From New York Times & USA Today bestselling author Lorhainne Eckhart comes a new Billy Jo McCabe mystery set on a small island town in the Pacific Northwest. On the eve of Police Chief Mark Friessen’s wedding, a fierce snowstorm blankets the island, knocking out power, and the body of a woman is discovered in the church. The only clue is the note in her hand, a list of names—all members of Mark’s family.More info →
Mark stared at the weekly report of problems, a revolving door of the same people, those he could do something about and those who just got better at hiding their crimes. He heard the knock on his door just as he took a swallow of coffee, and he turned where he was standing beside his desk.
“Hey, Chief,” said Carmen. “Just got a call from Lisa Jenkins about a man who’s openly threatening her. His hostility is over the top, so much so that she fears for her safety. She said she showed up for a wellness check on his kids and believes he’s hurting them and interfering with her taking them.”
He just stared at Carmen as she shrugged on her heavy coat, wondering whether he was supposed to know who Lisa Jenkins was. Maybe his expression gave him away. He set down the printed three-page report, which had been waiting on his desk when he walked in an hour earlier.
“Taking kids, wellness checks? You lost me. Who is this?” He let out a heavy sigh, feeling the weight of everything. His parents were on their way, his brothers, their families, and Billy-Jo’s family. He still needed to pay the restaurant, pick up his new suit, and make sure he stopped in at the church at some point that day to make sure everything was a go for the wedding. He gave his head a shake, willing himself to get back in the game.
“Lisa…” Carmen said. “You know, the junior social worker brought in to help with the rise in the case load? For your fiancée.”
Right. He thought Billy Jo had mentioned that at the church before their meeting with the minister who would listen as they said “I do” and officially pronounce them mister and missus. Maybe that was why he was feeling a gigantic pressure right in the middle of his chest. Mark reached for his cell phone on his desk but saw no message from Billy Jo.
“Billy Jo didn’t call,” he said. “Is she there too?” He had his phone to his ear already, and it was ringing, but it went right to voicemail.
“Hello, this is Billy Jo McCabe, with DCFS. I can’t take your call right now. Leave me a message and I’ll call you back when I can. If this is an emergency…”
He hung up. Right, she wasn’t going in to work that day because Chase and Rose were flying in, and she was doing all the last-minute stuff involving her dress and something else he couldn’t remember.
He realized Carmen was still standing there. “No answer.” He held his phone up. “I’ll come with you. Have you met this Lisa?” He reached for his keys in his drawer and shoved his phone in his pocket, looking to Carmen as he strode over to the coat tree and reached for his black down winter coat. His gun was holstered on his favorite blue jeans, and his sheriff’s badge was pinned to his shirt.
“Only once,” she said. “She’s young. Don’t think she’s been doing this long. You want to follow me?”
Mark shrugged on his coat. “Yeah. So tell me again who she is and what’s going on. Would have thought this would go through Billy Jo. You said this social worker is taking the kids? She’s supposed to call us first, or have I missed something?”
Carmen had already pulled open the door to the station and was walking out. A blast of cold swept over him as he glanced back to his dog’s empty bed. Billy Jo had Lucky at home. Maybe that was also why he felt so off that day. His routine was being completely screwed up.
“Lacy,” he called out.
“I already know,” the dispatcher replied. “I took the call and patched it through to Carmen.” She was behind her desk, Gail’s old desk, and she gestured to him as she stood up. So damn efficient, but he wondered when he’d stop comparing her to Gail. “You’ll be at the Clarks’. I got it.” She just lifted her hand, and Mark took in Elisha’s empty desk, as well, knowing she was already doing rounds on the island.
“Well, good,” he said. “If Billy Jo calls, tell her to call me.”
He didn’t miss what he thought was the hint of a smile tugging at the older woman’s lips. Her hair was a mix of dark and white, and he was pretty sure she was as tall as Gail.
He stepped out of the office and kept walking down the steps, feeling the icy chill. The salt on the steps crunched under his cowboy boots. Heavy clouds loomed overhead, but he knew it was too cold for rain.
Carmen was already in the sheriff’s cruiser as Mark pulled open the door of his Jeep and started the engine. Carmen backed out, swinging around and flicking on her siren. So they were there, kids in trouble, a desperate situation. Damn, he hated that. He wished Billy Jo had filled him in more on this Lisa.
He followed Carmen as she pulled down a road he was familiar with and took in the houses so close together. Cars pulled over to the side as they flew past another road, more trees and privacy. Carmen pulled up in front of a small older two-story. He could see a man in the doorway, dark skinned, tall, lanky, and a woman on the porch.
Carmen was parked behind a burgundy Hyundai, and Mark stopped in front, turning off his engine, feeling his sidearm. He stepped out of the Jeep, his coat now zipped, and reached for his brown knit hat in his pocket. As he pulled it on, feeling the bite of cold, he strode across the grass, Carmen already two steps ahead of him.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” the young woman said. “This man is preventing me from doing my job. He’s openly harassed me and been verbally abusive…”
“I did no such thing, you lying bitch. You showed up here, coming in my house, disrespecting me,” the man cut in. He wore a long-sleeved faded brown shirt and what looked like sweatpants. He had no coat. Mark figured the woman was Lisa, who had called.
“Okay, so what exactly is going on here?” Mark said, resting his foot on the bottom step.
Lisa was young, early twenties, he thought, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and holding a clipboard close to her chest. He glanced once to Carmen, who appeared right beside him. Mark was very aware of the man’s anger toward Lisa. He stepped up onto the porch, looking down on her, putting himself between them.
“And you are?” he said to the man.
“That’s Nathan Clark,” Lisa cut in behind him, and he didn’t miss the snark in her tone. He glanced back once to her, knowing Nathan was fisting his hands. Just her opening her mouth had provoked him.
