Read an Excerpt
April 7th, 11:46 p.m., 20 Years Ago
He couldn’t run anymore. A painful stitch in his side had him doubled over, huffing out sour breaths that smelled like stale beer and puke.
He should’ve stayed at the bonfire, but the jocks made it clear he wasn’t welcome. He hated how those assholes thought they owned everything—even the parties in Blackerby Woods.
“You’re not afraid, are you?” called out a sing-song voice.
Panic shot through him as sharp and electric as a lightning bolt. He heaved forward, grabbing onto trees to help him climb up the steep hill. Like most people who grew up in Blackerby County, he knew the woods well, though the darkness made it more difficult to navigate. Despite the pain ricocheting up his side, he kept going. All he had to do was reach the dirt road where he’d parked the truck.
His heart pounded so loud, he heard the frantic beats in his own ears. Sweat poured off him as he scrambled out of the tree line and onto the road. Cars of the partygoers lined either side. He searched desperately for the Ford 150 he’d borrowed from his mom.
He heard sneakers pounding across the roadway. He took off too late. Arms wrapped around his waist as his assailant tackled him. The heavy, muscular body flattened him against the asphalt. Fingers twisted in his hair, yanking his head back. A hunting knife pressed against his throat.
The blade whipped across his flesh. For a second, he thought the guy had removed the knife. That this whole thing had been a joke. Ha, ha. You thought the Woodsman got you.
A warm rush of blood spilled onto the ground, soaking the collar of his T-shirt. He fucking cut me. Oh, my God. He couldn’t believe it. He'd felt no pain. None at all.
His attacker grabbed him by the calves and hauled him into the forest. He was still on his stomach, his bruised and aching body suffering further torment as he was dragged through mud and over sharp rocks. The rusty scent of his own blood mixed with the dank smell of rotted leaves.
He attempted to claw at the ground, but chilling numbness stole his energy. Rendered his limbs useless. His injured skull bounced around the uneven terrain as his eyes closed… and he released one last shuddering breath.
November 2nd, 8:22 a.m., Present Day
Sheriff Blue Hayes clutched the shoebox which wiggled and tilted in her arms. The lid had holes punched in it and she watched a tiny kitten paw poke out. “Meow.”
“Meow to you, too,” she said, chuckling as she knocked on the door of The Craigs’ two-story Queen Anne house.
Sara Craig, a lithe brunette in her early thirties, answered almost immediately. Dressed in yoga pants, an oversized T-shirt, and pink ankle socks, she moved back and gestured at Blue. “Come in, Sheriff.”
Blue stepped inside the foyer. “How’s April?”
“Two years of therapy and medication—it’s been helpful, I suppose. But my daughter still has night terrors. PTSD.” Sara paused at the bottom of the carpeted stairs. “I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done.”
“I wish I’d been able to save your in-laws,” said Blue. “The Craigs were good people.”
“So are you. None of what happened is your fault. Neil Conroy pulled the trigger.” Sara twisted her hands, her gaze shadowed with fear. “The sentencing hearing is in two weeks.”
“He’ll get the death penalty.”
“He deserves it.” Grief flashed across Sara’s face, then she nodded toward the gift Blue held. “Thanks for bringing April this little guy. We’re still waiting for a service dog. It’ll be another month or two. Maybe longer. Until then, the therapist said taking care of a pet might help lessen her panic attacks.” Sara nodded toward the stairs. “Go on up. She’s in her bedroom.”
Blue jogged up the stairs and lightly knocked on eight-year-old April’s bedroom door.
“Come in,” she said.
“Hey, April." For a dreadful moment, Blue saw the frightened six-year-old girl, spattered with blood and hiding behind an overturned table, her dead grandparents mere inches away. Despite the horror surrounding her, the child had stayed quiet and still while Neil Conroy slaughtered the patrons in the Game Night Bar & Grill. That was two years ago. Blue tucked away the painful memory and forced herself to see April in the now. She was a couple inches taller and her brown hair much longer. Her eyes held the indisputable knowledge that the world was a dangerous and painful place. April had lost the innocence of childhood that awful night. "How's it going?"
“Okay, I guess.” April sat on her bed, her back against the headboard as she played on a large tablet. Her gaze riveted to the jiggling shoebox. “What’s that?”
Blue placed the box next to the little girl. “Open it and find out.”
April carefully removed the lid. The orange-striped tabby popped up, its teeny paws clinging to the cardboard rim. April squeeed as she removed the kitten from its container and kissed its fuzzy head. “Oh, my gosh! It’s so cute.”
“He. One of Tate Donovan’s barn cats had a late litter of kittens.”
“He’s so sweet," she crooned. "What’s his name?”
