It was raining again. Of course it was, Rachel thought, peering up at the gray, listless sky as her husband’s black BMW pulled into their driveway. In Silver Falls, Washington it was either raining, about to rain, or just finished raining. Even on a still night you could hear the rush of the thundering falls up on Silver Mountain, the roar of the water leeching into your brain until you felt like you were drowning.
It was little wonder she had this sense of impending doom. There were any number of scientific studies proving the depressing effect of sunless days on human nature. She was used to the hot, sunny climates she and her daughter had lived during the past ten years. She was simply having a hard time with rain, and gloom, and shadows. She’d adapt.
She smoothed the discreet black shift down over her full hips, her hands restless. David wasn’t going to be happy with her – she’d missed another appointment with the lawyer, she’d failed to meet him at his office, and she’d let Sophie spend the night with friends on a school night rather than attend Stephen Henry’s reading. David wouldn’t argue with her, of course. Not David. He would look terribly disappointed with her, and that was far more effective that any number of screaming tantrums.
The thought of mild-mannered David throwing a tantrum was enough to make her grin. He pulled the BMW to a stop exactly two and a half feet from the garage, opened the door and stuck out his black umbrella, unfurling it before he stepped out of the car into the light mist. He caught Rachel’s smile, and he smiled back, though his expression was tinged with that damnable, omnipresent disappointment.
“You missed the meeting at the lawyer’s,” he greeted her, clinking cheekbones with her in a ritual sign of affection. “I thought you were going to make sure you got there.”
Guilt annoyed her, but she felt it anyway. “I’m so sorry, David,” she said, trying to sound penitent. “I just got caught up in work.” Which was a lie. She’d looked up at the faint glow of her watch in the darkroom, saw that she had plenty of time to get to their appointment, and then promptly ignored it.
“This is the third time, Rachel,” he said with utmost patience. “Are you having second thoughts about letting me adopt Sophie? It was your idea in the first place.”
That wasn’t exactly how Rachel remembered it, but she didn’t bother correcting him. Being married meant making compromises, being tact, something she could always work on.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “There’s nothing I want more than for us to be a family. I just get … distracted.”
He reached out and brushed an affectionate hand through her tangled red hair. “Always a dreamer, aren’t you, Rachel?” he said, some of the disapproval vanishing. “Your daughter’s more responsible than you are.”
She took an instinctive step backwards, trying to push her wild hair back into a semblance of order. David was a lovely man, but he had an unfortunate tendency to be ever so slightly patronizing. “I’m perfectly responsible when it’s important,” she said, keeping the edge out of her voice.
“And my adopting Sophie isn’t important?” The disappointment was back in full, and Rachel bit back her instinctive retort. He hated it when she was bitchy, and she hated it as well. For Sophie’s sake, most of all.
But then, Sophie wasn’t there at the moment. “You know it is, David. But there isn’t any hurry, is there? We’ve only been married four months, and I don’t know about you but I’m planning to stay married for the next fifty years. There’s no need to rush into anything.” She tried her most winning smile, that smile that had first caught his eyes six months ago in San Francisco, even if it was a little tight around the edges.
“Of course not,” David said easily. That was what she’d first loved about him. His ability to take things in stride, including her bad temper. “Are you ready to go? We’re running late as it is. You know how my father likes to have his audience gathered before he launches into a reading.”
“I know,” she said, glumly, unable to summon up much more enthusiasm. David’s father, Stephen Henry Middleton, professor emeritus of Silver Falls College, self-styled Poet of the Pacific Northwest, should have been a welcome part of the package. She hadn’t known any kind of father for the past thirteen years, not since she’d been kicked out of the house for being seventeen and pregnant, and Stephen Henry was born to be a patriarch. He doted on an unappreciative Sophie and managed just the right amount of decorous flirting with his daughter-in-law. Maybe it was Sophie’s hidden dislike that tipped her off. Her daughter always had had far better instincts than she had.
“I’m ready,” she said, plastering her best smile on her mouth.
David took a spotless white linen handkerchief from his elegant suit, reached up and wiped her lipstick off her mouth. “There,” he said with a sigh of satisfaction. “That’s much better. Aren’t you going to change your shoes?”
She’d loved that bright slash of color on her mouth, and she almost said something. But marriage was give and take, and she knew David didn’t like makeup. She must have done it subconsciously, just to annoy him. She really had to stop doing things like that or she’d never settle in.
