The Little Grave
Detective Amanda Steele stops just inside the doorway, recognizing the victim’s face instantly. He seems so vulnerable in death; soft, human, even harmless. But she can never forget the evil he has inflicted. Her heart is hammering as she remembers her precious daughter, with her red curls and infectious laugh, and how she was lowered into that little grave…
It’s been five years since Detective Amanda Steele’s life was derailed in the path of an oncoming drunk driver. The small community of Dumfries, Virginia, may have moved on from the tragic deaths of her husband and daughter, but Amanda cannot. When the driver who killed her family is found murdered in a motel room, she can’t keep away from the case.
Fighting her sergeant to be allowed to work an investigation with such a personal connection to her, Amanda is in a race to prove that she can uncover the truth. But the more she digs into the past of the man who destroyed her future, the more shocking discoveries she makes. And when Amanda finds the link between a silver bracelet in his possession and the brutal unsolved murder of a young exotic dancer, she realizes she’s caught up in something darker than she ever imagined and suspects that more girls could be in danger.
But as Amanda edges toward the truth, she gets closer to a secret as personal as it is deadly. Amanda has stumbled upon a dangerous killer, and she must face some terrible truths in order to catch this killer – and save his next victim as she couldn’t save her own daughter…
A gripping, page-turning thriller full of mystery and suspense. Perfect for fans of Rachel Caine, Lisa Regan and Robert Dugoni.
Readers love Carolyn Arnold:
????? “OMG YES. This was an amazing book… I couldn’t put it down… Best book I read this year.” Goodreads reviewer
????? “My heart is still beating fast! Wow!! By far, one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a long time! The characters were great and no one would ever guess the ending! This story knocks it out of the ballpark!!” Goodreads reviewer
????? “Wow! Could not put this down. So many twists and surprises. Highly recommend!” Goodreads reviewer
????? “If there was a way to give more than 5 stars, I would! This book is amazing!… It's fast paced and will have you turning pages ever faster! Never a dull moment! Extremely well written as well as thought out!” Goodreads reviewer
????? “What a great book! I read it in one day and had so many twists and turns I never saw the ending coming!” Goodreads reviewer
????? “I have NEVER had my heart pumping as it does in this series.” Goodreads reviewer
????? “Wow! This book hooked me from the very beginning and didn't let go…
Release date: January 11, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The Little Grave
Casey-Anne was three minutes into her set and hanging upside down on the pole when she spotted him at the back of the strip club, leaning against the bar, no drink in hand. He appeared within a haze of cigarette smoke, giving the illusion of an apparition. But he was very much real, and his gaze was fixed on her. Not in the sad, pathetic, and predictable way most men ogled her at Georgia’s Peaches, pinning her with their lascivious leers. No, he had something else on his mind.
He was there to kill her.
Her heartbeat thumped, its bass reverberating in her skull. She spun around and landed on the stage, feeling more vulnerable than she had since that night she’d run away. Performing had given her a sense of power and control. Men could look but not touch. But right now all that confidence had been stripped away. She was more exposed than ever—not because all she wore was a skimpy thong that left very little to the imagination and fine-pointed heels that added six inches to her height—but because of that man.
She carried on her routine, pretending to ignore him. She focused on her well-practiced moves and gave sultry pouts and seductive looks to every man who tossed a wadded bill at her feet. But the only thing she could think about was getting the hell out of there.
Her last song wound down and she rushed back to the dressing room. She’d have to leave the money from the stage behind. Small price if it meant her life.
Tessa, a fellow dancer who went by the stage name of Ginger and wore a wig of red curls that reached her ass, was applying mascara in a grimy, pitted mirror. “How’s the crowd?”
Casey-Anne barely spared her a glance as she grabbed everything from her locker and stuffed all of it into her duffel bag.
“Hello? Ya hard of hearing?”
“I’m getting the hell out of here.” Casey-Anne shucked the heels, slipped on a pair of blue jeans and pulled a sweater over her head. She pushed her feet into running shoes and threw on her coat.
“That bad, huh.” Tessa exchanged her mascara brush for a compact of blush.
Without another word, Casey-Anne flew past her, out the back door and past the bouncer. She’d just swing by her apartment and pick up some things before hitting the road. She wasn’t safe here anymore.
The streets were bare, and the January evening was cool for Georgia. It seeped through to her bones and turned the sheen of sweat on her body into a layer of ice.
She hustled, glancing behind her with attention on the shadows, the darkness the streetlights didn’t reach. She didn’t see anyone following her, but that didn’t mean the man wasn’t there. She could feel his eyes piercing through the night.
