A Selection of Recent Titles by Merry Jones
THE NANNY MURDERS
THE RIVER KILLINGS
THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS
THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERSSUMMER SESSION
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First world edition published 2011
in Great Britain and in the USA by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9–15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
Copyright © 2011 by Merry Jones.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Jones, Merry Bloch.
1. Women veterans–Fiction. 2. Iraq War, 2003 –
Veterans–United States–Fiction. 3. Post-traumatic
stress disorder–Fiction. 4. Cornell University–
Employees–Fiction. 5. Falls (Accidents)–Fiction.
6. Brain damage–Patients–Rehabilitation–Fiction.
7. Suicide–Fiction. 8. Suspense fiction.
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-073-9 (ePub)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8044-4 (cased)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
To Robin, Baille and Neely
I am indebted to many people for their help with this book, including:
my agent, Rebecca Strauss at McIntosh & Otis, for her relentless enthusiasm and energy;
my editors, Amanda Stewart and Rachel Simpson Hutchens at Severn House, for their incredible insights and vision;
Dr Ron Kotler for his generosity in sharing his knowledge of sleep disorders, treatment and research;
Dr Susan Solovy Mulder for her contributions regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and related treatments;
Dr Michael Zasloff for his patient answers to questions and guidance to articles on the brain, frontal lobe injuries, learning processes and aphasia;
members of The Philadelphia Liars Club – Jonathan Maberry, Gregory Frost, Jonathan McGoran, Leslie E. Banks, Kelly Simmons, Marie Lamba, Dennis Tafoya, Solomon Jones, Keith Strunk, Edward Pettit, Don Lafferty for their never-ending supply of supportiveness and good cheer;
Lanie Zera, Janet Martin, Nancy Delman, Sue Francke and Jane Braun for their soft shoulders and continued encouragement;
HealMyPTSD website founder, Michele Rosenthal for providing a much needed and accessible resource to people coping with the condition;
two generous female Iraqi war vets, who wished to remain anonymous, for details of their experiences there;
Baille and Neely for the constant inspiration and amazement they generate;
Robin for being my first reader, discusser, re-reader, re-discusser, etc.; a giant among men, my love and best friend.
alling, Hank Jennings had three distinct, almost simultaneous thoughts. The first was to deny that he was actually falling. He couldn’t be, not after his years of scaling the steepest mountains and exploring the darkest caverns in the world. It would be a cruel joke for him to die in broad daylight, falling off his own roof.
His second thought – this as he gained momentum and spread himself flat, scraping the skin off his fingertips while trying to dig his nails into the shingles – was of Harper, how hard his death would be on her.
His final thought, just before his head slammed the chimney, was about his own stupidity. Obviously, the roof had been the wrong place to have an argument.
raham Reynolds puzzled at the large black eyeball staring at him from the pillow beside his head. What he saw made no sense. He closed his eyes, not yet fully awake, but when he opened them again, the thing was still there. Dark, steady and unblinking.
He squinted, focusing, gradually convinced that it wasn’t an eye. Of course it wasn’t. It was the barrel of a gun. Oh right, the gun. He’d bought it a few days ago in Manchester. He shut his eyes again, irritated by the light pouring through the window and his own sticky sweat.
Gently, he raised a hand to cover his forehead and rolled on to his back, the damp sheet sticking to his skin. He tried to remember. Had he shot anyone last night? A bunch of drunk frat boys had been making a racket across the street. He remembered staring out the window, ready to fire at the next one who made a sound, but, oddly, he wasn’t sure if he’d actually pulled the trigger. If he had, though, there would have been cops, right? Sirens. And, like on television, a barrier of yellow tape? So probably no one got shot.
But now his room was stifling hot. And an angry bubble was swelling in his belly, even before he was out of bed. He turned his pulsing head, saw clumps of dirty clothes. Empty bottles. Scattered books. An upside-down sneaker, his work boots. His computer. Graham sat up, cursed the pain in his head and glanced at the clock. The numbers nine–one–nine didn’t register. He picked up a vial of pills, turned it upside down. Empty. He picked up another. Empty. Damn. He’d have to dig into the stash, which no doubt would piss everyone off because each bottle he opened was one less in the pot. But what the hell. Speaking of the stash, he had to go get it, package it up. That guy from the city was coming. Where the hell had he put the padlock combination? Shit. He had no idea. Well, no biggie. He was pretty sure he knew the number by heart. Twenty-two, seven, two. Something like that.
Repeating numbers to himself, Graham stood unsteadily, went to the john, splashed some cold water on his face. When he came out, he noticed the clock again. Nine thirty. Wait. Was it Tuesday? Shit. He had class. A quiz in half an hour. Class? Was he seriously supposed to sit through class? With that insufferable twit Larry and his girlfriend – why couldn’t he ever remember her name? Monica? Whatever. She wore pink. All pink, all the time. Pink tops, pink skirts, pink shoes – no doubt pink panties, too. If she sat near him today, he might have to rip her pink little head off. His hands tightened, aching. Maybe he’d kill the TA, instead. Wait until she handed out the quiz, and then: Bang. No more TA, no more quiz.
Fuck it. Maybe he wouldn’t even go to class. He sat on the bed, not thinking.
‘Hey – Graham.’ Larry banged on his door.
‘What?’ Graham looked at the gun. Thought about popping Larry.
‘You ready to go?’
