STRANGER IN A SMALL TOWN
In the dark of night, the house appeared no different from the others on the street. The lack of lights masked its details, making it nothing more than another shapeless silhouette on the block. The trees bracketing the property provided concealing shadows that hid the rest of the lot from view.
It was only when the clouds briefly parted, allowing the pale moonlight to shine down upon it, that it became clear just how different this house was. Several of its windows had cardboard covering jagged, gaping holes in the glass. The roof sagged in more than one place, as did the railing on the wide front porch. Its front lawn was patchy and choked with weeds. Without the sheltering darkness, it was obvious that unlike every other house on this quiet residential street, this one hadn’t been occupied for some time.
Nearly thirty years now. Ever since the murders.
No one wanted to live in a place where two people had been brutally killed. Few even wanted to look at it, preferring to ignore its existence entirely, as though it would be so easy to forget what had happened within its walls.
For others, such blissful ignorance wasn’t possible.
Standing in the shadows on the other side of the street, a lone figure stared at the structure and imagined what it would be like to watch the house burn to the ground.
It wouldn’t take much. Perhaps only a single match. A flick of the wrist to create the flame and another to toss it into the building. Then it would be done. A house that old, that decaying, would likely go up in an instant and burn just as quickly. It would happen so fast no one would be able to stop it. Not the neighbors who did their best to ignore the house’s existence and had no interest in seeing it remain standing. Not the volunteer firefighters who would take their time coming to a vacant house no one cared about. Not even the woman currently sleeping inside, the woman whose stubborn, ridiculous insistence on trying to restore the house had brought back so many painful memories.
It should have been done years ago. Only the fear of being caught, of returning to the scene of the crime, had prevented it.
But now, no matter how fierce the need to avoid it, it was impossible not to return. Night after night. A compulsion that would remain as long as the house stood, as long as there was somewhere to return to.
No. Determination surged, hard and desperate and unrelenting. It had to end.
The woman had proven difficult to scare off so far. That would change. No matter what it took.
The woman had to be stopped. The house had to be destroyed.
Only then would it be possible to forget exactly what had happened here.
Maggie didn’t have to check her watch to know what time it was. She’d felt every minute ticking away from the moment she’d crawled into the sleeping bag and settled in for the night.
Staring into the darkness, she waited. Not for sleep.
She didn’t know what form it would arrive in. The shattering of glass. A beam of light piercing the dark. A floorboard creaking from the weight of a foot that shouldn’t be there.
So she waited. For one of them. For all of them. For the trouble she knew deep in her bones would be coming eventually. It was the entire reason she was here, on the living room floor of this decrepit old house, when she could be in an actual bed in more comfortable surroundings. To catch the vandal responsible for the damage the house had suffered the past two weeks.
The silence echoed around her. The wind knocked at the windows, rattling the glass or whistling through holes in the tape holding the cardboard in place over the broken ones.
Another minute ticked by. Then another.
The moments that passed without incident provided no relief. Her tension grew the longer she waited, her certainty rising.
It was possible that her presence had scared off whoever was responsible for the damage. The broken windows. The cut electrical line. Anyone who saw her truck parked out front would know she was here right now, waiting for them, ready to catch them. Could driving them away really be that simple?
She’d like to think so. But she didn’t. The town’s obsession with the house and what had happened here was even creepier than the event itself. She’d endured too many comments, too many pointed glances, over the past few weeks to think they’d be so easily dissuaded. They wanted her to give up, they wanted her out of the house. If anything, they might like the idea of acting when she was here, causing havoc under her very nose.
Not tonight. Not on my watch.
Maggie clenched her fists tightly and listened even closer, determined not to miss the telltale noise when it came.
She heard nothing. Only the whistle of the wind and the empty, endless silence echoing around her.
That didn’t mean there wasn’t someone out there. But if there was, the person was managing to move with the utmost stealth, not making a single revealing sound.
Like a killer had once done, stalking the halls in the middle of the night to claim two victims.
And like them, she wouldn’t even know anybody was here until it was too late.
