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Death is in the Details (A Paynes Creek thriller)
A woman haunted by her past. A killer who won’t let her forget.
Faith Day’s condition curses her to recall her mother’s fiery murder like it was yesterday. And when the forensic photographer’s convicted stepbrother is somehow cleared 12 years later and released from prison, Faith wonders if he’ll put an end to her tortured memories. But after a string of eerily familiar fires tear through her small town, Faith starts to question every detail of her traumatic past.
Luke Justice won’t rest until he catches a notorious serial killer masking his murders in arson. Following a trail of deadly blazes to Faith’s doorstep, the FBI agent senses she holds the key to the case. But if he can’t convince her to open up, Luke fears he’ll miss his best chance to put a psychopath behind bars.
As Faith fights the resurgence of dark emotions, an arsonist begins leaving personal totems in her home. Determined to stay alive, she taps into the only weapon she has against the vicious murderer: the echoes of her childhood nightmare.
Can Faith help Luke unmask the true killer before they both go up in flames?
Death is in the Details is a chilling standalone thriller novel. If you like small-town mysteries, psychological thrillers, and spine-tingling twists, then you’ll love this page-turning tale.
Buy Death is in the Details to watch a victim bring a killer to justice today!
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Death is in the Details - Read Chapter One
Another fire roared to life as the bodies of two parents cooled across town.
Iincorporated the sound of my buzzing phone into my dream at predawn hours. I was five years old and cooking with my mom. We were mixing dough to make cutout cookies. The buzzing? An electric mixer—the kind you hold in your hand and with beaters you can lick after.
The sweet scent of vanilla permeated the air. A fire burned in the fireplace, crackling and popping as fire met sap.
The soothing buzzing stopped, replaced by a violent bang.
My eyes shot open, and I gasped. My heart beat wildly. I was not in my childhood home, and my mom was still dead, a memory that rushed back like it had just happened.
With tears running into my hairline from the flood of memories, I stared up from my bed at the golden light that danced along the curved walls and ceiling of my 1969 Airstream—a trailer renovated and situated in the middle of a twenty-acre piece of farmland I grew up on, land I inherited when my mother was brutally murdered and I nearly burned to death.
Sitting up slowly, careful not to make a sound, I took in the flickering light of five votive candles in glass jars sitting on a shelf built around my queen-size bed. Candles I had notlit. Goose bumps sprang up on my limbs, and the hairs along the back of my neck stood at full alert.
I listened carefully for whatever had made the banging sound moments before, no easy task with my heart jackhammering. Had I imagined it?
I certainly wasn’t imagining the candlelight that bathed my trailer in a warm, yellow glow and gave it the soothing scent of vanilla.
Outside my bedroom, near the kitchen, Gus, a stray cat that had wandered onto my property last year and decided to grace me with his extended presence, meowed loudly while staring at the door.
My phone began buzzing again. Still partially paralyzed, I stared at it. It was lying upside down, preventing me from seeing the caller.
A strange scratching noise came from somewhere outside the trailer, and I gripped my comforter with tight fists. I forced my heart rate to slow. Clutching my comforter was not going to keep me alive if there was an intruder here to kill me.
I rolled over and grabbed the Maglight I kept beside the bed—a formidable club of a weapon in a pinch. With the heavy flashlight in my hand, and the minor comfort of knowing that at least the intruder was no longer inside my trailer, I grabbed my phone. “Hello,” I said in a low, hushed voice.
“Faith, it’s Penelope.” She sang brightly like she’d been up for hours—and she probably had. “There’s been a fire, sweetie, and they need you there as soon as possible.” Only Penelope Champagne, Paynes Creek’s finest 911 dispatcher, who also doubled as the receptionist for the Paynes Creek PD, could make the announcement of a crime sound like an invitation to breakfast. Faith, honey, you’re invited to Bryn’s Coffeehouse for cinnamon rolls. See you in ten.
“Okay,” I said, still barely above a whisper, as I climbed out of bed. Penelope didn’t seem to notice I was speaking in a low voice. Something stopped me from telling her about my not-so-romantic candlelit trailer. “I take it there’s more to it than just a fire?” I made my way into the other part of the trailer with the flashlight held over my head, ready to strike. I could take this call and defend myself and my home.