She looked down at her shoes. She was still wearing the two inch heels that put her a good three inches taller than David’s blonde head. They were brightly colored espadrilles she’d picked up in Mexico, with straps around the ankles that made her strong legs look sexy. She sighed. “Sorry, I forget,” she said, kicking them off and going in search of the ballet slippers he preferred. He followed her, shoes in his hand. “Sorry,” she said again, grabbing the plain black flats. She had a weakness for shoes, and she always left them all over the place, and David was always picking them up. He moved past her, placing them in the labeled cubby hole of the custom closet that both delighted and horrified her with its organization, and held out his arm.
“I told her she could spend the night at Melissa Bannister. She has a lot of school work and I thought we’d be out too late.”
Just the faintest flash of impatience on David’s handsome face, gone almost before it appeared. “You know my father adores Sophie,” he chided her.
But Sophie didn’t adore his father. “School work comes first, don’t you agree?”
“Of course.” As a college professor he couldn’t very well say anything else. “We’ll have to bring her over for dinner some time this week to make up for it.”
“Of course,” Rachel said. Sophie would go if she asked her to. But Rachel hadn’t lived thirty-two years, half of them on her own, without learning how to get what she wanted. After all, she was doing this for Sophie, giving her a sane life away from the nomadic life that had suddenly turned tragic. Sophie had better things to do than cater to the overweening vanity of an aging academic. She needed to learn to be a child again.
Then again, Rachel had better things to do herself, and yet she was going off, the perfect faculty wife in the perfect little college town where it never stopped raining and she felt like she was slowly suffocating …
“Are you all right?” David said, his voice soft with concern. “You clutched my arm.”
“Just a hand cramp, darling. I’ve been working too hard.”
He smiled at her fondly. “I love it that you’ve kept up with your photography, but you know you don’t have to. I make more than enough for both of us.”
They’d had this discussion before, and they’d probably be still arguing about it on their death beds, seventy happy years from now. “It’s not about the money, David. It’s who I am.”
He led her out into the damp night, closing the door of the house behind him and double locking the door. “And what you are is perfect,” he said. “Do you mind us taking your car? Mine still smells from that run in with a dead deer.”
“Of course. Do you want me to take your care and get it washed tomorrow?”
He shook his head. “You know how silly I am about that stupid car. It’s my baby, and I hate to have anyone else touch it, even you, darling. I’ll have my teaching assistant take care of it for me.”
Not exactly was a T.A. was supposed to do, but she said nothing. David had his life arranged to perfection, and who was she to argue. So she merely smiled indulgently, tucked her perfect little evening bag uner her perfect arm, and got in the car with her perfect husband. It was going to be a long night.
Caleb Middleton ducked beneath the tarp that covered what should have been the hallway in his house and headed into the half-finished bathroom. He expected that the plumbing would have died, but he turned the faucet and rust colored water dribbled out, slowly at first, then turning into a steady stream. He turned on the shower – no hot water, of course, but the gravity fed pump was working – and he stripped off his muddy clothes and shoes and stepped beneath the cold water.
He didn’t close his eyes. He could still see her body, trapped in the branches. He’d called the police, anonymously, but Maggie Bannister wouldn’t have any trouble tracking his cell phone. And then the questions would begin, and he’d lie, and no one would believe him. Maggie had always kept a distrustful eye on him when she was a simple beat cop – now that she was the sheriff she’d be even more likely to think the worst of him.
There was even a musty towel in the open shelves under the sink. He pulled it out, to find that something had eaten a large hole in it. It didn’t matter. He dried himself and pulled on clean clothes, then picked up the muddy ones and wrapped them in the towel. If it ever stopped raining long enough he’d burn them. Otherwise he’d bury them and forget about it. If he could.
In the years he’d been gone his half-finished house hadn’t been abandoned – there was a pile of firewood and kindling by the woodstove, dozens of empty beer bottles and an ashtray full of roaches. Teenagers must have used the place for a makeout spot. He didn’t mind – he would have done the same. Had done the same.
He walked across the rough floors to the front of the living room and looked down over the town of Silver Falls. The clouds hung low, but he could see the outlines of the college campus where his brother and father worked, the streets of the small town laid out in perfect order. The waterfall was up behind him, and he could hear it roaring down over the steady sound of rain. After years in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan he should have welcomed the rain.
It smelled like death to him. Death and decay and despair. They were part of his every day life, and yet here, in a peaceful little town, death was stronger than in the war zones where he worked.
