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Authors: Beverly Barton

Dead By Midnight

BOOK: Dead By Midnight
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A KILLER’S HIT LIST

“He followed his usual routine,” Jack said. “He stripped Jean Misner and put a mask on her face after he killed her.”

A loud gasp behind them alerted Mike to the fact that Lorie had overheard Jack’s last statement.

“Jean’s been killed? But it’s still April. He wasn’t supposed to strike again until May.”

“Derek warned us that he might begin escalating the kills,” Jack reminded her. “Killing again before May indicates that he’s altering his MO, at least to some extent.”

“There are only two of us left,” Lori said. “Terri and me.”

“But he probably doesn’t know that,” Mike said. “It’s unlikely that he’s found out Charlene Strickland and Sonny Deguzman are already dead.” Mike reached out, put his arm around Lorie, and pulled her to his side, but she jerked away from him.

“You have to leave,” she said. “You can’t stay here. He’ll kill you if you stay.”

“That’s nonsense,” Mike told her. “If he comes after you—”

“When, not if,” Lorie said. “When he comes after me, he’ll kill anyone who gets in his way…”

Books by Beverly Barton

AFTER DARK

EVERY MOVE SHE MAKES

WHAT SHE DOESN’T KNOW

THE FIFTH VICTIM

THE LAST TO DIE

AS GOOD AS DEAD

KILLING HER SOFTLY

CLOSE ENOUGH TO KILL

MOST LIKELY TO DIE

THE DYING GAME

THE MURDER GAME

COLD HEARTED

SILENT KILLER

DEAD BY MIDNIGHT

Published by Zebra Books

D
EAD BY
M
IDNIGHT
BEVERLY BARTON

ZEBRA BOOKS
Kensington Publishing Corp.

http://www.kensingtonbooks.com

Prologue

There it was again, that odd sound. It must be the wind. What else could it be? Possibly a wild animal, a raccoon or possum or even a stray dog. Bears are in hibernation this time of year.

Get hold of yourself. You’re imagining things. Nobody’s out there. Nobody is going to show up here in the middle of the woods in the dead of winter just to frighten you.

Dean’s bone-thin hands trembled as he pulled back the gingham curtain from the dirty window and peered out into the darkness. The quarter-moon winked mockingly at him through a thin veil of clouds, as if it knew something he didn’t. The cold wind whispered menacingly. Was it issuing him a warning?

Releasing the curtain, he rubbed his hands together, as much to warm them as to control the quivering. He sure as hell could use a drink about now. Or something stronger, quicker. But he had learned to settle for strong coffee. A caffeine fix was better than no fix at all. He had been clean and sober for three years and he had no intention of allowing a few stupid letters to destroy his hard-won freedom from drugs and alcohol.

Forget the damn letters. They’re just somebody’s idea of a sick joke.

There were things he should be doing—stoking the fire he’d built in the fireplace, checking supplies, preparing the coffeemaker for morning coffee, bringing in more firewood, putting fresh linens on the twin beds. Dean wanted everything to be in order before his brother got here. Jared, who was driving in from Knoxville where he taught biology at the University of Tennessee, would arrive sometime in the morning, and if all went as planned, they’d spend the weekend here. This was the first time they’d been together at their family’s cabin in the Smoky Mountains since they were teenagers.

God, that had been a lifetime ago. Jared was forty-eight now, widowed, the father to two adult sons. His brother was successful in a way he would never be. Jared lived a normal life, always had and always would. Dean was a failure. Always had been and probably always would be. He’d been married and divorced four times. But he’d done one thing right—to his knowledge he had never fathered a child.

As he lifted the poker from where it was propped against the rock wall surrounding the fireplace, he glanced at the old mantel clock that had belonged to his grandparents. Eleven forty-seven. He should be sleepy, but he wasn’t. He had flown in from LA earlier today and had rented a car at the airport.

Jared had sent him the airline ticket. His brother didn’t trust him enough to send him the money. In the past, he would have used the money to buy drugs. He couldn’t blame Jared. Dean had done nothing to earn anybody’s trust. He might be clean and sober, but even he knew that it wouldn’t take much to push him over the edge. If something happened, something he couldn’t handle, he just might take the easy way out. He always had in the past.

Was receiving death threats something he couldn’t handle?

Dean stoked the fire and replaced the poker, then headed toward the kitchen to prepare the coffeemaker. Halfway across the cabin’s great room, he heard that pesky noise again. It sounded like footsteps crunching over dried leaves. He stopped dead still and listened.

Silence.

