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Excerpt

Excerpt

Silent Killer

Prologue

Catherine Cantrell loved her husband. She hadn’t always
loved Mark, not in the beginning. But day by day, month by month,
year by year, she had grown to care for him deeply. He had become
her best friend as well as her husband. She only hoped that she was
a worthy helpmate. God knew she tried her best to be everything he
wanted in a wife.

The oven timer chimed, reminding her that the apple pie she had
prepared from scratch was done. As she donned a pair of oven mitts,
Mark breezed into the kitchen. When she smiled warmly at him, he
returned her smile. She opened the oven door, reached inside and
removed the hot pie, then set it on a cooling rack atop the granite
counter.

“Something smells good,” he told her as he placed
his empty coffee mug in the dishwasher.

“Apple pie for dinner,” she said.

When he nodded approval, something inherently feminine within
her longed for him to touch her. She needed a kiss on the cheek or
a pat on the butt or a little hug around her shoulders. Any basic
act of affection would do. But Mark was not the affectionate type.
She should have accepted that fact long ago. After all, it
wasn’t as if they were newlyweds or a couple who had been and
always would be madly in love. But they did have a solid marriage,
one based on mutual respect and admiration. That was far more than
most couples had.

“How’s next Sunday’s sermon going?”
Catherine asked.

“Not well. For some reason I can’t seem to keep my
mind on my work this afternoon.”

On Mondays, Mark worked at home instead of his office at the
church. And she was home on Mondays, too, since she and her
business partner, Lorie Hammonds, closed their antique store on
Sundays and Mondays.

“You were up late last night with the Jeffries family. I
heard you come in after midnight.” Catherine removed the oven
mitts, stuffed them into the drawer with the pot holders and turned
off the oven. “And you were so restless that I doubt you got
more than a few hours sleep. Maybe you need an afternoon
nap.”

“I couldn’t get that family off my mind,” Mark
admitted. “It’s been difficult for Debbie and Vern
coping with the loss of their only child. It has truly tested their
faith.”

“Losing a child has to be the worst thing that could
happen to a person. If anything ever happened to Seth, I
don’t know what I’d do.”

“If, God forbid, that ever happened and we lost our only
child, we would do what I’m trying to get Debbie and Vern to
do --- put our trust in the Lord.”

Catherine sighed quietly. A good minister’s wife would
never question God’s plan for each of His children. But in
her heart of hearts, she knew that if she ever lost Seth, she would
die. Her son was her heart and soul.

When Mark looked at her, apparently wanting a reply to assure
him that they were in agreement, she avoided making direct eye
contact with him. She didn’t doubt Mark’s love for
Seth, but she also knew that her husband would never love their
child as much as she did.

“Catherine---”

The distinct doorbell chime saved her from having to either lie
to her husband or disagree with him and be lovingly chastised for
her lack of faith.

“I’ll get it,” she said. “Why
don’t you go in the den and take a nap?”

“Maybe later. I’ll get the door. It could be Fed-Ex
delivering my birthday present.”

Catherine smiled indulgently. “We just ordered that new
set of golf clubs two days ago. They probably won’t arrive
until next week.”

“A man can hope, can’t he?”

Laughing softly, she shook her head as Mark, whistling to
himself, hurried out of the kitchen. Her husband had four great
loves: God, his family, his parishioners, and golf.

She doubted that his much-anticipated fortieth birthday present
had arrived so soon. More than likely their visitor was not Fed-Ex,
but instead her mother, who had phoned shortly after lunch to ask
if she could drop by on her way home from her weekly trip to the
grocery store.

Catherine wiped off her hands on a dish towel, laid it aside and
removed her apron. She was a messy cook and had learned early on
the necessity of wearing protective covering when she baked.

As she opened the kitchen door and made her way toward the
foyer, she thought she heard the murmur of voices. Mark was talking
to someone, but she couldn’t tell if the visitor was male or
female.

Just as she turned the corner in the hallway that led her by the
staircase, an agonized scream echoed through the house. Shock waves
shivered along her nerve endings. Dear God! Who was screaming in
such pitiful torment?

