Deathscape (Broslin Creek series Book 2)

After a near-death experience, artist Ashley Price is compelled to paint visions of the dead, and fears she's gone crazy. Then she paints a man buried alive and, recognizing the surroundings, she rushes to save him. Instead of being grateful to her for rescuing him, Detective Jack Sullivan accuses her of being in league with a serial killer. He swears he will put her behind bars. Except, the more time he spends with her, the more he falls under her spell. Can he trust her, or is he walking into another deadly trap?

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Chapter One

The fox behind the hundred-year-old Pennsylvania farmhouse inched forward in the withered grass as it stalked the meadow vole. Gray winter clouds rolled above, forcing their way across the sky, large brutes that had been twisted into violent shapes by the winds of the troposphere. The fox paid little mind to the weather, its eyes on its prize.

At the other end of the farmyard loomed a dilapidated barn, filled with the scent of moldy hay and rotting wood—the sweet scent of decay. A man crouched in the shadows of the hayloft, looking out through a gap in the boards to watch the fox.

Some hunters stalked their prey; others baited their trap, then lay in wait for the ambush. He preferred the challenge of setting up the right trap, drawing his victim to him. He liked to think his way, since it required more finesse, was the nobler way.

Anyone could follow a guy into a dark alley and shoot him in the back. But a quick death was not what he had in mind for today. Detective Sullivan had dogged him for too long, had caused too much trouble. Outsmarting the guy over the years might have provided some amusement, but not enough to let him live. He’d reached too close this time.

The man glanced at the tool case at his feet. He couldn’t allow the detective to jeopardize his legacy. His masterpiece had to be preserved for all the ages, for the generations that would be evolved enough to understand and appreciate it.

Outside, the fox pounced; then, a second later, it allowed the wriggling rodent to escape for a few staggering steps before pouncing again. A quick kill left no time to savor, gave the hunter no chance to improve his skills. Then the fox’s ears flicked, and in the next instant, it snatched up the vole and darted into the stand of barren bushes.

Sullivan’s black sedan rolled down the dirt road at last.

The detective had come alone. He would. He was that cocky.

A good hunter knew his prey and used its weaknesses.

The man in the hayloft pushed to his feet as the car rolled to a silent stop. Sullivan got out, surveyed the buildings and the surrounding barren fields, his right hand staying close to the weapon in his holster. He started for the house, crossing the yard in careful strides.

He almost walked past the chunk of bone, damn near tripped over it before he froze mid-step. Judging by the way his expression darkened, he realized pretty fast that the broken section of femur was human.

He squatted and bagged the piece of bone as evidence, by the book, called it in just as the first heavy, half-frozen raindrops crashed out of the sky. Instead of going back to wait in the safety of his vehicle for reinforcements, he kept going.

Jack Sullivan waited for no one. He worked with no one. He trusted no one. He asked for no quarter and didn’t give any.

Anticipation of the pleasure of taking down a man like that, taking him apart piece by piece, gave flavor to the hunt. The man in the hayloft adjusted the rubber gloves on his hands.

He had at least twenty minutes before Sullivan’s backup would show—he’d driven the distance on a half-dozen occasions in various traffic conditions and measured the time.

They would be too late.

* * *

3 days later.

“Can I stay?”

The question broke Ashley Price’s heart as she crouched in her messy foyer with her daughter in her arms. She clutched her five-year-old tighter as skinny little arms wrapped around her neck. “Very soon, okay?”

Maddie—pink coat, pink boots, pink hat, pink gloves—pulled back and put on her poor-lost-puppy look. “Mo-om, you always say that. I’ll be good. I’ll be quiet when you paint. You won’t even know I’m here.”

And it broke Ashley’s heart a little more that her daughter thought she couldn’t come home because she wasn’t good enough.

“I know, Peanut. It’s not about that. You could talk all you want.” She missed her daughter’s sweet chatter, had come to dread the dead silence of the house. “I’ll be better soon, and you can come home. I promise.”

“You don’t look sick. You look better now.” Maddie pouted.

Ashley forced a smile. “Would you like to take your picture back to Grandpa’s place?”