Gus looked up at me and yawned, then turned back to face the door. She wasn’t usually this interested in people coming and going, except maybe when my brother and his wife or my aunt and uncle stopped by. But Gus wouldn’t dream of hissing or getting loud with Aunt Leah—who often brought her treats—or my sister-in-law. She did sometimes get territorial with Uncle Henry or my brother Finch. She acted more like a guard dog than an ambivalent cat.
Once I’d confirmed that there was no one in the trailer, I lowered the flashlight. I thought about having Penelope send a uniform out to check things out, but I knew it would be pointless, and everyone at the station already thought I was crazy after the last time I called and said someone had been inside my trailer. They found no sign of forced entry. Nothing was missing. All I could say was that I knew things had been moved around.
And they had been. My clothes had been rearranged. The knives in my kitchen were in a different drawer. My bed, which had been left unmade that morning, was made, and pillows were arranged differently. And a bouquet of daisies with a yellow satin bow adorned the bed.
The officers at the station didn’t think I heard the things they said behind my back. They thought I didn’t know they had a betting pool going to see who could get me to go out on a date first—or worse, get me in the sack. Yes, they thought I was certifiable, but the more egocentric ones still viewed me as a puzzle to be solved—a woman with a dark past who needed to be conquered. Not to mention, as I overheard once, they considered me “entirely bangable.” And then there were the rare nice guys, but they all seemed to think they might be able to “fix” me. After all, if Chief Reid saw enough sane and good in me to hire me for my services, I must not be an entirely lost cause. But even the nice guys inevitably found me to be too much work.
All of that combined to keep me from mentioning the burning candles to Penelope. I knew someone was messing with me, but not who, and for all I knew it could even be one of the police officers. Maybe they’d discovered the significance of the white daisies.
Or maybe that was just a lucky guess.
Penelope explained the crime scene I was being called to. “Apparent murder-suicide, but it could also be arson. Chief wants you there to document the scene so they can move the bodies before more press shows up.”
“Meaning?” I asked.
“You know the Reynolds girl? The teenager that Mr. Lake, the orchestra teacher, was supposedly having a relationship with? It’s her parents’ home—they’re the two victims. The daughter hasn’t been located. That poor child. They arrested Mr. Lake yesterday for sexual misconduct with a minor, but his attorneys got him out before the ink had dried on his fingerprints.”
From outside the trailer, I caught the distinct sound of a crackling wood fire. I turned and looked out the back window. A bonfire raged in my fire pit, about forty yards away.
“Faith? Did you hear me?” Penelope asked. “You ready for the address?”
The fire was large and beautiful, set by someone who knew what they were doing. Large enough to strike awe without being a danger to spread out of control, and small enough to sit beside it in the Adirondack chairs or on the thick logs surrounding the pit. And this wasn’t the first time in recent weeks that someone had started a fire there.
“Yeah,” I said. “Text me the address.”
I hung up and stared out at the fire. Once upon a time I would get lost in the flames of a fire like this. They fascinated me. The way yellow, orange, white, and blue intertwined like silky-smooth hair. But I wasn’t fascinated now. Now my eyes weren’t drawn to the golden blaze, but to the dark figure standing next to it.
I could just make out the profile of a man. At least I thought it was a man. Tall, pointed nose, baseball cap. A bulky jacket that made him look like he had a beer gut. Or maybe he was just overweight.
I could only stand there and stare, paralyzed. My heart tightened, and I didn’t breathe for several beats. Gus weaved figure eights through my legs.
Then the figure turned, and though the fire backlit him, and I couldn’t see his eyes, I knew he was looking straight at me.
A lump formed in my throat. Even if I wanted to scream, I couldn’t.
I thought about calling Penelope back. Or my brother. Anyone. Just so that someone could see that I wasn’t crazy.
Instead, I spun toward the front door. My sudden movement sent Gus sprinting to the back of the trailer. I flew down the steps and raced around the front of the Airstream. I would face this man who was stalking me, taunting me, making me question my sanity even more than usual.
But I was not to discover the stranger’s identity today. Because by the time I turned the corner and faced the fire pit, the figure had vanished. And all I was left with was a blaze reminiscent of a past impossible to forget—a miniature version of my own slice of hell.
