Our nightmare started with a mundane errand.
I was driving my SUV away from the Redding Municipal
Airport, my sister in the passenger seat. She aimed a heavy
sigh out the window. "I miss my airplane already."
I shook my head. "Jenna, your precious airplane isn't
parked that far away from the house. Small price to pay for
a few weeks, wouldn't you say? Just think how much you'll
like the longer runway at Grove Landing."
"We don't need a longer runway." She couldn't hide the
pout in her voice. "It's our neighbors with their fancy twin
engines who just had to have more space."
So that was it. I threw her a glance, a sage smile crooking
"What?" Jenna's velvet brown eyes glowered at me.
I affected a shrug. "Nothing."
"Don't tell me nothing. I know that look on your face."
Wow, she was in a mood today. "You're just jealous of
those neighbors. You want a bigger plane."
"I do not."
"Uh-huh." Private pilots are a strange breed, never satisfied.
They always want the next electronics system, the
latest turbocharged engine. Whatever's better and bigger.
Jenna huffed and folded her arms. We drove in silence.
"What's with you anyway?" I turned north, headed for
Foothill High School to pick up my daughter, Kelly, and her
best friend, Erin. School would be letting out in about five
minutes. "You've been out of sorts all morning."
Air seeped from Jenna's throat. "Yeah, well, I have a
reason. I'm mad at Eric."
"Oh." Trouble in paradise. "What happened?"
"He was a jerk last night. When it comes right down to
it, all men are jerks." She frowned and turned away.
At one time I would have agreed with her, but no more.
Not since Dave and I had started dating-if you could call
our painfully slow process that. At any rate, Dave Willit was
not a jerk. My voice softened. "Tell me about it."
"We need milk."
Jenna pointed at a 7-Eleven ahead on the right. "Stop
there so we can buy some milk. We're out."
My sister is seven years younger than I but bosses me like
a nagging mother. The trait only worsens when she's upset.
I've learned to roll with it. "Okay."
I slowed the SUV and turned into the small 7-Eleven
parking lot, pulling up next to the walkway leading into
the store. Three other cars filled spaces around us, two on
our left, on the other side of the entrance walk, and one
immediately to our right. Switching off the engine, I turned
to Jenna. Her beautiful, heart-shaped face looked pinched.
"First tell me what happened."
She focused ahead at the store. "We sort of argued."
"I gathered that. And?"
She turned to me, words spilling. "He went out with
someone else! Which I suppose is his right, because we're
not dating exclusively. But he lied to me about it, told me hewasn't seeing anyone but me. When I caught him in his little
fib, he tried to squirm out of it by telling a bigger lie ."
My peripheral vision caught frantic movement in the
rearview mirror. I blinked, focused on it.
". and I am so sick of men who can't tell the truth.
You'd think for once ."
Someone sprinted across the street toward the store. A
young man. Caucasian. Shoulder-length blond hair.
". I'm just not going to put up with it ."
Wait. Another young man behind him, chasing.
With a gun.
My mouth opened but no sound came. I threw out my
right hand, gripped Jenna's arm.
She stopped midsentence. "What-"
I whipped my head around. The first young man hit the
curb, flew over it into the 7-Eleven parking lot. He raced
toward our car, the second man barreling behind him.
"Get down!" I grabbed behind Jenna's neck, pulled her
low across the console, and pressed on top of her. My eyes
squeezed shut. Footsteps pounded past my window-
A body slammed into the door of the building. I raised
my head a few inches, peeked through the windshield. The
7-Eleven door smacked open, the man streaking through it
into the store. He veered left, aiming for the checkout counter.
His pursuer thumped past us, hit the door as it was closing
and flung it wide. The first man reached the counter and
dove over it. The store clerk shouted, jumped out of the way.
Somebody screamed. In seconds the pursuer rammed into
the counter, flattened himself upon it. Up came the gun.
Bam. Bam, bam. Bam.
"What's happening?" Jenna squirmed under me. I held
The shooter pushed off the counter, twisted toward the
door. He'd have to run right by our car . and this time he
might notice us. I pressed my head back down, air pooling
in my throat.
Jesus, protect us.
The door slammed open. My heart slammed with it.
God, please .
Footsteps pounded toward our car .
And past us.
A wail from inside the store rent the air.
I counted to ten.
Cautiously I raised my head, glanced through the rear
window. The shooter was racing across the street toward an
alley. Soon he would be out of sight.
The whole thing couldn't have taken more than sixty
Jenna heaved herself off the console, forcing me up.
Strands of her thick auburn hair were stuck to her lips.
"What happened? What happened? Where's my gun?"
My sister carries a two-inch barrel Chief Special in
her purse, identical to the one in mine. But it was too late.
Screams staccatoed from the store. A woman staggered outside,
yelling, "Call the police!" Jenna and I shoved our doors
open and jumped out. I reached the woman first, gripping
both shoulders to steady her.
"Are you hurt?"
She shook her head, sobbing. "But a man in there, and a
boy ." She turned wide, shocked eyes toward the store.
