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Excerpt

Excerpt

Dead by Midnight

Prologue

There is was again, that odd sound. It must be the wind.
What else could it be? Possibly a wild animal, a raccoon or possum
or even a stray dog. Bears are in hibernation this time of
year.

Get hold of yourself. You’re imagining things.
Nobody’s out there. Nobody is going to show up here in the
middle of the woods in the dead of winter just to frighten
you.

Dean’s bone thin hands trembled as he pulled back the
gingham curtain from the dirty window and peered out into the
darkness. The quarter moon winked mockingly at him through a thin
veil of clouds, as if it knew something he didn’t. The cold
wind whispered menacingly. Was it issuing him a warning?

Releasing the curtain, he rubbed his hands together, as much to
warm them as to control the quivering. He sure as hell could use a
drink about now. Or something stronger, quicker. But he had learned
to settle for strong coffee. A caffeine fix was better than no fix
at all. He had been clean and sober for three years and he had no
intention of allowing a few stupid letters to destroy his hard won
freedom from drugs and alcohol.

Forget the damn letters. They’re just somebody’s
idea of a sick joke.

There were things he should be doing --- stoking the fire
he’d built in the fireplace, checking supplies, preparing the
coffeemaker for morning coffee, bringing in more firewood, putting
fresh linens on the twin beds. Dean wanted everything to be in
order before his brother got here. Jared, who was driving in from
Knoxville where he taught biology at the University of Tennessee,
would arrive sometime in the morning and if all went as planned,
they’d spend the weekend here. This was the first time
they’d been together at their family’s cabin in the
Smoky Mountains since they were teenagers.

God, that had been a lifetime ago. Jared was forty-eight now,
widowed, the father to two adult sons. His brother was successful
in a way he would never be. Jared lived a normal life, always had
and always would. Dean was a failure. Always had been and probably
always would be. He’d been married and divorced four times.
But he’d done one thing right --- to his knowledge he had
never fathered a child.

As he lifted the poker from where it was propped against the
rock wall surrounding the fireplace, he glanced at the old mantel
clock that had belonged to his grandparents. Eleven-forty-seven. He
should be sleepy, but he wasn’t. He had flown in from LA
earlier today and had rented a car at the airport.

Jared had sent him the airline ticket. His brother didn’t
trust him enough to send him the money. In the past, he would have
used the money to buy drugs. He couldn’t blame Jared. Dean
had done nothing to earn anybody’s trust. He might be clean
and sober, but even he knew that it wouldn’t take much to
push him over the edge. If something happened, something he
couldn’t handle, he just might take the easy way out. He
always had in the past.

Was receiving death threats something he couldn’t
handle?

Dean stoked the fire and replaced the poker, then headed toward
the kitchen to prepare the coffeemaker. Halfway across the
cabin’s great room, he heard that pesky noise again. It
sounded like footsteps crunching over dried leaves. He stopped dead
still and listened.

Silence.

With his heart racing, his palms perspiration-damp and a shiver
of uncertainty rippling along his nerve endings, he wondered if he
should get his granddad’s shotgun out of the closet. His dad
had always kept a box of shells on the overhead shelf in the
closet, well out of reach when he and Jared had been kids. But what
were the odds that he’d actually find an old box of
shells?

He should have gone to the police after he received that first
letter, but he’d waited, telling himself that each letter
would be the last one. Over the past few months, he had received a
total of four succinct typed notes. Each one had begun the same
way. Midnight is coming.

What the hell did that mean? Midnight came every twenty-four
hours, didn’t it?

Dean went into the larger of the two bedrooms, the room his
parents had shared on their visits here, turned on the overhead
light and opened the closet door. The closet was empty except for a
few wire clothes hangers; and there in the very far left corner was
his granddad’s shotgun. He reached out and grabbed it. Just
holding the weapon made him feel safe.

Idiot. The thing’s not loaded.

To make sure, he snapped it open and checked. Empty. No shells.
He raked his hand across the narrow shelf at the top of the closet
and found nothing except dust. Had he really expected to find a box
of shells?