He turned back to Nathan, who looked past him with dark eyes locked on to the short social worker. He knew when a man had been pushed too far. “Nathan, I’m Chief Friessen. We got a call about some trouble…”
The man was already shaking his head and had pulled his arms across his chest. He had to be cold. Mark took in the closed screen door and could hear voices inside, a woman and kids, he thought.
“Look, I don’t know what she’s yapping on about, but she showed up here, walking through my house, and yelled at me to get away from her when I did nothing. She was the one
disrespecting me and my wife. She’s going on about us hurting our kids, which is an outright lie…”
“I’m just doing my job,” Lisa said. “You have no right to interfere, and that was exactly what you were doing in there, following me right on my heels and yelling at me, scaring me. This is a state matter, and you are interfering—”
“These are my kids,” Nathan said. “You coming in here, turning your nose up at me and—”
“Hey, hey, enough,” Mark said. “Just cool down, both of you. Nathan, give us a minute.” He turned to the new social worker and wondered why Billy Jo hadn’t called him. “Come with me. I want to talk to you.”
He went down the steps, seeing her legs were bare under her coat. She wore a short dress underneath, he thought, and light brown ankle boots. He gestured to her and then took in Carmen, who said nothing as she stood there. He had only to nod before he heard her say something to the father, who was standing guard at that door.
He turned around, taking in how short Lisa was, about Billy Jo’s height. She really looked like a kid. “What’s going on here? Billy Jo sent you?” They were far enough away that he couldn’t hear what the father was saying to Carmen, but he could see how upset he was.
“I’m the social worker on call today, and this is a wellness check. A complaint came in, and it was given to me. This has nothing to do with Billy Jo, who’s away now. Everything will come through me until she’s back from her time off.”
The way she was looking at him, he realized she didn’t have a clue who she was, but then, he knew Billy Jo didn’t go around sharing her personal business. Evidently, Lisa wasn’t in the know.
“Billy Jo is getting married to me. I’m her fiancé. You should know, filling in for her, that we have a protocol on the island. In any cases where you’re removing a child, you are required to contact my office, and a deputy is to accompany you.” He kept his voice low.
When she looked up at him, he could see she wasn’t on the same page, maybe because she was shaking her head. “With all due respect, Chief, this was not a visit where I planned to take the kids. But, just showing up here and seeing what I saw, I’m alarmed. The condition of the premises, the dirt, the locked doors…and there was feces on the floor. The father is volatile, and the kids appear unbathed. One little girl, who I understand has special needs, appears neglected.” She was so damn matter of fact, and he sensed she would argue about everything.
“Volatile? I think you need to be a little more specific about what your concerns are. You suspect abuse, hurting his kids?” He gestured, wondering why she had a clipboard.
“You saw him up there, the way he looked at me, yelling at me. He stalked behind me in the house when I expected answers from him. He was disrespectful…”
Mark angled his head. He wanted to call Billy Jo again, but if he did, he knew her well enough to know she’d likely be in her car and on her way over there. Maybe there was something more about this situation that he didn’t know.
“You showed up here about his kids. I’m seeing a father who’s trying to protect them. You want to take his kids away? I would be surprised if a father let you do that without fighting back. You want to walk me inside and show me what the issues are?”
The way she pulled the clipboard up close to her chest, he wondered if she’d say no. “Fine, but I’ll need your assistance getting the kids out of the house. This is a state decision, and I’m acting on behalf of the state. I’ll need to take the kids, all of them, to the hospital for a doctor to look them over.”
Then she turned and started walking back to the house, and Mark followed, seeing that Carmen and Nathan were staring at him long and hard.
“I’m going in the house with Lisa,” he said. “Nathan, Carmen will stay outside with you. We won’t be a minute.”
Lisa had pulled open the screen and walked right in, and Mark reached for the door.
Nathan lifted his hands in the air and linked them behind his head in frustration. “Fine. My wife is there.”
“How many kids?” he asked. He could hear Lisa inside, speaking with the kind of voice that expected answers, but about what, he didn’t know.
“Two girls, two and five,” Nathan said.
He only nodded and walked inside, taking in the small entry, the wood floors, an older sectional with piles of clothes on it, a laundry basket, toys and papers scattered on the floor. A woman with dark hair, a few inches taller than Lisa, was holding a towel. Her hair was half out of a ponytail.
“Down here, Chief,” Lisa said to him as she gestured to a narrow hall with doors closed. He only nodded at the woman standing there, wide-eyed, a little girl jumping around her with a thumb in her mouth. Then he realized another girl was there, naked, her hair a mess, shoving ripped paper into her mouth.
“No, no, no, Dana,” the woman said and ran over to the little girl to pull the paper from her mouth. The girl squealed and swatted at her.
Mark saw the mother struggling, and he took in something smeared on the wall in the hall. He could smell it from there and knew it was feces. The social worker was looking at him expectantly as she stood by a door locked with a deadbolt, which needed a key, and another door with a sliding bolt.
“Every door here, all four, has a lock on it,” Lisa said. “Do they lock the kids in? I’m sure you can smell that a child defecated, and it’s on the walls. One has no clothes on, and there’s something wrong with the other, too. The place is a mess. The kitchen is not the neatest I’ve seen, and there’s food in the corner on the floor.”
He slid the bolt on one of the doors and opened it to see a bathroom—not a mess but reasonable, with a towel on a hook, toothbrushes by the sink, and a bathtub with no shower curtain.
“Look, I don’t know what to say,” Mark said. “I see the mess. Is there something wrong with the one screaming out there?” He glanced down the hall. Everything in the house felt tense, but then, he supposed having DCFS show up like this only ramped up family problems.