She rushed into the foyer, planning to help Mark comfort the
poor soul in misery. The front door stood wide open. Outside, on
the front porch, Mark’s six-foot body writhed in agony as
lapping flames consumed his clothes and seared his flesh.
Momentarily transfixed by the inconceivable sight, Catherine
screamed as she realized her husband was on fire. Forcing her
shock-frozen legs to move, she ran out onto the porch, yelling at
him, telling him to drop and roll, which he did. While he lay on
the concrete porch floor, hollering with excruciating pain, she
grabbed the doormat and beat at the dying flames eating away his
clothing.

She dropped to her knees beside him, inspecting his charred
body.

Oh, God, God!

He was no longer screaming. He lay silent and unmoving. But he
was still breathing. Just barely.

“Hang on, Mark. Hang on.”

She jumped up, ran into the house, grabbed the extension phone
in the living room and dialed 911. Barely recognizing her own weak,
quivering voice, Catherine managed to hold herself together long
enough to give their address and tell the dispatcher that her
husband was severely burned over his entire body.

She carried the phone with her back onto the porch and sat down
beside Mark. He was still breathing. Still alive. But she
didn’t dare touch him. There wasn’t a spot on him that
wasn’t badly burned. His face was charred beyond recognition,
his flesh melted as if it had been made of wax.

Merciful Lord, please help Mark. He’s such a good man.
Ask anything of me and I’ll give it, just take care of
him.

Chapter 1

Jackson Perdue stopped his rental car in front of the old home
place. The last time he’d been here, five years ago, had been
for his mother’s funeral. He had stayed in Dunmore three days
and that had been three days too long. Both he and Maleah had
booked rooms at the Hometown Inn. Their stepfather had invited them
to stay at the house, but Jack knew that Nolan had been relieved
when they both declined his reluctant offer. When he left town, he
had felt certain he would never return.

Never say never.

Things change. Life doesn’t stay the same. Nolan Reaves
was dead. The old bastard had keeled over in his workshop behind
the house eight months ago. Heart attack.

Funny thing was, Jack had thought the son of a bitch
didn’t have a heart.

Neither he nor Maleah had come back to Dunmore for the funeral.
He didn’t know who had hated their stepfather more, he or his
sister.

Maleah had come down from Knoxville six months ago, hired a
Realtor and put their mother’s home up for sale. With the
economy heading into a recession and real estate moving at a
snail’s pace, there hadn’t been any offers on the
three-story Victorian that had been in his family for four
generations.

Jack turned off the engine, snatched the keys from the ignition,
and opened the driver’s side door. When his feet hit the
pavement, he stretched to get the kinks out of his back and neck
and pocketed the keys. Rounding the hood, he stepped up on the
sidewalk and stared at his childhood home. His thoughts went back
to a time when this place had housed a happy family, when his world
had been filled with love and laughter. Before his father had been
killed. Before his mother had married Nolan Reaves.

Jack left the city sidewalk and moved onto the brick walkway
that led to the front porch. He stopped halfway to the porch and
looked up at the windows on the left side of the second story where
his old room was located. He doubted anything of his remained. When
they’d been here briefly for Mama’s funeral, he had
gone no further than the downstairs parlor. For the first twelve
years of his life, this old house had been home. And for the next
six years, it had been hell.

Could he actually live here again? Even if he got rid of
everything that reminded him of his stepfather, he couldn’t
erase the memories.

He hated the cold, austere gray color Nolan had insisted the
house be painted. Mama had wept quietly when the drab gray and
white covered the beautiful green, cream and rose that the house
had been for generations, colors true to the time period. If he
actually moved into the house, the first thing he would do was hire
painters to take the Victorian back to her colorful roots. He would
have the house repainted – for his mother.

“God knows I’ll never move back to Dunmore, but if I
did, I wouldn’t live in that house,” Maleah had told
him. “As far as I’m concerned the house is yours if you
want it.”

But that was the million-dollar question: Did he want it?

Maybe. He didn’t have to decide right away. He could stay
here a few weeks and see how it went. It was either that or rent a
motel room by the week. Not a pleasant prospect. Besides, if his
new job didn’t work out, it would be easier to move on if he
hadn’t leased an apartment or a house.

He had been at loose ends when Mike phoned and offered him the
job. Otherwise, he probably wouldn’t have considered coming
back to Alabama. He had been honorably discharged from the army
last year, after four months in the hospital recuperating from a
bomb explosion that had legally blinded him in his left eye and
messed up the hearing in his left ear. The surgeons had
reconstructed the left side of his face, neck and shoulder and had
done a damn good job. Only those who had known him before the
reconstruction would suspect that he’d been put back
together, piece by piece.