Death is in the Details - Read Chapter Two
The rope wasn’t long enough to have been used for a hanging.
That was my first thought as I snapped pictures of the crime scene that morning. But as a forensic photographer, my job was to document, not investigate.
Penelope had called this an apparent murder-suicide. Apparent. That’s what news reporters liked to call it when they got unsubstantiated “tips” surrounding an investigation. In this case, it was “apparent” that a man had hanged himself, according to Chief Reid. And because the man’s wife was also dead, it was presumed that he must have killed her first.
And then the entire house had burned down.
But who or what had started the fire? Did the husband start the fire before killing himself? Or was it accidental? Had they left a candle burning? A pot on the stove?
I snapped a photo of the charred rope lying loosely against the man’s neck. Looked for more rope, but didn’t find any. This was no hanging, in my opinion.
The part of this couple’s story that was so heartbreaking involved the teenager they’d left behind: Bella Reynolds, a seventeen-year-old at the center of Paynes Creek’s latest scandal. Days away from being eighteen—not that that would make a relationship with a teacher any less inappropriate. And now, not only had she been emotionally violated, not only was she being gossiped about by just about every bored housewife and teenage kid in town, but she would have to face it all without her parents.
I knew what that was like. Rumors still surrounded the circumstances of my mom’s and her husband’s deaths—rumors and speculation about what had caused my stepbrother Ethan to snap. It was hard to believe that it was only twelve years ago that he was charged, and later convicted, of murdering both my mom and his father before burning down my childhood home with both victims inside.
So, yeah, I knew what Bella was facing.
I moved around and snapped a different angle of the rope. I placed a measuring stick alongside the rope in order to give scale.
Staring at the bodies of Bella’s parents, I vowed not to become personally vested in whatever had happened here. For me, this would be nothing more than another bad day, a convenient distraction. A way to temporarily cloud those memories I could never forget—literally. I suffered from hyperthymesia, which meant I possessed the highly unusual trait of remembering every single day of my life with near one hundred percent clarity. Just another thing about me that made me “strange.” Or, in the eyes of many, mentally ill.
I once attended a high school reunion. I joined in conversations with people I’d known most of my life. But when I shared crystal clear memories of trivial conversations with classmates, or recalled precisely what they were wearing on days in the distant past, I got strange looks. People don’t like to be reminded of everything that ever happened. Especially the bad or embarrassing stuff. The past is supposed to fade—or better yet, be misremembered.
For that reason, I’d always tried to keep it a secret that I had hyperthymesia. A few people knew, but not many. Better to just let the rest go on thinking I was weird.
Some people don’t mind weird.
Bundled in a thick down coat and covered in protective gear to keep my DNA out of the crime scene, I looked around. It was just after sunrise, and the autumn air had turned colder overnight, made worse by thick clouds that promised to keep the sun from breaking through. The stench of smoke from the burning of wood, plastic, and human flesh drifted up from the soot and ashes and penetrated my face mask. There wasn’t much left of the house. Or of its furnishings. Just blackened debris that someone would try to sort through later for any kind of salvageable photos and other valuables. Between the fire, smoke, and water damage from the firemen, there wouldn’t be much to salvage.
There wasn’t much to salvage from the two bodies, either. The larger one, assumed to be the husband, was propped against what was left of a wall. The other, presumably the wife, lay three feet away, next to a metal chair, her face burned beyond recognition.
“That poor child,” Penelope had said in a rich Kentucky accent when she called me back as I drove toward the crime scene. “To be the center of so much gossip, and now this. Losing both of her parents.” I imagined Penelope shaking her head and closing her eyes in prayer as she spoke to me. She was that type of woman—the praying type. I was glad she seemed to be on my side. I liked having that positive energy near me, even if I was incapable of returning it.
But it wasn’t the seventeen-year-old girl I was thinking of now. My mind kept going to that awful night twelve years ago. I remembered that night like it was yesterday. It might as well have been yesterday with my screwed-up hyperthymesiac mind.
Too similar, I thought. The deaths. The fire. The positions of the bodies.
Chief Sam Reid sidled up beside me. His hair was thick and gray, and like me, he wore protective clothing to preserve the scene as much as possible. “The daughter hasn’t been located yet,” he said. Then, without giving me time to respond, he asked, “Does this look like a murder-suicide to you?”