Dean sighed. But he took the shotgun with him when he returned
to the great room and laid it on the kitchen table. He rinsed out
the coffee pot, filled it with fresh water and emptied the water
into the reservoir. After measuring the ground coffee into the
filter, he set the timer for seven o’clock.

He still needed to bring in more firewood and put clean sheets
on the beds. When he’d set his suitcase down on the floor in
the second bedroom, the one he and Jared had always shared, he had
noticed that the mattresses were bare. He had found the pillows and
blankets in the hall linen closet, along with a stack of bed
linens. He dreaded the thought of going outside, of getting chilled
to the bone and facing his own fears. What if it wasn’t an
animal walking around out there?

Wait until morning to bring in the firewood.

But was there enough wood to keep the fire going all night?

“There are a couple of kerosene heaters in the shed out
back,” Jared had told him. “Just don’t use them
at night. It’s safer to keep a fire going in the
fireplace.”

“Why haven’t you put in some other kind of
heat?” Dean had asked him.

“Because we hardly ever use the place in the winter.
Besides, the boys and I enjoy roughing it, just like you and I did
with Dad.”

Dad.

Dean didn’t think about his father all that often.
Remembering how completely he had disappointed his father
wasn’t a pleasant memory. His parents had loved him, had
given him every advantage, and he had screwed up time and time
again.

Dean put on his heavy winter coat --- the one he had bought for
a little of nothing at the Salvation Army thrift store. It was
foolish of him to be afraid of the dark, scared to face a raccoon
or a possum, or to think that whoever had written those crazy
letters had actually followed him from California to Tennessee and
was waiting outside the cabin to kill him.

Dean grunted.

Don’t be such a wuss.

He flipped on the porch light and grasped the doorknob. The
moment he opened the cabin door, the frigid wind hit him in the
face and sent a shiver through his body. He closed the door behind
him and headed toward the firewood stacked neatly on the north side
of the front porch. Working quickly, he filled his arms to
overflowing.

Dean turned and headed for the front door, then realized
he’d have to shuffle his load in order to open the door. But
before he could accomplish the task, he heard what sounded a lot
like footsteps. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. His
heartbeat accelerated. He glanced over his shoulder and saw nothing
out of the ordinary.

Get a grip, man!

Just as he managed to free one hand and grab hold of the
doorknob, he heard the sound again. Closer. As if someone was
walking in the leaves that covered the rock walkway from the gravel
drive to the porch.

Dean took a deep breath, garnered his courage and turned all the
way around to confront the intruder. Suddenly, he burst into
laughter. A possum scurried across the dead leaves not more than a
foot from the porch steps.

“Son of a bitch,” he said aloud as relief flooded
his senses.

Still chuckling to himself, he turned back around, opened the
front door and carried the firewood into the cabin, leaving the
front door open behind him. He dumped the firewood into the wood
box on the hearth and stood up straight. Feeling the cold air
sweeping into the house through the open door, he faced forward,
intending to walk across the room and close the door. Instead, he
froze to the spot. There, standing just inside the doorway, was
someone – male or female, he couldn’t tell --- wearing
a heavy winter coat, boots, gloves and an oddly familiar mask.

“What the hell! Who are you?”

Dean tried to rationalize what he saw, but as fast as his mind
was working, it didn’t work fast enough to make sense of the
bizarre sight.. Before he could say or do anything else, the person
in the mask, pulled something from his --- or her --- coat pocket
and aimed it at Dean.

A gun?

The person fired. Once. Twice. Three times.

Dean reeled as the first bullet pierced his shoulder, and then
dropped to his knees when the second bullet ripped into his leg.
When the third bullet entered his chest, he heard two things
simultaneously – the clock on the mantle striking the hour
and the sound of his killer’s voice.

“Dead by midnight,” the masked murderer said.

Those were the last words Dean Wilson ever heard.

Chapter 1

Mike Birkett poured cereal into three bowls, added milk and
blueberries and set the bowls on the table. His nine-year-old
daughter, Hannah, picked up her spoon and dug in while his
eleven-year-old son, M.J., curled up his nose as

he eyed the berries with distain.

“Do I have to eat those?” M.J. asked, a slight whine
in his voice.

