Monday, October 8
Impossible to believe but that’s all it had taken for the idyllic vision of Shutter Lake, California, lauded by Country Living as the most perfect town in all of America, to prove perfection is a façade and all the safety and security sought and found in it had been an illusion.
One murder. Illusion shattered.
One murder, and so many secrets…
A shiver crept up Dr. Dana Perkins’s backbone. She stiffened against it, determined to reclaim her sense of security here. At the deli counter inside Stacked, a block off downtown’s main square, she ordered a grilled chicken sandwich with a side salad and a bottle of Evian berry-flavored water, then glanced over to the cluster of two-dozen tables. About half-full. A lot of people were having a late lunch today.
Dana took a table surrounded by empties then settled in and reached for a sheaf of papers from her tote. She had been through the school records at least a dozen times, but maybe in the sandwich shop, she would be more objective, gain some new insight, and see something she had missed.
Oh, but she needed to be certain she hadn’t missed anything. After Phoenix, to retain her sanity she had to be absolutely certain she hadn’t missed any warning sign.
There had to be a reason this year’s best and brightest student had confessed to murder. Some logical, rational reason that Vinn Bradshaw, gifted future nanotechnologist, studious, popular basketball player, who exhibited nothing short of fantastic leadership skills, confessed. Vinn could not have killed anyone much less a prominent Shutter Lake founder’s daughter like Sylvia Cole.
Nolan Ikard, about thirty, tall and lean with sandy blond hair and a handsome man’s confident swagger, paused at her table. Nolan owned The Grind, a coffee shop sharing a common wall with Stacked that Dana frequented every morning on her walk from home to the school.
“How’s our favorite principal?” Nolan asked. “Things settling down any at S.L.S.?”
Many students, current and former, referred to Shutter Lake School as S.L.S. “Getting better,” she said because it was expected and not because it was true. “The students are still rattled, but then aren’t we all?”
He nodded and avoided her eyes, his own gold-flecked ones clouded and troubled. “Guess the kids won’t settle down until their parents do. Maybe we will all get back to normal soon.”
“Maybe we will.” Dana smiled.
He walked on to his favorite table beside hers and next to the front window. How many times in the last year had she seen him staring out that window as if he had lost his last friend? She’d been tempted often to ask if he was okay, or to offer to listen if he needed to talk, but something had held her back. She couldn’t say what, but she always followed her instinctive urges on things like that. In his case, she hoped she didn’t live to regret it.
A waitress Dana didn’t recognize delivered her order. She must be from Grass Valley. She hadn’t been one of Dana’s students.
That was a perk of being principal of a school with three-hundred students. You knew them, and they knew you. The other items on the waitress’s tray were Nolan’s. Cuban sandwich and a side of slaw. A hint of citrus, garlic and a splash of white wine gave the mustard on his sandwich a distinct scent that set her mouth to watering. It smelled spicy and tart, interesting. It smelled great.
When the waitress placed his food on the small square table in front of him, Nolan barely glanced at her. That piqued Dana’s curiosity and fired a red-flag warning too bold to ignore. Nolan Ikard not flirting with an eligible woman? Normally, he’d flirt with a lamppost. Oh, not offensive flirting, just friendly flirting. It was as natural to him as breathing. But not today.
Apparently his perfect façade of Shutter Lake also had shattered—and Dana certainly shouldn’t make too much of it. Everyone in the community seemed disturbed and wary and disillusioned these days.
Shifting her thoughts to her work, she studied the details in Vinn’s files and nibbled at her food, wishing she’d dared to order Nolan’s hot and spicy Cuban. Stacked made the best sandwiches and slaw in the tri-county area, but with Dana’s stomach acting up since Vinn’s confession, she didn’t dare to risk eating anything not mild.
About a third of the way through the teachers’ observation notes, she spotted Kristina Sharapova’s name. Her image sprang to mind: long dark hair and eyes, pale skin and a mischievous smile that was nothing short of infectious because it was so rare. Kristina bent toward being serious, which was normal for a teenage Russian exchange student. They competed so fiercely for the chance to come to Shutter Lake to study.
Thanks to the wealthy and childless benefactors, the Windermeres, there were always foreign exchange students at Shutter Lake School. Attending there was an amazing opportunity for all the students really. A group of the most gifted professionals in the world in science, medicine, and industry designed and created the nearly self-sustaining community and they often shared their vast pool of knowledge and expertise with the students.
Dana was proud of the program she and Mayor Thomas Jessup had created. In two short years, its success rate at preparing knowledgeable, socially mature and motivated graduates had surpassed expectations and her wildest dreams.
