Small-town newspaper reporter investigates mysterious disappearances, attracts a stalker, and deals with personal issues. 50 percent romance, 50 percent suspense.
T. L. Haddix
Small town life can be very, very dangerous…
Something ominous is hovering over the town of Leroy, Indiana. People are vanishing - drug addicts, illegals, people whose disappearances are less likely to be investigated. Amid swirling rumors of altars, devil worshipping and sacrifice, reporter Beth Hudson’s investigation into the whereabouts of the missing has led her deeper and deeper into the clutches of a killer. Certain the strange occurrences are connected, Beth struggles to stay focused on the story as her relationship with Detective Ethan Moore takes a tragic turn. Can she figure out what is going on and stop a killer, or will she become another one of the victims?
Beth opened her eyes just in time to see a tiny, still-green leaf float past her face. It was moving slowly, that leaf, as though it had all the time in the world, and it seemed unconcerned to find itself detached from the tree that had given it life. She followed its movements with her eyes as far as she could, and turned her head to watch when it caught on a tall, spiky stalk of grass.
Suddenly there was pressure on her abdomen. It was accompanied by a pain like nothing Beth had ever felt before, and it left her gasping. Movement caught her eye and she turned to see Cullen Jarvis leaning over her, his face tense with worry. He was speaking but she couldn’t make sense of the words. She moved an arm toward him but a second sharp pain spiked its way through her shoulder and she let her arm fall. Cullen moved her legs, bending them at the knees, and some of the pain in her abdomen dissipated. She tried to thank him but everything faded around her, and just that quickly, the world went black.
Some time later, Beth opened her eyes to see Jason hovering above her where Cullen had been before. She was dismayed to see that her beloved, amiable, happy-go-lucky brother had tears on his face. She realized Jason was talking to her, but she couldn’t understand what he was saying.
Without warning, two men in dark jackets and caps appeared. Beth recognized them as local EMTs, and watched as they surrounded her, working efficiently. As one shined a light in her eyes, Beth realized finally that she had been injured. It was clear from Jason’s reaction the injury was serious. She tried to remember what she had been doing earlier, what could have caused her injury, but her mind was sluggish. Beth closed her eyes, startled as she had a quick flash of the floor of a dirty van, remembered the sound of a man and a woman laughing, and saw the terrifying image of the wrong end of a rifle barrel. As she remembered, the truth settled in with painful clarity. The serious injury wasn’t the result of a car wreck or an accident on the farm. The pains in her shoulder and her abdomen had not been caused by a fall or some other benign mishap. She had been shot.
A few weeks earlier…
Beth Hudson sped along the narrow lane with a dust cloud swirling up behind her. There hadn’t been any rain for the past couple of weeks, and the ground was very dry. Slowing down as she reached the blacktopped county road, she eased onto the pavement after verifying the coast was clear. With her new SUV, lovingly dubbed “the Beast,” now pointed toward town, she sat back with a sigh and thought about the meeting she had just wrapped up. It wasn’t even eight o’clock and it had already been a long day.
Over the past several weeks, some local farmers had reported seeing mysterious lights at night and finding evidence of trespassers on their land the next day. Most had found tire tracks or damaged crops, which confirmed that someone had been present. However, Cullen Jarvis, the man whose farm Beth had just left, had yet to produce any evidence supporting his claims. Cullen was a Vietnam veteran whose long battle with paranoid schizophrenia was well known around town. Given his history, it was growing more and more unlikely that Cullen’s reports would be taken seriously, at least by anyone outside the small circle who knew the man well enough to judge when he was having a psychotic episode and when he wasn’t. Beth was one of those people, but she was growing very frustrated, tired of feeling like she, Cullen and his wife Randy were the only three people in the world who believed something was going on. It was Randy who had called this morning at six o’clock to let her know there had been another incident. Beth had quickly rushed out to the farm, hoping there would finally be some evidence to support Cullen’s claims. Robbie Bailey, a fairly new addition to the Olman County Sheriff’s Department, had been the responding officer, and although he had treated Cullen with respect, it was clear that he thought these night-time visits were occurring only in the veteran’s head. Beth had to give a rueful smile as she remembered how well Randy had handled the deputy’s suggestion that Cullen’s latest sighting was possibly a hallucination. Beth would put good money on a bet that Robbie would be looking at mental illness from a slightly different perspective from now on.