He was here to face death, and the questions that had always plagued him, questions that he’d avoided finding the answers to. But that had changed – he couldn’t hide from the ugly truth any more. Starting with the dead woman caught in the branches at the bottom of the falls. He stared out at the curtain of rain that separated his half-finished house from the rest of the world. He’d need to get his generator up and running, he’d need to replace the wind-shredded tarp that flapped in the wind. He’d need to do any number of things before he headed back down the mountain to find his father and brother and see who had the stink of death on him.
And this time he wasn’t going to leave until he found the truth. Even if it was as bad as it could possibly be, as horrifying as he’d always feared, he’d face it. You could only run for so long, and there was a new member is his happy little family. David had done the unthinkable and gotten married. And Caleb could no longer pretend that something very bad was going on in the gloomy, tight-assed little town of Silver Falls.
Sophie Chapman shoved her blonde hair back and made a face at her best friend Kristen. At least there were a few good things about this gloomy little town, and Kristen was right there at the top of the list. In her thirteen years she’d been in more countries than most people saw in a lifetime, and she had an easy time of making friends. She and Kristen had been soul mates from the moment they met at Beecher High School, and they’d been almost inseparable ever since. Kristen’s mother, the sheriff of this boring town, was down to earth, no nonsense and surprisingly easy-going, and Sophie’s mother was just glad Sophie had found a friend.
She loved her mother, but sometimes she was just silly. Yes, losing Tessa had been hard. She still missed her, still grieved for her and the awful way she’d died, but she was far too practical to let it turn her into a drama queen. Bad things happened, bad people existed. You just had to do your best to avoid both of them.
It was getting a little harder to avoid her stepfather. Not that he was evil, of course. He went out of his way to dote on her, giving her little presents that she really didn’t want. She was very good at sussing people out, though, and there was something about him that didn’t compute.
She didn’t waste time thinking about it. He made her mother happy, gave her the normal life that she must have always wanted. For some reason Sophie had thought they were having a wonderful time, traveling the world, getting by on the money Rachel made from her photographs. Sometimes, when she sold stuff to a travel magazine, they could stay in nice hotels and eat steak. Sometimes it was youth hostels and granola. It didn’t matter – it was all a grand adventure, and Sophie had loved it.
Apparently Rachel hadn’t. David Middleton had shown up a few weeks after Tessa was found, and her mother had fallen for him like a stone. Rachel, who usually kept her distance from men on the make, had dropped all her usual defenses and jumped straight into marriage with a stranger.
She’d always loved her mother’s impulsiveness – now she wasn’t so sure. There was no way she could tell her mother she found David a little creepy – Rachel was so certain this was the answer to all their problems. A safe life in a sweet little town in the Pacific Northwest – what could be better?
Sophie could think of a number of places, but she’d taken one look at her mother’s face and kept her mouth shut.
So here she was, making the best of things, and Kristen was definitely one of the best.
“You want to see if my mother will give us a ride to the mall,” Kristen suggested lazily, stretched out on her bedroom floor. “She should be off-duty soon, and we’ve done our homework.”
Sophie had never been particularly fond of malls, and Silver Falls pathetic version of it was even less enticing. However, Kristen looked hopeful, so she nodded, agreeable as always. “As long as we don’t have meet any boys.”
“You are such a party pooper,” Kristen said cheerfully. “I think Crash has got a game tonight.”
Crash being Kristen’s current crush, a singularly thick-headed soccer player on the junior varsity. Sophie wasn’t particularly impressed with the crop of young men Silver Falls had produced. But then, she wasn’t interested in falling in love, not yet. Not until she was sure her mother had made the right decision.
“Kristen?” Sheriff Bannister’s voice called from the kitchen. “I need you girls to come down here.”
Sophie knew that tone of voice. She’d heard it before, when Tessa had died, and she recognized it now with a certain sick dread.
“I wonder what’s up with Mom?” Kristen said, clueless. “She doesn’t sound like she’ll agree to take us to the mall.”
“If I were you I wouldn’t even ask,” Sophie said, climbing off the bed and following her friend down the stairs in the shabby old split level.
Mrs. Bannister had a grim look on her face, and she was still wearing her uniform, and Sophie knew what was coming before she even opened her mouth. “Girls, there’s been a murder.”
And Sophie knew things weren’t going to right again for a long time.