With his heart racing, his palms perspiration-damp and a shiver of uncertainty rippling along his nerve endings, he wondered if he should get his granddad’s shotgun out of the closet. His dad had always kept a box of shells on the overhead shelf in the closet, well out of reach, when he and Jared had been kids. But what were the odds that he’d actually find an old box of shells?

He should have gone to the police after he received that first letter, but he’d waited, telling himself that each letter would be the last one. Over the past few months, he had received a total of four succinct typed notes. Each one had begun the same way.

Midnight is coming.

What the hell did that mean? Midnight came every twenty-four hours, didn’t it?

Dean went into the larger of the two bedrooms, the room his parents had shared on their visits here, turned on the overhead light, and opened the closet door. The closet was empty except for a few wire clothes hangers; and there in the very far left corner was his granddad’s shotgun. He reached out and grabbed it. Just holding the weapon made him feel safe.

Idiot. The thing’s not loaded.

To make sure, he snapped it open and checked. Empty. No shells. He raked his hand across the narrow shelf at the top of the closet and found nothing except dust. Had he really expected to find a box of shells?

Dean sighed. But he took the shotgun with him when he returned to the great room and laid it on the kitchen table. He rinsed out the coffeepot, filled it with fresh water, and emptied the water into the reservoir. After measuring the ground coffee into the filter, he set the timer for seven o’clock.

He still needed to bring in more firewood and put clean sheets on the beds. When he’d set his suitcase down on the floor in the second bedroom, the one he and Jared had always shared, he had noticed that the mattresses were bare. He had found the pillows and blankets in the hall linen closet, along with a stack of bed linens. He dreaded the thought of going outside, of getting chilled to the bone and facing his own fears. What if it wasn’t an animal walking around out there?

Wait until morning to bring in the firewood.

But was there enough wood to keep the fire going all night?

“There are a couple of kerosene heaters in the shed out back,” Jared had told him. “Just don’t use them at night. It’s safer to keep a fire going in the fireplace.”

“Why haven’t you put in some other kind of heat?” Dean had asked him.

“Because we hardly ever use the place in the winter. Besides, the boys and I enjoy roughing it, just like you and I did with Dad.”

Dad.

Dean didn’t think about his father all that often. Remembering how completely he had disappointed his father wasn’t a pleasant memory. His parents had loved him, had given him every advantage, and he had screwed up time and time again.

Dean put on his heavy winter coat—the one he had bought for a little of nothing at the Salvation Army thrift store. It was foolish of him to be afraid of the dark, scared to face a raccoon or a possum, or to think that whoever had written those crazy letters had actually followed him from California to Tennessee and was waiting outside the cabin to kill him.

Dean grunted.

Don’t be such a wuss.

He flipped on the porch light and grasped the doorknob. The moment he opened the cabin door, the frigid wind hit him in the face and sent a shiver through his body. He closed the door behind him and headed toward the firewood stacked neatly on the north side of the front porch. Working quickly, he filled his arms to overflowing.

Dean turned and headed for the front door, then realized he’d have to shuffle his load in order to open the door. But before he could accomplish the task, he heard what sounded a lot like footsteps. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. His heartbeat accelerated. He glanced over his shoulder and saw nothing out of the ordinary.

Get a grip, man!

Just as he managed to free one hand and grab hold of the doorknob, he heard the sound again. Closer. As if someone was walking in the leaves that covered the rock walkway from the gravel drive to the porch.

Dean took a deep breath, garnered his courage, and turned all the way around to confront the intruder. Suddenly, he burst into laughter. A possum scurried across the dead leaves not more than a foot from the porch steps.

“Son of a bitch,” he said aloud as relief flooded his senses.

Still chuckling to himself, he turned back around, opened the front door, and carried the firewood into the cabin, leaving the front door open behind him. He dumped the firewood into the wood box on the hearth and stood up straight. Feeling the cold air sweeping into the house through the open door, he faced forward, intending to walk across the room and close the door. Instead, he froze to the spot. There, standing just inside the doorway, was someone—male or female, he couldn’t tell—wearing a heavy winter coat, boots, gloves, and an oddly familiar mask.

“What the hell! Who are you?”

Dean tried to rationalize what he saw, but as fast as his mind was working, it didn’t work fast enough to make sense of the bizarre sight. Before he could say or do anything else, the person in the mask pulled something from his—or her—coat pocket and aimed it at Dean.

A gun?

The person fired.

Once.

Twice.

Three times.

Dean reeled as the first bullet pierced his shoulder, and then dropped to his knees when the second bullet ripped into his leg. When the third bullet entered his chest, he heard two things simultaneously—the clock on the mantel striking the hour and the sound of his killer’s voice.

“Dead by midnight,” the masked murderer said.

Those were the last words Dean Wilson ever heard.

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