“Yeah,” Mike told him. “At least some of them.
Okay? Blueberries are good for you.”

“Who says?”

“I’ll bet it was Ms. Sherman,” Hannah said.
“I’ve heard her talking about what she eats --- stuff
like protein shakes and tofu and soy milk and all kinds of yucky
things like that.”

“Figures,” M.J. mumbled under his breath.

Mike knew that neither of his children especially liked Abby
Sherman, the woman he’d been dating the past few months. And
he really didn’t understand why. Abby had gone out of her way
to try to make the kids like her and she’d been very
understanding when they had been rude to her on more than one
occasion. What really puzzled him about their attitude was the fact
that Abby actually reminded him of his late wife, Molly. It was one
of the reasons he’d thought the kids would automatically
accept her. Abby had the same cute look that Molly had, with her
blue eyes and strawberry blond hair. She was slender, athletic and
wholesome.

Abby was the sort of person he needed in his life, the type of
woman who would make a good wife and mother.

Mike hurriedly woofed down his cereal, and forced himself to eat
the blueberries he’d sprinkled on top. When he finished the
last bite, he took a sip of his third cup of coffee and found it
lukewarm.

“You two hurry up,” he told his children.
“Sunday school starts in less than an hour. If we’re
late again this Sunday, Grams will give us all a good
scolding.”

Since Molly’s death nearly four years ago, his mother had
stepped in and helped him. He didn’t know what he would have
done without her. His kids lived with him and he usually managed to
get them off to school every morning. But his mother picked them up
in the afternoons and looked after them until he came home from
work. And whenever his duties as the county sheriff called him away
at odd hours, all he had to do was phone his mom. She’d been
a lifesaver.

After being up late last night, dancing at his best
friend’s wedding, he would have liked nothing better than to
have slept in this morning and let his mom pick the kids up for
Sunday school. But as a single parent, he always tried to set a
good example for his son and daughter, going so far as to eat
blueberries.

Mike dumped the remainder of his cool coffee into the sink,
rinsed out the cup and left it in the sink along with is bowl and
spoon. Glancing out the window, he groaned quietly. He wished the
rain had held off for another day. Not only did they have Sunday
school and church services this morning, but they were taking Abby
out to lunch and then to an afternoon matinee in Decatur.

“I ate all the cereal and some of the blueberries,”
M.J. said as he dumped a few drops of leftover milk and
three-fourths of the blueberries into the garbage.

Mike nodded and smiled. Whenever he looked at his son, he saw
Molly. He had her red-blond hair, blue eyes, and freckles. Hannah,
on the other hand, resembled him. Same wide mouth, square jaw, dark
hair and blue eyes. But Hannah had Molly’s sweet, easy-going
disposition and his son definitely showed the potential to be the
hell-raiser Mike had been as a teenager.

When Hannah placed her empty bowl in the sink, she looked at
Mike and asked, “May I wear the dress I wore to Jack and
Cathy’s wedding to church this morning?”

“It’s a little fancy for church, isn’t
it?” Mike knew little to nothing about young girl’s
clothes, but the floor-length green dress his mother had chosen for
her to wear to the wedding wasn’t something he thought
appropriate for Sunday school.

“I like it a lot, Daddy. It’s so pretty. It’s
the same color as Miss Lorie’s maid of honor
dress.”

Mike groaned again. Lorie Hammonds was the last woman on earth
he wanted his daughter to emulate.

“Wear that little blue dress with the white collar,”
Mike told Hannah.

“I wore that last Sunday.”

“Then pick out something else. But you cannot wear the
green dress you wore to the wedding.”

“Oh, all right.”

“Go on now. Brush your teeth and get dressed.” Mike
tapped the face of his wristwatch. “I want you two ready to
go in twenty minutes. You can recite your Bible verses to me on the
way there.”

Mike left the kitchen as it was. He could load the dishwasher
and wipe off the table and countertops later. He needed a quick
shower and a shave.

As he walked through the house, heading for his bathroom, he
tried his damnedest not to think about Lorie. He had spent more
time with her this past week than he had in all the years since she
returned to Dunmore. Usually, he avoided her like the plague. But
they had been thrown together constantly the past few days because
he had been Jack’s best man and she had been Cathy’s
maid of honor. Now that the wedding was over, there was no reason
for him to see her again, which suited him just fine.