Graham picked up the gun and aimed at the door, pretending. Bam. Bam.
Graham pictured Larry’s ear against the door, waiting for a response. Go ahead, he told himself. Respond. Shoot the little shit.
‘Graham?’ The doorknob jiggled.
‘Don’t come in, Larry. Don’t even think of it.’
‘Well, then answer—’
‘I’m answering: Go away.’
Graham pictured clotting blood spatter in the hallway, clumps of brain matter. He hesitated, his finger on the trigger, considering which would be harder to take. Larry? Or the mess that Larry would make? His head pulsed blinding light. His finger tingled, aching to pull the trigger.
‘Well, if you’re coming, hurry the fuck up. I’m out.’ Graham heard footsteps, the creak of the floorboards. The little turd was walking away, had no idea how close he’d come.
Graham let the gun drop on to the mattress, pressed his fingers against the hammering behind his forehead. Then, sweating, he pulled on some clothes, bright colors to counter the stark whiteness pounding his head.
Nine fifty-one. For support, Graham stepped into his work boots. Then he drew a deep breath, grabbed his book bag and headed out the door.
Harper Jennings parked her Ninja in the lot behind Willard Straight Hall, stowed her helmet, grabbed her iced chai and big black leather sack and began climbing the hill to campus, sweating off the jasmine scent of her three-minute morning shower. As she walked, her left leg ached from her hip to her ankle.
The pain was chronic, had been with her for more than five years, sometimes intensely, others quietly, but it was always there. Considering its cause, though, she couldn’t complain. She was, after all, still able to feel it, unlike others in her patrol. The dead couldn’t feel anything anymore. No, by comparison, a little, even a lot of pain wasn’t so bad. In a way, it was her duty to carry it with her, a reminder of those who hadn’t come home.
But it wasn’t just a reminder. It was also a warning. The explosion that killed nine soldiers and thirteen civilians and forever damaged her leg had lasted maybe two seconds. An eye blink. A breath. Proving that life could change or end that quickly. Like Hank’s fall. The time it had taken her husband to drop from their roof to the cement ledge below had been – what? Four seconds? Three? No time at all. Catastrophes gave no warning and took no time; she had to be prepared for the unexpected. Her leg with its ragged nerves was, in its way, a constant personal red alert.
Still, on the third Tuesday morning in June, as Harper ascended the steepest part of the hill to campus, she wasn’t thinking about danger or possible catastrophes but about the positives in her life. Starting with her iced chai. Lord, what a luxury. Cold, spicy, sweet. In Iraq, there had been days when she’d have eagerly sold a body part for just one sip.
Or for the shade of an old oak tree. And now, here she was, surrounded by them. Not just oaks, either. Pines, elms, maples – dozens of species of trees and shrubs thrived all across Cornell’s campus and the surrounding hills. The land was alive, fertile. Not like the barren deserts of war.
Harper paused, letting her left leg rest. A couple of wrens flew overhead, flitting on to a tree branch, chirping. A squirrel darted under a bush. A car accelerated. All around her was peace. Finally. Yet another reason to be thankful. At least for now, the war was leaving her alone. Weeks had passed since her last flashback. Even with Hank’s injuries, she’d remained grounded in the moment, able to deal with crisis after crisis without being overwhelmed or interrupted by the past.
Starting up the hill again, Harper thought about Hank. More than anything else, she was thankful for his survival. God, she missed him. But when she’d visited that morning, Hank had actually shown progress. She’d asked about his breakfast, and he’d declared, ‘Oat. Meal.’ His eyes had twinkled, teasing the way they used to.
Lord. How had it happened? How had Hank Jennings, a man who’d scaled the world’s highest mountains and worked atop oil rigs in the turbulent North Sea – how had he been so clumsy as to fall off his own roof? The accident had left him unconscious for days, critical for weeks, and now his brain was damaged, maybe permanently. Mercifully, he seemed oblivious to that possibility. Another thing, Harper supposed, to be thankful for.
The last few yards to the top of the hill were toughest. The physical therapist had advised that walking would be good; she’d figured that climbing would be even better. Wincing, she drew a deep breath and dug her purple Keens into the slope, pushing her weight up toward the top. Counting out the steps. One and two and three and four. Inhale. One and two and three – and there.
Harper paused, gazing back over the panorama. Her reward for her daily uphill trek was to view the lush idyllic hills surrounding Lake Cayuga, the town of Ithaca nestling its shore.
Ten minutes until class. Harper sat on a bench, watching people pass, attempting to cool off by sipping her chai. Lord, the weather was sizzling. Only June, and before ten o’clock in the morning, eighty-five humid degrees. This wasn’t the dry, dusty heat of Iraq where the air was loaded with fine, grimy, clinging sand. No, here the air was thick and wet. Soupy. Like oatmeal.
Time to go. Harper stood and made her way past Olin Library and across the Arts Quad to White Hall, the traditional nineteenth-century stone building in which her class met. Maybe, Harper hoped, its thick walls and high ceilings would insulate it, offering cool relief. But as she entered the building, close heat enveloped her. By noon, when her recitation ended, the place would be a steam bath.
Climbing the four flights of steps, Harper remembered that hot air rose; the higher she went, the hotter it got. Brutal. At least the classroom had a fan. She’d distribute the quizzes and plop in front of it. And stay there. Yet another thing to be thankful for.