She picked up her speed. Her place was only a three-block walk from the club; a short distance but it always felt like a long way in the dark. Her skin pricked with goose bumps, but she couldn’t give in to panic and hysteria. Or let her mind dwell on her nightmarish past.
There was the scuffing of shoes behind her and she spun around. But no one was there.
A half block to go. Maybe she was overreacting. Maybe there was no need to head out right away. She could wait until daylight. Tonight, she’d pour herself a glass of wine and take a nice, long hot shower and crawl into bed. Yes, that was a pleasant thought, and it spurred her forward. In this fantasy she could almost blink away the recollection of that man. Blank stare, hardened jaw, rigid body.
She took the stairs to her apartment building’s front door two at a time and unlocked it. Once inside, she pushed against it to ensure it shut tight and the automatic lock was back in force. It was then she caught movement outside the sidelight. She jumped back.
A man was on the other side. There was a scratching noise at the knob.
She couldn’t get herself to move toward the stairwell for her third-floor apartment. Her legs weren’t responding.
The handle turned—the sound had been a key in the lock—and a man she recognized as another tenant stepped inside.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hi.” She could barely squeeze out the tiny word as she rushed to push the door shut again.
He took off toward his apartment, leaving her in the small entry, heaving for breath like she’d run a marathon. She jogged to her apartment, threw the deadbolt and linked the chain, and fell against the door. Safe. For now she had escaped the wolf on her trail.
She dropped her bag and jacket on the floor and rushed to the kitchen. A bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon had her name all over it. She guzzled some back, assuring herself that soon all would be better, and took some wine in a glass with her down the hall.
She ran the water hot, got undressed and under the spray, closed her eyes and let her mind drift to dreams of a future that didn’t include dancing for money, and where her past was so far behind her she couldn’t recall it. A time, flashing forward, when she obtained her nursing license and had a job in a doctor’s office or a hospital.
Her eyes shot open and she turned off the taps to listen. All was silent except for her breathing and the pounding of her heart in her ears. It had to simply be paranoia eating away at her sanity. She was, after all, in a locked apartment, in a locked building. But doubt gnawed on her. If someone were determined enough, they could find their way in. Pick a lock, come up with a ruse, or let themselves in on the heels of another tenant.
She squeezed her eyes shut, took some long breaths and calmed her nattering mind. There. All was better.
The shower curtain was ripped down, and the man from the club was standing there.
A scream curdled in her throat.
She scrambled to get around him but there was no way past. Her feet slipped on the wet surface of the tub and her arms sprang out to help her offset her balance, but he had a hold on her. He yanked her out of the tub and slammed her to the floor.
Her head smacked against the tile, and sparkles of white light danced across her vision.
He lowered himself on top of her, pinning her. “Where is it?” His breath smelled like stale cigarettes and whiskey.
“I…” Her eyes rolled back and there was brief, inviting darkness. A place where pain didn’t exist.
He slapped her across the face and clamped her jaw in his hand. “Tell me!”
She wanted to fight, to show him that she’d learned her power since she’d escaped. But her mind wasn’t working, and she didn’t have the strength to move.
He stood and pulled a gun.
She couldn’t get her mouth to work or she’d tell him where it was. That might give her a chance of survival.
“You want to die? Tell me where it is!” he roared.
Tears fell down her cheeks. “I—I—” Her mind went blank; her thoughts encased within a web of thick gauze.
She barely had a chance to blink when the bullet hit, but her final thought was, The wolf caught me, and now I can stop running and rest.
Amanda Steele threw her legs over the side of the bed, grabbed her underwear from the floor, and stepped into them. In the dimly lit room, she followed the trail of clothing, collecting each piece as she went along.
“Where ya goin’, darlin’?” the man, whatever-his-name, said.
First rule of one-night stands: no names.
She kept moving but pinched her eyes shut. It was January tenth, the start of a new year, and, while most people were still clinging to their resolutions, she’d resumed old habits: sleeping with strangers. But she knew better than to deceive herself into thinking she’d change. There was only one adjustment she was interested in making and it was outside of her abilities. It would require a time machine. Only she’d go further back than three hours ago when she’d picked up the handsome guy drinking beer in a Woodbridge bar.
“Come on, don’t you want to stay? We can—”
“I don’t spend the night.” Rule two. She was surprised by how often she had to tell the men that. In fact, most begged her to stay. Some even tried to lure her with the promise of breakfast. Despite men being painted as philanderers, so many were desperate for a sole, meaningful relationship.