They’d spent part of their day together making art, putting thin paper over various textures and making graphite rubs, then cutting and fitting the pieces together to create a new image. Maddie loved searching for different surfaces: a rough tile, sandpaper, money, the lemon grater, whatever she could find. They’d turned the rubbings into dolls and flowers and even did a giant, scaly dragon.

“You can keep them,” her daughter said, the pout quickly disappearing. She wasn’t one to keep grudges. “Then you won’t be sad when I’m gone.”

Ashley blinked hard. She wasn’t going to cry in front of her daughter. And not in front of her father either.

William Price was coming back into the house, wiping his Italian leather shoes on the mat. He was tall and handsome, in his late fifties and in excellent shape. He played both racquetball and golf weekly, belonging to some fancy club in Philly where he and his business partners gathered to conduct informal business.

If he was more comfortable at his club than with a five-year-old drenched in pink, he didn’t show it. He doted on Maddie in a way Ashley didn’t remember him doting on her when she’d been little. Of course, back then the man had still been in the process of building his empire, while now he had the luxury of making time for family.

“Come on, young lady.” He waited by the door. “You’ve kept your grandfather waiting long enough. Car’s nice and toasty.”

“Can I stomp in the snow? It’s not dirty here.”

Pristine white snow was one of the advantages of living in the country.

“Of course.” Ashley squeezed the little hand in hers one last time before letting go.

She waited until Maddie skipped out of hearing range, leaving the front door open so she could keep an eye on her, ignoring the icy blast of cold blowing in.

“When?” She spoke the single word in a low voice.

“Do you have everything you need? Can I do anything to help?”

“Thanks. I’m okay.” To ask for anything would have been a sign of weakness, an indication that she hadn’t gotten her life together yet, an excuse for delaying Maddie’s return to her. “I’m fine. Really.” Everything was a negotiation with William Price, head of Price Financial Consulting, a successful center city brokerage firm.

“She should be able to finish out the school year. It would be best.”

The what’s-best-for-Maddie trump card. And how could Ashley fight that?

The end of the school year dangled four unbearable months away. Her eyes burned. Show no weakness. She drew a deep breath and prepared to fight.

Her father spoke first. “Will you come to see us next weekend, or should I bring her out again?”

The final thrust of the knife.

Her throat burned. Her hands clenched into fists. I’ll come to Philly. The words were on her tongue.

“You could come here,” she said instead, defeat tasting bitter in her throat. “If you don’t mind.”

She’d been tested and had failed. Again.

The implication was, if she wasn’t well enough to drive into Philadelphia, then she wasn’t well enough to take care of her daughter. She swallowed, knowing she truly wasn’t, letting any misguided jealousy and anger dissipate.

Her father didn’t know the half of her problems. Nobody did. Nobody ever would. She couldn’t let anyone find out just how crazy she was, the secret she kept. She would fight her way out of that dark hole somehow. She had to, or it would swallow her for good.

Her father glanced up at her loft studio, at the H-frame easel and the nearly complete painting on it. “Glad to see you’re making progress,” he said before he walked out the door.

An acknowledgment to give her hope. He was a hard man, but not cruel. He wouldn’t keep Maddie from her forever.

She went after him. “I’ll see you next Saturday?” The time until then stretched in front of her, interminable.

“Bright and early.” He strode to his new BMW, elegant in his camel-hair coat, a distinguished gentleman of means who lived an orderly life, in a different world from hers.

Maddie hopped around the car, making a giant circle with her boot prints. When she spotted Ashley, the little girl ran back into her arms again. “You’ll call tonight to tell me a story?”

“Would I ever miss calling my sweetest peanut?”

Maddie smiled. “About the princess and the unicorn?”

“If that’s want you want.” She would have done anything to make her daughter happy, to keep the darkness from touching her in any way.

Which was why back when she’d been released from the hospital and had come home, Ashley had agreed for Madison to stay on with her grandfather. She’d thought it would be a short-term arrangement, but she hadn’t been able to shake the darkness. So even if she wanted to pick her baby up and carry her back into the house right now, she didn’t.

