Her daughter deserves justice but someone wants to stop her… Seven years after the murder of Andi Wallace’s daughter, new evidence reopens the case. And this time RCMP officer Ryan Davenport is determined to catch the killer. Ryan hasn’t forgiven himself for the crime going unsolved, and Andi needs closure. But getting too close to Andi could jeopardize his involvement in the case…and land them both in danger!
Release date: November 9, 2021
Print pages: 256
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Danger Next Door
Andi hesitated at the entrance to the woods, steeling herself for the painful walk ahead. She did this every year on this date: September 19. Every year for the last six years, to mark the anniversary of the day she’d lost all hope and her beautiful, perfect life crumbled to dust.
The leaves in the foothills of the Rockies had started to turn, and the forest carpet beneath her feet was covered in gold leafy coins, bright yellow from the poplars and birches already shedding their leaves in preparation for winter. She took a first step, then another, moving forward until her car, parked along the dirt road, was obscured from view. She didn’t worry about getting lost. She knew the way well enough by now. Would never forget it. It was etched indelibly on her brain and on her heart. Because seven years ago she’d made this walk with a crime scene as her destination.
Andi’s heart was unbearably heavy as she determinedly made her way forward. Birds still sang in the trees, but the sky that had been a piercing blue earlier in the day had given way to dull, gray clouds. Fall used to be her favorite season, but Chelsea’s death had tainted the season forever. It was said that mothers never got over losing their children. If that was true, it must be doubly true for mothers whose children were ripped away from them and then murdered. The violence of it was an additional stab of the knife, adding to her grief. She should have protected her little girl. She’d failed her so utterly.
She swallowed thickly against the emotion bubbling up in her throat, but kept moving, always forward. She did this on the anniversary of Chelsea’s death because she would never forget the angel she’d been given for three brief but beautiful years. Her marriage had foundered in the months following and ultimately ended in divorce. Grief had nearly consumed her. But on the anniversary of her baby’s death, Andi came out here to talk to her daughter and feel close to her. If that made her unhinged, she’d accept it.
Her baby’s killer had never been found. He or she was out there somewhere, living their life, while her baby girl had been denied hers, and Andi had worked very hard not to let her anger about it consume her. Her fingers gripped the bouquet of daisies in her hand even tighter. Daisies, because that last summer Chelsea had picked every single one she could find, in yards and ditches and up against fences, presenting them to Andi with a bright smile and twinkling eyes. “Flower,” she’d say. “For you, Mama.”
Oh, how that memory still hurt, even as Andi kept it tucked away in her heart for safekeeping.
It didn’t take long to reach the familiar circle of trees, and she paused, an uneasy feeling settling over her. The birds had gone silent and the air was still, barely ruffling the leaves remaining on the trees. Tall poplars mingled with spruces, forming a perimeter around a small clearing maybe fifty feet in diameter. Her heart was pounding now, not because of any exertion but from emotion and anxiety.
Her baby had been killed here. Choked, strangled, until she stopped breathing and her heart no longer beat. Grief rose, sharp and ruthless, causing a searing pain right beneath Andi’s rib cage that stole her breath.
“Chelsea,” she whispered, tears clogged in her throat. “I miss you, baby.”
A cool breeze came up and fluttered the leaves, the rustling creating an ominous shushing sound in the dismal autumn afternoon. Her pulse quickened. She could do this. She lifted the daisies and took a long inhalation for strength. After another big breath, she stepped forward into the circle and forced herself to look at the tree. The biggest birch, beneath which Search and Rescue had found Chelsea’s lifeless body.
The flowers fluttered to the ground in a clump as icy shock raced through Andi’s body.
Nailed to the tree was Chelsea’s stuffed rabbit—the same one that had gone missing with her the morning she disappeared.
Andi couldn’t breathe. Her mind took off in all directions as she stared at the small stuffed animal that her daughter could never be without. It had not been surprising that it had vanished with her. But unlike Chelsea’s body, it had never been found. Until now. And it was nailed to that tree... Deliberately. The nail was rammed in right through the rabbit’s neck, its head drooping sideways, ears flopping listlessly.