“Special needs, I think. Not really sure, but something is wrong…” She was flipping through her chart, lifting papers and reading, and then she shook her head and let out an exasperated breath. “But, regardless, the care is seriously lacking. I’ll need some help getting the kids loaded up. I think I’ve seen enough here.” She clutched her clipboard to her chest. The way she said it had been dismissive, and damn, did he hate this. She brushed past him, leaving him standing there.
“Okay, I’m taking the kids,” she said. “Are there car seats? I need clothes on these girls, too…”
She was cold, unfeeling. Nothing about this felt right. The mother wore a look he knew too well, shellshock. He put his hand on the screen door and pushed it open, and Nathan and Carmen both stopped talking and looked at him.
“Your kids in there,” he said. “Something wrong with the little girl with no clothes on?”
The man was much calmer now. He wondered what Carmen had said to him. “My older one, she’s five. She’s got autism. Can’t keep no clothes on her. She takes them off as soon as they’re on.”
Mark realized Carmen hadn’t looked away from Nathan, yet she said nothing. “You have locks on the doors in there. You lock the kids in?”
Nathan shook his head and gestured. “No, sir, no way. Those locks are to keep Trina out. She wears a diaper, but we can’t keep it on her. We lock the doors because she goes in and wipes her shit on the walls everywhere, so we have to keep her in one small part of the house. Look, we’re doing the best we can, but I’m not always here. I have to work off island a lot, and it’s just my wife here. My daughter, she screams if you try to brush her hair. Can’t get socks on her at all. I tried to explain all that to the social worker in there, but she wouldn’t hear none of it…”
“Hey, Nathan, I get it,” Carmen cut in. “You just need some help, is all. Sometimes these state workers only check boxes and can’t see or hear anything. I know you’re just trying to protect your family, and I can hear how upset you are. She probably didn’t understand all that. She’s not from around here and doesn’t know you.”
Damn, how did Carmen do that? The door squeaked open behind them.
“Chief Friessen, I’m ready to go,” Lisa said. “Can you get some car seats so I can take the kids?” There was something so inexperienced about the social worker. She had so much to learn about people.
“I have car seats, but I want the name of your supervisor,” Nathan said.
Lisa was still standing in the doorway. “My direct supervisor is away right now. You want the name of my acting supervisor this week?” Now she sounded way too helpful.
“I do, name and phone number. I’m calling and making a formal complaint about you.”
He wondered whether Lisa would say no, but she only shrugged and said, “Sure. Grant—”
“Billy Jo is in charge here. Pretty sure you report to her,” Mark couldn’t help himself from saying.
Lisa seemed to stiffen and then shook her head. “Ms. McCabe is away, and that’s not how the chain of command works. Grant is who I report to right now.” Damn, she was so matter of fact. “You have a pen?”
Carmen, bless her, pulled one from her pocket along with paper and handed it to Nathan, who was going to have his kids pulled out of there. Mark listened to her rattle off Grant’s name and number.
“I’ll help you with the car seats,” Mark said to Nathan. He listened to screaming in the house as he followed him down the stairs and over to an older off-white minivan, and all he could think was that nothing about this seemed right.
“I don’t know what’s keeping Mark,” Billy Jo said. “I know he should be here by now. Damn, it’s really coming down out there…” She fumbled her glass of wine then, spilling some of the red she loved on the light granite island. Her mom and Diana were sitting at high-back chairs across from her, each with a glass of wine, and she could hear the voices of her dad and Mark’s dad, Jed, in the living room.
“I’ll get that,” said her mom, already off her chair, her long blond hair hanging loose past her shoulders. She wore a pink turtleneck and deep blue wool pants, but she could wear anything and look good. She reached for a sponge at the sink and moved Billy Jo over as she wiped up the spill and handed her the glass. “Here you go. You just drink your wine before you knock something else over. Why don’t you sit down and let us know what else we still have to do?”
Diana smiled at her. “You indulged us for the day, letting us drag you around town, so let us wait on you now.”
Billy Jo took a swallow of her wine. Through the big windows, a heavy snow was starting to settle in the darkness. She pulled at the hem of her black cardigan over a pair of black dressy slacks and a sleeveless silky black shirt. The only things not black were the fluffy brown slippers on her feet. She had to remind herself she looked good, chasing away the voice of doubt that at one time had taken up too many hours, lingering in her head. The wedding had seemed so far away, but she was now staring down the moment she and Mark would stand before the minister and say “I do.” Good God, maybe that was why she was so freaked out.
“You want to call Mark?” Diana said, leaning an elbow on the island. “What time are we meeting up at the restaurant? Danny, J.D., Chris, Evie, and the girls should be here and checked into the hotel by now. I don’t know how you do it with the ferries, having to wait to get on and off island. Although it’s beautiful here, I never realized how cut off you are.” She wore a deep green knit sweater that made her vivid blue eyes pop. At least now Billy Jo knew where Mark got his blue eyes and red hair from. There was nothing about Diana that she disliked. “You know, when Mark first told me about you, Billy Jo, I told Jed I thought he’d met the one.”
She didn’t know what to say. She took in Mark’s mom, who was so warm and welcoming, and she wondered how much Mark had shared about her. Did Diana really understand who Billy Jo was?
“I recognize that look,” Diana said. “You have the pre-wedding jitters.”
Billy Jo pulled her arm over the flat of her stomach as she held her wine, not looking over to her mom, who she knew likely wanted to add something. “I’m not nervous. Why, do I look nervous?” Even she could hear how defensive she sounded. She took in the diamond ring on her finger, which she hadn’t taken off since Mark put it on. When she lifted her gaze, her mom rose a brow and dumped the sponge back in the sink.
“If you’re not, I’d think there was something wrong,” Diana said. “You’re right, it really is coming down out there. Jed, what time was the reservation tonight?”
She could see her dad and Jed from where she stood. Jed was lounging on the new blue sectional, her dad in the easy chair.