A resident of Olman County for nearly forty years, Randy was well aware of her husband’s reputation. More than once in recent weeks, she and Beth had discussed the rumors that were starting to circulate about “crazy old man Jarvis” and his unseen visitors. Randy was keenly attuned to when Cullen was having a spell and when he was distressed over real-world events, having dealt with her husband’s mental illness since his return from Vietnam in the 1970s. She was positive the visitors Cullen was seeing at night were real, and she had calmly and logically refuted Robbie’s theory of hallucinations. Her gentle but firm demeanor had left the young deputy stammering and blushing.
As Beth approached the hill that wound into downtown Leroy and past her apartment, she glanced at the clock with a groan. She had to be at the paper by nine for the weekly staff meeting, which meant she only had forty-five minutes in which to get cleaned up and get to work. While she was rarely late for meetings, Beth often rushed from place to place, making deadlines with moments to spare. It looked like this morning would be no different.
Reaching her apartment, she locked the front door behind her and headed for the bathroom. She pinned her hair up on top of her head to keep it from getting wet, and as she showered, she mentally pondered the contents of her closet. Absently scratching her left leg with her right foot, she gave up her plan to wear the vintage wrap dress she had just purchased. Her early-morning trek through a swampy patch of ground at the Jarvis farm had resulted in legs covered in itchy, red welts, and a lot of well-fed mosquitoes.
While she dressed, Beth thought about how to best approach the topic of Cullen’s visitors with her editor, Marshall. He wasn’t going to be happy to have the subject resurrected, but Beth was firmly convinced something was going on. It was more than just kids playing in the woods or an old veteran’s hallucinations. She could feel it in her gut. Now all she had to do was convince Marshall that she was right.
Beth pulled open the door to the newspaper with five minutes to spare. As she walked into the reception area, she felt a small rush of pleasure. Owned by her grandfather, Sampson Olman, the Olman County Journal had been one of her favorite places to visit as a young girl. The purpose and determination that drove the staff was obvious, and had thrilled her from the first time she could remember coming into the building. It had pulled her in, making her want to be a part of the excitement. She wiggled her fingers at receptionist Vanessa Beaumont as she went past the front desk and into the newsroom to her desk. Setting her briefcase down, she pulled her planner out of the bulging leather catch-all before sliding the briefcase under the desk. Grabbing her coffee, she headed for the stairs that led up to the boardroom. Alicia Barnes, the newsroom assistant, was standing at the foot of the stairs. Beth smiled as Alicia tapped her foot.
“I’m here,” she told the young woman. “You know I’m never late.”
Alicia frowned at her as they hurried up the stairs. “You’re barely on time, and you know it,” she said as they walked into the large room. It was framed on either side by glass walls which looked out over the hall and printing press on one side, and the newsroom on the other. “Another couple of minutes and your butt would’ve been toast. Marshall’s already ticked about something,” Alicia warned Beth in a low voice as they took their seats.
“Any idea what he’s upset over?” Beth asked. Alicia shook her head and pointed toward the front of the room as their boss stood up and cleared his throat. As Marshall led them through story briefings, he kept tapping his pen against his thigh. Beth grimaced and exchanged a look with Alicia. That nervous tic was a sure-fire sign that someone would be hearing the sharp edge of Marshall’s tongue before the morning was over. Before long, it was Beth’s turn to give a report on the stories she was working on.