Stephen Henry Middleton was being called upon to read, and the old ham never missed an opportunity, Rachel thought, scooping up a tray of empty glasses and heading for the kitchen. The only way she survived these cocktail parties was to make herself busy – drinking wasn’t an option. She had too great a tendency to say what she really thought when she’d had a drink, and being honest in the sacred halls of Silver Falls College was definitely frowned upon.
She put her butt against the swinging door into the kitchen and backed out of the room before David could see her and frown. Stephen Henry wouldn’t notice. Stephen Henry never noticed anyone but himself.
Sure enough, his sonorous tones began to spread throughout the downstairs of the old house, and Rachel set the tray down, then made a dash for the kitchen door. The rain had stopped for the moment, the air was cool and damp, and she slipped outside, closing the door behind her very quietly. A little fresh air would do wonders, and this party, in honor of Stephen Henry’s fifteenth collection of self-published poetry, would go on until the old man had read every single last one to his adoring crowd. No one would notice she was missing.
Her stomach rumbled. She was on a diet – hell, she was always on a diet. With her bone structure she didn’t dare eat as much as she wanted, and she’d gotten through the day with a green salad with lemon juice, a fat free yogurt, and a thin slice of gluten-free bread. A healthy mind in a healthy body, David used to say, but right then Rachel didn’t feel like either. She felt like pancakes and bacon and scrambled eggs and real maple syrup. She’d sell her soul for an Ihop.
The polite smattering of applause drifted out from the house, followed by the faint sounds of Stephen Henry. Even from a wheelchair he managed to project, and the occasional word would leak out into the night. She was going to have to study her inscribed copy … “to darling Rachel, the loveliest daughter-in-law a poet could ever have” … because Stephen Henry was bound to quiz her, and a simple “I loved all of it” would never work.
Maybe she had time to drive out to the interstate for a Happy Meal or something. She wasn’t eating enough to keep a bird alive, though David would smell a big Mac on her breathe and look disappointed. Maybe Stephen Henry had something fattening in his kitchen cabinets, though she doubted it. Maybe …
“What are you doing, skulking around in the dark?”
The voice came out of nowhere, and she barely managed to stifle a shriek as a tall figure emerged from the shadows. She hadn’t bothered to turn on the porch light, and she couldn’t see him clearly – she only knew she’d never met him before.
He moved closer, and his face came into the light. Not a kind face – it was thin, with sharp cheekbones, hooded eyes and cool twist to the mouth. “You’re not sneaking a cigarette,” he said, “and as far as I can tell I’m the only one out prowling tonight, so you couldn’t be meeting a lover.” He looked at her, a long, assessing stare, and Rachel couldn’t rid herself of the thought that he was sizing her up and decided she wasn’t lover-material. “So why are you lurking outside Stephen Henry’s house? It is still his house, isn’t it?”
“They’ll have to use a crowbar to get him out,” she muttered. Even though the poet laureate of Silver Falls College had retired ten years ago, he always found an excuse not to vacate the impressive faculty housing that had always been his as Dean of Students. No matter how hard everyone, including his son, tried.
The stranger laughed. “That sounds like him. So why are you hiding out here?”
“He’s doing a reading,” she said gloomily.
He laughed again, and she got the impression he didn’t laugh often. “I don’t blame you. He goes on for ever.” He paused, and Stephen Henry’s fruity tones seeped out of the old house. “You must be new here. Who are you, one of the faculty wives?”
“Why wouldn’t I be on the faculty myself?” she shot back, annoyed.
“Because you’re dressed too appropriately. Faculty can do what they want, the wives and husbands have to toe the line.”
“Then who are you? A faculty husband? I’ve never seen you before.”
He just looked at her. “Do I look like the kind of man who toes the line?” he said. He didn’t wait for her answer. “Is your husband in there? He isn’t going to like it that you skipped out on the old man.”
“He’s used to it.” She didn’t bother asking him how he knew she was married. She wore a ring, and he was the kind of man who noticed everything.
She heard the phone ring inside the house, while her father-in-law simply raised his voice to be heard over it. A moment later even Stephen Henry shut up, and there was dead silence, followed by a buzz of conversation.
“Sounds like there’s something more exciting than a poetry reading going on,” the stranger said in a lazy voice. “Don’t you think you ought to go in and find your husband?”
“What’s this obsession with my husband?” she shot back.
He leaned back against the iron fencing. “What’s this lack of interest in him on your part?” he said. “Why are you trading barbs with a stranger in the dark?”
