After her husband dies in a car accident, Aroostine wants to be left alone to mourn. But when a teenager goes missing and the authorities write her off as a rebellious runaway, an old friend calls in a favor for the girl's desperate mother.
Still reeling from Joe's death, Aroostine sets off on a cross-country hunt that puts her in the cross-hairs of a shadowy organization with violent ties as she searches for a girl who has very good reasons to want to stay lost.
Release date: March 27, 2018
Publisher: Brown Street Books
Print pages: 318
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Melissa F. Miller
Office of Bedrock Force, LLP
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Dahlia Truewind’s hands shook.
Her shakiness wasn’t exactly a surprise. After all, if anyone caught her taking pictures of Ms. Markham’s papers, she’d be in a world of trouble. Definitely fired. Probably arrested. And maybe even …
She stopped herself before her imagination got away from her. Bedrock Force might be a military contractor, but last time she checked, she was still an American citizen, with rights and protections.
A lot of good that had done Mercy.
She shook her head.
Stop it, already. Get the pictures and get out of here.
She steadied the phone and waited for the camera app to focus. She captured the images as fast as she could. She couldn’t risk checking to see if they were blurry, or legible, or upside down. Just click, flip to the next sheet in the stack, and click, flip again.
She wished she could make copies, but those would be way harder to sneak out of the building. Anyway, she wasn’t even sure these papers were relevant. But all she could do was take a picture of everything she could find that was in any way related to the protester camp.
You can jump off that bridge when you come to it, as Mom would say. For now, focus on getting this done.
Her mouth was dry. She worked up enough saliva to swallow then slid the sheets back into their folder, popped the folder into the filing cabinet, and turned the small key to lock it. She’d been in here long enough. It was time to replace the key in its hiding spot under Ms. Markham’s mouse pad and get out of the office before she ran into the cleaning crew.
She’d had one close call already with the nighttime cleaners. She couldn’t risk another.
She spared a final look to confirm she’d left the office as she’d found it. Close enough.
Her eyes fell on the small, rectangular device sitting on the corner of Ms. Markham’s desk. No need for Ms. Markham to squirrel that thing away. The rugged titanium case held a military-grade, encrypted satellite-communications transmission unit. Dahlia was sure it held all the secrets. But it was unbreakable in every sense of the word. And if it disappeared …. A shiver ran along her spine.
Forget the sat-comm unit. It’s too risky.
She stepped out into the hall then pulled the office door shut behind her and gave it a yank to make sure the lock had engaged.
She pocketed her phone and crossed the open workspace she shared with three other people. Her heart hammered in her chest. She passed her own cubicle, slowing just long enough to grab her purse.
She stopped at Marcus Swanson’s workstation. Ms. Markham’s Number Two, the deputy manager. She opened the shallow pencil tray under his desk and slid the spare key card to Ms. Markham’s office into the rectangular slot where he kept it. She closed the tray with two fingers, silent and fast.
She walked as quickly as she could, forcing herself not to break into a run. She made a beeline for the emergency stairwell. Once the exit door swung closed behind her, she gave up the pretense of looking casual and flat out ran. She didn’t stop or slow her pace until she reached the downtown bus depot.
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church
Walnut Bottom, Pennsylvania
Aroostine Higgins stood, dry-eyed and straight-backed. A single pane of blue glass was the only item in her world. The thin rectangle formed the cuff of the Virgin Mary’s left sleeve in the stained glass panel that hung above the altar of Saint Matthew’s Church, where generations of Jackmans had worshipped from birth to death.
She took a shuddering breath and stared harder at the gleaming cerulean glass. The very worst mistake she could make right now would be to allow her gaze to fall from the stained glass image to the heavy, dark box centered beneath the window.
Some hazy, self-protective corner of her brain believed that so long as she didn’t look at the coffin, she wouldn’t have to accept that Joe was inside it. By refusing to look at it, she could pretend any body—or no body at all—was inside.