I pushed my hair behind my ears and knelt down next to the wife’s body while I pondered the chief’s question. I snapped close-ups, then walked around to get different angles of the husband, the metal chair, and the rope again.
The chief was waiting patiently for my answer, so I stood and faced him. “Sir, I don’t think I’m in a position—”
“Don’t start with me, Faith,” he interrupted. “You’ve been photographing and analyzing crime scenes long enough. You’re like the nurse who knows more than the doctor. You run circles around my patrol officers, so until I hire another detective, you’re the best I got to bounce theories off of.” He crossed his arms and leaned into his heels, staring at me. Frustrated, he added, “Hell, you have a degree in forensic science and your uncle is the fire chief. Tell me what your gut is saying.”
I removed my mask and breathed in the smoky air mixed with gasoline. “No, sir. I don’t think this looks like a murder-suicide. I think it looks and smells like murder.” I angled my head. “You think this has something to do with their daughter and the school teacher?”
“I suppose word of the arrest got around already.” He rubbed fingers across his unshaven face.
“Chief, this is Paynes Creek.”
The sound of a slamming car door had the chief and me turning toward the driveway. Paynes Creek Fire Chief Henry Nash stepped out of his vehicle. He paused to survey the damage before slipping into his own outerwear and footies.
“Have you heard from Ethan?” Chief Reid asked.
I jerked in his direction again. “Why do you ask?”
“Just wondering if he’s made contact with any of you.”
“He hasn’t,” I said simply. “Not with me.”
The coroner’s car and a white van arrived. A barricade was set up down the block, and several uniforms were stationed at the tape to keep people from coming too close to the crime scene, but it was near impossible to keep everyone away. A steady flow of residents huddled together in small packs across the street, sipping their morning coffee and shaking their heads.
Chief Nash ducked under the tape and walked cautiously over to where we stood. “Doesn’t take a genius to determine this was arson, does it? This place reeks of gasoline.” He looked at me. “You okay?”
I nodded. “Hi, Uncle Henry. I’m fine.” I was sure he knew I was lying. I was certainly not okay. This crime scene hit too close to home.
Uncle Henry’s thick golden hair and dark complexion always reminded me of my mother. He once told me that his nickname in high school had been “California.” It was he and his wife who took me in after my mom died; I lived with them as I finished up my last year in high school. My brother had wanted to take care of me, but he was finishing up his undergraduate degree at the University of Kentucky and had just been admitted to Auburn University’s veterinarian school. And everyone agreed it was best that he finish college and proceed straight to vet school. I knew everyone hoped I would be off to college in a year, I’d move on from the tragedy, and everything would be okay.
I did go off to college. The rest of the plan didn’t go so well.
Chief Reid angled his head, studying me as if he’d only just now realized that this scene might be hard on me.
The squeal of tires pierced the crisp morning air, followed by a high-pitched scream. I spun to see Bella Reynolds getting out of a red sedan.
“Well, I guess we’ve found the daughter,” Chief Reid said under his breath. “Who the hell let her through the barricade?”
The coroner was closest to her, and he stopped her from running through the red caution tape like she’d just finished first in a marathon. Unfortunately for her, I knew the marathon was yet to come. The longest race of her life would be trying to forget the image of the people she loved most being burned to a crisp. Even if she didn’t actually see the bodies, her mind would conjure up the image—and it would haunt her forever.
She was still screaming hysterically, held by the coroner, as Chief Reid walked over to her. “What happened? Oh, God! Mom! Dad! Nooo!” Her screams turned into sobs.
It was yet another replay of a horrific moment I’d experienced myself.
As Chief Reid comforted the girl, I turned to Uncle Henry. “He thinks it’s Ethan, doesn’t he?”
“Ethan’s name was mentioned when Sam called last night.”
Ethan had been sentenced to life in prison, but in a shocking turn of events, he was released less than a month ago. He had put in a request for an appeal of his verdict, based on exculpatory evidence hidden from the public defender during the original trial. And it must have been quite the collection of evidence withheld, because not only was the appeal approved, but the commonwealth’s attorney decided to drop all charges almost immediately thereafter. And then the judge did something completely unprecedented: he sealed the evidence and kept it from being released to the public.