She would regret that decision from the moment the car pulled away until it appeared at the end of her driveway again a week from today. But when one of her spells came, she would know she had done the right thing, even if Maddie living away from her was killing her inside.

Until the end of the school year. Then her daughter would come home–if Ashley could fix herself by then. She had four months to get her act together, wrestle down her demons, and prove to her father that she was back to normal.

No more depression, no more paralyzing anxiety. She knew what brought them on. If only she could stop that.

She stood in the open door, waving until the car drove out of sight, disappearing behind the trees. She was all alone then, with nothing but gray sky, the empty road, and the barren, snow-covered fields that lined it on either side. She blinked hard a couple of times, then stepped back inside, suddenly cut off at the knees. No feeling in the universe compared to that of a mother watching her child being taken away.

She turned the old-fashioned brass key in the lock. She used to love its warm patina, the way it perfectly complemented the deep color of the hundred-year-old oak door. Braided wool rugs covered most of the wide-paneled floor that matched the door. The narrow stained-glass window above the door painted the walls with color and light in the foyer.

When they’d first moved in, she’d spent hours walking around the house, drinking in the colors and textures, the play of light and shadow, absorbing the visual feast through her skin. Maddie and she had giddily sketched every interesting nook, their way of taking possession of their new home.

For a moment, she could clearly remember that deep sense of contentment, the pure joy. Then it slipped through her fingers and she was left with longing and a sharp ache in her chest.

She glanced up to the loft, to the waiting easel. She’d started a project early this morning when she couldn’t sleep. She needed to paint as much as possible, needed to catch up a little.

She owned the old farmhouse outright, but her heating and electric bills were a month overdue, and she didn’t dare to be late with her health and home insurance. She needed to catch up and then set some savings aside. She had to regain solid footing by the time school ended.

She climbed the stairs. Through the nose, breathe in—calm, creative energy. Through the mouth, breathe out—release all bad and negative thoughts.

Her studio loft, designed by her, was her favorite place in the house. She’d had one wall taken out so it could be open to downstairs; another wall, on the north side of the house, had been replaced with windows for the perfect light.

The same oak planks covered the floor as below, the walls painted in something called “gallery white,” so she could correctly judge her colors. She’d even had a sink installed so she could clean her brushes here.

Since the painting she’d been working on hadn’t dried enough yet for the next layer of color, she set up another canvas that she’d already stretched and prepped herself, gessoed to a smooth finish. The prepping process, her small rituals, helped her relax. A prefinished, frame-stretched canvas couldn’t give her that.

She opened her sketchbook and picked a composition she’d been playing with, laid out her favorite brushes, then uncapped the first color, cerulean blue, and squeezed some onto her stained palette. Then the next color, then the next.

There had been a time when the scent of paint had filled her with euphoria. Now the blue smelled like the sharp chunks of crushed ice on the reservoir, the brown dark and threatening, the odor of wet earth, the smell of a grave.

She unloaded her chosen colors, what she would need for the first layer, adding crimson the very last, no more than was absolutely necessary. Of all the shades of red, she hated the wet, sticky brightness of crimson the most.

Her muscles drew tight as she dipped the brush into one color, then the next, the right amount from each, loaded the brush just so, then dabbed off the excess. Her hand trembled as she lifted brush to canvas. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead. When the first rolled down, she blinked. Not today. It’s not going to happen today.

Through the nose, breathe in…

She’d painted that morning, and everything had been fine. But now, suddenly she didn’t dare touch color to all that white.

Lately, every new painting began like this—with fear. The reason why she rarely painted anymore. Which had led to her dismal financial situation. Which had to end.

She made herself relax her death grip on the brush.

When the phone rang, her sense of relief at the delay was tangible. She didn’t even look at the caller ID as she reached for the receiver. At this stage, she would have been happy to take a call from a telemarketer.

But instead, she came close to a smile when she heard her agent’s voice.

“Hope I’m interrupting a mad work session,” Isabelle chirped into the phone, a vibrant and successful twenty-four-year-old with a client list even industry veterans envied. She had energy to spare, instincts that rarely failed, and a personality that meshed with just about anyone, a big plus in an industry where divas and prima donnas abounded—both in her circle of artists and her circle of clients.

