The moment before it began, I stood in my bedroom, folding
In the last year I've developed a kind of sixth sense-a
lingering smudge from my brushes with death. A sense that
jerks my head up and sets my eyes roving, my ears attentive
to the slightest sound. Nerves tingle at the back of my neck,
then pinprickle down my arms and spine. The sensations
surge through my body almost before I consciously register
what caused them. Sometimes they are right; sometimes they
are overreactions to mere surprise.
Experience has taught me to err on the side of caution.
And with five local murders in as many months, I was already
Something . something downstairs .
My arms stopped to hover over my bed, a half-folded
shirt dangling from both hands.
The male voice echoed up from our great room one floor
below-a voice I didn't recognize. It mixed surliness with a
throaty growl, like stirred gravel.
I didn't hear the doorbell.
"Hey!" The voice again, impatient.
My thoughts flashed to Kelly, my fourteen-year-old. She'd
fallen asleep down there, on one of the oversize couches near
the fireplace. My daughter in a vulnerable position . some
man I didn't know standing over her?
Kelly gasped-loudly enough for me to hear. With the
expansive wooden floor and the wood wainscoting of our
great room, sounds echo. The fear in that gasp jolted me into
action. Almost before I knew what I was doing, I'd run for
my purse on the nightstand. My fingers fumbled, looking,
searching. Within seconds I felt the smooth, frightening comfort
of my gun.
I yanked it out.
No time to think. Pure instinct took over. Hadn't Chetterling
told me it would? I wrapped my hands around the
gun, trigger finger ready, and sneak-sprinted down the hall.
Below me, the great room jerked into view through banister
railings. I skidded to a halt at the landing and nearly dropped
the gun. My terrified eyes fixed on an unknown man in profile
to me, hulking over Kelly. He was in his early twenties.
Big-maybe six two?-with vein-laden, bulging biceps. The
wide nose and lips of an African American, but with dusty-colored
skin. Light brown hair in thick dreadlocks. Kelly had
raised up on one elbow, mouth open, her expression a freeze-frame
My legs assumed the stance Chetterling had taught me.
Feet apart and planted firmly. My arms stretched before me
over the banister, gun pointed at the man's head.
He jerked toward me, eyes widening. Both arms raised
shoulder height, large fingers spread. "Hello. Wait one minute.
I was just looking for Stephen."
His cultured tone so surprised me that I almost lowered
the gun. From the looks of him, I'd expected more of an
urban hip-hop. Annie, keep it together; he's right near Kelly! I
stared at him, breath shuddering. How could this be happening?
I'd drawn a gun on someone. Someone who stoodright next to my daughter. "Back away from her."
He retreated one step.
What if this was the man who'd killed those five women?
"Would you mind putting the gun away?" He shuffled
back two more steps, but he couldn't go far. Another three
feet and he'd hit the armchair facing the fireplace. To his left
sat a big glass-topped coffee table, to his right the sofa where
Any second he could lunge for her, pull her in front of
him as a shield. What would I do? Chetterling, we never practiced
anything like this!
"Look." Sulkiness and an arrogant irritation now coated
his voice. "I was just going to ask her about Stephen; you don't
have to threaten my life."
My insides shook, but my hands did not waver. When I
spoke, my voice carried the cynical disgust of a policeman on
patrol. "I don't recall anyone letting you in the house."
"The door was unlocked."
Unlocked. Still, that was hardly an invitation. My jaw
clenched. "You in the habit of just walking into people's
Anger tromped up my spine. How dare he act so nonchalant?
"Well, let me tell you something-you picked thewrong house to walk in to."
"So I noticed." A smirk etched his lips. "Is Stephen here?"
Kelly still had not moved. He could be upon her in a
God, help me! How do I get her to safety?
"Kelly." I kept my eyes on the man. "Get up now. Run into
my office and lock the door."