“I had another meeting with Cullen Jarvis this morning,” she said, her words setting off a series of groans throughout the room. Frowning, she continued. “He had trespassers again last night.”
“Come on, Beth,” Julius Lowe scoffed. “That’s what, the third time in two weeks that he’s called you out there? I know your family goes way back with the man, but he’s a paranoid schizophrenic. You don’t really believe he’s seeing people, do you? There’d be some evidence by now if it was anything more than an old man’s nightmares.” Before Beth could respond, Marshall stepped in, calling the paper’s senior reporter down.
“That’s enough,” he said sharply, scowling at Julius. “Beth, did you find anything this morning? Any evidence at all?”
Beth shook her head. “No, but I have a gut feeling…” she said. Marshall held a hand up, and she stopped. Her mouth tightened into a flat line.
“What else do you have, Hudson?” Marshall asked. She told him about three other stories she was following, including the long-running battle between the county school board and the planning and zoning committee.
“Run with that,” he told her. “Bring me something solid on these visitors, and I’ll be glad to let you take it and run.” He moved on, and after all the departments had given their reports, Marshall dismissed them.
“Beth, I need to see you in my office in five,” he told her as he passed her on his way out the door. Beth acknowledged the command with a nod and made her way across the boardroom to her grandfather. Still an imposing figure at eighty-one, he was now semi-retired, only working two or three days a week.
“How is Cullen?” Sampson asked. The Olman and Jarvis families went back to decades before, when Sampson’s son Joe and Cullen had been best friends. The boys had grown up together in Frazier’s Grove, a small farming community a few miles outside town. They had been practically inseparable through school, and even had started to attend the same college together before Cullen was drafted. Joe had decided to enlist, and they had gone off to Vietnam together. They had been stationed in different parts of the war-torn country, and had never seen each other again. His first tour of duty finished, Cullen had returned to Leroy to recover after being injured. Joe, however, never made it back, his remains brought home like thousands of others who returned to their country in a flag-draped coffin. The guilt and loss had shattered the quiet-spoken Cullen Jarvis, and in the decades since his return to Olman County, he had led a reclusive existence.
“He’s having a hard time, Poppy,” Beth told him. “He’s heard what everyone is saying around town, and it’s starting to get to him, and to Randy, for that matter. It was bad enough before, but now?” Beth grimaced. Sampson’s face tightened with understanding.
“Think a visit from me might help? I’ve not been out there in a while, so I need to go, anyhow,” Sampson told her.
Beth smiled, reaching out and squeezing his arm. “I think he and Randy would really appreciate it,” she said. She leaned in and gave him a peck on the cheek. “I’ll catch up with you later, okay? I’d better go see what Marshall needs.” Sampson walked with her to the editor’s open office door, patting her shoulder as he headed on to the stairs. Turning back to the door, Beth knocked twice on the frame.
“What’s up, Boss?” she asked as she went inside the glass-walled office that was adjacent to the board room.
“Shut the door behind you and sit down,” Marshall told her. Beth did as he asked and took a seat in front of his desk. She watched as he rubbed his hands across his face and leaned back in his creaky leather chair. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“I had my own early morning, wake-up call this morning. That article you wrote about the animal shelter? The one questioning the source of the financial records and the study for the new facility?” he asked as Beth nodded. “The mayor’s pretty upset about it. Threatened to sue us for libel and slander and whatever else he could think of to tag onto it.” Beth gave a small smile, not surprised at the politician’s response.
“We knew this would probably happen,” she said. “That shelter is one of Simone Grayson’s pet projects, no pun intended.” Arthur Grayson was the mayor of Leroy, and his wife Simone was the local committee queen. When Beth had first started investigating the cobbled-together proposal for a new shelter, she and Marshall had discussed the potential political mine field they were walking into. They had both anticipated just this sort of reaction.
“I know,” Marshall said as he tapped his pen against his knee. “You’re absolutely certain that your sources are solid, and that they’ll hold up in court if it comes to that?” he asked.