Ashley trusted her implicitly.

“I’m starting a new project. Two, actually. I already have another partially finished.”

“When can I see them? Some top galleries are still asking about you.” The still was said with undertones of, they won’t forever. “You have to keep producing to keep your momentum.”

They both knew her momentum was gone. Her last solo show at a big-name gallery had been over a year ago. But Isabelle was a cheerleader through and through who’d never met a lost cause.

“I could come down next month to see what you have. Do you need an advance?”

She bit her lip. Even to Isabelle, she couldn’t admit the full truth. “I guess I should order some supplies online.” She no longer drove into the city to pick up her own supplies.

“I’ll wire the money today.”

“Thank you.”

“What are you painting?”

“An abstract.”

Ashley glanced to the back of her loft studio, at the five-foot-by-six-foot landscape she’d been working on before the accident. The image waited unfinished, frozen in time. She thought of some of her signature pieces with longing for a split second before she shook off her nostalgia. She no longer painted people or landscapes, if she could help it.

Her abstracts did well too. She’d been earning a couple of grand a piece. That much money could keep her afloat for a few months before she had to touch a brush again.

Professor Mathew Daniels-Roderick’s lecture flashed into her mind. A celebrated artist in his own right, Roderick had been the best mentor she’d had the good luck to study with. “At the beginning, if you could draw a picture others recognized, you were considered an artist. Then came a higher form of art that showed emotion. Then, even better, made you feel emotion. You cried with the woman losing her lover, despaired with the revolutionaries in front of the firing squad.”

“What about abstract art?” she’d asked, a first-year student who’d never really understood the abstract, had no intention of ever painting it.

The professor had focused on her with the full intensity of his lively gaze, instantly making her regret that she’d spoken up.

“When you paint a scene of great joy, a mother finding her long-lost child, and that same joy shines on the people who view your painting, if that joy shines in their hearts, you’ve created art. But if you can call forth that joy with two triangles and a circle, if you can use the movement of the lines, the emotion and rhythm of the colors in a way that connects to another human being on a level so profound…” The professor paused. “That is great art.”

So she’d been trying lately, sporadically, to create great art—without letting the darkness claim her. Sometimes she succeeded, and sometimes she went to hell.

“I’m flying to Philadelphia in a couple of weeks to meet the owner of a new gallery on South Street,” Isabelle said. “I have to go to Baltimore to see a client after that. I could stop in to catch up. It’s been a long time since you came up to New York.”

Ashley hesitated as long as she could without being impolite, possibly longer. “Okay.” She could give no other answer, really.

“Jeez, don’t be so enthusiastic.” Isabelle laughed on the other end. “It might go to my head.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t—”

“I get it. Artists are introverts. If you were out there socializing all the time, you wouldn’t have time to contemplate and create. I have artists who are social butterflies. I’m not making a lot of money off them.” She paused.

She was probably reflecting on the fact that she hadn’t made much money on Ashley lately either.

“Graham called again,” she said after another second. “He keeps trying to convince me he’d be the perfect person to give you the right start. I’ll give up agenting before I let you hang anything in his two-bit gallery. You don’t need a start. You already made it. You just have to keep on producing.”

“I’m working on it,” she said, appreciating the vote of confidence. “Graham called me too, by the way. A couple of weeks ago.”

Graham Lanius was one of the local gallery owners. He fancied himself the godfather of local talent, a Maecenas, but had trouble with boundaries. You worked with him and sooner or later he would try to tell you what and how to paint, which rubbed a lot of artists the wrong way.

Still, he had plenty who went to him, the insecure who fed on his direction and grudgingly doled-out approval, and those who were happy to have their paintings in a gallery, period, and weren’t too choosy what they had to put up with.

“Just keep telling him your agent schedules all your shows,” Isabelle said.

“Exactly what I did.”

“Is this about Andre?”

“Probably.”

Andre Milton, descendant of famous Pennsylvania artist Franklin Milton was the big local talent. He had a good eye, and his famous last name didn’t hurt either. He sold exclusively at a local gallery that was Graham’s biggest competition. Which was why Graham wanted Ashley.