After all, the lid was closed. And that burnt and mangled body wasn’t Joe, anyway. It was a husk.
Joe was sitting on the bank of the creek behind their house or resting in the long grass in the meadow where they’d said their vows or lingering in his workshop, redolent with the smell of fresh cedar. He wouldn’t hang around a cavernous stone building filled with hushed voices and sad faces.
The organist began to play. Aroostine closed her eyes so the melody could wash over her.
Instantly, she saw the grainy image that materialized every time she closed her eyes. First on-the-scene footage broadcast by the local ABC affiliate—a twisted, burning truck. Joe trapped in the crumpled passenger side of his buddy Brent’s pickup.
Gil Crane, a long-haul driver on his way to Kentucky, had suffered a heart attack behind the wheel of a semi tractor-trailer. He’d careened across two lanes of highway and smashed into Joe and Brent.
She told herself the impact of the collision had probably killed Joe and Brent before the pickup slammed into the bridge support and burst into flames. She hoped it was true.
The sound of crying competed with the music. To Aroostine’s left, Joe’s mom Dottie hyperventilated, taking fast, shallow breaths. To her right, her own adoptive mother sobbed loudly, tears streaming freely down her lined face. Her father and Joe’s stood at the two ends of the pew, strong arms wrapped around their wives, whispering soothing words. In the center of the row, Aroostine felt both surrounded and, at the same time, utterly alone.
The minister was talking about Joe now. How he’d died as he’d lived—helping others. He’d been in the truck because he’d been tightening down some loose floorboards in Brent’s new house.
‘Why don’t you make some soup?’ Joe’d suggested as he waited for Brent to pick him up. ‘I’ll stop for a loaf of fresh bread. I won’t be long. After dinner, you can beat me at Scrabble, as usual.’
They would be the last words he’d said to her. Then he’d flashed his gentle, lopsided smile, planted a kiss on her forehead, and walked out of the house forever.
While the soup simmered, she’d taken Rufus out for his last walk of the evening. As she’d stepped outside, the wail of sirens had filled the night air. They’d come from every direction, fast and loud. And she knew: Joe was gone.
She heard a soft keening. It took a long moment to realize the noise was coming from her. She pressed her knuckles against her mouth, blocked out the pastor’s words, and pushed back against the wave of aching loneliness that crashed over her. She blinked hard then fixed her eyes on the illuminated glass.
* * *
Aroostine shifted on the cold metal chair and cast a miserable look around the basement social hall. Mourners clomped dutifully down the metal stairs from the church’s narthex in groups of twos and threes, letting out grateful sighs as the air-conditioned interior replaced the humid outside air.
She scrunched up her forehead and tried to remember how she’d gotten from the gravesite to the church basement. Her mind was fuzzy. Blank. They had buried him, right?
The air was thick. She couldn’t breathe. Her chest was tight. She dug her fingernails into her palms to see if she could feel it. A quick, sharp, jab. She exhaled shakily.
Her father extricated himself from a conversation with Joe’s Aunt Lorna and appeared at Aroostine’s elbow.
“How’re you holding up, pet?”
“I’m okay.” Her voice came out dry, a croak. She half-expected to see a cloud of dust puff out of her mouth with the words.
She wondered idly if she was losing her grip on reality. From the sideways look her dad gave her, she wasn’t the only one.
“Let’s get you something to eat.”
She shook her head.
“A drink, then. Iced tea, or some water.”
“Dad, no. I don’t want anything. I’m fine.”
She was very far from fine, and they both knew it. He clasped a hand on her shoulder. She kept her eyes on the white plastic material that covered the table in front of her.
“Aroostine, look at me.”
She dragged her eyes away from the tablecloth.
“You’re going to get through this.”
“You will. I promise. The hardest part’s over.”
“Burying him’s not the hardest part. Not even close to it.”
The hardest part came every morning.
Still half-asleep, stirring to wakefulness, she scooted toward Joe’s side of the bed to burrow into his solid back, feel his warm breath on her neck. The cold sheets and empty bed were her daily reminder: Joe was gone and she was alone.