My daughter blinked, as if trying to rouse herself from a
bad dream. Then she scrambled to her feet. I watched my target,
the two-inch barrel Chief Special aimed at his head. A
double action revolver, the gun didn't need to be cocked to
fire. My finger remained poised to pull the trigger if he gave
In my peripheral, I saw Kelly back away from the man,
then turn and run toward the office. She disappeared beneath
the landing where I stood, her bare feet slapping against the
hardwood floor. My office door banged shut. The lock
Relief flooded my chest. At least my daughter was safe. I
knew she would call 911. With experiences like we've had,
you don't fool around.
"All right." I forced strength into my words. "Now. Who
He flicked an impatient look at the ceiling. "Are you going
to put that gun down or not?"
"I asked you a question."
Cold eyes glared at me. "Blake."
Who knew if he was telling the truth? "Blake who?"
"Smith, all right? S-m-i-t-h."
Yeah, sure. His cockiness rattled me. This was not a man
who'd bow an inch for authority. I could feel sweat beading
on my forehead. My only hope was that he couldn't see it.
"What do you want with my son?"
His arms lowered until both hands were in front of his
chest, fingers still spread. "I simply need to talk to him."
Business? "Really. And what kind of business would that
He stuck his tongue under his top teeth, then pulled it
away with a sucking sound. "You're his mother, correct? The
famous forensic artist."
The way he said those words. His insolence might as well
have been a backhanded slap. If we were close enough, I'd
bet anything he would jump at me, swipe the gun from my
hands. My palms grew clammy. I tightened my grip on the
Blake eyed me with belligerence, then slowly lowered his
left hand. He pointed his right index finger at me. "You will
give Stephen a message for me."
Anger ballooned my lungs, pinned them against my chest.
Now he was telling me what do? When he'd walked into my
home? Stood over my sleeping, innocent daughter? My fingers
began to tremble. "Get out of my house!"
"All right, all right, I'm going."
He turned his back on me, as if I posed not the slightest
threat, and ambled around the far side of the coffee table like
some languid lion aroused from sleep. I almost expected him
to yawn. Then he took his time moving around the couch.
Only then did he face me once more.
"You tell your son that Blake is looking for him, you hear?
He'll know why. And you tell him this." His eyes narrowed,
sharpening blades that would cut steel. "He won't be able to
hide from me."
With a sneer, he turned and stalked away, the satiated
predator from a death-spared deer.
I did not move, gun still pointed. He strode onto the
porch and slammed the door.
My legs wobbled as I made my way down our wide curving
staircase of polished wood. Dear God, what now? All the
terrible murders around Redding, now this. Vaguely, I heard
a car door slam outside, the squeal of tires. Fear for Stephen
gripped me. What had he done this time? My seventeen-year-old
son had been nothing but trouble for a couple years, this
last twelve months in particular. A year ago he'd faced his first
court appearance for drug possession, receiving six months'
probation-which he hadn't obeyed. After that came rounds
of weekend work detail, then time in juvenile hall. Lately I'd
begun to suspect he was selling drugs. Where else had he gotten
the new clothes, the constant stream of new CDs? His "a-friend-gave-it-to-me"
explanations had long since worn thin.
I hit the bottom of the steps and ran across the long great
room. Gun still in hand, I locked and bolted the front door,
then peeked through our tall windows to check outside. No
sign of Blake. No unknown car. For a moment I leaned
against the glass, forehead on my arm, and tried to steady my
Only then did a thought cross my mind, irreverent in its
timing. My sister would be so proud of me. Gun-toting
Jenna's insistence that I learn to shoot had finally paid off.
Far behind me, the lock on my office door clicked.
"Mom?" Kelly's voice pinched with fear.
I veered from the window. "Yes, honey, it's okay. He's
gone." The forced lightness in my tone sank like lead.
Kelly sidled from around the hall corner, hiccuping a sob.