“Listen, somebody just walked in. I’ll give you a call when I know what day I’ll be down your way,” Isabelle said. “I can’t wait to see what you have.” She sounded warm and cheerful as always. If she felt concerned about Ashley’s recent lull in production, she didn’t show it.

Ashley fidgeted around for a few seconds after they hung up, then walked back to her easel. She had to work now. The paintings were already promised. The money would be wired, and Isabelle would be here soon, wanting to see how far along the projects had progressed.

Ashley picked up the brush again and lifted it to the canvas, except now the colors seemed all wrong. The light had changed too. She looked through the row of oversized windows that stretched from floor to ceiling, taking up the whole north end of the loft. Moody snow clouds had drifted in, casting a fatigued gray tint on everything.

Her hand jerked, leaving an angry slash in the middle of the canvas.

A headache drummed to life in the back of her skull.

It’s not going to happen today.

She ignored the shiver that skipped down her spine.

This is a normal day. I’m painting a normal composition.

But it was too late. It was happening already. She squeezed her eyes shut against the images flooding her brain, but no resistance would help now. She couldn’t escape.

This time, the body—a man, midthirties—lay in a shallow grave surrounded by low brush. A distinct rock loomed nearby, blocking the view of a creek beyond.

The image stirred faint memories that refused to come into focus.

Her headache intensified.

She could walk away, had done so in the past. But if she did, neither the pain nor the image would go away; they would pound at her mercilessly. The only way to be rid of the pain was to get the image out of her head, put it on a canvas that she could pick up and hide later.

So she gritted her teeth and remixed her colors. Then she grabbed a brush.

Background first. She went as fast as she could, needed to be done so she could curl up in her lumpy armchair in the corner of the loft and find some numb place inside to escape to. Darkening sky in blue and gray, big, sweeping brushstrokes. The rock cast a wreathing shadow in the clearing. She picked and discarded brushes without conscious thought, mixed colors on instinct.

She delayed painting the body for as long as possible, pressing her lips together as she finally drew the shape. When she had that right, she used a fan brush to complete the see-through, drape-like material he’d been wrapped in—shower curtain?—before reaching for a soft sable brush for the face. She’d always hated this part the most, even before she’d realized that the bodies were real.

She drew the main outline, keeping her fingers on the ferrule—the metal piece that clamped the bristles to the handle—and created a nose, mouth, and eyelids. For a moment, she wondered what color his eyes might be, then shoved aside the macabre thought. He had a strong, square jaw, his hair pushed back, looking sticky from the dirt that had been thrown directly onto his face.

She shadowed the man’s skin and added smudges of dirt to his cheeks and closed eyelids. Her real art, the paintings she sold, had a completely different feel from this monster. This looked as if the artist had X-ray vision, portraying the landscape along with what lay hidden beneath the ground. She hurried but had enough skill to have the face done well even with those few strokes.

Then the gruesome image stood completed, her headache ebbing. She could draw her lungs full for the first time in the past two hours. Her pulse slowed. The room came back into focus, seemed lighter all of a sudden.

But still that terrible sense of emptiness lingered inside her, and she knew it would stay with her for days.

It’s over.

Breathe.

The brushes needed to be cleaned, so she did that, careful to avoid looking at the picture as she moved around. After the paint dried, she would wrap the canvas up and stack it in the garage with the others. And if she were lucky, she would have a long reprieve before the next dark compulsion to paint another vignette of horror.

Her muscles that had been clenched the whole time went weak with relief, and she walked away from the sink on wobbly legs. But as she passed the easel, the odd rock that sat in the middle of the painting drew her eyes and the vague memory took shape at last in her mind.

Cold, disbelieving shock sucker punched her.

She knew that rock, had painted it before, albeit from another angle, from the creek side. The creek that ran at the far end of her hundred-acre property, land she had bought after her first major art show.

Before she had time to consider the implications, her gaze slid lower. She broke out in cold sweat as her eyes zeroed in on the face of the man who occupied the lower right quadrant of the canvas.

He stared at her.