“Six,” he said. “Aren’t we still waiting on Mark? What time is it, anyway?”
Something about Jed Friessen was so much like his son. Billy Jo was vaguely listening to the back and forth when she felt the touch on her arm, her mom. She took in the clock on the stove, seeing it was nearly five.
“You okay?” Rose said. “You’ve been unusually quiet today, letting us drag you around into shops I know you have no interest in. I know how uncomfortable you get, being the center of attention.”
Her shoulders were tight, and she made herself take another sip of wine. Just then, she heard the door, and she let out a heavy sigh. “Just out of my comfort zone…” she started.
In the living room, Mark said something to Lucky, who trotted to the door and took in her cat, Harley, who was curled up fast asleep on the cat tree next to the window.
“Hey, everyone. Sorry I’m late,” Mark said. “It’s really coming down out there. Billy Jo, the shed door was wide open.”
She shrugged. “Wasn’t me,” she said, gesturing, and he gave her one of those heavy gazes.
She really looked at him.
“Maybe it was the wind,” he said. “I can’t remember ever seeing the snow coming down the way it is. Reminds me of home, not the island. The roads aren’t pretty out there.”
She didn’t move from where she stood, holding her wine, taking in Mark, who was brushing the snow from his hair. He was sock-footed as he walked right over to her, his heavy coat still on, and leaned down and pressed a kiss to her lips. For a second, it was just the two of them, and she wondered whether he was going to start in about the shed again, but when he pulled back, he let his complicated gaze linger, and she looked up into it.
“I called you and you didn’t answer,” he said. “Sent you a text, too. Kind of started off the morning with an issue.”
Her brow furrowed. Mark pulled open the fridge behind her and reached for a beer, then twisted off the cap and smiled to his mom, but Billy Jo just stared up at him, keeping her back to everyone.
“You talk to your brothers?” Diana said to him. Jed was now standing behind his wife, his hands resting on her shoulders. Billy Jo looked over, a knot in her stomach over the issue Mark had mentioned.
“No, been a crazy day,” he said. “Was going to stop in at the hotel. I think they were coming in on the three o’clock ferry…” He scratched his head and took a swallow of his beer, still standing right in her space.
“I’ll call Danny, see where they are.” Jed had his phone out already and was dialing, and he turned away, taking a few steps.
Billy Jo rested her glass of wine on the counter. When Mark went to step away, she reached for his arm and pulled him back. “My phone is turned off in the bottom of my purse. Pretty sure you’re the one who told me that taking time off meant turning my phone off and keeping it off. You have no idea how difficult it was for me not to check it every twenty seconds. But, again, didn’t you say to me this morning before leaving that I should enjoy the day with our moms and not take calls from work?”
He made a face. “Didn’t think you’d listen, and I kind of didn’t mean calls from me.”
She angled her head, wondering how he expected her to just pick and choose which calls to answer. Her parents and Diana were talking in the background, and she glanced back to them, knowing she was supposed to be focused one hundred percent on the wedding.
“What happened?” she said, staring up at Mark, and even she could hear the edge in her voice. She knew so well the many moods of Mark, and the grim edge he had in his expression made the knot tighten in her stomach. She wanted to groan.
“Got a call at the station from that new junior social worker, Lisa…?”
“Jenkins,” she cut in. Tension now pulled right across her shoulders. Maybe Mark knew she was one step from getting on her phone and calling the office to find out everything, as he put his beer on the island and slid his hand over her shoulder. “What happened?”
He shook his head. “She was at a house, making a call on a family, and called the station with a complaint that she was being threatened. It was Nathan Clark, with two little girls. I can tell by your face that you know who I’m talking about. But she hadn’t called the station for anyone to go with her. Does she not get the protocol here?”
She stared at Mark and blinked, then opened her mouth to say something, but instead she wanted to pick up the phone and call Lisa, the new girl Grant had sent over. Just what the hell did she think she was doing?
“Seriously?” she said. “I have half a mind to call her, then Pam, then Grant. I went over everything with her, and she basically cut me off, saying she knew her job and she understood. Told me to enjoy my time off, and congrats on the wedding, and not to worry about anything. Now I’m freaking out. Why was she at the Clarks’? Did something happen? I know Nathan and his wife, Grace. They have two girls and really struggle. The oldest has Rett syndrome, and I’m pretty sure the other has something wrong, too. Those two parents are really doing the best they can. I know Nathan was working two jobs to pay their bills. Do you know how long it took him to get a doctor to actually diagnose his kid? And I know what it cost him: a lot of money they didn’t have.”
She pressed her hands to her face and pulled them away, realizing how quiet it was. Her mom and dad and Jed and Diana were watching them. Judging by their faces, they had heard.
“Please tell me you handled it,” she continued. “Damn, I should call Grace and Nathan, make sure they know they have my support… Wait, why did she show up there to begin with?” Everyone was watching her as she narrowed her gaze, looking up to Mark.
He shook his head. “Not much I could do except become a buffer. The house was a mess, with locks on the doors. Lisa had made her mind up and was taking the kids. Social services has jurisdiction, you know that. I did fill Lisa in on her responsibility to call the station first, but not sure she agreed. I have no idea who sent her. She said it was a wellness check or something. They’re struggling. Maybe they’ll get some help. I know she took the kids to the hospital, strapped them both in the back of her little car. One was screaming. Told Nathan he needed some help…”
She groaned, and maybe that was why Mark had stopped talking. “Helping them doesn’t mean yanking their kids,” she said. “You’re right that they have no help, no support, because it costs money they don’t have. The pitiful resources available are allocated based on a waitlist, where they’re behind hundreds of other families. Their eldest is still in a diaper, which I’m aware she won’t keep on. She’s unresponsive, doesn’t talk. Grace has no help, but those kids are not abused.” She made herself stop talking.