“Hey, the job is yours if you want it,” Mike had
told him. “The pay isn’t much, but it’s in line
with the low cost of living in Dunmore.”

“Let me think about it.”

“Come home. Take the job. Let’s get reacquainted. If
after a few months, you hate it, you can always quit.”

In the end, Mike had convinced him to give it a try. He’d
known his old buddy had pulled a few strings to get him okayed for
the position. Even though he was in really good physical shape now,
he’d never be a hundred percent ever again. Jack wasn’t
sure he’d make a good deputy just because he’d been a
topnotch solider, but God knew he needed something to do, something
to keep him sane.

He stepped up on the porch, faced the front door and paused.
After taking a deep breath, he removed the house key from his
pocket. He unlocked and opened the door, then walked inside. A
whiff of muskiness hit him the moment he entered the foyer. The
house needed airing out after being closed up for so many months.
First thing in the morning, he’d open every window in the
place. Since it was spring and the temps were in the seventies, it
was the perfect time.

As if his feet were planted in cement, he found it impossible to
move beyond where he stood just over the threshold. Glancing in
every direction, left, right, up and down, he clenched his teeth
together tightly. He could feel Nolan’s presence, could even
smell a hint of the pipe tobacco his stepfather had used. Maybe
this was a huge mistake. Maybe he’d been wrong to think that
he could live here. It wasn’t too late to turn around, walk
away from the house and rent a room for tonight.

God damn it, no! He wouldn’t let Nolan run him off, not
the way he had when Jack was eighteen. Nolan was dead. Jack was
thirty-seven, a decorated war hero, and this house was his now, his
and Maleah’s, as it had once been their mother’s. If it
was the last thing he ever did, he intended to erase Nolan Reeves
from their ancestral home, starting with the old carriage house
where their stepfather had doled out his own unique brand of
punishment.

***

Catherine Cantrell had asked her best friend, Lorie Hammonds, to
drive her by her old home, just outside the city limits. She and
Mark had lived there for nearly six years before his death eighteen
months ago.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Lorie asked.

“I’m sure. I have to face the past sooner or
later.”

“But does it have to be today?”

Cathy sighed. Yes, it had to be today. One of the many things
her therapist at Haven House had taught her was that putting off
unpleasant things didn’t make them go away. The sooner she
faced it, whatever “it” was, and dealt with it, the
sooner it ceased to be a monster hidden in a dark closet ready to
pounce on her when she least expected it.

Lorie got out of her Ford Edge, went around the hood, and met
Cathy as she stood at the edge of the street, her gaze scanning the
porch. This was where Mark had been doused with gasoline and set on
fire. This was where she had waited with him, praying with every
breath, until the ambulance arrived. This was where her safe,
contented life had ended. Eighteen months, three weeks, and five
days ago.

Every nerve in her body shivered, every muscle tensed. With her
eyes wide open, she could see Mark as he had been that horrible
day, his flesh charred, melted, his life draining from his body.
She could hear his agonized screams and then the deadly silence
that had followed.

She closed her eyes and took a deep, fortifying breath.

Lorie put her arm around Cathy’s quivering shoulders and
gave her a reassuring squeeze. “Come on. Let’s
go.”

Cathy opened her eyes and shook her head. “Not
yet.”

“Don’t do this to yourself. Enough’s
enough.”

“I imagine the new minister’s wife
redecorated,” Cathy said. “No woman wants to live in a
house decorated by a former owner.”

“The new minister is a widow with a teenage daughter. No
wife.”

“All the same, this isn’t my house any longer. My
things aren’t here. The home I created with Mark is
gone.”

“Your furniture and other things are in storage,”
Lorie reminded her. “When you buy a new place, you
can---”

She turned quickly and faced her oldest and dearest friend.
“Thank you for letting me stay with you until I find a
place.” Lorie and she were BFF – best friends forever
-- their friendship going back to when they wore diapers. Their
parents had been good friends and they had lived only blocks apart
when they were growing up.

“Your mother wants you to stay with her, you
know.”

“What my mother wants isn’t as important to me as
what I want.”

Lorie let out a loud, low whistle. “I don’t know
what they did to you at Haven Home, but I like it. The old Cathy
would never have said something like that and meant it.”