On Kristina’s first day with them, she had been like a fish out of water. Who wouldn’t be? Strange school, no familiar friends or faces. Living in a strange country and speaking a foreign language. But Vinn Bradshaw had picked up on her uneasiness. Without prompting, he’d taken her under his wing and helped her fit in. They were, according to the file observation note, good friends.
Dana too had been wrong about that. She reached into her tote for a pen, accidentally pulled out a large Ziploc bag, and smiled to herself. Every teacher she’d ever known carried a waterproof bag in her handbag or tote. Old habits die hard. Stuffing the frosted bag back in, she snagged the pen and then scribbled a new note on a page she had labeled “Things to tell Laney.”
Laney Holt was the Deputy Chief of Police and lead investigator on Sylvia Cole’s murder case. A beautiful young blond who favored long hair and ponytails over short red hair like Dana’s and, guessing, a year or two younger than Dana’s thirty-four. Not just friends. She added the note to the list.
Laney Holt breezed by Dana’s table with an order of fries and a bottle of flavored water then dropped into a seat at Nolan’s table.
He didn’t look happy to see her.
Gauging by the level look she laid on him, she wasn’t happy to see him either. “I still need your DNA,” Laney told Nolan.
Dana didn’t deliberately listen but, when people seated three feet from you talk, unless you cotton-stuff your ears, you can’t help overhearing their conversation.
“Why?” Surprise flickered through Nolan’s eyes. “You’ve got your killer. Word’s out all over the lake Vinn Bradshaw confessed.”
Laney finished chewing a fry, swallowed and then sipped from her water bottle. “Paperwork,” she said.
“You want my blood to check off a box to make sure your case sticks?” He shot her a resent-laced look of disgust.
“Exactly.” Her lips curved in a smile that never touched her eyes.
“And?” He pushed.
“And a witness saw a man fitting your description running away from Sylvia Cole’s house the night she was murdered. Chief McCabe wants no loose ends.”
“I don’t care what McCabe wants.” Nolan frowned. “You clowns get a description that fits half the men around here and naturally you come after me.”
Laney’s voice stiffened, but her expression appeared as calm as it had before the tension between them rocketed. “This clown is trying to eliminate you as a possibility, Ikard.” She tilted her head. “Wait a second. Are you saying it was you?”
Laney bit into another fry, let the silence stretch, yawn, settle. Finally, she asked, “Did Sylvia tell you she was planning a vacation to Venezuela?”
Dana’s heart rate sped. She kept her nose down and her gaze focused on her papers. One night after Yoga class at the Community Gathering Center, Sylvia had told Dana about that trip. A few weeks ago, Sylvia had even come to Dana’s cottage to see her mask collection. They’d talked for a few hours. Before Phoenix and coming to Shutter Lake, Dana had loved to travel. She’d spent her summers exploring, including three trips to Venezuela.
Nolan answered Laney. “Sylvia didn’t tell me anything about any vacation anywhere. We didn’t talk much.”
“So was it you—running away from her house that night?”
As if she hadn’t heard him, Laney went on. “There’s one thing I don’t understand.” She polished off her last fry, took a long draw on her water. “Why did you climb out of the window instead of leaving through the door?”
She dusted the salt from her fingertips with a paper napkin. “I get that Shutter Lake is a small community and maybe you two didn’t want to broadcast your intimate relationship, but…the window?”
“I told you.” Nolan’s jaw tightened and he leaned forward in his seat. “Sylvia and I were friends back in school. It was a long time ago. You knew her. That woman had no interest in a relationship with me or anyone else. She was as independent as people come.”
“Just in it for the sex. Got it.” Not one to cower, Laney leaned in, spoke to him nearly nose to nose. “So you went out the window to show her you’re independent, too. Uh-huh. Well, that makes perfect sense.” Her sarcasm couldn’t be missed. She scooted back her seat then stood up. “You’ve got twenty-four hours to come to the station and handle that DNA sample.”
“Or what?” he said, his voice a sharp and cutting tone Dana had never before heard him utter. “No. You know what? Forget it.” He glared up at Laney. “You want my DNA, get with my lawyer.”
“You have a lawyer?” Laney bared her teeth in a would-be smile. “Does he have a name?”
Her smile turned genuine. “Ah, here’s a tip. You might want to start looking for a replacement. Barton is Vinn’s lawyer.” She turned. “Twenty-four hours, Ikard.”
Nolan didn’t draw a breath until Laney exited the door of Stacked and stepped out onto the sidewalk.