“Is there something I can do, sweetheart?” Chase said from where he stood behind her mom. She knew he meant well, but she shook her head and lifted her hands helplessly.
“No. Thanks, though. If Lisa did what I think she did—no, sorry, what I know she did, those girls are now stuffed in someone’s house, an emergency placement. The real kicker is that those kids are now with someone who has no clue what to do or how to handle a child as unresponsive as their eldest, so she’ll be locked in a room or tied down, but that isn’t considered abuse when it’s not done by her parents.”
No one said anything. The joy and happiness that had filled the house moments earlier had completely vanished.
The table reserved at the hotel, set for twelve, overlooked the harbor through big windows. The snow had turned into full whiteout conditions, so the drive over had been challenging. Mark sat at the end with his brothers, Danny and Chris. Both had short red hair, but Chris also had a short beard and mustache. Damn, he had missed his brothers.
“Man, I never thought we’d see the day you’d be domesticated,” Danny teased.
Mark glanced down the table to his parents and his sisters-in-law, J.D. and Evie, as well as his two nieces, who had each grown a foot. Billy Jo’s chair beside him was empty.
“Everything okay with your bride-to-be?” Danny continued. “She’s pretty quiet.”
Mark glanced over his shoulder from the private alcove where they were dining. He could just make out Billy Jo by the front door of the restaurant, the phone to her ear. He turned back to his brothers, but his mom slid back her chair and walked across the restaurant to Billy Jo.
“Afraid I dumped something on her just as we were leaving,” he said. “Someone who’s filling in for her did something she’s trying to undo.”
His brothers exchanged a glance, and he knew he sounded cryptic. He was kicking himself, because now Billy Jo was completely focused on two kids he couldn’t do a damn thing about. Mark didn’t like feeling helpless. He felt responsible even though it didn’t make a lick of sense. His brothers lifted their gazes just as Billy Jo reappeared and sat down beside him.
“So, anything?” he said.
She reached for her glass of water and took a long swallow before shaking her head and looking over to him, shrugging. His heart sank. The happiness that had filled her eyes just that morning had been replaced by a sadness he hadn’t seen in a long time.
“I called and spoke with Nathan, who was beside himself. Said he called Grant to lodge a complaint about Lisa. He told me she stared him down as if he were something vile, and she had her mind made up the minute he opened the door. She barged in and wouldn’t take no for an answer, tossing out insults and accusations, and it didn’t matter what he said.
“He was furious and wanted to know why she was on his doorstep to begin with, which is exactly what I wanted to know. He’s been trying to find out where the girls are. I called Lisa twice, and it went right to voicemail. Pretty sure she’s screening her calls. I had already left a message for Grant, but he likely isn’t going to call me back, so I called Pam at home and found out what I needed.
“It seems the minute I left the office yesterday, little Miss Jenkins was in my office, going through files. She asked Pam to pull up every case, anything that was flagged, and apparently she’s taken it upon herself to start doing impromptu no-notice wellness checks—you know, just showing up on a doorstep to catch families off guard. She’s pulled three other kids from their homes and placed them in foster care, two off island.
“I found out that the hospital ordered psychiatric care for Nathan and Grace’s eldest girl, and the youngest is with another family I hadn’t finished vetting. There’s nothing I can do about it, because Lisa sounded the alarm and has the state authority behind her. Undoing what she did will take a long time. The kids will be separated, and with the courts closing down for the holidays, they’ll be left with strangers.” She let out a heavy sigh. “Sorry to put a damper on the night,” she said to his brothers before reaching for her red wine and taking a swallow.
“Don’t apologize for wanting to help some kids,” Chris said. “That’s shitty, what happened. So there’s nothing you can do?”
Danny, a lawyer, was looking down and shaking his head. “Happens too often. Some social worker sounds an alarm and a family’s lives are ripped apart. The system doesn’t exactly work in favor of the ones scraping by. Do what you can, Billy Jo, but you also can’t stop living.”
Mark really looked at his brother, because that was something he’d never heard him say before. “Sounds like there’s a story there,” he said, resting his arm over the back of Billy Jo’s chair, letting his hand linger on her shoulder. Damn, he couldn’t believe there was only one more day before they were official. Billy Jo looked up at him, and for a moment he wondered if she’d pull into herself.
Danny lifted his glass of the local amber on tap. “Isn’t there always? Yeah, it’ll eat you up if you let it, and then you’re no use to anyone.” He took a big swallow of his beer, looking over to him and then Billy Jo, who was leaning closer to him. “There are days I tell Evie I want out. I wish I had Dad’s love of horses and the land, but no, I have to follow in Mom’s footsteps, because I want to help people who are chewed up by the law. I don’t know. It seems the more I navigate a system that should protect the people it doesn’t, the more I see how rigged it is…”
Danny leaned back and lifted his hand, and Mark realized how out of touch he was with his family. “But we’re not here to talk about everything that’s wrong with the world. We’re here in the middle of nowhere, on an island, to get you married off. Hey, everyone, let’s have a toast to Billy Jo and Mark.” He lifted his glass and clinked it with his spoon—and then the lights went out.
“Way to go, Danny. You knocked the lights out,” Chris said as people murmured throughout the restaurant.
“Hey, let me check this out. I’ll be right back,” Mark said to Billy Jo, running his hand over her shoulder as he scraped back his chair.
“Guess there goes dinner,” she said to him, sounding unusually calm. His dad was shining his phone, standing, and so was Chase.
Mark walked over to them, pulling his phone out and flicking on the flashlight.
“Likely the snowstorm,” Jed said. The lights flicked dimly on and then off again. The wind whistled faintly, and even in the darkness, Mark could see a full-blown snowstorm through all the windows.
