power outages when the winter storms rolled in. But she had a large fireplace in the front room and a smaller woodstove to warm her bedroom, both of which seemed to be working based on the twin columns of smoke rising over the fir trees surrounding the small cabin.
A thin layer of sleet had started to form on the hard surface of the narrow driveway next to the cabin, crunching under Delilah’s boots as she crossed the tiny concrete patio to the kitchen entrance. She had to bend into the wind as it gusted past her, slapping the screen door against the wall of the cabin.
It swung back as she passed, crashing into her with an aluminum rattle.
She stopped short, skidding on the icy pellets underfoot, and stared at the offending screen door. It hung sideways, still flapping in the cold wind, as if someone had tried to rip it from its hinges.
Moving slowly, she stepped back and reached into her pocket for her keychain, where she kept a small flashlight attached to the ring. She snapped it on and ran the narrow beam across the patio beneath the door.
Dark red splotches, still wet and glistening beneath the thin layer of sleet, marred the concrete surface. Another streak of red stained the aluminum frame of the broken door.
Her first thought was that her mother had gone back on the bottle, taken a spill, and was laid up inside somewhere, drunkenly trying to patch herself up. It was the most logical assumption.
But a lot of bad things had been happening in Bitterwood in the last couple of months. And between her FBI training and her years working for Cooper Security, Delilah always assumed the worst.
Setting the bag of takeout soup on the patio table, she pulled her Sig Sauer P229 from the pancake holster behind her back and tried the back doorknob. Unlocked.
She eased the door open. Heat blasted her, a welcome contrast to the icy breeze prickling the exposed skin of her neck. Somewhere in the house, a vacuum cleaner was running on high, its whine almost drowning out the whistle of the wind across the eaves.
She shut the door quietly. Keeping her eyes and ears open, she moved as silently as she could, checking each room as she went. If there had been blood splotches inside the house, they’d been cleaned up already. The rough wood floor beneath her feet was worn but spotless.
In the den at the front of the house, the sound of the vacuum cleaner roared with full force. Reesa Hammond was running an upright vacuum with cheerful energy, dancing to whatever tune she was singing beneath the noise of the cleaner.
She swirled the cleaner around in the opposite direction and jumped when she saw Delilah standing in the doorway, weapon in hand.
Reesa shut off the vacuum cleaner and put her hand over her chest. “Good lord, Dee Dee, you scared me out of my wits!”
“Are you okay?”
Reesa’s brow furrowed. “I’m fine. Are you okay?”
After a pause, Delilah reholstered her Sig Sauer. “Did you know the screen door to the kitchen’s been nearly ripped off its hinges?”
“Really?” Reesa looked surprised. “It was fine when I got back from the mailbox this afternoon. I guess the wind’s stronger out there than I thought.”
“I don’t think it was the wind,” Delilah murmured, remembering the blood on the patio. “You didn’t hear anything?”
“I was in the shower for a little while, then running the hair dryer, and I’ve been vacuuming the place ever since. I reckon half the mountain could have come down out there and I wouldn’t have heard it.” She cocked her head. “You look tired.”
Delilah gazed back at her mother through narrowed eyes. “I thought you were feeling bad.”
Reesa looked sheepish. “I was, this morning. But when you called and said you were coming over, I didn’t want you to see what a mess the place was, so I started cleaning up. And before I knew it, my headache was gone and I was feeling so much like my old self, I thought maybe I’d surprise you by having dinner ready for you when you got here.” She sighed. “But you’re early. I haven’t put the casserole in the oven yet.”
“I brought barley soup from Ledbetter’s Café.” And left it out in the cold, she realized, where it had probably reached refrigerator temperature by now
“And I’ve ruined it for you by feeling better.” Reesa patted her cheek. “I’m sorry. I know I must seem such a mess to you.”
Unexpected tears burned Delilah’s eyes. She blinked them away. “I’m just glad you’re feeling better.”
Reesa’s smile faded. “This is the farthest I’ve gotten, you know? I’ve never reached the point where I actually feel better not drinking. It’s a surprise, I have to say!”
“Well, good.” Delilah couldn’t keep a hint of caution out of her voice. She could tell her mother didn’t miss the inflection, for Reesa’s green eyes darkened with shame for a moment.
But she lifted her chin and smiled at her daughter. “I think it’s havin’ my kids around me again. I’ve missed you both so much.”
“Seth’s been by?” Delilah asked as her mother unplugged the vacuum cleaner and started looping the cord around the hooks in the back.
“He stopped in with Rachel earlier today.” Reesa slanted a quick look at Delilah. “She’s good for him.”
“She’s great for him,” Delilah agreed. “She’s crazy about him, too. Go figure.”
“What about you?” Putting the vacuum cleaner away in the living room closet, Reesa paused to look over her shoulder. “Met anyone you like?”