She ran toward me, hands outstretched, not even noticing
that I still held a loaded gun. What to do with it? I barely had
time to lay it on the windowsill before she flew against my
chest and burst into tears. "Oh, Kelly, I'm so sorry." Wrapping
my arms around her, I rocked her as if she were a little girl.
"It's okay, now, everything's all right. He didn't really want to
hurt you. He was just trying to wake you up to ask about
Her body shook. "At first I thought ."
Of course she had. "I know, I know." Even though the
murders had occurred on the other side of Redding, anyone
in Kelly's position would have feared the same thing. All
denials had ceased after the third body was found in March.
A serial killer roamed the area. A killer with remarkable cunning
and a chilling manner of murdering his victims.
"But who is he?" Kelly's voice hitched. "I've never seen
him before, and I know a lot of Stephen's friends."
I closed my eyes. If only I could close my mind to the
questions. Kelly had just finished her freshman year of high
school, and Stephen, his junior year. For the first time since
we'd moved to Grove Landing, they attended the same
school, which had afforded Kelly an all-too-vivid knowledge
of the kids Stephen hung out with. But even the worst of
them couldn't measure down to this Blake Smith.
If that was his real name.
"He looked older than a high schooler to me." I rubbed
Kelly's back. "That's probably why you haven't seen him."
But why was Stephen hanging around with someone like
that? Someone so threatening? Only one answer came to
A shiver rolled across my shoulders.
"Kelly." I kept my tone as gentle as possible. "You didn't
lock the door when you came in from Erin's. I know it's hard
to remember in the summer, when you two are running back
and forth so much, but you really do need to."
"I know. I'm sorry. Believe me, I won't forget again."
I patted her back.
She pulled away to look at me, her eyes red. "I called 911.
You'd better call them back-I hung up when I saw the guy
"Yeah, okay." I loosened a strand of brown hair from her
cheek, struck for the millionth time by her beauty. When had
my daughter grown as tall as I was? "You sure were brave,
Kelly. That must have been really scary."
She blew out air and stepped away, summoning the fortitude
of her fourteen years. "Yeah, scary all right. I've never
seen you pull a gun on somebody."
"I meant the man, Kelly."
We managed to smile at each other.
Speaking of the gun, I needed to put it away. But first I
had to call the Shasta County Sheriff's Department. If Detective
Ralph Chetterling had heard that 911 call, he'd no doubt
be speeding here like a freight train. So would anyone else
from the department, for that matter. With a massive hunt
for a predatory killer under way, every member of local law
enforcement had the jitters.
"Kelly, I need to make that call." I turned to pick up my
weapon, and she flinched from it. Kelly felt the same way I
did about guns-she was scared to death of them.
I headed into the kitchen for the phone, my artist's mind
conjuring Blake Smith's features. The wide nose, the deep-set
eyes. Thick, almost straight eyebrows. As soon as I got the
chance, I would draw that face from memory. Give it to Chetterling,
have him show it around the department. Maybe
some deputy would know this guy. Although I wasn't sure
which would be worse-if a member of law enforcement did
know Blake . or didn't.
What had Stephen done?
I laid the gun down on the kitchen counter and picked
up the phone to dial 911, my mother's heart quailing. If only
I could stop the wreckage of my son's life. My call was
answered on the first ring. "Hi, it's Annie Kingston."
"Annie! Are you all right, what's going on? We've got a
car on the way."
"Thanks. The immediate danger is over. No need for any
deputies to hurry now, but I'd still like someone to come so
I can make a report." I explained what had happened and
described Blake. "The deputy coming here should keep an eye
out for this guy. Unfortunately I didn't see what kind of car
he was driving."
"Okay, we've got it. The unit will be there in about five
minutes. Stay safe, Annie."
Yeah. Stay safe.
Back upstairs, as I placed my gun into my purse, a dark
precognition swooped over me. I had driven Blake Smith out
of my house, but not out of our lives. Stephen was in real
trouble this time.
Not with law enforcement, but with the criminals