A burst of emotion made her lurch upright, her heart suddenly pounding in her chest. She threw the top of the sleeping bag aside and climbed to her feet, eyes scanning every inch of the darkness, unable to sit still any longer as the feeling hammered through her veins.
She wanted to believe it was annoyance. It felt too much like fear.
“Damn it,” she muttered, quickly sucking in a breath. She was letting the townspeople’s comments get to her, and that was the last thing she could do. Someone had to be sane in this town.
The Murder House. Nobody wants it to stay standing. Ought to just tear it down.
“The hell I will,” Maggie grumbled.
Her breathing continued to come in rapid, shallow gasps. Trying to calm her racing heart, she moved to the front window and peered out.
Not that she could see much. It was a cloudy September night, with the moon barely making an appearance. There was no house directly opposite, though there was a streetlamp, one which should be illuminating both this stretch of road and the house. When she first arrived in town, she’d discovered the bulb had been broken, the only one on the street that was. Despite her best efforts to have the town replace it, nothing had been done. As much as it irritated her, she suspected they were right not to waste their time. She would bet anything the light had been broken deliberately, much like the front porch light she’d replaced herself last week had been busted. Twice.
Nobody in Fremont, Pennsylvania, wanted to look at the Murder House, any more than they wanted to see it restored.
Well, that’s just too bad, she thought.
She was about to move away from the window when something grabbed her attention out of the corner of her vision. Something barely visible. Something that most definitely should not be there.
She froze, her gaze pinned in the darkness across the street. Her tension returned in a burst as she tried to absorb the sudden certainty of what she’d seen.
Her breath caught in her throat.
Someone was out there.
As soon as she thought it, she felt a flicker of doubt, as the figure she thought she’d seen disappeared from view. It may have been the shifting light, the clouds moving to cover the moon and blocking its glow. She narrowed her gaze and peered closer into the darkness on the other side of the street, trying to convince herself it hadn’t simply been a trick of the light.
Gradually, she thought she spotted the faint silhouette. The figure was so hazy and indistinct it barely seemed to be there. Almost like a—
A chill rolled slowly down her spine, like a cold finger being dragged along her bare skin.
Almost like a ghost.
She immediately shook off the idea, annoyed by the thought. She was letting the townspeople’s ghoulish obsession with the house get to her.
The house might have many problems. No one ever claimed being haunted was one of them.
No, the person out there was real. Which raised the question of why someone would be standing outside in the middle of the night, staring at the house.
Several explanations came to mind, none of them good. Was he planning something, the trouble she’d been expecting all night? Or did he know she was watching, and this was some new intimidation tactic to drive her out of here and convince her to sell so they could tear down the house, the way they wanted to?
Her annoyance exploded into full-blown anger, shock waves of fury surging from the pit of her belly to every inch of her body. She’d had enough. Whatever they were planning, she wasn’t going to wait for them to start to put an end to it.
Before she could even think about it, she grabbed the wooden baseball bat she’d found abandoned in one of the upstairs rooms and threw the door open.
She’d barely set one foot outside when she yelled out. “Hey!”
She almost expected her sudden appearance to be enough to scare him off, sending him running off into the night. Instead, the person didn’t move at all as she pounded down the steps and stalked across the lawn toward the street. As she came closer, she spotted the outline of a vehicle behind him. A pickup truck. The figure was standing in front of the driver’s side door.
She was halfway to him before it hit her just how foolish she was being. She might have a baseball bat, but he could have a gun for all she knew. He might not even be alone. It could be an ambush.
She felt a flicker of relief when he didn’t reach for a weapon. He didn’t react at all, simply watching her approach, as if she wasn’t waving a bat and yelling at him.
And then they were mere feet apart. She had to force herself to slow to avoid slamming right into him, skidding to a halt far less gracefully than she would have liked. He was at least a half foot taller than she was, and she had to crane her head to look into his face. Or at least where she assumed his face must be. It was so dark she couldn’t make out his features. She only knew he was big, his silhouette that of a large, muscular man.
She wasn’t exactly tiny, but she also knew enough to be wary of a man—a stranger—his size. She braced her hands on the bat, ready to swing at the slightest indication of an attack.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.
Copyright © 2010 by Kerry Connor. All Rights Reserved.
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.