He looked over to his dad. “Yeah, likely a line down…”
He started walking around tables to the front, where the waitstaff were lighting candles, right over to the dining room manager, Merv, who was behind the bar, barking out orders. Mark shook his head as he turned to his dad alongside him and said, “Snowstorm on the island could knock power out for days…” Then he dialed Carmen, who answered on the first ring.
“Hey, Chief. Power’s out. Take it that’s why you’re calling.”
He shook his head. “We just ordered dinner, and everything’s gone dark. Here with my family…” Someone was talking in the background. “Are you at the office?”
“Yeah. Lacy just came back in, said all the lights are out in town. Ferry’s been canceled the rest of the night because of the storm. The forecast isn’t great. Seems this storm came out of nowhere and may not let up for a few days. Elisha is on the phone with utilities to find out more, but it’s completely dark in town. Not sure how long it will take, with only one truck on the island. Could be a tree down over a line…” The phone rang in the background, and someone answered.
“Well, find out and call me,” he said. “People start to panic and get scared. Keep your phone on and let me know what you find out.”
He hung up and took in his dad and Chase, who were leaning against the bar, talking to Merv. He pulled his hand over his face as he strode over to them.
“Power’s out to the entire island,” said one of the waitstaff who had walked out from the back. He turned to Merve. “Turned the gas off, but we’ve got ten orders in queue and food on. What about the generator?”
Everyone was looking at Mark as if he were supposed to fix this.
“You know as much as I do,” he said. “Lines are down and the power is out. Can you get the generator going, or are you going to close up?”
He had to think of what they had at home. The well needed power, and their generator needed gas, but at least there was the woodstove for heat. How much gas did he have? Maybe half a jerry can, because this wasn’t something he’d been planning on.
“No, I’ll get the generator on to finish the orders that are up,” Merv said, “but we’re not taking any more orders tonight. If anyone hasn’t ordered, apologize and let them know. Hopefully the lines aren’t down long.” Then Merv was walking away back through the kitchen.
“Well, this kind of puts a damper on things,” Chase said, gesturing to a waitress walking past with a tray of candles.
“What’s the call time like here on the island?” Jed asked.
Mark shook his head. “Well, haven’t been here that long, just over a year, but I’ve never been in a storm. Typically we have only one truck, and manpower has to come over from the mainland on the ferry. But I can tell you right now that with how bad the storm is, the ferry has been canceled for the night, so at the very least, it could be not till morning.”
The lights flicked on, and a few people cheered. His dad reached over and tapped his shoulder. “Well, there’s worse things. I’m sure we’ll figure it out. If anything, it will be a great story to tell your kids, how a big storm hit right before your wedding.”
Mark ran his hand over the back of his head as he looked over across the restaurant to where his family was waiting, talking, laughing. He shook his head. “Let’s just hope they get the power back on, because a storm on the island takes up resources. When people get scared, holidays get canceled for first responders, and the chief of police could suddenly find his wedding being postponed.”
Chase let his gaze linger on him, but Jed was shaking his head and said, “I don’t think we’re there yet. The power being out and the snowstorm aren’t problems. Light some candles. As long as you have a minister, you can have a wedding.”
All three of them looked over to the table, where Billy Jo was talking with his brothers. His family was there, and the last thing he wanted was to postpone anything, because Billy Jo wasn’t the easy-going kind of girl who could just reschedule.
No, she was damn difficult. He realized it had likely been in a moment of weakness that he convinced her to accept a Christmas wedding, and he knew her well enough to know that likely would not happen a second time.
“How long you want to run the generator tonight?” Jed called out at the front door just as Chase shoved another piece of wood in the woodstove in the living room. Billy Jo still had her coat on, and she heard the stomping of feet as Mark appeared in his down coat as well, covered in snow. She pulled at her sweater, feeling uneasy. Everything seemed to be falling apart, and for a moment, she was plagued with the feeling that simple and easy weren’t going to happen for her.
“I’m going to have to do a gas run,” Mark said. “I used all the gas in the generator. Can you fill jugs so we have some water? Do what you need to, and I’ll shut it off when I get back.” He was standing right in front of her, and she felt Lucky brush her leg, his tail wagging.
“Yeah, I hate to say this, but if the power doesn’t come back on, we may have to postpone the wedding,” she said.
He just stared down at her, and she wasn’t sure what to make of the flicker in his vibrant blue eyes. She knew he wouldn’t listen. “Nope, not going there, and neither should you,” he said. “Look, this is just a blip. We’ll figure it out. My family’s here, and so is yours. Power could come back on tonight or tomorrow. What’s wrong?”
She heard voices in the background, but Mark hadn’t moved, and she didn’t want to argue over the fact that she was still reeling, unable to shake the feeling that she’d let down two kids and a family who didn’t deserve any trouble. She made herself shake her head. “Nathan is furious with me. He may not have said it on the phone, but I could hear it in his voice. He blames me for Lisa showing up on his doorstep. I’m trying to help him get services, and I tried to explain to him that I didn’t send her. The file we had was just to help him get some funding, some resources. I swear to Almighty God, the first chance I get to wrap my hands around Lisa’s throat… I have half a mind to drive over to her place now, but lucky for her, a freak snowstorm has blanketed the island, and I wouldn’t be able to see shit behind the wheel.” She realized Mark’s brothers were staring at her, and Mark wore an amused grin.
“Well, that’s the spirit,” he said. “Keep a positive outlook. But no to killing her. I will, though, happily look away for a second while you put the fear of God into her after we’re married, after the honeymoon, when you’re back. Unfortunately, as you’ve said, you can’t do anything now, but in the meantime, you can fill some water while I get gas—if I can, with the power down.”
Then Mark’s cell phone was ringing, and he pulled it from his pocket. His brow knit. “It’s Carmen,” he said before he answered. “Hello? Yeah, okay, I’ll head over there now.” Then he hung up and leaned down to press a quick kiss to her lips. “Got to make another stop at the church. Doors are open, and Carmen can’t get a hold of the minister. Likely some kids or someone.”