She had found everything but her T-shirt, and a bubble of panic started in her chest as she scanned the room. Think, think, think…
Her shirt had been the first thing he’d taken off her as they stumbled into the motel room. Her gaze went to the air-conditioning unit by the door and she was relieved to see her shirt in a ball on the floor next to it. She snagged the shirt and set out for the bathroom, hugging her clothing to her chest. She shut the bathroom door behind her with her foot and halted at the sight of herself in the mirror. The green of her eyes had dulled over the last five and a half years, a testament to the fact she was doing nothing more than walking through life, barely a shadow of her former self. But she’d lost everything one tragic, fateful night. Her drive, her purpose, her career aspirations about following in her father’s footsteps and becoming police chief. The hardest hit: she’d lost her family—in one swoop. Her love and husband of ten years and her six-year-old daughter, taken out by a drunk driver.
She gripped the sink, her knuckles turning white. She’d been robbed—they’d been robbed. But she’d also been taught the harsh lesson that there was no point in making grand plans for the future. Clinging to optimism was nothing but a cruel illusion. Life held nothing but pain and sorrow. And emptiness. Hopelessness.
A single tear fell, and she swiped it away, angry at herself for bringing them into her melodrama again. As if their deaths had turned her into a woman who slept with strangers and had her popping sleeping pills every night. They were not to blame, and she didn’t need to consider their feelings. They were dead. Six feet under.
Cold. Hard. Fact.
She snapped on her bra and put on her shirt. She was zipping up her jeans when the man knocked on the door.
“You sure I can’t talk you into staying? It was pretty hot.”
Every guy found it “hot.” So many of them had bigger egos than they had—
“One more go?” he implored.
She swung the door open. He was standing there naked with one arm overhead, elbow leaned against the doorframe, his other hand positioned on his upper thigh in a cocky pose that would make most women weak in the knees. He was a handsome man—and he was right, the sex had been hot—and maybe in another life they could have been something, but she’d had the love of her life. He’d been taken away. Maybe that’s why one-night stands had become her medication, her addiction, and her punishment.
The man smiled at her and moved in to kiss her.
She stepped back and held up a hand between them. “It was fun. Now it’s over.”
“I’ve got the room for the night.” Spoken as if that made a difference.
His shoulders sagged. “Ouch, you’re cold as ice. Can’t I get your number at least? Maybe give you a call sometime?”
She laid a tender hand on his cheek. “Now, now. You’re a big boy and you know how this works.”
Rule three: keep anonymity in all respects. No names and no personal ties. That meant no exchanging phone numbers. It was also why they’d hooked up in a motel and not at her place or his. She viewed the detachment necessary to protect her emotions but also to keep them out of her personal business. None of the men needed to be privy to her past and the baggage she carried. She didn’t want to be looked upon as some damsel in distress in need of saving, and she certainly didn’t need anyone’s pity. She got all she needed from them: a few seconds to feel something and a distraction from her grief.
“Well, I’m not really sure what to say then. Thanks?” He raked a hand through his hair and she almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
“Sure.” With that she grabbed her coat and left the room.
The January night air was cool on her cheeks and nipped at her nose. Christmas lights still twinkled in the windows of the motel’s lobby; any magic spells the season tried to cast were ineffective on her. Christmas was a representation of how sad and pathetic her life had become since the accident. She used to love it, but there was no point anymore. She’d lost too much, become too hardened. The only way she’d survived this past Christmas was due to the company of her best friend Becky Tulson. They’d drunk hot apple cider, shared laughter, and watched action flicks. The rest of the world could keep their seasonal feel-good movies with their carols, gingerbread, and destined soulmates. She’d had all that, but it was gone. Just like the season and any mirage of normalcy and joy.
She got into her Honda Civic, giving a quick glance at the black Dodge Ram pickup parked in the slot next to hers. It belonged to the man she’d just slept with. She could run his plate, find out his name, but there’d be no purpose. Whatever they’d shared was over.
She cranked the heat and was rewarded with an initial blast of cold air from the vents. It still wasn’t warm by the time she pulled out of the motel parking lot.
She should just go home, have a shower and wash the sex off her. After all, her shift started at eight in the morning and it was going on eleven thirty at night. But the pain in her soul was so intense, it was like its own entity. She used to cry so hard after sleeping with a man, her body would heave. Now she stuffed any emotions way deep inside, did her best to shut them out completely. But tonight, she could use something stronger than a sleeping pill. And it wasn’t just because she’d slept with a stranger. The drunk who’d killed her family had just been released from prison a few days ago, giving her that final nudge toward the precipice. Maybe now she’d finally have the courage to step further into the darkness.