By the killer? It could be no one else. That knowledge settled around her, chilling her blood. Whoever killed Chelsea had kept that rabbit. And they had brought it back here. Why? A trophy? How sick was that?
“Think, Andi. Think.” She spoke quietly to herself, trying to focus. What did she need to know? Do? Not panic. She couldn’t panic. Her breaths came sharp and fast, and she braced her hand on the smooth bark of a poplar tree for support, struggling to keep from hyperventilating.
Was the killer nearby? How did he—or she—know that Andi came here each year? Was she in danger right this minute? She took a moment to scan the forest around her, peering into the trees. No sound other than her own breathing. No footsteps of any kind. Just that eerie, dark feeling. Like she was being watched.
Her gaze was drawn back to the bunny on the tree. Everything in her wanted to go to it, pluck it away, keep it close. But common sense prevailed, and she knew she couldn’t. Not if there was any chance at all that it could lead to Chelsea’s killer.
Her head turned sharply at the snap of a branch somewhere to her right. More sounds, like something—someone—moving quickly. She froze for an instant, shock and adrenaline rippling through her body. Then she took off toward the sound, abandoning all caution in her pursuit. For seven years she had longed to know the identity of her daughter’s killer. They wouldn’t get away this time, not if she had anything to say about it. Her head told her that to follow would put her in danger. Her heart overruled it, willing to take the risk. She was, in that moment, a mother seeking justice for her child. A terrifying creature indeed.
Her feet crushed the leaves on the forest floor, and she used her arms to shove away branches as she followed the sound deeper into the woods, her heart hammering so loudly she could hear it in her ears. A branch snapped and struck her in the face; she barely registered the sting and kept pushing forward, following the noise.
The crashing came from her left now, and as she pivoted, she caught sight of a mule deer running off, eyes wild with fright as it raced deeper into the forest.
Andi stopped, gasped for breath and let the tears come. It was just a stupid deer! What in the world had she been thinking? Chasing after an animal... What if it had been Chelsea’s killer? What would she have done if she’d caught up with them? She was five foot five and had no weapon. Still, for a moment it had felt good to be the one in pursuit. However, now she was alone in the woods, feeling lost and alone and...adrift.
That feeling of being adrift was too familiar and sucked her back into the dark days after Chelsea had gone missing. It had taken Andi a long time to crawl out of that darkness, and she was terrified of going back there again. She needed help. Guidance. As tears stung her eyes, she whispered, “Why? Why now, God?” Hadn’t she been through enough? Healing had taken so long, not that one ever got over losing a child. But now, with the appearance of one small toy, the wounds that had been tentatively stitched together were ripped open again. Anger slid, dark and unsettling, through her veins. She looked up at the sky. “How can You be so cruel?”
As quickly as she asked it, a peace settled over her. Expecting divine intervention at this moment was naive, wasn’t it? Instead, she looked to herself for what to do next. For starters, she had to calm down and breathe. She’d raced through the forest without any care or attention to where she was going, and the first thing she had to do was get back to the trail. She looked up; the sun was still behind the clouds. Then she turned around and searched for signs of where she’d gone racing through the trees after the deer. A deer, for heaven’s sake. She shook her head with disbelief.
She picked her way back carefully, following broken branches and her footprints in the soft earth until she spied the trail. Then she followed it to the clearing again. The stuffed bunny was still there. She let out a sigh of relief. She hadn’t imagined it. On impulse, she took out her phone and snapped a picture of it.
She had to call the police, didn’t she? This was new evidence. And yet she hesitated. She still remembered the awful hours of being questioned. Remembered the investigator asking if she usually slept and left her child unattended. If she took cold medication a lot. If she ever took anything else. She’d never been able to understand why they kept asking her questions while her baby was out there somewhere, alone and in danger. After all, she’d blamed herself. Having the police suggest she was also at fault only made that heavy feeling worse. She didn’t want to call this in. Wasn’t ready for that kind of scrutiny again. It had broken something inside her the first time, something that had scabbed over but never fully healed.