She blinked. She could swear she’d painted his eyes closed. She had meant to. But she had thought about the color…

Goose bumps prickled her skin. His face had less gray than the other victims she’d painted in the past. His body too lay differently—limp but not frozen in death with the stiff angles of a corpse.

As her breath hitched and her heart slammed against her rib cage, terrible thoughts clamored in her mind. This one was on her land. And he was still alive.

Fear pushed full force against the thought that she should help. She was all alone. Twilight was falling. Her land was impassable—back when she’d bought the property, there had been some tractor trails through it, but she’d left them to be overgrown long ago.

She could drive down Hadley Road until she reached the right spot, then walk in.

Would have to drive by the reservoir.

She didn’t drive that road anymore.

But even if she could, she wasn’t going to chase some imaginary dead man, or almost dead man, around the countryside.

Feel normal. Act normal. If she couldn’t do that, she would never get Maddie back. Normalcy had become her holy grail, the thing she ceaselessly sought, fought for, dreamed about. Going off like some madwoman would be the very opposite of that.

She watched the man watching her from the painting. Just more of her craziness. She was always imagining stuff—noises in the night, things moving behind the house in the woods. Which always turned out to be deer, or teens sneaking around for a smoke.

Yet she whispered, “He’s alive,” to the empty room without meaning to.

No. She turned her back to the easel.

But the next moment, she was running down the stairs, not just away from the painting but toward the door.

Because what if saving a life would make up for the one she’d lost? Maybe then the dead would finally leave her alone. What if this single act could end the nightmare she was living?

She swept up her keys and coat. And ran into the mailman on her front stoop.

He smiled his usual, cheerful smile, a man without a care. He was so profoundly…normal, it was like looking into a parallel universe.

“Brought the mail up. Last delivery for the day. You got a package.”

Pete Kentner was in his midforties, wearing regulation hat and coat with hunting boots. More often than not, he brought her mail to the door when the temperature dropped to below freezing, so she wouldn’t have to walk to the mailbox. He was a nice guy, helpful to everyone, took care of his mother.

“Thanks. Hope you had a nice break.” She tried for normal conversation, her mind spinning. She rubbed her hands over her arms, shivering. “Wow, it’s cold. What was it this time?”

Could she ask him for help? And say what? He’d think she was crazy.

“Good hunting weather. One fox, a half-dozen woodchucks, a couple of raccoons. Didn’t get a bobcat permit this year. Didn’t see any, anyway. That’s all the excitement until deer season next year.” Disappointment crept into his tone, but he perked up as he gestured at the package she held. “Late Christmas present?”

She glanced at the return address. “Samples from one of the online art-supply stores, I think.” They sent those from time to time to frequent customers, nudging artists to give new brands a try. A treasure on any other day, but right now, she was jumping with impatience.

She gave Pete a strained smile, willing him to leave.

But he chatted on instead. “Been ice skating yet? Saw a bunch of folks down by the reservoir earlier—” He snapped his mouth shut. “Sorry. Wasn’t thinking. Don’t know where my brain is today.” He adjusted his hat. “Better get going.”

He gave a cheerful wave, shuffled back to his mail truck, and backed out of her driveway.

She put the box on the hall table just inside the door, then locked up behind her and hurried to her own car.

His bringing up the reservoir and skating didn’t help. She sat behind the wheel for a moment, fighting the urge to go back inside. But those cerulean eyes were burned into her brain and drew her forward.

Turn the key in the ignition. Put the car in drive. Step on the gas.

Pete had turned left onto the main road, toward town. Broslin sat just a few miles from the Maryland border in one direction and about the same distance from Delaware in the other, a quaint little town with a history of art, a large Amish population, mushroom farmers, a lot of mom-and-pop stores still, nice, regular people. It had been paradise to her when she’d moved out here, a place to live in peace and create.

Then everything had fallen apart. But she was about to fix that, even if panic bubbled in her stomach as she reached the end of her driveway. Deep breath. She yanked the steering wheel right, away from town and toward the reservoir, not allowing herself to hesitate.

Her gaze skimmed the abandoned Miller farm at the corner. Hadley Road came too fast, another right. Blood rushed loudly in her ears as she turned. She stared straight ahead. Don’t look at the reservoir. She hadn’t been out this way in a year.