She drove to a sketchy neighborhood with a smattering of lit Christmas lights clinging to the eaves on a few houses. The strings sagged as if begging for reprieve. Discarded trees were lined up at the curb awaiting pickup.
She parked in front of a rundown clapboard house. It wasn’t advisable for a woman—or any outsider, for that matter—to come to this area unaccompanied after dark, but she wasn’t entirely alone. She opened her glove box and took out her Glock. Her detective’s badge slid to the front of the compartment, resting over the registration and insurance paperwork. She held it in her hands and traced her fingers over the eagle. This piece of gold used to mean so much to her, but when Kevin and Lindsey had died it was like the world had gone from color to black and white, and she wasn’t sure how to reinfuse color.
She looked at the house—no sign that Christmas cheer had ever existed there—but couldn’t get herself to step out of the car. She’d never been here before, but she knew who was inside. He went by “Freddy,” but his real name was Hank Cohen. He’d turned to the streets at fifteen when his mother took up with an abusive man who’d slapped him around one too many times. He had been in and out of jail for dealing, but Amanda would guess his list of crimes was more extensive than that. The reasoning behind his handle was a mystery to her.
Now, all she had to do was get out of the car, walk up the cracked pavement to the door, and knock.
That’s all, she coached herself. But it really wasn’t “all.” She was a detective in the Homicide Unit under the Criminal Investigations Division and Violent Crimes Bureau for the Prince William County Police Department. She was supposed to be a role model, to lead by example.
But Freddy could give her what she needed. He offered street drugs, but she was interested in getting her hands on some Xanax. After the accident, her doctor had prescribed it for a few months but then he had refused to renew the prescription. He’d told her it wasn’t healthy to stay on the pills long-term and recommended she see a therapist. He’d referred her to one, who she saw a grand total of three times. It made her feel worse talking about Kevin and Lindsey to a stranger. Her internal dialogue nattered enough, and that’s why she needed something to shut up the voices. The over-the-counter sleeping pills could only do so much. The Xanax helped her become so relaxed she didn’t have the energy to feel or think a damn thing.
She gave another glance toward Freddy’s house, then at the badge still in her hand, and blinked back tears. She’d already fallen so far from grace. Did it matter if she slipped further? If she took this step, would there be a way back? And if there wasn’t, did she care?
She tossed her badge back in the glove box and reached for the door handle. Her cell phone rang, and her heart palpitated off rhythm. She took a few deep breaths. “Detective Steele,” she answered, sinking lower in her seat and feeling shame.
“Amanda? It’s Becky.”
She’d known Becky since kindergarten, but now Becky was an officer with Dumfries Police Department, the small town where Amanda lived. Given that it was just after midnight now, she’d wager Becky’s call was related to work as Dumfries PD turned suspicious deaths and murders over to Amanda’s department at PWCPD for investigation, but Amanda wasn’t on shift. “Is everything okay?”
“There’s something you should know. Chad Palmer’s been found dead in a room at Denver’s Motel.”
Amanda’s throat constricted and her vision went black. Chad Palmer—the man who’d destroyed her world and taken her family from her. All because he’d gotten behind the wheel drunk and crossed the line in more ways than one.
She couldn’t bring herself to talk. She was too busy processing this news. Denver’s was a dive motel that catered to lowlifes. It was a fitting exit ramp for Palmer.
“I had to call it in, but I just wanted to give you a heads-up.” Becky’s voice was barely above a whisper.
“Was he murdered?” she squeezed out.
“I don’t know. I’m here now, and it’s not obvious exactly what killed him.”
Chills shot down her arms, goose bumps rising in their wake. “Thanks for letting me know.”
Amanda hung up but kept her grip on her phone tight and turned her attention to the glove box, her mind on her badge. She gave one last, desperate look at Freddy’s and drove toward Denver’s. Becky’s call had saved her this time.
Amanda pressed the gas and made it from Woodbridge to Dumfries in less than the fifteen minutes it would normally take. Between the time of night and her speed, it took her under ten. But for every one of those minutes she was thinking about what she was going to find once she got to Denver’s Motel. Was Chad Palmer really dead?
If so, he had finally gotten what he’d deserved after all this time. The law certainly hadn’t doled out justice when it had given him five years, the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. Even tacking on the additional five months he’d spent behind bars during the trial was nothing. Call it karma that he’d just been released from prison two days ago and his undeserved freedom had been snatched from him so quickly.