Mike turned on the shower, stripped out of his pajama bottoms
and T-shirt, and stepped under the warm water. Okay, so he had a
hard-on just thinking about Lorie. So what? She was a beautiful,
desirable woman and he was a normal guy whose body reacted in a
normal way when he thought about someone he found attractive. Lorie
was extremely desirable, but she was all wrong for him and his
kids. Thoughts of Abby Sherman might not cause an instant arousal,
but Abby was a lady, someone he could be proud of, someone suitable
as a stepmother for his children.

Lorie Hammonds was a slut!

#

Lorie slept until nearly eleven and woke with a mild hangover
from having drunk too much champagne at Cathy and Jack’s
wedding. The moment her feet hit the wooden floor, she moaned. It
was too damn cold for mid-March. As she reached down to the
footboard of her bed to retrieve her robe, she danced her toes over
the floor searching for her house shoes. Her big toe encountered
one of the satin slippers. She slid her foot inside the soft warmth
and glanced down to see if she could locate its mate. Only after
getting out of bed and bending over to look under the bed did she
find her other shoe. As she rounded the end of the bed, her hip
accidentally made contact with the edge of the antique, gold metal
storage bench.

Cursing softly under her breath, she realized this was probably
not going to be a good day. After peeing, washing her hands and
splashing cool water in her face, she avoided glancing in the
mirror and went straight down the hall to the kitchen. She checked
the coffeemaker to see if she had remembered to prepare it last
night. She hadn’t. Great. That meant she’d have to wait
for her morning pick-me-up. Working hurriedly, she ground the
coffee beans, ran tap water through the faucet filter and got
everything ready.

While the coffee brewed, she tried to focus on her usual Sunday
morning routine. Not being a churchgoer, she saved the first day of
the week for leisure. Reading the morning newspaper from cover to
cover, giving herself a manicure and a pedicure, spending the
afternoon lounging in her easy chair with a good book, going to the
movies, having dinner out with a friend.

But her best friend --- her only true friend in Dunmore --- was
off on her honeymoon and would be gone two weeks. She didn’t
begrudge Cathy her happiness, her fourteen glorious days of
uninterrupted lovemaking with her new husband. But Cathy’s
romantic dreams finally coming true only reminded Lorie of the
impossibility of that ever happening for her.

Padding through the house to the front door of her 1920’s
clapboard bungalow located just outside the city limits of downtown
Dunmore, Lorie sighed. Romantic dreams didn’t come true for
women like her. She’d had her one chance at happily ever
after and she’d blown it big time. Just because Cathy had
gotten a second chance, didn’t mean she would.

She opened the front door, scanned the porch, sidewalk and front
yard and located the Sunday paper hanging precariously between two
small azalea bushes. Damn! It was raining like crazy, had probably
set in for the day, and the cold March breeze felt more like a
February wind. She shivered as rushed down the steps, grasped the
cellophane-wrapped paper, and ran back into the house.

She could smell the delicious coffee brewing. By the time she
peeled off her wet housecoat and gown and put on something warm and
dry, the coffee would be ready. After taking a couple of tentative
steps down the hall, she stopped, said damn, and then turned and
went back to the front door. She had forgotten to get
Saturday’s mail out of the box at the end of her driveway.
She might as well do that now while she was already soaked.

After retrieving the mail and getting drenched to the skin,
Lorie tossed the small stack of envelopes and the Sunday newspaper
down on the half-moon table in her tiny foyer before she headed for
the bedroom.

Ten minutes later, drinking her first cup of morning coffee,
dressed in lightweight fleece lounge pants and a matching pullover,
Lorie slipped the newspaper out of its protective cellophane sleeve
and took the paper and her unopened mail into the living room. She
relaxed in her plush easy chair, placed her feet on the matching
ottoman and scanned the morning headlines. The Life section of the
paper was what interested her today. A color wedding photo of her
best friend, Catherine Cantrell --- no, she was Catherine Perdue
now --- stared up at her from the wedding announcements page. Cathy
had never looked more beautiful.