But there was one officer she could trust, she realized. Ryan. She’d call Ryan Davenport, her best friend’s brother and a corporal at the Cadence Creek RCMP detachment. Throughout the entire investigation he’d been kind and gentle. Of all the officers she knew, she trusted him the most. He’d know what to do next and wouldn’t treat her like a criminal.
She checked her cell and let out a huff of irritation. No reception. She was going to have to go back to the car and hope for the best. And that meant leaving the scene right now...and the bunny. She was strangely afraid that if she left, it would disappear, as if she’d imagined it. But what other choice did she have? At least she had the photo.
Her gaze stuck to the rabbit again, so brutally nailed to the tree, ears flopping down, the soft brown fur matted. Chelsea had been attacked just as violently, and for a moment Andi thought she might be sick. It was a bad idea to let those images race around in her head. She swallowed against the bile rising in her throat and deliberately pushed the thoughts aside.
The only choice was to leave the scene so she could make the call. Reluctantly, she started back through the woods to where her car waited, this time with hurried steps and a racing heart but a much clearer head. What did this all mean? Why now? What did the killer want?
“We’re going to get you this time,” she said roughly, jogging down the narrow trail. The new determination mingled with something that had been missing for a long time—hope. “And you’re going to pay for what you did.”
Ryan looked at the number on his cell and wondered why in the world Andi Wallace would be calling him. The only other time she’d called him personally was when the Davenport extended family had gone camping for a week in Rocky Mountain House, and his sister, Shelby, had dropped her phone in the bathtub and didn’t have a replacement yet. Andi had been cat sitting and Shelby had given Andi Ryan’s number as an emergency contact. He and Andi weren’t friends, per se. Something twisted in his stomach. If she was calling because something had happened to Shel...
“Andi, is that you?”
“Yeah. Are you on duty?”
“Not today. Just home splitting some wood for winter. What’s up?”
“I need a favor.”
There was a tremor in her voice, and she sounded out of breath. He put down the ax and furrowed his brow. Something wasn’t right.
“What’s going on? You sound upset.”
“I am. Okay. I don’t know how to say this without sounding crazy, so please don’t judge. I was out to the crime scene today and I saw something that...” There was the sound of a deep breath, in and out. “Something that wasn’t there before. Can you come out here?”
Ryan stilled. She didn’t have to say where; he knew the crime scene area as well as anyone. He’d been a rookie, a brand-new addition to the detachment, when her daughter had been murdered. That kind of thing was branded forever on a person’s psyche. More so because it was his first homicide scene. A guy didn’t forget something like that.
“What did you find, Andi?” He asked the question cautiously, afraid of the answer. It had always bothered him that they’d never caught the killer. He prayed she hadn’t found another victim.
“Something of Chelsea’s. Please, Ryan... I don’t want to call the detachment and get a whole investigation involved if I’m being...”
She stopped, and he knew what she was going to say. Crazy. At the time, the investigation had considered her statement of events unreliable. She’d been asleep when Chelsea had disappeared. There was some skepticism that plain old cold medication could have knocked her out so completely.
And then he heard a muffled sniff, and he knew he had to go. He liked Andi. He’d never believed for one moment the theory that she’d somehow been involved. There’d been unanswered questions, yes, but Andi had been the most dedicated and loving young mother he’d ever known.
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Can you hold on?”
“My car’s parked on the dirt road east of the site. I’ll be waiting there. I couldn’t get reception in the woods.”
“Hang tight, Andi,” he said, trying to sound reassuring. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Ryan grabbed his wallet from inside the house and hopped into his half-ton. Within minutes he was headed out of Cadence Creek and toward the foothills of the Rockies. The dirt road was off the beaten path, though in fairly good shape, with only the odd hunting or summer cabin tucked away in the trees. Ryan reached over to the passenger seat and picked up his bright orange ball cap. Better to be visible in the woods than not. While some species’ hunting seasons had yet to open, he knew not everyone followed the rules, and he’d rather be safe.
It didn’t take long for him to spy her car, parked over on the narrow shoulder, and he pulled in behind it. She was standing by the hood and moved into the road when he put the truck in Park. ...
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