Uncle Henry sighed. “When he was released, I knew his name would be thrown around in any arson investigations that came up. The public still believes he’s guilty—there’s no reason for them to think otherwise, since the evidence is sealed—and you know he’s on the radar of reporters, too. They all want the story.” He looked down at me. “Do you know where he went after his release?”
“Me? Why would I know?”
“The two of you were close once. I thought if he contacted anyone…”
My body tensed, and a wave of dread and nausea rose from my gut. I quickly changed the subject. “I’ve got enough photos,” I said. “I’ll have the station send copies to you.”
I started to edge past my uncle, but he grabbed my arm and held firmly, forcing me to look him in the eye.
“You’re not safe at the farm, Faith. I don’t even care why the prosecutors decided to drop those charges—Ethan is still a dangerous man. And twelve years in the state pen can’t have helped. We don’t know what kind of person he is now.”
“If Ethan means me harm, I’m not safe anywhere,” I spat. I pulled my arm from my uncle’s grasp. He liked to treat me like I was still a teenager, but I hadn’t been a young girl in a very long time. I knew how to take care of myself. “He should never have been let out.”
The way I saw it, Ethan’s release was the fault of the fire and police investigators, who must have made some sort of procedural mistake. They should have made sure the evidence was tight all those years ago. But I couldn’t say that to Uncle Henry, because he’d been involved in the investigation. Chief Reid, too. They’d spent a lot of hours collecting evidence and building a timeline that convinced both a jury and me that Ethan was guilty. Which only made me hate Ethan even more.
Bella still wailed. She was facing more heartache than a seventeen-year-old should have to face. Lucky for her, she’d only have to live through it once. I lived through it every single day of my life, reliving my most significant memories over and over again. And according to the slew of doctors and therapists I’d seen over the years, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
An angry heat rose in my cheeks when I spotted a reporter snapping photos of the chief and Bella, forever preserving the girl’s grief. I spun back to face Uncle Henry. “Instead of worrying about me, you ought to work on your barricades. Someone needs to keep those vultures out of your crime scene.”
* * *
The back entrance to Boone’s Taphouse stank of stale beer kegs and rotten food at eight thirty in the morning. The restaurant and bar wouldn’t open for another two and a half hours, but I knew Caine would be there. Sure enough, when I entered, I heard his deep voice yelling obscenities from the storeroom.
I pushed opened the door. He was leaning an elbow against a stack of boxes, his other hand was massaging his temple, and he was speaking loudly into his phone. His blond, shaggy hair was already a mess—he’d clearly been running his hand through it quite a bit. He spotted me, and I motioned that I would be at the bar.
The bar was mahogany-topped, with leather that was stained with rings and scratches, giving it a weathered look. I grabbed a glass, reached for a bottle of Caine’s finest bourbon, and poured myself a finger’s worth. I threw it back, marveling in its smooth, rich taste as it slid past my tongue and warmed my throat. Then I poured a couple more fingers.
“Help yourself,” Caine said sarcastically as he joined me behind the bar.
“You were busy.” I shrugged, then circled the bar and slid into a stool.
Caine grabbed himself a larger glass and fixed a soda. “Tough scene this morning?”
“House fire. Two people dead.”
“I heard. You okay?”
I lifted the glass and nodded at it.
“Point taken.” He pulled out a clipboard and began making checkmarks.
“Why haven’t you married?” I asked him while swirling the amber liquid around in the tumbler.
Caine was a handsome man who’d just turned thirty. The regulars of Boone’s Taphouse had thrown him a birthday party complete with a store-bought cake and tons of black balloons—which, of course, Caine had had to clean up afterward. He didn’t seem to mind, though.
He cocked a single brow. “Is that a proposal?”
“Sure.” I grinned. “Let’s go down to the courthouse right now. Give old Mrs. Kenny a big surprise.”
“You know I’m gay, right?” he asked in all seriousness.
I shrugged. “We’ll never have to worry about breaking each other’s hearts.” I took another sip of bourbon. The visions of the two charred bodies had faded during the conversation, but they snapped back now, as did the memories of my own mother and her husband dying in similar fashion.