She nodded. “Absolutely. I wouldn’t have written it the way I did otherwise. Are they asking for a retraction?”
Marshall smiled wryly. “Asking? No. They’re demanding one.”
“We aren’t going to print one, are we?” Beth asked.
“Hell, no!” was Marshall’s vehement response. “Let them sue us. It’ll be good for publicity. They’re also threatening to take their advertising elsewhere, but where else would they go?” he asked. The Journal was the only local newspaper aside from the Free Trader, a small, weekly ad-based paper that was distributed at no cost to readers throughout Olman County. While the Journal wasn’t associated with the Free Trader’s publisher, as the largest printing press in the area, the paper contracted the printing for the publication.
“Rumor has it around town that Grayson is on his way out,” Beth told her editor. “Popular opinion is starting to lean toward William Bolen, especially after all the scandal surrounding Charity Vaughn’s death. It was never proven, but it’s fairly common knowledge that she and the mayor were sexually involved.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that myself,” Marshall said, sitting forward and reaching for his reading glasses. “I just wanted to touch base with you, let you know what was going on with the Graysons. I didn’t want you to be caught off guard if they try anything.”
“I appreciate that, Marshall,” she said with a smile, standing up to leave. He stopped her before she opened the door.
“This Cullen Jarvis thing. I understand your connection to the guy,” he said carefully. “I’m not saying he’s imagining these things he’s seeing, but maybe you should take a step back and look at the situation from a different perspective. I don’t want to see you get pulled into something that might be nothing more than a paranoid’s hallucinations, Beth.”
“I understand your concern, Marshall. I really do,” she said slowly. “I just don’t feel like it’s in his head, though. There’s something about this whole thing… There’s a pattern to it. Something just doesn’t feel right about all this. I can’t figure out what it is, and that’s frustrating as heck, but there is definitely something there.”
Marshall accepted her statement. “You’re usually right about things like this, so I trust you to use your own judgment. I’m giving you free rein on investigating this as long as it doesn’t interfere with your other stories. However you decide to handle it, though, watch yourself and don’t do anything rash. Try to keep your perspective.”
Beth assured him she would be careful and let herself out. As she headed downstairs, she thought about the gruff editor. Her grandfather had taken a chance on Marshall more than twenty years earlier, and Marshall had never forgotten that leap of faith. Sampson had chosen Marshall as his successor when he decided to retire, and Beth was glad. Sampson had made the right decision for the paper, and she knew it had been a solid one. He might be gruff and blunt at times, and Lord knew he had a temper, but Marshall had a true nose for the business and a deep, if somewhat hidden, affection for his staff. As she entered the newsroom, Beth thought of how Marshall could have easily moved on time and again to a larger market and found greater acclaim and fortune. She had asked him about that once, but Marshall had avoided giving her a direct answer. Beth figured it came down to the simple explanation that he was personally invested in the Journal and had a fierce determination to make it the best small press in the region, a circumstance for which she was grateful.
Reaching her desk, Beth was surprised to find a large bouquet of fully-bloomed red roses sitting in the middle of her desk. She glanced around and saw that the newsroom was empty with the exception of Alicia, who was on the phone. After setting her notebook and pen down, she reached for the card and bent to sniff the velvety petals, despite knowing their perfume was probably gone after exposure to the florist’s coolers. Opening the small note card envelope, she saw the roses had come from Annie’s Arbor, the flower shop owned by one of Beth’s best friends, Annie Jameson Tucker.
“Who’re they from?” Alicia asked, coming over to smell the arrangement much as Beth had.
Beth shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. She turned the card around, showing Alicia the blank interior. “They’re from Annie’s shop, but the card isn’t signed.”
“Ooh, a secret admirer. How romantic,” Alicia teased, smiling. Beth stuck her tongue out at the young woman and was relieved when Alicia’s desk phone rang and she excused herself to answer it. Beth sat down and picked up her own phone and dialed Annie’s number.