“Not recently,” Delilah answered. Actually, she’d met her share of men over the course of working for Cooper Security, but none who’d interested her enough to keep seeing him long-term.
There was only one man she’d ever really wanted, and though he’d never be hers, she still seemed to measure every man she met against him.
“Maybe you’ll meet someone when you start work.”
“Maybe,” Delilah agreed in order to end this particular topic of conversation. She’d already met everyone in the Bitterwood Police Department without a single spark flying. Most were married, and of those who weren’t, only Antoine Parsons was remotely interesting. But he was seeing someone in Maryville, and Delilah had never been a poacher.
Even when the man she wanted was married to his career.
“I can put the casserole in the freezer and make it some other time, since you brought soup.” Reesa nudged Delilah down the hall to the kitchen.
“No, the soup will keep in the fridge. I’m curious to see this casserole you’ve cooked up.” Delilah spotted a foil-covered glass casserole dish sitting by the refrigerator. She sneaked a peek under the foil, recognizing green beans, carrots, chicken chunks and whole-kernel yellow corn, topped with cheese and fried onions. “You made pantry casserole!” She turned to her mother, a smile playing at her lips.
“I didn’t have much in the pantry, but I thought it would be nice to fix something for you.” Reesa’s smile held a hint of apology. “Maybe next time you come, I’ll go shopping first and make something from scratch instead of out of cans.”
Impulsively, Delilah hugged her mother. “Pantry casserole is my favorite. I make it at home all the time.”
Reese’s thin arms tightened around Delilah’s back. “You do?”
“I do. Can’t go wrong—”
“With a casserole,” Reesa finished in unison with her.
“I’ll go outside and get the soup. You get that in the oven and then we can talk while it’s cooking.” Delilah let go of her mother and opened the back door. “Mom, you need to start locking your door.”
“Nobody ever bothers me up here.”
“Famous last words,” Delilah muttered as she stepped out onto the sleet-pebbled patio to fetch the soup.
But the paper bag was gone.
Delilah froze, scanning the area behind the house for any sign of an intruder. Visibility wasn’t great, between the steady needling of sleet and the cold mist swallowing the top of the mountain. Seeing nothing out of place, she pulled out her flashlight and checked the ground around the patio table. No sign of the bag of takeout soup, but the layer of sleet on the patio had been disturbed.
She couldn’t say the streaks of bare patio were definitely footsteps—she supposed it was more likely that a hungry raccoon or opossum had grabbed himself a ready-made meal—but a thin film of blood on the edge of the table was troubling enough to send her reaching for her Sig again.
“Hello?” she called, loudly enough that a faint echo of her voice rang back to her from deep in the woods.
The cabin door opened behind her, making her jump. “Dee Dee, is something wrong?”
“The soup is gone.”
“Oh.” Reesa looked nonplussed.
“Probably a raccoon or something.”
“Hope it’s not a bear.” Reesa shuddered. “Pam Colby said she saw a black bear in her backyard just last week, looking for a place to nest for the winter. She shooed it off by banging some pots together.”
“I don’t think it’s a bear.” Delilah’s gaze settled on the film of blood. “I’m going to take a look around, okay? I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“It’s freezing out there. I’m sure it was just an animal, Dee. Why don’t you come back in here where it’s warm? Let the raccoon have the soup. He probably needs it more than we do.”
“I’m just going to walk the perimeter. There’s some blood on the table—maybe it’s injured and needs help.”
“Oh, poor thing. Okay, but hurry up. The temperature’s dropping like crazy out here. They’re talking about maybe our first snow of the season.” Reesa backed into the house, closing the door behind her.
Stamping her feet to get some of the feeling back into her cold toes, Delilah headed out into the yard, keeping the beam of the flashlight moving in a slow, thorough arc in front of her.
She discovered more blood, spattered on the grass in a weaving line toward the tree line. Following the trail, she spotted a white birch tree with a dark streak of red marring its papery bark about four feet up. The mark seemed to form a long fingerprint.
She paused and checked the magazine of her pistol, reassuring herself that the Sig was loaded, with a round already chambered. If her mother was right and their intruder was a bear, she didn’t want to face it unarmed.
Though she listened carefully for any sounds that might reveal an animal or other intruder nearby, all she heard was the moan of the icy wind through the trees. But she felt something else there. Something living and watching, waiting for her to turn around and leave.
What would happen if she did just that? Would the watcher let her go? Or would he pounce the second she turned her back? Not caring to find out, she backed toward the clearing with slow, steady steps. She kept her eyes on the woods, trying to see past the moonless blackness outside the narrow, weakening beam of her flashlight.
Only the faintest of snapping sounds behind her gave her any warning at all.
It wasn’t enough.
She hit a solid wall of heat. One large arm curled around her, pulling her flush against that heat, while a hand closed over her mouth.
“Don’t scream,” he growled.
But he did.
Text Copyright © 2013 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.