Over the years, I’d tried to learn how to hold back the flood of emotion I’d felt when my mother died, but nothing worked. I didn’t need anything to trigger memories—they just happened—and every time, they were as fresh as they had been the moment they occurred. Not just the images, but the feelings. And I had to live with them forever.
Things would be better for Bella Reynolds. Her memories would fade and evolve. She would replace the worst memories with happier ones, and eventually she would heal and move on with her life, while keeping fond memories of certain parts of her childhood. Only occasionally would she have to shove those terrible memories back inside their box.
I felt a sudden, ugly wave of envy. There were no lids to my memory boxes.
My phone buzzed in my back pocket, and I pulled it out. “Faith Day,” I said.
“Hi, Faith. It’s Penelope. Chief wants to see you.” She lowered her voice. “We’ve got ourselves a fed in here.”
What the hell was a fed doing in Paynes Creek? “Okay. I’ll be right there.” I hung up and drained the rest of my bourbon. “Duty calls, Caine. Thanks for the drink.”
“Why do you stay with that horrible job?” Caine asked. “Why would you want to photograph death and destruction for a living?”
I forced a smile. “Why do you listen to everyone’s sob stories at the bar day after day? Doesn’t that bring you down?”
“I’d like to think I’m helping. Giving them an ear that they can’t get elsewhere.”
“Well, maybe I think that by photographing crime scenes, I’m giving victims a voice they no longer have.”
That sounded pretty good. Even though it was a lie.
That night twelve years ago was not the only horrifying memory I had to live with. And with every crime scene I photographed, I hoped to form memories that might, somehow, replace those of my past—the ones I kept secret and the ones that made me a liar.
Death is in the Details - Read Chapter Three
While driving to the Paynes Creek Police Department, I sucked on six Altoids. It was highly unlikely anyone would get close enough to me to smell the bourbon on my breath, but it was still a good precaution.
Besides, I wasn’t an on-duty police officer. I was a contractor. When there was a crime scene or car accident to be photographed, the police called me, but beyond that, my time was my own. Yes, I was basically always on call—crimes and accidents didn’t confine themselves to the convenient hours between eight and five—but I could have a drink when I wanted to have a drink. No one controlled me.
That’s what I told myself, anyway.
The police station was buzzing. A couple of the more seasoned officers were chatting in the corner to my right when I pushed through the double glass doors. They straightened and stared at me when I entered, then I heard one of them—red-headed and freckled—mutter, “Did you hear that she called about an intruder in her house last week? When officers got there, they didn’t find shit.”
“Crazy bitch,” the other one said. “To think I fell for that dare to ask her out when I first started.”
“We all do,” Red said, laughing. “She never says yes.”
Penelope sat at her desk with a Bluetooth headset connected to her ear. She looked up when I approached. “Hi, honey!” She chomped gum like a teenager and fiddled with the cross around her neck. Then she leaned across the desk and motioned with her finger for me to come closer. “Wait ’til you see the yumminess in the chief’s office.” She cast a mischievous look toward Chief Reid’s office before sitting back with a wide grin.
I lifted a brow. “Penelope, you might need to lay off the coffee.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m just thinking of you. Go in there and be real nice, and you just might get to give him the grand tour of Paynes Creek.”
If I was the type to roll my eyes, I would have done it then. Penelope was always either trying to marry me off or trying to get me into a church pew every Sunday. It would have irritated me except that I tried not to ever be angry with Penelope. She was the buffer between Chief Reid and me, and she kept me informed of all the gossip—especially the gossip concerning me.
She hadn’t changed much since we’d attended Paynes Creek High School together. We weren’t friends back then, but I always knew who she was. She was popular—hung out with the cheerleader crowd even though she wasn’t a cheerleader. The guys listened to her, but didn’t really date her. She was everyone’s best friend and was known for helping everyone with their problems.
And just as she had handled her friends’ issues in high school, she now handled—or mothered—the patrol officers she worked with. She brought in food and consoled them after bad days. She was a good wife to an EMT who often worked the night shift, and she was an amazing mother to a three-year-old boy. She had a great big ol’ heart, and I always thought of her when I heard a southerner say, “Bless her heart. She means well.”
“Faith,” Chief called from the doorway of his office. I flinched, causing Penelope to narrow her eyes at me. “Can you come here?”