“Annie’s Arbor,” her friend answered, sounding distracted.
“It’s me,” Beth said. “Who sent these roses?” she asked. “The card’s blank.”
“Oh, hey,” Annie said. “I don’t know. The order came in last night over the website, and it was paid through an anonymous Internet account. Don’t you know who sent them?” At Annie’s words, Beth frowned. There were at least two dozen red roses in the arrangement, so it hadn’t been a cheap order.
“Well, no. Not really,” she said, puzzled.
“What about Dr. Smooth?” Annie asked, referring to Chad Ormsby, one of Leroy’s newest doctors who had been pursuing Beth somewhat relentlessly. “Think they could be from him?”
“I doubt it,” Beth replied dryly. “His style is more direct, more ‘let me drag you off to my elegant and expensive penthouse cave’. This is - I don’t know. It makes me uncomfortable, somehow. It’s a little creepy, to tell the truth.” Annie snorted, not bothering to hide her laughter, and Beth found herself laughing, as well. “Anyhow, I suppose I’ll find out eventually who sent them. Shoot, I wouldn’t put it past Jason to have done it just for kicks and giggles.”
Annie sobered and hesitated before answering. “I don’t know, Beth. That’s an expensive bouquet for a prank. Besides, your brother would be more likely to send beheaded daises or horse weed as a prank. Think maybe Ethan sent them?”
Beth laughed again, the sound more sad than humorous. “Not even on a bet,” she said. “I’ll figure it out sooner or later, I suppose.” Changing the subject, she asked Annie if there were any loose ends they needed to tie up before the bridal shower that evening. Their best friend, Lauren Grant, was getting married to Annie’s half-brother, Charlie Clark, on Saturday.
“As far as I know, everything is on schedule,” Annie said. “We’re scheduled to be at Molly and Win’s by 5:30, so make sure you watch the time.”
“I’ll be there, don’t worry. I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” Beth told her. Lauren had recently met and fallen in love with Charlie, a Leroy native who had moved back to town after a long absence. The two had gone through some hard challenges along the way, not the least of which had been a murder attempt and the vandalism of Lauren’s café, the Brown Bag. The people responsible for the attacks were in jail awaiting sentencing, both having accepted plea deals, and Beth knew Lauren was looking forward to moving ahead with her new life. After going over a couple of last minute details with Annie, Beth finished the call and hung up, but not before Annie asked her one last time about the flowers.
“You going to keep them?” she asked.
Beth hesitated, eyeing the flowers. “They are awfully pretty, Annie, but I don’t know. They just creep me out for some reason. I think I’ll take them up to Vanessa and let everyone enjoy them.” Annie groaned and made a teasing comment about Beth’s paranoia before she hung up. Beth replaced the receiver with a shake of her head, thinking her friend was right about her wariness. Seeing that Beth was no longer on the phone, Alicia came back over.
“So who sent the roses?” she asked, curiosity getting the best of her. She reached out and touched a petal wistfully.
“I have no idea, and neither does Annie,” Beth told her. When she saw the way Alicia was gazing at the roses, Beth smiled. “To tell you the truth, they give me the heebie jeebies. Would you mind taking them? They’re too pretty to just throw out, but I swear I don’t think I can stand to keep them on my desk.”
“Seriously?” Alicia asked, her eyes widening. Beth nodded and waved her hand toward the arrangement. Alicia’s face lit up as she picked up the vase and cradled it close. “Thank you, Beth. I love flowers,” the girl told her as she headed back to her own desk. Beth smiled as she watched Alicia set the vase down carefully and placed it just so. The phone rang and Beth turned back to her desk to answer it. It was the school board source she had been waiting to hear from. She gave the roses another brief thought as she reached for her notebook. There would be plenty time later to ponder the mysterious flower delivery, but right now she had work to get to.