Jenna ran back to the car, grabbed her purse and snatched
out her cell phone. I eased the woman down on the curb,
then rushed into the building.
A teenage girl stood near the checkout, knuckles pressed
to her mouth. I hurried around the counter. A man knelt
beside the young clerk, now sprawled upon the floor, his
face white. Blood oozed from his right thigh. Beside him lay
the crumpled body of the young man who'd been chased.
That man's face was turned away from me, his hair matted
red. The left side of his head had been blown away. Oh,
dear God. Two bullets had plunged into his back. He wasn't
The clerk moaned.
"Just stay still; we'll call for help." The kneeling customer
reached into his pocket and withdrew a cell phone.
"My sister's already called." My words sounded hiccupped,
ragged. I moved around the customer and clerk
toward the still form. Bile rose in my throat. I leaned down
to look at the face, trembling in fear of what I would see.Please, Lord, please-I sucked in a breath. Nearly gagged.
One cheek and an eye were gone. Obliterated. I steadied
myself, swallowed hard. Felt for a pulse in his neck. Nothing.
Checked for breath. None.
Numbly I straightened.
"How are they?" Jenna's voice, firm, controlled, came
from above me and across the counter. Both her handbag
and mine hung over one arm, a cell phone at her ear. My
fast-thinking sister. Even in the chaos, she'd thought about
securing our purses-and the guns inside.
I shook my head. "This one's gone."
The teenage girl rattled out a wail. The woman who'd
staggered outside appeared behind Jenna, face flushed. My
sister spoke the news into her phone, then looked to the
young clerk. "Second man down, white, maybe nineteen
years old. He's been shot in the thigh. He's conscious." She
paused. "Yeah, I'll stay on the line. How far away are they?"
She looked to me. "Police car will be here in two minutes.
Ambulance in five."
I nodded. "Did you tell them who we are?" Any dispatcher
in Redding would know my name.
"Okay." I glanced at the young clerk's leg. "Jenna, can you
find me something to place against that wound?" I moved
over to kneel beside him, gently touching his shoulder. "Hey.
What's your name?"
"T-Toby Brown." He groaned. "It hurts!"
His pain squeezed my throat. "I know. Help is going to
be here real soon. You'll be okay."
"I'm Ken." The man on the other side of Toby patted his
hand. "She's right, you'll be fine. And we'll get that guy who
shot you, don't you worry."
"Did you get a look at him?" I asked.
Ken shook his head. "It happened so fast, and I was in
the back of the store."
"Annie, here." Jenna held a roll of paper towels over the
counter. "I don't see any kind of packaged cloths."
"These'll do." I took the roll, tore off a long strip, and folded
the paper towels over on themselves. Carefully I pressed them
against Toby's oozing wound. He winced and I bit my lip.
"Sorry. Just don't want the bleeding to get too bad."
He managed a nod.
"Toby, did you see the man who shot you?"
One for our side. I hadn't seen the shooter at all. I'd been
too busy focusing on the gun in his hand. How stupid. Of all
people, I should have noticed his features.
Toby whimpered, started to shake.
"I think he's going into shock." I looked to Ken, who
wore only a short-sleeved shirt. Then to the girl. Even in the
hot weather, she had on a light jacket. "Can you give me your
coat? We need to keep him warm."
Words and actions flowed in those suspended minutes
while we waited for the police. I covered Toby with the
jacket, Jenna reporting everything to the 911 dispatcher.
The teenage girl told us her name was Christine, and the
woman identified herself as Mary. Neither of them had seen
the shooter's face either. We all avoided looking at the dead
body mere feet away. In its silent stillness, it screamed at me.
Somewhere out there a mother and father, brother, sister,
friends, would soon mourn him. Who was he? Why had
he been chased like that-in broad daylight-and killed?
Anger at the senselessness of his death coagulated in my
chest. The man who'd done this would be found. And I'd do
everything I could to help.
Toby's face cinched with pain. Ken and I soothed him,
my heart clutching. I tried to distract him, asking his age.
"Eighteen," he managed, every breath careful, his chest shuddering.
I pressed my eyes shut. My own son was seventeen.
"Are you in high school?" I rubbed his arm.
"Yeah." He shivered. "A senior at Central Valley High."
Oh, God, help him. Stephen's a senior too. What if this had
happened to my son?
Ken surveyed me, a look of recognition smoothing his
face. "Now I know who you are. Annie Kingston, right? The
I kept my focus on Toby, feeling the familiar self-consciousness.
"Yeah, that's me."
Christine gasped. "Oh, wow. You're the one the Poison
"Listen." I held up a hand, glad for a reason to cut her off.
Sirens sounded in the distance.
Jenna trotted to the entrance. The sirens wailed louder,
suddenly upon us. "They're here."
Police burst through the door, two paramedics not far
behind. In moments the store turned into a scene of bustling
uniforms, voices over radio, revolving red and blue lights.
Jenna handed me my purse, and with the other witnesses
we were herded out of the store. From the parking lot we
all watched as officers strung up yellow crime-scene tape.