“The old Cathy no longer exists. I think she began dying
the day Mark died.” She looked directly at Lorie. “I
couldn’t say this to just anyone because they wouldn’t
understand, they’d take it the wrong way…but it took
something as traumatic as Mark’s gruesome murder to finally
give me the courage to become my own person.”

Mark’s death and a year of therapy.

Cathy took one final look at the porch and then ran her gaze
over the neatly manicured lawn. “I’m ready to go
now.”

She followed Lorie back to the SUV. She had faced one of many
demons that she had left behind a year ago when she had checked
herself in at Haven Home, a mental rehabilitation center outside of
Birmingham. After the first six months, she had become an
outpatient, but had stayed on as a part-time employee in the
cafeteria. Her mother and Mark’s parents had visited her
several times and had brought Seth with them. She had missed her
son unbearably, but she had known living with his grandparents had
been the best thing for him until she was able to provide him with
a mentally stable mother.

Mark’s death had almost destroyed her and only with Dr.
Milton’s help had she been able to fully recover. She had
gone into the intensive therapy blaming herself for Mark’s
death and believing that his parents and Seth blamed her for not
being able to save him. But Dr. Milton had worked with her until
she had been able to admit to herself that the guilt she felt
wasn’t because she blamed herself for not being able to save
Mark. Realistically, logically, she knew that would have been
impossible. She had done everything within her power. No, what
Cathy felt guilty about, what she had had great difficulty
admitting to Dr. Milton and to herself was that she had never loved
her husband. She had married him not loving him and although she
had tried to convince herself that she loved him, she hadn’t.
She had cared deeply for him, had respected and admired him, but
she had never been able to feel for Mark that deep, passionate love
a woman should feel for her husband.

“Do you want to stop by J.B. and Mona’s to see
Seth?” Lorie asked.

“No, not yet. I’m supposed to have dinner with them
and Mother tomorrow, after church. I’ll wait until
then.”

“J.B. and Mona may not give Seth up without a
fight.” Lorie inserted the key into the ignition. “I
took the liberty of hiring Elliott Floyd to represent you, just in
case Mark’s parents aren’t willing to turn your son
over to you now that you’re well.”

Gasping softly, Cathy snapped her head around and stared at her
friend. “I don’t think a lawyer will be necessary. But
thank you all the same. Seth is my child. I appreciate all that
J.B. and Mona have done for him since Mark’s death, but you
can’t possibly believe that they would try to take him away
from me.”

Lorie shrugged. “You never know what people will do. If
for any reason, the Cantrells think you’re unfit
to---”

“I’m fit,” Cathy said. “I believe that
I’m better prepared to be a good mother to my son now than
ever before and I was a damn good mother in the past.”

Lorie eyed Cathy with speculative curiosity. “You are
aware of the fact that you just said damn and didn’t blink an
eye, aren’t you?”

Cathy smiled. “Surprised?”

“Shocked.” Lorie laughed. “Know any other
forbidden words?”

“A whole slew of them. And sooner or later, you’ll
probably hear me say all of them.”

“I want to meet your Dr. Milton one of these days,”
Lorie said. “I want to shake his hand and thank him for
releasing the real Catherine Nelson Cantrell from that
holier-than-thou prison she stuck herself in trying to please her
husband and her mother and her in-laws.”

“The days of my trying to please everyone else are over.
I’ve come home to start a new life, not to rebuild my old
one. I owe it to myself and to Seth to be strong and independent
and live the rest of my life to the fullest, and that’s just
what I intend to do.”

***

Nicole Powell dreaded going home to Griffin’s Rest. She
and her friend, Maleah Perdue, had been gone a week, just the two
of them alone in a Gatlinburg cabin in the Smoky Mountains. They
had eaten out a few times and done a little shopping, but mostly
they had kicked back at the cabin and done little or nothing. They
had watched chick flick DVDs, soaked in the hot tub, taken long
walks on the nearby hiking trails and pigged out on the array of
bad-for-you food they had purchased at a local grocery store.

The past year had been difficult for Maleah. Her older brother,
Jack, had been critically wounded on his last assignment in the
Middle East. She had spent weeks at his bedside, hoping and praying
that he would survive. He had, but at a great cost. He was now
legally blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, and had undergone
several surgeries to his face and neck to rebuild what the
explosion had ripped away.