“We’ll tag along, maybe get a firsthand view of my little brother, the chief,” Chris said. “And then you can drop us off at the hotel. J.D. and Evie said the hotel is turning the generator off at eleven.”
Billy Jo reached down and brushed her hand over Lucky. “No, you get to stay home,” she said to him, then watched as Mark headed out of the house with his two brothers.
“Diana, I’m going with Mark,” Jed called out as well. “We’re going to stop for some gas.”
Billy Jo just listened to the footsteps of the men and the sound of the front door closing.
“I’m going to go get some more wood,” her dad said, pulling on his coat.
Billy Jo turned to her mom and Diana.
“We should get some water jugs filled,” Diana said, rubbing Billy Jo’s arm.
“I’ll grind some coffee for the morning in case the power is still out,” her mom said.
“There are some big jugs in that far counter over there if you want to fill them up,” Billy Jo said. “So sorry about this. Not exactly the comforts of home without power. You may wish you stayed at the hotel with Danny and Chris.”
Diana and Jed were staying in one of the two bedrooms downstairs, her mom and dad in the other.
“Oh, don’t be silly. This is fine,” Diana said. “You have no idea the number of times we’ve lost power, living out of town on a well with septic. We learned fast to fill the bathtub when a storm was coming in. Always have water. You know, I can see how upset you are about those kids, and I’m going to tell you something. They’re going to be okay. This is not an ideal situation, but they’ll get through it. I grew up in foster care, I’m sure Mark told you, but I was one of the lucky ones. I had people who cared about me. I worked my way through school and became a lawyer so I could help people who need help.
“But I had a sister who died. She was severely disabled up here.” Diana tapped her head. “Not really an official diagnosis. I grew up with nothing, with a mother who didn’t care. To make a depressingly long story short, you can’t put your life and happiness on hold. You did what you could, but you are not responsible for what Lisa did. You’ll fix it when you get back, and those kids will get back with their parents, okay? This one is done. How many should we do?” Diana settled a big two-gallon jug of water on the island as her mom dumped freshly ground coffee into a plastic container.
“Just the three jugs. That’s all we have,” Billy Jo said.
Diana began filling another gallon jug as Billy Jo walked over to the cupboard and pulled out a half-gallon plastic juice carton.
“And this one,” she added, holding it up as she walked over. “Mark didn’t tell me you had a sister.”
Diana didn’t look at her. “I don’t think I ever told him. Jed knows, of course, but it was something I never talked about with the kids. I didn’t grow up in a loving home, but I made sure my boys were loved. Jed and I love them and our grandkids, and you know what?” She had filled the last jug, and she turned off the tap and faced her. “Even though it took me a long time to get past what I went through, I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t suffer the way I did. Those two kids, they’ll be okay. I’m going to tell you this again, because there will be another two, and another, and you will do what you can, but you need to look after you.”
Billy Jo realized Diana had shared something deeply personal, an old wound she hadn’t even shared with Mark. “How am I supposed to get married and pretend everything is okay?”
Diana rested her palm on the island. Even Rose had stepped in closer to listen as she said, “You don’t pretend. But let me ask you something. What are you going to accomplish by worrying? Can you speed up any of the process? Because I know well how the system works. A hearing is going to be set, and because of the holidays, nothing will happen until the new year. Reports and observations and recommendations still have to be filed by the doctor and the social worker, who is not you…” Diana said to her.
She couldn’t believe how much Diana understood about how her job worked. “But I can call Grant, my boss, and his boss. I can demand, I can…” She didn’t finish. Her mom and Diana were both watching her with a ton of sympathy. “Fine, you’re right, I’ll drive myself crazy, but what am I supposed to say to Nathan and Grace? They don’t deserve this, and honestly, I can’t blame him for his anger.”
She heard the front door kick open.
“Okay, I stacked a bunch of wood,” Chase called out. “It’s really bad out there. I could barely see anything…” He walked right past her to the woodstove, and Diana and her mom looked back at her.
“You tell him the facts, how the process works, and what he can do,” Diana said quite matter-of-factly.
“And you get married, and then you and Mark go on your honeymoon,” her mom added.
“When you get back,” Diana said, “the reports will be in, the hearing will be set, and you can go in with a clear head and be of more help to this family than you can be right now.”
She knew Diana was right, but hearing it still didn’t make her feel any better.
“You sure there’s a road here?” Chris said from the back seat.
Mark couldn’t remember ever driving in anything like this. His dad had rolled his window down and looked out as Mark gripped the wheel, slipping a few times even though his tires were good winter ones.
“How much farther?” Danny added from the back. “Shit, Mark, I can just make out a tree line. We go off the road, no one’s going to find us.”
“Both you two, knock it off,” Jed said. “Mark, just stay in the middle of the road…”
The defrost was on full blast as the snow and icy chill from the open window swept in. He spotted what he thought was the sign to the church at the edge of town.
“It’s right here,” he said. “Geez, that sign is completely covered in snow.”
The Jeep slid sideways as he turned down the driveway to the church and geared down, then steered into the skid, straightening the Jeep as he gave it some gas. The snow was piling up, and he stopped just as the church came into view.
“Maybe you should wait in the Jeep. I’ll just be a minute,” he said as he lifted his gaze to the rearview mirror and his brothers in back.
“Not a chance.” Chris tapped the back of his head.
Mark turned off the Jeep as his dad stepped out. He opened his door and stepped out as well, then reached into his pocket for his flashlight and flicked it on, lifting his jacket just enough that his holstered sidearm was within reach. He could hear his brothers climbing out, the doors closing, and he trudged in his cowboy boots through the snow. He glanced once to his dad, who was looking around much like he was, and he listened to the wind and the crunch of snow beneath his feet. There were no other cars there, and he found himself squinting as a gust of wind and snow pelted his face.