Before long the paramedics emerged from the store with
Toby on a stretcher, loaded him into their vehicle, and bore
him to the hospital. The man who'd been pursued by the
shooter was pronounced dead.
Even though I'd known, the official word pierced me. I
grieved for the man and his family. And for the entire town.
Only three months had passed since the Poison Killer was
caught. Three months of calm in Redding, of newness in
my own life. I was not ready to have that peace disturbed,
and neither was our town. We had barely enjoyed enough
time to heal from the evil of a serial murderer and all the
national media that descended upon us when that case
God, once again the people in Redding are going to need
My cell phone rang. I pulled it from my purse and saw
Kelly's number displayed on the ID. Oh great. She and Erin
would be wondering where we were. I didn't relish telling
them what happened. The girls and Stephen were protective
enough of me, after all I'd been through. With a meaningful
glance at Jenna, I flipped open the phone.
"Mom, where are you?" my daughter demanded.
"Oh, we'll be there soon." Lightness forced itself into my
tone. "I was just picking up Jenna after she flew the plane
over to the Redding airport. Remember, she has to keep it
there while they lengthen the runway at home?"
A sigh. "Okay, but will you hurry? Erin and I have lots of
homework and we need to get started on it."
"Be there as soon as we can. Has Stephen already left
"Yeah. He had to be at the video store fifteen minutes
after school let out."
Should I call and tell him what happened? I didn't want
the news to filter to him from someone else.
"All right, Kelly. Just hang around with your friends, and
we'll be there as soon as we can."
I hung up and slid the phone back into my purse. Jenna
gave me an empathetic look. "You're going to have to tell
them, you know."
I shook my head at the thought. Here we go again. More
disaster. "Yeah. I think I'd better call Stephen at work while
we're on the way to pick up the girls."
With the ambulance gone, officers Fred Sparks and
Raymond Bradet, joined by homicide detective Tim Blanche,
began questioning the witnesses. On the sidewalk behind us,
a curious crowd had begun to swarm like stirred-up bees.
Someone said my name, and it buzzed from one mouth to
"That's Annie Kingston."
"You know who she is."
Even though the town hailed me a hero, the whispers stung.
My mere presence spelled extra sensationalism. I couldn't
blame them; history was on their side. But I hated it.
My eyes grazed the crowd-and landed on Adam
Bendershil, reporter from the Record Searchlight. He darted
among people, jotting in his notepad. At that moment he
looked up, and our eyes met. I turned my back on him.
Detective Blanche beckoned me and Jenna into the
taped-off area, his face stern. "You see the guy, Annie?" His
penetrating blue eyes bore into me. I suppressed a wince.
Blanche was not one of my favorites at the Redding Police
Department, to say the least. He was far too arrogant, with
those raised eyebrows and a frequent curl to one side of
his mouth. I didn't think he cared for me, either. I'd heard
rumors of his cynical remarks about my belief in prayer and
in God. Blanche was in his midforties, with three kids, the
oldest of which had recently graduated from Foothill High.
He had thick salt-and-pepper hair and a large mole on his
I felt slack-limbed, shaky. "Afraid not. Everything happened
way too fast."
He narrowed his eyes, almost in accusation, then glanced
toward the store. "Well, let's hope the security cameras didtheir job. Should have caught it, as long as the tape's in good
"I hope so."
Jenna mumbled agreement. The press of her lips bespoke
her righteous anger over the entire affair. No doubt she was
ruing her own failure to grab her gun and go after the killer.
If I hadn't been on top of her, that's exactly what she would
have done. Might have gotten herself killed too.
My sister and I gave our statements. It seemed to take
forever. By the time we finished, I could barely breathe.
Anxiety snapped at me like some salivating beast. Get a
grip, Annie; think of the poor victim. At least you and Jenna
are alive. But I had a bad feeling this wouldn't be the end of
it. One man was already dead, another wounded. And we
We climbed into the SUV to head for Foothill High
School, my heart skidding. Jenna insisted on driving. As we
rolled through the parking lot, a television news van showed
up at the curb. A man spilled out and raised his camera, the
red light on. I ducked. Our car jostled as we entered the street.
I could hear Adam Bendershil calling through my closed window.
"Ms. Kingston, can you tell us what happened?"
After a few turns, Jenna touched my arm. "Okay, you
can come up now."
I uncurled my spine and leaned back against the headrest,
wishing I could feel as strong as my sister. God, I'm the
Christian here. Help me rest in Your power.
The scenes started rolling then. They always do.
In my head resides something akin to a film projector.
During times of stress it tends to spit vivid images onto my
brain's movie screen. Now it spewed sequences of
the shooter running straight toward our car, gun jerking up
and down in his hand .
Toby's pinched white face. "It hurts!" .
A bloodied, shattered head. A cheek and eye-blown
I squeezed my eyes shut. Forced the memories away.
From my purse, my cell phone sounded. I withdrew it to
see Kelly's number. Pulling in a breath, I answered the call.
"Mom!" My daughter poured the impatience of a beleaguered
fifteen-year-old into her voice. "What's taking you