Thursday, March 22, 2007
This Morning in Kanner Lake ...
Today in Kanner Lake, Idaho, young reporter Leslie Brymes is not having a good morning. What happens to her is chronicled here, in Chapter Two of Coral Moon. You all are getting the first read.
Coral Moon releases tomorrow.
Leslie Brymes awoke to a promising day of argument and scorn.
She stretched, groggy eyes roving the master bedroom suite of her newly rented house. Sunlight seeped through her pink curtains, casting the walls and carpet a hazy mauve. Her flannel sheets were soft and warm, coaxing her back toward slumber...
As sleep morphed into awareness, her mind began to pop with names and work-day duties. Eleven a.m.—interview Bud Grayson by phone. Two p.m.—Myra Hodgkid at her house. Leslie smiled, imagining the arguments of these opponents and the article she would write. Nothing like a little controversy to sell newspapers.
She slid out of bed and made her way to the bathroom, interview questions trooping through her head. Mr. Grayson, how much did publicity from the country’s fascination with the Edna San murder have to do with your decision to build a hotel in Kanner Lake? Ms. Hodgkid, why do you oppose the hotel when it promises new tax revenue for the town? As hot water in the shower hissed and pounded, Leslie considered others she might talk to, the word count she would need. Above all, how to push her story from the Kanner Lake Times pages into bigger newspapers and onto TV. The national interest hook might still have some life in it, especially with the recent airing of her interview about the Edna San case on Crime America.
For that, she had to give her roommate a lot of credit. Paige hadn’t wanted a thing to do with any public appearances, yet didn’t try to stop Leslie from being on the show. Paige knew how much Leslie wanted it to boost her career.
The twenty-five thousand dollars hadn’t been bad either.
Leslie stepped out of the shower, anticipation zinging through her veins. She donned a bathrobe and towel-turbaned her wet hair, then parked herself in front of the closet, considering what to wear. She pulled out jeans with sequins and little pearls on the thighs, laid them on the bed, then eyed them critically.
Perfect for the sweater.
Leslie headed down the hallway toward her roommate’s door. She knocked hard. “Hey, Paige. You gonna let me borrow that sweater today?” Her movement sent the towel turban into a slide until it covered one eye. She pushed it back in place. “Paige!”
The door swung open. Paige stood before her, clad in black jeans—and the teal sweater Leslie wanted to wear. Set off by the top, Paige’s vivid blue-green eyes were stunning. Even with no make-up and her brown hair uncombed, the girl looked gorgeous.
Leslie thrust a hand on her hip. “You rat. How did you know I’d want to wear that today?”
Paige shrugged. “I didn’t. But you can have it. I’ll wear something else.”
Leslie’s turban slipped again. She gave up and pulled it off. Wet hair slapped against the back of her neck. The cold sensation shot a frisson between her shoulder blades. Ooh. Sudden willies rattled her body, and the hair on her arms raked up.
She shivered harder.
Something touched the back of her neck.
Leslie gasped and whipped around, eyes stabbing the hallway.
“What’s wrong? Leslie?”
She barely heard Paige’s voice. Felt only the prickle of her nerves, the lingering sensation of icy fingers on her skin. A strange, indefinable heaviness descended, thick and dark. Leslie trembled, wanting to run, unable to move. Waiting for...
The feeling sucked away, a shadow on a fast-ebbing tide.
She blinked, senses assimilating. Double-checking.
It was gone.
Her fingers cramped. Leslie realized how hard she was clutching the wet towel. She eased her grip, turned around to face her roommate. Paige stared at her.
“Are you okay?”
Leslie drew a breath. “Did you feel that?”
“You telling me you didn’t feel anything?”
Paige looked right and left. “What are you talking about?”
Leslie’s shoulders relaxed a little. Okay. Fine. She was just a little spooked this morning, that’s all.
But she could have sworn . . .
“Never mind.” She slipped the towel around her like a shawl, pulled her wet hair on top of it. “I just...went off for a minute.” She forced a smile, knew it came out crooked. What had they been talking about? “Oh, the sweater. Don’t worry about it. I’ll wear it another day.”
Paige’s eyes rounded. “I swear your face went white. You sure you’re not sick?”
Leslie managed a laugh. “Sick in the head, maybe.” With a flutter of her hand, she headed back down the hall. She could not tell her friend what had just happened—whatever it was. Paige had been through enough, and the last thing she needed was any more weirdness in her life. In the past month she’d begun to blossom, her shy smile quicker, her confidence on the rise. Leslie wasn’t about to put even the smallest speed bump in her roomie’s road to recovery.
In her own bedroom, Leslie chose a blue sweater and slid into her jeans. She pushed the strange occurrence from her mind.
Twenty minutes later in the kitchen, Leslie dropped a bagel in the toaster. While it cooked she slipped outside to fetch the Spokane Review off their front sidewalk. She snatched it up, the cold March air already seeping through her sweater, and hurried back into the house. Blessed spring, come soon.
Her bagel spread with cream cheese, Leslie settled at the table to peruse her competition. Dratted Big City daily. Hitting the streets once a week on Wednesdays, the Kanner Lake Times couldn’t cover news anywhere near as fast as the Review did. What’s more, the KLT was only six pages long. Leslie took a large bite of bagel. Well, so what? Neither could the Review cover Kanner Lake news as thoroughly as her paper. Fortunately, most of the townsfolk subscribed to both. Besides, how many of those reporters had been on national television? All she had to do was keep her nose to the grindstone, and she’d skip over bigger city newspapers altogether, go straight to TV.