“Roo, I’m so sorry. It’ll get better. You’ll see.”
He looked as hopeless as she felt. She managed a smile to let him off the hook. He squeezed her shoulder.
“Go ahead and fix yourself a plate.” She nodded toward the long table near the door to the kitchen.
A row of heavy-duty aluminum serving dishes lined the table. Members of the ladies’ auxiliary were stationed behind the dishes, ladles, tongs, and serving forks and spoons in hand, ready to dish out ziti and sauce, green beans, fried chicken, and the full complement of mayonnaise-based salads.
He searched her face for a few seconds then nodded and joined the line of people queuing up for lunch. As he walked away, Dottie and her mother swooped in as if the Higgenses and Jackmans had a prearranged agreement not to leave her alone.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” her mother asked, drawing her eyebrows together in a worried vee.
“I’m really not hungry.”
It would be easier to simply fill a plate with food and use it as a shield to ward off well-meaning questions, but she knew she couldn’t stomach the smell of food. Not now.
“Vicky Palmer made her macaroni and cheese,” Dottie ventured. “She said you always loved it.” She twisted a crumpled, mascara-stained tissue in her right hand.
Aroostine looked from her mother’s face, taut with concern, to her mother-in-law’s face, etched with pain, and surrendered.
“Sure. Sounds great.”
She followed them across the room to the buffet line. She let her mind drift away from the beige room.
Up the stairs, out the door, and down the crushed stone path that led from the edge of the parking lot to the woods behind the graveyard. The trees would be full of chittering birds, not yet ready to migrate but starting to make preparations to fly south soon. Late summer wildflowers would be in full, but fading, bloom. The squirrels would …
Her mother and Dottie were watching her with twin expectant expressions. They were waiting for an answer of some sort. If only she knew the question.
Was maybe a reasonable response? She tried to gauge their reactions. Dottie furrowed her forehead. Her mother pursed her lips.
“Um, I mean …”
“You have no idea what Dottie said, do you?” her mother said in a gentle voice.
“No, I don’t. I’m sorry—I wasn’t listening.”
“We know,” Dottie said. “You can’t withdraw into yourself, Aroostine. You’re so young. Maybe you want to go to Pittsburgh for awhile—stay with Sasha and her husband?”
“Or back to D.C.,” her mother suggested. “Your friend Rosie from the Department of Justice said she has a guest room with your name on it.”
“What? No. I’m not going anywhere.”
Were they trying to get rid of her?
The two older women exchanged a look.
“Not for good, honey,” her mother hurried to clarify. “But to get some breathing space. What’s here for you—aside from memories?”
She blinked. “I don’t know, my family? My house? I could quit the Office of Tribal Affairs and reopen my practice. This town could use a few more lawyers.”
“Of course, we love having you nearby. It’s just … you and Joe were way out there in the country. It’s so isolated. You’ll be lonely.”
Aroostine jutted out her jaw. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
Her mother sighed. “That’s the problem, Aroostine. You’re too self-sufficient. People need connections. Community.”
Dottie bobbed her head in agreement.
Aroostine caught her lower lip between her teeth. They had to be kidding. She didn’t want connections. She wanted to be left alone with her shapeless grief. Tears welled up behind her eyes. She returned her plate to the stack at the end of the table.
“Excuse me,” she mumbled.
She rushed through the swinging metal door into the bright, tiled kitchen. One of the ladies from the auxiliary was reaching into the refrigerator. She twisted around, startled.
“Thank you … for everything,” Aroostine called to her as she hurried through the kitchen and out the back door.
She kept running, through the playground and basketball court and past the storage shed, until she reached the edge of the woods. The heels of her low black pumps sank into the soft earth. She slowed to a walk. The leaves of a tall oak tree rustled in the breeze. She turned her face toward the tree, and the wind lifted her hair off her neck. And then, finally, she cried.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...