During their stay at the cabin, both Nic and Maleah had confided
in each other, sharing things that they wouldn’t or
couldn’t share with anyone else. In the two years that Nic
had been married to Griffin Powell and had been co-owner of the
Powell Private Security and Investigation Agency, she had become
acquainted with all of their agents. Only a handful of their
employees were women and of those few, Nic had bonded with only
two, Maleah and Barbara Jean Hughes.

“Have you decided what you’re going to do? Are you
going to talk to Griff and tell him how you feel?” Maleah
asked as Nic pulled her Escalade up in front of the huge iron gates
at Griffin’s Rest. Two massive stone arches, with bronze
griffins implanted in the stone, flanked the entrance.

Nic rolled down the window and said her name. The identification
security system instantly recognized her voice and activated the
Open function on the gates. This voice-ID system was new here at
the Powell compound.

Once they were inside the estate and the gates closed behind
them, Nic glanced at Maleah. “I can talk to him and try to
explain, but he won’t understand.”

“He might. You won’t know until you---”

“I know. Believe me. He will not understand. I can’t
ask him to choose between Yvette and me.” She could, but she
was afraid to ask her husband to make that choice because, deep
down inside, she wasn’t completely certain that he would
choose her.

“It’s not a matter of choosing between the two of
you,” Maleah said. “Not really. It’s a matter of
making him understand how you feel.”

“I feel jealous and Griff doesn’t understand why
because Yvette is his friend, because she’s like a sister to
him, because he owes her his life. He’s not in love with her.
He’s in love with me, but…”

“But recently you feel that he is putting her first.
You’re his wife. You have every right to expect him to always
put you first.”

Nic heaved a heavy sigh. “Griff has become so involved in
whatever it is that Yvette is doing with that project of hers, that
school or laboratory or sanctuary or whatever the hell it is, that
he has all but turned over the running of the Powell Agency to
me.”

“I still don’t see why you won’t take my
suggestion and get involved in Dr. Meng’s project yourself,
if for no other reason than to find out what’s going on. And
it would give you more time with Griff.”

“I suppose if I insisted, he’d ask Yvette to include
me, but she’s been so secretive about the whole thing and
whenever she comes for dinner and I mention the project, she clams
up.”

“Look, none of this is my business, except that you and I
are friends and you’ve shared your concerns with me,”
Maleah said. “But you’re Griff’s wife and
co-owner of the Powell Agency and of Griffin’s Rest. You have
every right to know what kind of operation Dr. Meng has going on in
those buildings that Griff had built for her less than a mile from
your home.”

“I just don’t want to come off sounding like a
jealous wife, even if that’s what I am. But if I don’t
get some of this off my chest pretty soon, I’m going to
explode and that won’t be good for me or my
marriage.”

“So talk to Griff. Talk to him tonight.”

Nic nodded. Maleah was right, of course. These feelings had been
growing gradually, beginning with the day Griff told her that he
would be constructing a housing complex for Yvette at
Griffin’s Rest, a place where some of her gifted
“psychic” students would be safe and protected from the
outside world. But when Yvette had arrived six months ago to
oversee the project, Nic’s concerns had escalated and not
without foundation. Even though she didn’t doubt
Griff’s love for her, she couldn’t shake the suspicion
that neither he nor Yvette had been totally honest with her about
their past relationship.

She trusted Griff as she had never trusted another person in her
entire life. She loved him so much that sometimes it frightened
her. That combination of love and trust she felt for him was now
being tested.

***

He did not deserve to live. He was like the others, pretending
to be good when, in his heart, he was evil.

I have to punish him.

That’s what you want me to do, isn’t it, God?

Yes, yes, I hear you. I accept that it is my purpose in life to
rain hell fire and brimstone down on the false prophets.

I will do your bidding, Lord. I will seek out those who profess
to do your work and instead are in league with the devil. The
liars. The blasphemers. The adulterers. The most vile of all
sinners, those who transgress against your holy word.

I didn’t understand completely, not a first, but I do now.
I cannot wait for them to reveal themselves to me. I must search
for them and do so with all diligence.

Give me the strength to do what I must do. Show me the way. I
am, now and always, your obedient servant.

What?

Yes, Lord, I see him. And I know him for what he truly is.

He must be stopped.

He must be punished.

Excerpted from SILENT KILLER © Copyright 2011 by Beverly
Barton. Reprinted with permission by Zebra. All rights
reserved.

Silent Killer
by by Beverly Barton