Muttering and agitated, he finished his meal.
Dana ordered a cup of coffee, studied her papers with her mind whirling, and waited.
Finally, Nolan left and, when the door closed behind him, she phoned Laney. “You need to come back to Stacked right away.”
“Nothing. Just get back here as fast as you can.” Dana caught the waitress two steps away from Nolan’s table. “Don’t touch anything.”
The startled waitress jerked back and darted a worried look at Dana. “What?”
“Don’t touch anything on that table.” Dana hated this. But Vinn’s whole future could ride on what happened next, and no one was going to rob him of it. Not on her watch.
Scant minutes later, Laney entered Stacked and rushed straight over to Dana. “What’s wrong?”
“I told you on the phone, nothing is wrong.”
Laney stilled, parked a hand on her hip. “Then why am I here, Dana?”
“On TV, I saw an investigator going through a person of interest’s trash. The can wasn’t on his property, it was at the curb, waiting for the collector. He said once trash is abandoned, it’s legal for him to look in it for evidence. Is that true?”
“Well, yes,” Laney said, looking a little bewildered. “If it can be proven that it wasn’t contaminated.”
Dana rubbed an itch at her earlobe, tugging it. “Meaning, no one else touched the abandoned trash?”
Dana nodded toward Nolan’s table. “Well, Nolan Ikard abandoned his trash at that table and left Stacked. His DNA is on that fork and glass.”
Laney’s eyes narrowed. “Has anyone—“
Dana cut in. “The waitress delivered his food, but since he abandoned the trash, the table and departed, no one else has come near that table. It’s untouched,” Dana said. “I’ll swear to it.”
Laney nodded, appreciation lighting her eyes. “Let me grab an evidence bag.”
Dana pulled the Ziploc from her purse. “Here you go.”
A smile curled Laney’s lips. “How long has that puppy been in your purse?”
Good question. One Dana couldn’t answer. “Not a clue.”
“Best use mine, then.” Laney retrieved a bag and gathered the evidence. She turned to the waitress. “You can clear the table now. Thanks for waiting.”
Dana gathered her papers and put them back into the sheath, then dumped the file into her tote.
Laney stepped over to her, the filled evidence bag in hand. “Thanks.”
“Why did you do this?” Laney’s sunglasses rested parked atop her head.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. An opportunity arose, so…”
“You seized it. I see.” Laney faced Dana squarely. “You’re convinced Vinn is innocent.”
“I know he is innocent, Laney. Just as I know, until the real murderer is behind bars, I have three hundred other kids still in jeopardy.”
“How do you know Vinn’s confession isn’t real? You’re a school principal and a psychologist, for heaven’s sake. You know better than most that given the right circumstances anyone can kill.”
“Yes, of course, I do. But Vinn didn’t. For those same reasons, I know that, too,” Dana said quietly. “I just can’t prove it.”
“I hear an unspoken yet on the end of that remark.” Compassion crossed Laney’s face and settled into a frown. “Dana, you want to protect your students. I get that. I want to protect them, too.”
“Of course, you do.”
“Well, then. Let’s do what we do best. You are the pro at the school, so I won’t try to run it, and I’m the pro at police work, so don’t you try to run my investigation, okay? Just do your job and let me do my job.”
“Sharing a few notes, but I wouldn’t dream of interfering.”
Laney cleared her throat. “Course not.” She backed up a step and checked her watch. “If I hurry, I can get this to the lab before the press conference.”
“Don’t forget girls’ night out. Wednesday night.”
“Seven o’clock. The Wine and Cheese House,” Laney said. “I’ll be there.” She stopped and looked back. “Did you remind Julia?”
“She’s on my list,” Dana said. Julia Ford, a former investigative journalist who now wrote a weekly column for The Firefly, their community newspaper, which also ran in The Sacramento Bee, tended to forget. Actually, trying to forget is what had brought her to Shutter Lake—not that anyone knew it, and those who did, like Dana, were sworn to secrecy on the subject. “I told Ana, too,” Dana added. Dr. Ana Perez ran the medical clinic. She was single like the rest of them and she might be able to offer valuable insight on Vinn.
“Sounds good,” Laney said, then rushed out the door on her way to the lab.
Dana gathered the rest of her things. With luck, she could catch Thomas at his office. If anyone could get Chief McCabe to let her in to see Vinn, it’d be the mayor. One way or another, she had to get in to see Vinn.
If Thomas Jessup’d had half as much trouble calming the community as she’d had calming her staff, students and their parents, they both could use a soothing word, a quiet dinner and a stiff drink. Maybe two…
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