Yeah, girl, keep believing it.
She checked the cat-shaped clock on the kitchen wall, its black tail ticking away the minutes. Just before nine. Time to head to the office.
Leslie shoved the last bit of bagel in her mouth, chewing as she rinsed her plate and knife, and stuck them in the dishwasher. Within minutes, teeth brushed and lipstick applied, she was headed out of her bedroom, bearing her small briefcase and a camera slung over her shoulder. The day beckoned, and Leslie Brymes would take it by storm.
“Bye, Paige!” She drummed pink fingernails across her roommate’s door as she walked by. Leslie knew Paige would be reading the Bible—a habit she’d picked up lately. Paige didn’t have to be at work at Simple Pleasures until ten.
“See ya!” Paige’s voice muffled through the wall.
At the front closet Leslie stopped to slip into a puffy jacket, pushing the camera back on her shoulder. She walked out to the porch, ensuring that the door locked behind her, and tilted her face toward a hazy blue sky. Kanner Lake had half a chance of seeing some sun today. Thank goodness the temperature had climbed into the mid thirties, just warm enough to have melted recalcitrant patches of snow. It had covered the ground since the beginning of December.
Leslie stepped off the porch and veered right, following the branch of sidewalk that led to the driveway, which curved up to the double-car garage on the far end of the house. Thanks to full boxes in the garage, she and Paige were parking outside until they unpacked everything. As Leslie approached the driveway, the rear right bumper of her bright yellow VW edged into view, followed by the pink daisy petals on the passenger door.
Someone sat in the car.
Leslie pulled up short. She leaned forward, frowning. The frame between the passenger door and windshield blocked the person’s face. Who was that?
She ventured three steps, watching the form materialize into full view. The person didn’t move.
Over his head—hers?—draped a green towel.
Fear spritzed Leslie’s nerves, followed by quick denial. It was just Paige playing a joke.
Somehow she’d proved Wonder Woman enough to beat it out the back and slide into the car before Leslie stepped through the front door . . .
Three thoughts hit Leslie in rapid succession. Paige didn’t play jokes. Her towels were blue. And she never could have made it out here in time.
What was going on today? First that feeling in the hallway, now this.
Leslie moved two more steps. Was this a new neighbor, looking for a few laughs? Some kid, who should be in school?
The figure remained still as stone. Leslie couldn’t even detect a breath.
Spider-fingers teased the back of her neck.
A year ago Leslie could have convinced herself this was a practical joke. Lots of people knew she and Paige had just moved here. Any number of her friends could have staged this prank. After all, she hadn’t locked her car. But after the events of last summer, Leslie Brymes was no longer the naïve twenty-year-old she had been. Life—even in quiet Kanner Lake—had proved it could explode with the vengeance of a volcano.
Leslie eyed the cataleptic figure and felt the tumble of rocks in her chest.
Slowly, she set down her briefcase. Slipped the camera down her arm and laid it on the cement. Hands free, she forced herself to the end of the sidewalk.
Where the driveway began, she stood within six feet of her VW. Close enough to make out the narrow-shouldered torso, wearing a white blouse, emerging beneath the towel. The covered head was quite a few inches away from the ceiling. A woman? Short, diminutive.
Leslie refused to dwell on the possible reasons for that.
Maybe this was a trick. Maybe it was a life-sized doll. If someone was looking to spoof Paige’s terrifying find of last summer, they’d done a good job. Leslie glanced over her shoulder, seeking a snickering culprit, but saw only empty street.
She turned back toward the car, eyes catching a streak on the passenger door. Dark red, about three inches long, over the edge of a pink daisy petal.
Leslie’s feet rooted to the pavement. She dropped her gaze to the concrete, seeking . . .. Spatters of blood? Footprints? She saw nothing. Honed through her recent coverage of crime-scene evidence and the testimony at last month’s trial, the reporter in Leslie spewed warnings. Notice everything, touch nothing. Grab the notebook and pen from your briefcase, take notes—
This wasn’t real. Couldn’t be. It was a sick prank, nothing more, and when she got her hands on the person who’d set her up, she’d strangle him. Or her.
Propelled by her indignation, Leslie strode forward, grabbed the door handle, and jerked it open. “Listen, whoever you—”
The figure didn’t flinch.
All sound died in Leslie’s throat. Her stunned gaze fell on thin legs in blue polyester pants. Gnarled and bloodied hands curled in the lap. Pinned to the person’s chest, a piece of plain white paper, with the number one on it, circled in black felt-tip pen.
Leslie froze, screaming at herself to back away. Her legs wouldn’t move.
She knew then. Even so, she sought hope. Swallowing hard, she reached out a finger, poked the woman’s arm.
Experience and terror cried for her to stop. This was a crime scene, and nothing should be touched. But fear of the unknown overcame her resistance. Leslie lifted her hand—and jerked away the towel.
Blood crusted a battered head and cheeks. Open, glazed eyes. The face—Leslie knew it.
Her feet back-stepped, hand flying to her mouth. Leslie stumbled, sought the breath to scream and found none. Strangled into silence, her lungs swelling shut, she fled to the porch and pounded on the locked front door.