“I don’t know. Guess that’s up to you.”
April’s eyes widened. “You mean he’s for me? He’s mine?”
Blue grinned. “Yes.” The joy in April’s brown eyes was something to behold. It reminded her of April in the moments before the shooting when she’d been having dinner with her grandparents. They’d sat at a table a few feet away from Blue, who’d been at the bar enjoying a venison burger and sweet tea. Blue remembered hearing April giggle when her grandfather playfully poked her belly.
Then Neil Conroy plowed his truck through the wall, got out, and started shooting at everyone with an AR-15. How April had survived the spray of bullets was nothing short of a miracle.
Of all the sins Neil had committed, murdering the elderly couple in front of their six-year-old granddaughter had to be one of the worst. While April had escaped physical harm, anyone who spent more than ten seconds with the child realized she’d suffered grievous emotional wounds.
Fifteen people had been shot. Four died on scene. Two more passed away in the hospital. Conroy had done damage to all his fellow citizens—even those who'd walked away without injury. He’d taken away their sense of safety. Given them trauma and blood and pain. Horrific memories too difficult to erase. How could anyone forget the chaos he’d wreaked? The terror he'd inspired? No one there that night had left unscathed.
Blue was among those scarred by the tragedy. She’d stopped Conroy, but the price of his drunken rampage had been too high. Lately, it felt like Blue had been experiencing one tragedy after another. If being the victim of a mass shooter wasn’t awful enough—her father, former Sheriff Frank Hayes, had died in a fatal car crash a year ago today. In fact, she had to pick up her mom so they could visit Dad’s grave at the cemetery. Then they’d go to breakfast at Dot’s Diner and try to pretend their world wasn’t upside down. This was one anniversary Blue wished she could skip, but her mother needed her, and her dad had always counted on Blue to be strong.
“I think I’ll name him Orange,” said April.
The name drew a smile from Blue. Her lips ached with the attempt, and she realized it had been a long time since she’d had anything to smile about. “Orange? Like the fruit?”
“No, like his color.” April offered a shy smile back. “Like your name, Blue. Did your mom name you that because your eyes are blue?”
“Maybe that was partly why. Did you know my mother is an artist? She paints amazing pictures on these huge canvases.”
“What kinds of pictures does she paint?”
“All kinds.” Blue stroked the kitten’s fuzzy noggin with one finger. The fur baby purred in a way that eased some of Blue's tension. “She named me Blue because it’s her favorite color. The color of sky and Robin’s eggs and sapphires.”
“I think that’s real nice.”
“Me, too.” Blue stood and smoothed out her black skirt. She almost never wore dresses and now she associated them with memorials for the dead. She’d come to despise black garments because she didn’t want to clothe herself in the opaque color of loss and mourning. Blackerby County had gone thirty years without a single murder before the Game Night Bar & Grill massacre. Thanks to Conroy, she’d attended more funerals in the last twenty-four months than she had in her entire thirty-six years. “You take care of Orange, okay?”
“I will,” promised April. "And hey, uhm, you can come back, you know, to play with Orange if you want."
April was reaching out to Blue, and she gladly accepted the little girl’s attempt at connection. "I'd like that." She gave the cat one last ear rub. "Goodbye, Orange."
Blue looked up and saw Sara leaning against the doorway, tears in her eyes. She smiled at Blue and mouthed, “Thank you.”
* * *
On the way home to pick up her mother, Blue’s cell phone rang. A quick glance at the screen of the phone laying in the console told her the name of the caller: Deputy Colt Ashford.
Blue pushed the answer button on the SUV’s steering wheel. Colt’s concerned voice emitted through the speakers. “I know it’s your day off, but we need you. We’ve got a dead body about half a mile off Old Mill Road.”
“Wow,” said Blue. “It’s only day one of hunting season.”
“This wasn’t an accident.”
“Well, hell,” she said as she turned onto the gravel road that led to her parents’ hobby farm. She’d moved in after Dad died so she could help her mother tend to the animals and the garden. Blue had to admit she liked being back in her childhood home. It was one way to stay close to her father. His presence was still very much part of the house, mainly because Millie Hayes refused to get rid of her husband’s things or reclaim his home office.
“I’m here. We’re dealing with a homicide?”
“Yeah,” said Colt. “And it’s a bad one.”
Praise for Michele's Fiction
"Excellent world building, original concepts, and a compelling dark atmosphere." ~ Publisher's Weekly
"Has action aplenty." ~ Booklist
"Keeps readers on the edge of their seats with well-crafted suspense." ~ Darque Reviews
"All I can say is WOW!" ~ The Best Reviews
"Keeps the action flowing ... fans will be delighted." ~ Library Journal