She focused on the two cars a few hundred yards ahead on the side of the road: a pickup in the front, a police cruiser in the back.

Her heart beat a mad rhythm.

In her mind, she saw another evening like this with police at the reservoir, cops and other emergency personnel. All the more strange because she couldn’t possibly have seen anything at the time. She shivered as she felt the bone-splitting cold of that day all over again. She let go of her death grip on the steering wheel long enough to crank up the heat.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” The police officer looked at Ashley through the side window of her SUV.

Of course, it had to be Bing.

She bit her lip. She’d gotten distracted by her memories to the point of forgetting to keep her foot on the gas pedal. She hadn’t realized that she’d slowed to a stop.

The police made her uneasy. God, so many things made her uneasy these days. No, uneasy didn’t begin to describe how she felt. Half the time, she was scared to death.

The captain watched her. She knew most of the local police, had been interrogated over and over about Dylan’s death. She swallowed, not wanting to sink into those memories.

She cracked the window an inch. “I’m okay. Thank you, Captain.”

She shivered again as cold air swept into the car. She rolled the window up and stepped on the gas, watching in her rearview mirror as Bing turned after her.

She drew her gaze from him and focused back on the road, glancing at her land on the right. Her hundred acres stood unused: some trees, some brush, some abandoned fields. A lot of farms lay fallow these days. Closer to Philadelphia or Wilmington, developers were buying up land to put in cookie-cutter housing for freshly minted yuppies who couldn’t afford the existing, expensive suburbs. This far out, commuting would be a major drag, so developers left the area alone.

Farming as a lifestyle was no longer economically feasible for most, and the new generation didn’t have the same dreams as their grandfathers anyway. A hundred-acre farm could still be bought here for a reasonable price.

Not many people were thrilled at the prospect of a hundred neglected acres, but she’d bought the place specifically for untouched nature. She loved painting that, loved the views she had of the woods from her studio window, had once loved the proximity of the reservoir she had painted a hundred times.

She didn’t even look at the frozen water now, grateful when the pine forest started on her left and blocked the view. She drove slowly, not wanting to miss her spot. In her mind, she could see the man in the shallow grave, those cerulean eyes.

She pulled over when she thought she was in the right place and dashed forward into the waist-high brush. Her feet sank into the snow, frozen branches tugging at her midcalf-length wool skirt. The police cruiser drove by, slowed, and stopped.

“You need any help, Miss Price?”

“I, uh, I’m looking for a place to paint.”

“It’s cold out here.”

Right. She had no hat or gloves on. “Just ran out on a sudden idea. I won’t be long.” She glanced down at her bare feet in her house slippers, nearly swallowed by the snow. At least, the captain couldn’t see that.

He watched her. “It’s going to turn dark soon.”

She should have brought a flashlight. “Just the dusk I’ve been looking for.” She attempted a smile and stood on the spot until the captain drove away.

Then she ran toward the creek, a couple of hundred yards from the road. I can’t be late. I have to save him. If I save him, everything is going to be all right. She needed that hope, because she wasn’t sure how much longer she could live the life she had lived this past year or so since the accident.

She trudged around a clump of larger bushes and finally spotted the small clearing in the twilight. She circled the rock, judging the distance as it had been on the painting, looking at the creek to orient herself to the correct angle. Dead weeds and low brush grabbed after her with every step, getting tangled in her long skirt, scraping her legs.

“Where are you?” Frustration had her yelling out loud.

She searched in a random pattern, then finally saw the patch of disturbed soil and fell to her knees, attacking the loose dirt with her bare hands.

Small stones scraped her skin, frozen dirt packed under her nails. She dug harder, her fingers becoming stiff with cold within seconds.

“I’m here,” she whispered as she clawed at the ground. But along with the urgency in her mind, on a parallel plane loomed the doubt that none of this was real, that she had finally gone truly and irrevocably mad.

Snow began to fall, the only sounds her fingers scraping the frozen ground and the way she gasped for air from the effort. But she uncovered absolutely nothing. Anger had her slapping her hands into the dirt.

She shrieked when she touched russet strands of hair caked with bloody mud.