He reached the steps and the snow that covered them and made his way up, hearing the footsteps behind him. “I don’t see any tracks,” he said as he reached the door, which was closed. Weird.
“What do you want to bet it was the minister?” Jed said.
He put his hand on the knob and expected it to be locked, but it pulled open. “Okay, didn’t expect that,” he said, shining his light inside the church, which was pitch black. His breath fogged in front of him as he stepped in.
“Hello, this is Chief Friessen! Anyone here?” he called out, hearing the squeak of the floorboards as his dad and brothers followed him inside. “Pull the door closed, Danny,” he said. “That’ll keep the snow out, at least. I’m just going to take a look around.” He took in the pews, all stained dark wood, as he made his way up the aisle.
“So this is where you’re saying ‘I do’? Cute, but would be better with lights,” Danny said, and he thought Chris grunted in response. His dad said nothing, but Mark knew he was right behind him.
He shone his light at the front of the church, landing on someone in the first pew, and his arm went out on instinct toward his dad.
“Hey, you okay in here? You need some help?” he called out. He took one step and then another, shining his flashlight. The person’s coat hood was up, and he or she said nothing, leaning against the edge of the pew, not moving. He felt the slow, methodical pounding of his heart, and he pulled his gun on instinct.
“Answer me right now!” he called out. “Who are you? Dad, stay back.”
He knew the person must have heard him. He took another step, seeing boots, blue jeans, and he tapped the foot, saying, “Come on, wake up. You can’t be in here.”
He shone the light right in the face and realized it was a woman, and her eyes were open. “Shit! Damn, fuck…” He holstered his gun and pulled back the hood to shine the light in her eyes. When he touched the side of her neck to feel for a heartbeat, he knew she was dead. “Okay, stay back,” he called out. “This is a crime scene now.”
His dad had his phone out with the flashlight on. “Is she dead?”
“Yeah.” He looked back at the woman. Danny and Chris had joined them.
“She’s young,” Danny said, stepping toward him. “How old, do you think?”
He didn’t want to guess. Twenty, maybe. He only shook his head and glanced over to his brother, wondering if he’d ever seen a body before. His dad hung back, and so did Chris.
“I don’t know. This is…” He flashed his light around and pulled his phone out. “Come on, Danny, I’m serious. Get back. This is a crime scene, and with no lights here, you could be walking over all the evidence.”
“How’d she die?” Chris asked. Jed glanced once to him and back over to the young lady.
Mark had his cell phone to his ear, listening to the ring. “I don’t know. No lights, and I can’t see any blood. Come on, Danny, seriously, get back.”
“Hey, I could use your help,” Carmen said immediately upon answering. “The phone lines have gone down now, but cell towers are working. Power crew said several power poles are down, and they can’t get any more over until the ferry is running again, but until this storm lets up, it’s not going to. I’ve got people coming into the station, five seniors saying they have electric heat only. I talked with the firehouse and ambulance, and they’re going to set up a warming center at the station, where they have a generator running—”
He shut his eyes. “Carmen, I get it. Listen, I’m at the church. You said someone called in that the door was open. Who called? Because I’m here now, and the door was closed but unlocked, and there’s the body of a woman here. She’s dead.”
There was silence for a second.
“I don’t know who it was,” Carmen replied. “Lacy took the call. Just said the door was open. Do you know who it is?”
He shook his head. His dad was still shining a light on the young woman. “No idea. Never seen her before. Look, get Elisha to hold down the station. I need you out here at the church. Call the coroner, too, and pick him up if you can. The roads are bad. Visibility is zero, and the snow is piling up. And I need you to get me the number for the minister.”
He thought he heard Carmen swear under her breath. He thought of Kyle Drake, the old minister, who, according to Gail Shephard, had been with the church since her kids were born.
“I’ll have Lacy call you with his number,” she said.
He angled his head to where his dad was shining the light. “Okay, call me right back,” he said, then hung up.
“Mark, look at her right hand,” Jed said.
He shoved his phone in his pocket and walked over to the body, then squatted down, flicking his flashlight on the small hand, which appeared to be clutching a piece of paper.
“Well, what does it say?” Danny asked.
Mark glanced back to his brother and shone a light right in his eyes. “Geez, Danny, I don’t know. It’s still in her hand—you know, evidence? You’re a lawyer. What do you think a good defense lawyer would do with all this? She’s dead. There could be prints on the note, and I have no gloves.”
A small Kleenex package landed on the floor in front of him. “Here, use a Kleenex,” Chris said. Mark reached for it.
“You carry Kleenex around in your pocket?” Danny said.
“J.D. put it there. You telling me your wife doesn’t?” Chris said right back.
Mark pulled out a Kleenex and heard the floor creak behind him as his dad stepped closer, shining the light on the hand. He used a Kleenex to pull out the paper, seeing it was a note, and he stood and tucked his flashlight in his pocket.
“What does it say?” Danny asked again.
“Let Mark do his job, you two,” his dad finally cut in.
Mark used the Kleenex to unfold the paper, and he took in a list of names—all members of his family. At the top, in all bold, was the word KILL, and listed below were the names of everyone he loved, including Billy Jo, his parents, his brothers, their wives, and his two nieces.
“Those are our names,” he heard Danny say, and he looked over his shoulder to see his dad and brothers standing right there, everyone staring at the names on the list that had been in the hand of a dead woman in a church on the eve of his wedding.
“Yeah,” Mark said.
“A kill list?” Chris said.
“It is,” was all he could get out, his heart thumping long and loud.
His dad rested his hand on his shoulder as he said, “Lord Almighty, son, just what the hell did you do?”
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Narrated by Mikaela Del Rey
He can have any woman, except the one he wants.
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