Penelope pretended to tidy papers on her desk as she mouthed the words Be nice. She had a look on her face as if I’d just been summoned to the principal’s office and she couldn’t wait to hear the details when I got out. With her curly red hair teased into a clip on the back of her head, even her appearance reminded me of high school.
My black combat boots squeaked against the tile as I walked over to the chief’s office. One of the newer patrol officers looked up from his desk as I passed, but immediately averted his eyes. The younger cops were frightened of me. They’d heard the stories of what I’d been through, and were terrified to get into a conversation with me for fear I might finally snap. That didn’t bother me. I wasn’t much for chitchat.
I stepped into the chief’s office. He was seated on the other side of his desk, and another man sat in one of the guest chairs. So this was the fed. He was in his low- to mid-thirties, dark-haired, and wore a navy blue suit. The suit was typical of FBI agents, but the tie was pink and featured… were those giraffes?
“Faith, I want you to meet Special Agent Luke Justice. Agent, Faith Day.”
Special Agent Justice stood and held out his hand. “Luke,” he said in a smooth voice. He commanded the room with his large, muscular presence. When I got a closer look, I saw that his suit wasn’t so typical—it was made of a beautiful, rich fabric. And the pink giraffe tie was silk. “I hear you’re the station’s forensic photographer.”
I gave him my hand, and he squeezed it firmly while making eye contact with me. “I’m a forensic photographer, yes. I work on a contract basis.” I hated how Chief Reid was always telling people I worked for the station like I was an employee he owned. I was my own boss, and I preferred to make that clear.
I knew almost immediately that Special Agent Justice was the kind of man who could read you with a simple look—and he was giving me that look now. I made a mental note to stay clear of him.
“Faith, Special Agent Justice is here to help us on the Reynolds case.”
“Okay,” I said. Why was he telling me? I had nothing to do with the investigation other than taking the photos. And why was this a federal case? “You want me to make sure Special Agent Justice receives a copy of the photos?”
Instead of Chief answering, Luke said, “Miss Day, I’m investigating a string of fires.”
I eyed him. My palms began to sweat, and I resisted the urge to wipe them on my pants. “A string of fires,” I repeated.
I looked to the chief and back to Luke. “You mean, like a serial arsonist?”
He shifted. “Possibly. However, serial arsonists typically take a cooling-off period between fires, and the fires in recent weeks have been rather close together. So I’m looking at a lot of possibilities.”
“And you think last night’s fire fits into the series you’re investigating.”
His one-word answer irritated me. “What do you need from me, Agent?”
“Are you aware that Ethan Gentry was released from prison less than three weeks ago?”
“Yes,” I said simply.
“He’s your brother, right?”
“Has he contacted you?”
“No.” Visions of my stepbrother—not what he looked like now, but how he looked, sounded, even smelled twelve years ago—poured into my head.
“I’m told you had an incident on your property a few nights ago.”
I glanced uneasily at Chief Reid, then back at the agent. “At three seventeen a.m. Sunday.”
I saw no reason to hide anything now—I’d already reported the incident. I thought of the daisies that had been left on my bed and of the fire in my fire pit. I also thought of the fire on my property this morning and the candles that were lit inside. I had no proof that Ethan had come into my trailer or set those fires, but it hadn’t escaped my imagination that he might reach out to me in some way.
Nor had he escaped the FBI’s radar, it would seem.
“Faith,” Chief said, shifting on his feet. Chief Reid was one of the people who had dismissed my incident report last week as either a cry for attention or a prank by some local kids. “Agent Justice is here to investigate the fire that happened last night. If you could—”
“I’ll give him a copy of every photograph I took and cooperate in any way I can.” I shifted my gaze to Luke. “If the two of you will excuse me, I’m expected in court.” I turned on my heel and exited Chief’s office before either of them could stop me.
I walked as naturally as I could manage toward the exit of the police station, but once I was outside, I ran. I took a hard left at the corner and sped down an alleyway that opened up into a parking lot behind the buildings. Spotting a dumpster, I ducked behind it and promptly threw up my breakfast of champions. The bourbon had sure felt better on the way down than it did coming back up.
