Digging a grave was hard work.
Moonlight gleamed on the shovel as he lifted a clump of dirt and dumped it outside the knee-deep hole. Despite the coolness of the October night, sweat dripped into his eyes. Pausing, he wiped his forehead with his sleeve. With a roll of his shoulders, he plunged the shovel into the earth like a spear and let it stand upright long enough to remove his flannel shirt. He tossed the shirt outside the shallow rectangle.
The breeze that blew across his bare chest cooled his skin. The scent of wood smoke lingered in the air. A carpet of dead leaves covered the trail, leaving the trees half-bare.
He leaned on the handle of the shovel and turned his face to the sky. Above the tops of the trees, the moon glowed, so low in the sky it felt like he could reach up and touch it. He lifted a hand, the position giving him the illusion of holding the moon in his palm.
The illusion of power.
Despite the failure he was literally burying, energy surged through him. He’d been careful, as always.
No one would find out.
No one would stop him.
There was no limit to what he could do.
He took a deep breath. The scents of pine trees and dirt drifted from the forest. Crickets chirped in the thick underbrush around him, and from the nearby river that cut through the forest and ran down the mountain, the sound of water rushing over rocks carried to his ears. Prey animals feared the dark, but he was a predator by nature.
The darkness was his friend.
And if he wanted to finish before dawn, he’d better get back to work.
Yanking the shovel out of the dirt, he returned to his task. Most people would have underestimated the length of time it took to dig a hole big enough for a body.
But then, most people hadn’t done it before.
He scooped up another shovelful of dirt and threw it up onto the grass. At first, the ground was nice and soft. But the deeper he dug, the more packed the earth became. If it had been winter, the job would have been impossible. He stepped on the turned lip of the shovel, using his body weight to force the blade deeper into the ground. Time to get this done.
He had people to see. Things to do.
A replacement to choose.
He glanced back at the blanket-wrapped form on the grass next to the hole. The first rule of learning from a mistake was to accept responsibility. He’d fucked up.
He’d picked her, so this was his fault. She hadn’t been hardy enough. Had she had some defect he’d missed?
Maybe. But now it was time to put this setback behind him and move on.
He threw renewed effort into his work. By the time he finished, his shoulders, back, and legs ached, but it was the satisfying kind of muscle pain, the kind that came from hard, physical labor.
He climbed out of the hole. It would have to be deep enough. Daylight hovered just below the horizon.
Crouching next to the bundle, he dragged it into the grave. The blanket shifted, exposing her plastic-shrouded face. Irritation washed over him as he flipped the cloth back over her staring eyes. She shouldn’t have died.
But sometimes shit just happened.
She could be replaced.
He filled in the hole, stomping over the grave to compact the earth. Then he swept the ground with a branch, covering the freshly dug earth with dead leaves.
He stood and stretched his back, his gaze drifting over the dead leaves around his feet. The grave was practically invisible. Hikers could walk right over the body and never notice it. He returned to the narrow trail. He should have been tired from a night of hard labor. Instead, the cold night air—and his new plan—invigorated him.
He would leave his mistake behind. The opportunity existed to proceed with a clean slate. His strides quickened as he crossed the river at the wooden footbridge. The road was only a five- minute walk from there. He emerged from the state park and headed for his vehicle.
He wouldn’t let this disappointment discourage him. He wasn’t a quitter. Every failure could be turned into an opportunity.
It was time to start from scratch.
Time to pick the next victim.
There wasn’t anything ominous about 77 Oak Street. White with blue shutters, the compact two-story Colonial sat in the middle of a perfectly ordinary cookie-cutter development. Basketball hoops and hockey nets lined the street. Colorful chalk drawings decorated the sidewalks.
At nine in the morning, the neighborhood was quiet. Kids had gone off to school. Parents had left for work.
But a sense of foreboding trickled down Morgan Dane’s back, along with a drop of sweat, as she compared the address with the paperwork in her lap. The numbers matched.
She squinted at the house. The October sun peered over the roof from a cloudless blue sky. Its rays cut through the chilly autumn breeze and shone on a maple tree in the center of the front lawn. It was a beautiful autumn morning, not that anyone inside would know. Every blind in every window was closed tight.
He was in there all right.
“This is the house,” she said.
Lance Kruger tapped a finger on the steering wheel of his Jeep. “I don’t like this one bit.”
“Neither do I.” Morgan flipped down the visor and used the mirror to apply fresh lipstick.
There was nothing fun about serving legal papers.
He drove past the house and parked at the curb two doors down. “Maybe it would be better if I knock on the door.”
Morgan glanced sideways at the big man in the driver’s seat.
Lance might have left the police force and joined a private investigation firm the previous summer, but he was still all cop—from his black cargo pants to the severe cut of his short blond hair. The blue flannel shirt he wore open and untucked concealed his weapon but did nothing to hide the impressive set of muscles that filled out the gray T-shirt beneath it. Below the rolled-up cuffs of his sleeves, his forearms bulged.
And if his physical appearance wasn’t threatening, the flat glint in his blue eyes gave him away.
He looked dangerous, like he meant business.
If the lowlife they were trying to serve got one look at Lance, he’d run, and the firm would have to start looking for him all over again. It had taken them three days to track the rat down.
As a former assistant district attorney turned private attorney, Morgan owed Lance’s boss big-time. Last month, Sharp Investigations had done her a huge favor and worked a criminal defense case without compensation. And if that wasn’t enough, Sharp had offered to rent her an empty office in his duplex when she’d decided to open her own practice.
“He will not open the door to you,” she said. “Which is why Sharp specifically asked me to help out with this case.”
Lance frowned and turned his gaze on her. A deep sigh of resignation rolled through him. “You’re right. But I don’t like the thought of you getting within ten feet of that scumbag, not with his record.”
Tyler Green owed his ex-wife thousands in child support. He was the deadest of deadbeat dads. He’d also been arrested multiple times for burglary and assault, though the charges had been plead down from a felony to a misdemeanor each time. To stay one step ahead of process servers and avoid paying his ex, he’d quit his job and moved out of his apartment, mooching his way through the households of family members and friends, never staying in one place long enough for the court system to catch up with him. But all good things had to come to an end. The ex had hired Sharp Investigations to find him so she could get him into court.
Lance’s mouth flattened. “Maybe he won’t open the door for you either.”
“There’s only one way to find out. I’m just your average suburban mom.” Morgan hoped Tyler mistook her for one of the neighbors. She was crossing her fingers that he’d open the door, she’d hand him the subpoena, and the firm would get paid.
Lance’s gaze raked over her. “You may be a mom, but there is nothing average about you.”
She fluffed her hair, opened the buttons of her black trench coat, and reached for the tray of brownies in the back seat. “There’s a much better chance Tyler will open the door with me standing on the doorstep.”
“I know, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Lance said in an unhappy tone.
Morgan stashed her lipstick back in her tote. Her coat sleeve rode up with her movement, revealing the edge of the fresh pink scar that ran from her wrist to her elbow: an ugly reminder that working with criminals could be dangerous. The stitches had been out for several weeks, but the wound still looked raw and ugly.