Authors: Jeffery Deaver
This Polaroid had been taken at the same time as the one left on the back steps. The scene was of Sarah, or whoever the girl might be, lying in the grass, her skirt still up to her waist. The angle was about the same, so was the lighting. There were in fact only two differences. The photographer was now much nearer—only several feet from the girl.
And the message in red marker on the back was different. It said:
“The characters are well drawn, the plot is fast paced, and the writing avoids totally the usual trappings of blockbusterdom.… An intelligently written thriller.”
“This novel is a solid achievement.”
“Loaded with character and action and a very devious plot,
Mistress of Justice
is a top-notch legal thriller.”
Mystery Lovers News
The Stone Monkey
The Blue Nowhere
Speaking in Tongues
The Empty Chair
The Devil’s Teardrop
The Coffin Dancer
The Bone Collector
A Maiden’s Grave
Praying for Sleep
The Lesson of Her Death
Death of a Blue Movie Star*
Manhattan 1s My Beat*
Bloody River Blues
Available from Bantam Books
For Carla Norton
I would like to express my grateful appreciation to Jerry Cowdrey, Laguna Niguel, California, for her insights into the plight and the potential of learning disabled children. Similarly, my thanks to my sister and fellow author Julie Reece Deaver, Pacific Grove, California, and special thanks to Karen Cowdrey of Los Angeles, whose insights into psychotherapy and the human mind have proved invaluable in many, many ways. Also, my appreciation to my editor, Kate Miciak, among whose uncanny talents are the abilities to inspire, to instruct, and—not the least—to instill in an author the same enthusiasm she feels for the written word. And finally, my heartfelt thanks to my agent and friend, Deborah Schneider.
New York City, 1993
ith every passing mile her heart fled a little more.
The girl, nine years old, sat slumped in the front seat, rubbing her finger along the worn beige armrest. The slipstream from the open window laid a strip of blond hair across her face. She brushed it away and looked up at the unsmiling, gray-haired man of about forty. He drove carefully, with his eyes fixed beyond the long white nose of the car.
“Please,” the girl said.
She put her hands into her lap.
Maybe when he stopped at a red light she would jump out.
Maybe if he slowed down just enough …
Would it hurt, she wondered, to leap from the car into the tall grass beside the road? She pictured herself
tumbling through the green blades, feeling the cold sprinkle of dew on her face and hands.
But then what? Where would she run to?
The first click of the turn signal interrupted these thoughts and the girl jumped as if a gun had fired. The car slowed and rocked as it pulled into the driveway, aiming toward a low brick building. She realized that her last hope was gone.
The car eased to a stop, brakes squealing like a sob.
“Give me a kiss,” the man said, reaching over and pushing the buckle release. The seat belt retracted. She held on to the nylon like a lifeline.
“I don’t want to. Please.”
“Just for today? Please.”
“Don’t leave me.”
“Out you go.”
“I’m not ready!”
“Do the best you can.”
“There’s nothing to be—”
“Don’t leave me!”
“Look—” His voice grew stony. “I’m going to be right nearby. Just over at Blackfoot Pond. That’s hardly a mile away.”
Her inventory of excuses was depleted. Sarah opened the car door but remained sitting.
“Give me a kiss.”
She leaned over and kissed her father quickly on his cheek then climbed out of the car, standing in the cool spring air heavily scented with bus exhaust. She took three steps toward the building, watching the car pull out of the driveway. She thought suddenly about the Garfield toy stuck to the back window of the family station wagon. Sarah remembered when she’d placed it there, licking the cups before squeezing them against the glass. For some reason this memory made her want to cry.
Maybe he would catch a glimpse of her in the mirror, change his mind and return.
The car vanished behind a hill.
Sarah turned and entered the building. Clutching her lunch box to her chest she shuffled through the corridors. Although she was as tall as any of the children swarming around her she felt younger than them all.
At the fourth-grade classroom she stopped. Sarah looked inside. Her nostrils flared and she felt her skin prickle with a rash of fear. She hesitated only for a moment then turned and walked resolutely from the building, buffeted and jostled as she forced her way through the oncoming stream of shouting, calling, laughing children.
Not thirty feet from where they had found the body last night, he saw the note.
The piece of paper, pierced by a wild rose stem the shade of dried blood, fluttered in the moist wind, sending out a Morse code in the low morning sunlight.
Bill Corde pressed toward the paper through a tangle of juniper and maple saplings and stubborn runners of forsythia.
Had they missed it? How could they?
He barked his shin on a hidden stump and swore softly but continued toward the scrap.
Corde was six foot two and his short hair was Persian-cat gray, which because he was just about to turn forty made him maybe seven-eighths premature. His skin was pale, the month being April and Corde having been fishing only twice so far that season. He looked lean from a distance but his belt curled outward more than he would have liked; Corde’s most strenuous sport these days was gentlemen’s softball. This morning as always his New Lebanon Sheriff’s Department shirt was
clean and stiff as a sheet of new balsa wood and his beige slacks had razor creases.
Corde was by rank a lieutenant and by specialty a detective.
He remembered this place not twelve hours before—last night, lit only by the deputies’ flashlights and the edgy illumination of a half-moon. He had sent his men to scour the ground. They were young and austere (the ones trained in the military) or young and arrogant (state police academy grads) but they were all earnest.
Although they were virtuosos at DUI arrests and joyridings and domestics, what the deputies knew about murder they had learned mostly from pulp thrillers and TV, just like they knew about guns from stubbly autumn fields, not from the state pistol range up in Higgins. Still they had been ordered to search the crime scene and they had, doggedly and with fervor.
But not one of them had found the piece of paper toward which Bill Corde now struggled through thick brush.
Oh, you poor girl
who lies at the foot of a ten-foot-high earth dam
who lies in this chill wet dish of mud and low grass and blue flowers
whose dark hair is side-parted, whose face is long, whose throat thick. Her round lips curl prominently. Each ear holds three wire-thin gold rings. Her toes are lanky and their nails dark with burgundy polish
who lies on her back, arms folded over her breasts, as if the mortician had already done her up. The pink floral blouse is buttoned high. Her skirt extends so modestly below her knees, tucked beneath her thighs
“We got her name. Here we go. It’s Jennie Gebben. She’s a student.”
Last night Bill Corde had crouched down beside the body, his knee popping, and put his face next to hers. The pearlish half-moon was reflected in her dead but still unglazed hazel eyes. He had smelled grass, mud, methane,
transmission fluid, mint from her lips and perfume like pie spices rising from her cold skin.