Tears threatened, reaching Lorie’s throat and lodging
there. She swallowed hard. Be happy, Cathy. Be happy. You so
deserve it.

And maybe that was the reason she would never be truly happy.
Lorie Hammonds didn’t deserve to be happy.

She folded back the page and laid the newspaper aside. She would
cut out Cathy’s picture and then look through the rest of the
paper later. As a general rule, Saturday’s mail was light,
even at Treasures of the Past, the antique shop she co-owned with
Cathy, but better to go through it now and toss out everything
except the bills. She picked up one envelope after another,
discarding half a dozen requests from various charities. If she
regularly donated to each of these organizations, she would quickly
give away her entire paycheck. She laid the one bill --- her credit
card statement --- on the end table. She would write a check
tomorrow and mail it off. Sooner or later, she would have to move
into the twenty-first century and pay all her bills
electronically.

One envelope remained in her lap. She picked it up and looked at
it. Her breath caught in her throat.

No, it can’t be. Please, don’t let it be another
one.

Don’t jump to conclusions. Just because it looks like
the other one doesn’t mean it’s from the same
person.

She flipped over the envelope a couple of times, studying both
sides carefully. Her name and address had been printed on a white
mailing label. No return name or address.

Just like the other letter.

And just like the first one, it had been mailed from Tennessee,
but this one was postmarked Memphis instead of Knoxville.

Lorie ripped open one end of the envelope and pulled out a
single sheet of white paper. Her hands trembled as she unfolded the
letter. For a half-second, her vision blurred as she looked down at
the message. Her heartbeat accelerated.

Midnight is coming. Say your prayers. Ask for forgiveness.
Get your affairs in order. You’re on the list. Be prepared.
You don’t know when it will be your turn. Will you be the
next to die?

Lorie sat there staring at the letter until the words on the
page began to run together into an unfocused blur. Her fingers
tightened, crunching the edge of the letter. Closing her eyes, she
tried to calm her erratic heartbeat.

This letter was identical to the first one she had received a
month ago. The original letter had worried her, but she’d
been in the midst of preparing for Cathy’s bridal showers and
upcoming wedding. She had decided it was nothing more than a crank
letter from some nut who had nothing better to do with his time.
After all, why would anyone want to kill her? It wasn’t as if
she was rich or famous. And as far as she knew she didn’t
have any enemies who would go so far as to threaten to kill
her.

But here it was --- a second letter. A second death threat.
Could she simply ignore this one and toss it in the trash as she
had the first one?

One really could have been a silly prank.

But two could mean that someone out there wanted to, at the very
least, frighten her.

Or did they actually want to kill her?

Chapter Two

Lorie drove by Mike’s house three times, trying to build
up enough courage to stop, ring the doorbell and tell the county
sheriff that she had received her second death threat. He would ask
to see both letters. She’d tell him she threw the first one
in the trash. He’d look over the second letter, all the while
wondering if she had written it to herself as an excuse to drawn
him into her life. Damn him! Did he honestly think she was that
desperate?

And if he believed her, what would he do? Tell her to come down
to the office in the morning and fill out a report? He certainly
wouldn’t take a personal interest. He’d hand her
problem over to one of his deputies and that would be the end of
it.

There had been a time when Mike Birkett would have gone to hell
and back for her. But that had been when he had loved her, when he
had thought she was going to be his wife and the mother of his
children. That had been before she had gotten on a plane and flown
to California to become a famous movie star. Seventeen years and a
million heartbreaks ago.

Lorie slowed her Ford Edge SUV at the Stop sign, glanced down at
her wristwatch – 2:46 P.M. – and wondered what the hell
she was going to do. Who could she turn to for help?

Not Mike.

And not the Dunmore police. Even if they took the threat on her
life seriously, what could they actually do?

What she needed was a private detective, someone who could find
out the identity of the person who had sent her the threatening
letters.

Lorie suddenly had a light bulb moment and knew exactly who she
could go to for help.

Fifteen minutes later, she pulled into the driveway at 121 West
4th Street, parked her SUV, got out and walked up and onto the
front porch. She rang the doorbell and waited.