This could not be happening. I would not let them bring Ethan back into my life. He was a part of my past, and I wanted to keep him there. I would not give Ethan any power in my life. And suddenly I felt certain it was Ethan who had been lighting fires and candles on my property. The next time he showed up, I’d be ready for him.
* * *
When I was sure I wouldn’t be sick again, I emerged from behind the dumpster, only to find a woman standing beside a news van nearby. She and a cameraman walked quickly toward me.
“Faith? Faith Day?”
I turned and walked away, not even acknowledging that she had the right person.
“Faith. It’s me, Marla Manfield.”
I paused. Turned slowly toward her. Her hair was as red and dark as chili powder, styled in a perfect and smooth bob. She wore dark rose lipstick and thick brown eyeshadow on lids decorated with even thicker fake eyelashes. Marla Manfield had graduated from Paynes Creek the same year as my brother Finch—four years before me. She’d been captain of the cheerleading squad, had dated the most popular football player, and had gotten out of two DUIs the year after graduation thanks to a father who was a golf buddy of the commonwealth’s attorney. There were perks to growing up popular and wealthy in Paynes Creek. Or there had been, back then. In recent years, the good ol’ boy system had suffered some cracks, and it was no longer nearly as easy to get a lesser punishment on a repeat DUI charge.
Not that Marla would need that kind of help now. She had cleaned up her act, becoming a news reporter for one of the local networks in Lexington, and from what I’d seen, she’d made her mark in sensationalist reporting. Always going after the difficult stories even if it meant embellishing the details.
I realized I was staring at her. She hadn’t spoken other than to announce her name in case I didn’t recognize her. But I did recognize her. I even remembered what she wore the one and only time she went out with Finch. My condition allowed me to remember the tiniest and most inconsequential of details, yet I couldn’t remember why they’d had only one date that summer after their sophomore year in college. I guess I never knew. Maybe Finch had already met Aubrey, his now wife? Regardless, I saw the two of them at a party that summer night. Mom and Eli—Ethan’s dad—had said that at sixteen, I was too young to go to a field party with my friends, but when Ethan offered to go with me, they said it was okay. The double standard had made me mad. Ethan was only sixteen then, too, yet they trusted him with my safety.
Hell, back then I trusted him too.
“I’d like to say you haven’t changed a bit, but look at you,” she said, giving me a once-over. “You’re beautiful. You always were pretty, but now you’re even more stunning.”
I angled my head and studied the way her eyeliner perfectly lined the lid and curved up at the edges. My hand went instinctively to my neck where I knew burn scars crept up toward my face. Was that really how she got people to talk to her? Pay them some empty compliment? I let my eyes drift to the videographer standing just over her right shoulder. He had the decency to look embarrassed. And he had yet to point his camera at me, or I wouldn’t still be standing there.
“Do you mind if I ask you some questions?” Marla asked.
“As a matter of fact,” I started, but then curiosity got the better of me. “About what?”
Last night’s fire, the arrest of a school teacher, Ethan getting out of prison… All of those possibilities had run through my mind, but not Finch. “Finch? What about him?” If she wanted information about Finch, why not go to Finch?
“Right.” She looked away for a second. “I meant Ethan.”
A pregnant pause stretched between us. “Ethan is not my brother.” I shifted from one foot to the other, my eyes glued to hers. “I have nothing to say about him.”
“So you don’t care that they’re speculating he might be starting fires again now that he’s out?”
“Who is they?” I asked. “I haven’t heard anyone say that.” The accusation didn’t surprise me; I had known it was only a matter of time. And news crews from across the region had already begun flocking to Paynes Creek to report on the schoolteacher incident. The media just loves a salacious teacher-student story. Now they would be on hand to report on something almost as sexy: a murder-suicide topped with arson. And they’d all be looking for fresh angles—like connecting this morning’s crime to Ethan’s recent release. Even if they had to manufacture that connection.
Marla smiled. It was creepy how she tried to come across as a friend in order to get information. “Sources who shall remain nameless for now.”
“You have nothing.” I turned and started away from her.
“I talked to Ethan,” she said quickly. “He’s claiming you knew he didn’t start the fire that killed your parents. And he says he has proof.”
That made me pause. But I knew better than to engage with a bloodsucking sensationalist, so I kept walking.