Denver’s Motel was a single-story establishment with maybe twenty rooms, laid out in a horseshoe around an inground swimming pool that had found a second life as a garden. Its clientele would have included the shadier types.
When Amanda arrived, there was no sign of the Crime Scene Unit, but two police cruisers were in the parking lot; both had their lights flashing. An officer was in one but shrouded in darkness, making it hard to distinguish if it was Becky. There was also an SUV marked Police Town of Dumfries, which would belong to a sergeant with Dumfries PD, likely Lisa Greer. Amanda only knew of her through Becky and hadn’t met her yet, as she’d just transferred in a few weeks ago. Hopefully, that meant she didn’t know Amanda’s history with the deceased. But whether the sergeant was Greer or someone else, they’d leave once Amanda’s sergeant from PWCPD arrived. Their immediate job was just to watch over the scene until it could be handed over.
Amanda parked, grabbed her badge and gun and set across the courtyard. There was a woman in slacks and a winter coat posted next to an opened door.
“Amanda,” Becky called out to her.
Amanda shut her eyes for a second, then turned. Her friend’s shoulder-length hair was in a ponytail, as it often was when she was on duty, and swinging side to side. She’d hustled to catch up.
“What are you doing here?” Becky asked.
“Where else would I be?” Amanda resumed walking, but Becky cut in front of her, blocking her path.
“You need to go home.”
Amanda juked to go around Becky, but her friend moved with her. She was a couple of inches shorter than Amanda’s five-foot-nine, but she was solid and athletic. Amanda stopped, let her arms dangle. “You had to know I’d show up.”
Becky looked over a shoulder, and it had Amanda following the direction of her gaze. The woman outside the motel room was watching them closely, her brows pinched together.
“Maybe,” Becky admitted, “but I’d hoped you wouldn’t. Your being here really isn’t a good idea.”
Amanda tucked a strand of her ginger hair over her left ear and scanned the lot for any department vehicles from PWCPD. “I don’t see any other detectives from Homicide on scene yet.” The words were out before Amanda gave them much thought. Did she really want to get involved with the investigation, assuming Palmer had been murdered? When she’d sped over here, it had been an instinct, just to see the man who had killed her family dead, as if by doing so it would heal a part of her.
“Then I’m the first homicide detective to arrive. That means I qualify to enter the scene.”
The woman waved her over. Amanda pointed her out to Becky. “I’m guessing that’s Greer?”
“Well, your boss seems to think I’m here because I was assigned the case.”
“But you weren’t.”
“Can’t help what other people think. Besides, it’s only a matter of time, and she’s looking impatient.” Amanda butted her head toward Greer. She felt like she was careening down a steep hill without brakes, unable to stop, only able to steer.
“Fine,” Becky huffed out. “But, just so you know, seeing him dead isn’t going to help. You might think it will, but it won’t.”
Tendrils of anger twisted through her, squeezing, gripping, like vines to brick, working to pry the stone loose and destroy the structure. “How could you possibly know? That man took my—” She couldn’t bring herself to finish. There were times she battled with who was truly to blame for the accident. If she hadn’t insisted that Kevin look at some stupid meme on her phone, maybe he’d have had a chance to react in time.
Becky put a hand on her arm. “I know.” With that, she walked back to her cruiser to resume guarding the crime scene.
Amanda clenched her jaw and worked to calm her temper. She flashed a cordial smile as she approached Greer. “Sergeant,” she greeted her. “I’m Detective Steele from Homicide with Prince William County Police Department.” She held up her badge with a shaky hand.
“Sergeant Greer,” she said stiffly, glancing past Amanda to Becky, likely curious about their interaction.
Amanda tucked her badge away and peacocked her stance. She wanted to give the absolute appearance that she belonged there. “Has the medical examiner’s office been called?”
The sergeant’s attention shifted back to her. “Yes, of course, and crime scene investigators from Forensics.”
“Mind if I—” Amanda gestured toward the room. Number ten.
“Not at all.”
Amanda stepped over an upturned running shoe just inside the doorway and stopped.
Chad Palmer was supine on the bed beside two empty handles of whiskey. A rigored hand was wrapped around one of them. His eyes were shut, but there was vomit around his nose and mouth. She turned away at the waft of stench hitting her nose, but otherwise she was unmoved. Numb, indifferent, as if she were watching a scene from outside of herself.
The man she’d villainized appeared vulnerable in death, soft, human… even harmless. A man of thirty-seven, only two ye. . .
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