Maleah Perdue, Jack’s younger, All-American, blond sister,
opened the door and smiled. “Hi there. What brings you out on
a day like this that’s not fit for anybody or anything,
except maybe ducks?”

“Are you busy?” Lorie asked. “Am I
interrupting anything?”

“You’re interrupting my game of solitaire on my
laptop.” Maleah laughed.

Lorie forced a tight smile.

“I…uh…have a problem that I was hoping you
could help me with.”

“Well, come on in and tell me about it,” Maleah
said.

Lorie entered the large two-story foyer.

“Come on back in the den.”

Lorie followed her best friend’s sister-in-law. When they
reached the small, cozy room, Maleah asked, “Want some hot
tea or coffee?”

“No, thanks. Nothing for me.”

“Have a seat.”

Lorie nodded, but didn’t sit down. “I want to hire
you. I don’t know how much you charge, but I need a
professional.”

Maleah stared at Lorie, then asked, “What’s
wrong?”

“I received a death threat in a letter about a month ago.
I convinced myself that it was just a prank and threw the letter
away and almost forgot about it. But I received a second letter
identical to the first. It arrived in yesterday’s mail, but I
didn’t open the mail until today.”

“Did you bring the letter with you?”

Lorie dug in her purse, pulled out the envelope and handed it to
Maleah.

“Do you think you could get any fingerprints off the
envelope or letter?” Lorie asked.

“Yeah, yours, the mail carrier’s and anybody else
who might have touched it. But my guess is whoever wrote it made
sure he or she didn’t leave any prints.”

Maleah removed the letter from the envelope and read it aloud.
“Do you know anyone who might want to kill you?”

“No. No one.”

“Does anything in the letter ring a bell? Any of the
phrases sound familiar?”

“No.”

“Do you have any idea what he – or maybe she –
means by ‘midnight is coming’?”

“No, not really,” Lorie said. “Do you think
this is for real, that someone is actually threatening to kill
me?”

“I don’t know, but you’d be a fool to ignore a
second letter,” Maleah told her. “I’m glad
you’ve come to me. We’ll get in touch with Mike Birkett
and—”

“No!” When Maleah looked at her quizzically, Lorie
explained. “I could have gone to Mike, but I didn’t.
He’s not going to take this seriously. As you know, we…
uh…we share some ancient history. I don’t want to
involve local law enforcement, especially not Mike. Not yet. Not
until we know for sure that this is for real.”

“Want my opinion?”

Lorie nodded.

“It’s for real.”

“Then you think somebody wants to kill me?”

“Possibly. At the very least, somebody wants to scare the
shit out of you.”

#

Had they all received the most recent letter? He could have
mailed them from anywhere, but it seemed only appropriate for the
letters to have a Memphis postmark, so he’d made a quick
one-day trip back to Memphis. In the future, he’d mail the
letters before leaving town. He liked to imagine each
person’s reaction when they opened the envelope, how they
must have prayed that it wasn’t another dire warning.

Smiling, he ran the tips of his fingers over his closed laptop
where the letter was stored. There would be no need to write a new
message each time after this, not when the original said it all so
perfectly.

He could only surmise that each of them was puzzled by the
letter, wondering who had sent it and why. Stupid fools!

Sooner or later, somebody, probably a smart FBI agent, would
figure it out, but by then it would be too late. They would all be
dead, the guilty punished, and a cruel, ugly part of the past
erased. And the best part was that no one would ever suspect
him.

He picked up the glass of chardonnay he had poured only moments
ago and sat down in his favorite chair. As he sipped the wine, he
picked up the remote control with his other hand and hit the play
button to start the DVD.

He owned dozens of copies of this particular movie, both on DVD
and on video. If he could have purchased every copy ever made, he
would have. And he would have destroyed all of them.

Excerpted from DEAD BY MIDNIGHT © Copyright 2011 by Beverly
Barton. Reprinted with permission by Kensington. All rights
reserved.

Dead by Midnight
by by Beverly Barton

  • Genres: Fiction, Romantic Suspense
  • paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Kensington Mass Market
  • ISBN-10: 1420100513
  • ISBN-13: 9781420100518