Because she felt alive for the first time in months. She was annoyed, stimulated, irritated, and bizarrely happy. “I’m not,” she said, plastering the good wife smile on her face and turning toward the door. “I’m going to find him.”
The touch of his hand was electrifying. It was light, just a brush against her arm, but the message was clear. “Don’t go back in,” he said. “If he made you wear that dress then he doesn’t deserve you.”
She looked at him as he stood in the shadows, apart from the well-regulated life she’d chosen. Chosen for her daughter, chosen for herself. In another lifetime she’d simply go with him, leaving everything behind, the proper black dress, the safe life, the perfect family she’d created. But she was doing this for Sophie, she reminded herself, who’d lived through enough chaos. She didn’t have a choice.
She pulled away from him, more sharply than she needed to. “I think I’d better find out what’s going on. Are you coming in?”
Only the ghost of a smile. “I think I’ll stay here for the time being. I don’t think anyone will be particularly happy to see me.”
She stared at him a moment longer. There was something she was missing, something important …
The kitchen door opened suddenly, and David stood there, looking distressed. “I thought I’d find you out here,” he said. “You need to come in. Another girl’s been murdered.”
She froze, forgetting about the stranger behind her. “Another? David, what are you talking about? I haven’t heard about any murders.”
He looked nervous, her sensitive husband. “I didn’t see the point of mentioning it, given what you and Sophie had just been through. Anyway, it’s not something we talk about here, particularly since the last one was years ago. We thought …” He peered into the darkness, and his voice sharpened. “Who’s that with you?”
She looked back, and the stranger moved into the bright light. She couldn’t very well introduce him, since he hadn’t given his name.
“Hello, David,” the man said.
Her husband turned pale. “Shit,” he said. The first time Rachel had ever heard him curse. “What are you doing here?”
“Haven’t you heard the story about the prodigal son?” His face was expressionless. “Is this your wife?”
“It is,” David said, putting a possessive hand on her. Another anomaly – he seldom touched her in front of other people.
“Are you going to introduce us?” There was just the faint taunt in his voice. Whoever the stranger was, David wasn’t happy to see him. And David was always unfailingly polite.
“I don’t think so.”
The man laughed. “You can’t keep her away from me forever. You know that.”
“I can try.”
“What the hell is going on?” Rachel said. “Why are you two having a pissing contest?”
“Old habits die hard,” the stranger murmured. “Are you going to invite me in?”
“Now isn’t a good time, Caleb,” David said stiffly.
“Is it ever?”
The damp night air had turned to rain once more, and Rachel had had enough. “My name is Rachel Chapman,” she said, seriously annoyed. “And of course you’re invited in.”
“Rachel Chapman Middleton,” David corrected her, ignoring the fact that she’d told him she didn’t want to change her name. She looked back at the stranger.
The smile he sent David was nothing short of a triumphant smirk, and he moved into the house, pushing David out of the way. David fell back, and there was no reading the strange expression on his face.
“Don’t you think you could give the old man a break?” he said. “Just go away. Go back to whatever desert or war zone you’ve been haunting and leave us alone, for God’s sake.”
“Who’s there?” Stephen Henry’s deep voice could be heard through the closed door.
“Might as well face the music, David,” the stranger, Caleb, said. “You want to do it together?”
“I better warn him.” David pushed past him, shoving the kitchen door open. Leaving Rachel alone in the kitchen with the stranger who was no stranger at all. He gave her a faint, quizzical smile. “You’ll have to excuse me. I have some old acquaintances to renew.”
She was tempted to stay put, or even better, go take her car and drive home. This was supposed to be a safe place, where murder couldn’t happen. But It had happened, apparently more than once, and she needed to get to Sophie, fast.
Bur Sophie was at Maggie Bannister’s house – the safest possible place she could possibly be. She needed to calm down, not rush into anything and end up freaking Sophie out.
She could be reasonable, wait for David. In the meantime she wanted to know who was the man who managed to rattle her unflappable husband.
She followed him into the living room where Stephen Henry had been holding forth. Half the guests had already departed in the wake of the horrifying news, and the ones who remained were looking even more stunned at the sight of the newcomer.
Stephen Henry looked up, his long silver main pushed back from his face in artistic disarray. His faded blue eyes focused on the newcomer, and to Rachel’s astonishment a smile wreathed his face.
“My long lost son,” he said. “Welcome home, Caleb. We’ve missed you.”