All the hairs on the back of Julia Collier’s neck stood on end.
This was a bad idea. She shouldn’t have come here, not in the afternoon when there were so many people about. Putting the pickle jar back on the shelf with a small click, she tried to ignore the man at the end of the aisle.
One of her ex-husband’s goons, he’d been following her all day. Never approaching, never talking to her, just a constant visual reminder that Buddy owned the big mill outside town, and by extension Greenwood itself, and that she wasn’t welcome.
Standing for a moment in front of the pickles, she pushed back the tears that wanted to well up and spill over onto her cheeks. She wouldn’t cry, not in front of that asshole. There was no way she’d give him, or Buddy, or anyone, the satisfaction. Greenwood was a small town and everyone talked. It was a one-road town where everyone knew each other. Hell, most of the town’s inhabitants were related to one another in some way.
She picked up jars and put them back again, playing for time as she got herself together. Once she’d thought the close-knit community was heaven, but instead it had turned out to be hell on earth. At least for her. Buddy had left her six months ago to move into one of the swanky big new houses over on the other side of town with his blonde bimbo secretary. Ever since, he’d mounted a smear campaign against Julia that had been shocking in its viciousness. Now most, if not all, of the town was against her.
To hear him tell it, Julia was a nymphomaniac alcoholic with violent tendencies who’d aborted his children to maintain her figure. Pain lanced her heart. His other claims, that her spending on clothes and plastic surgery had brought him to the point of bankruptcy, didn’t bother her, but to accuse her of killing her unborn children cut deep. Especially when the opposite was true. She’d had miscarriage after miscarriage, to the point that her doctor had told her it was unlikely she would ever be able to carry a child to term. The news had damned near destroyed her, and Buddy knew that. Bastard.
She forced steel into her frame, head up and poise in every line of her body as she turned and walked down the aisle. Once, long ago, she’d been a dancer. Even though she hadn’t danced for years, she retained the grace she’d learned in the ballroom. She was grateful for small mercies like that. It stood her in good stead during times like these.
She ignored the goon at the end of the aisle. Terry or Tommy or something. She couldn’t recall the names. This one was an outside man, brought in from a private security firm Buddy had hired because he feared for his safety from his ‘psychotic, soon-to-be-ex’ wife. What a joke.
His gaze followed her though, the deep rumble of his voice breaking the silence as she moved to walk past him. “Mr. Collier wanted to check your cell is working. He’s been unable to reach you.”
“My phone works fine, thank you.” She turned her head to give the guy a look, her face impassive. No way was she giving either him or his asshole boss a reaction, even if her heart did pound as cold sweat slicked down her spine. She knew what the message was, of course. Last week Buddy had called her late at night, his deep tones ones that used to delight her but now filled her with dread. Especially when he outlined, in chilling detail, how easy it would be to dispose of a body. She’d read the sub-text. He was telling her how easy it would be to dispose of her body.
She had few friends in Greenwood. Would they even report her missing if she disappeared? Or would they believe whatever bullshit story Buddy cooked up… that she’d decided to head into the big city to make her fame and fortune as a porn star or something? She wouldn’t put anything past him.
A shudder rolled along her spine, but she managed to keep her shoulders straight and sail past the hired thug, basket over her arm as she headed for the checkout. Other customers stopped as she passed, their gazes following her and filled with condemnation. She kept her head high and put her basket on the counter.
They don’t bother me. They’re just looking, nothing that can hurt me.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, young lady.” The thin, reedy voice came from behind. She turned to find Mrs. Kelson looking at her as though Julia was something nasty that she’d just scraped off her shoe. Her vicious expression was quite at odds with the genteel old lady she appeared to be. Julia was used to that. Never judge a book by its cover. The pretty or safe looking ones often had monsters lurking between the pages.
“Messing about a good man like Buddy Collier,” the elderly woman sneered as she looked her up and down. “He’s the best thing a creature like you could have wished for, you mark my words. He’s better off without you, baby-murdering whore.”
Julia couldn’t restrain her gasp at the vicious words, the instinctive need to suck air in as pain sliced through her heart too much for even her to control. She looked up and around, perhaps looking for one bit of support, or failing that, a face that didn’t condemn her as much as the others on the basis of one man’s lies.
She met the eyes of the man behind Mrs. Kelson. His expression was hard, cold. Her gaze skipped on, meeting the same look each time. The strip light above her turned into a spotlight, holding her captive as all those around her looked on with unfriendly eyes. A bead of cold sweat rolled down her spine. Even old Mr. Brooks behind the counter, a man she’d always seen as looking like the grandfather she never had, stared right through her, his eyes no longer smiling.
Mumbling an apology, she put her basket down by the counter and started to walk. Her heels rang out against cracked floor tiles scrubbed so many times the pattern had faded. The distance between the checkout and the door couldn’t have been more than half a dozen steps, yet it seemed like miles.
“Yeah, go. No one wants you here!”
Something hit her shoulder and splattered across her back. A tomato. She ignored it sliding down her back and carried on walking. Tears drove hot needles into the back of her eyeballs, but she gritted her teeth and blinked. Hard.
She wouldn’t cry. Not here, and certainly not now, in front of this group of vultures. What was a group of vultures called… a murder? Or was that crows? She frowned, not able to remember which it was at the moment. It didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that she put one foot in front of the other and got her ass the hell out of there.
The street seemed clear when she stepped through the door. Breathing a sigh of relief, she headed for her car just down the block. The ageing sedan was nothing like the prestige motors Buddy drove, but it was all hers. She passed the vehicle parked next to it, and paused mid-step, her eye catching on something that wasn’t right.
Her tires had been slashed.
She stood for a moment, fighting back the thick feeling in her throat as her gaze sought out the back tire. Slashed as well. Viciously. The rubber wasn’t just slashed to let them down, it was shredded. Whoever had wielded the blade had put some effort into the job.
“Great.” The small word slipped out before she could stop it, but it was soft and wouldn’t carry to anyone around her on the street. She sighed. There was no point in calling the local garages; they were all in Buddy’s pocket. She’d need to call someone from out of town to collect it.
Resettling her purse strap on her shoulder, she started walking. The skin between her shoulder-blades prickled as though someone was watching her, but she kept her head down. She was the scarlet woman. A baby-murdering nympho who’d screwed about with Greenwood’s favorite son. Someone was always watching her.
The feeling became stronger and she couldn’t resist the compulsion to look up. Just ahead of her a man leaned against the side of a truck. Tall and broad-shouldered, he wore a suit like the rest of Buddy’s goons, but seemed a little more refined somehow. She kept the frown off her face, but it was there on the inside.
This one was a little out of the mold for Buddy. Normally he hired the local brainless goons, but this guy looked different. Sharper. When she was a teen, she’d spent enough time working Grayson’s Diner up on the highway to recognize ex-military when she saw it.
“Having a little trouble, ma’am?”
She couldn’t see his eyes thanks to the dark shades, unusual on such an overcast day, but his voice bore out her earlier suspicion. It was accent-neutral, a tell-tale sign of a soldier who’d spent a lot of time deployed away from home.
“Not at all,” she answered with a smile, as though she often decided to take a walk in the hair-frizzling humidity instead of driving. She could do with the exercise anyway. “Just taking a walk since it’s such a lovely day.”
“Very good, ma’am.” He inclined his head as she passed, calling after her. “You be careful now, the heat can be… treacherous.”
The walk home wiped all of Julia’s energy, her steps almost shuffling and her clothing soaked with sweat by the time she reached the small house she was renting. Thankfully the place was owned by a national chain, so she didn’t have to be worried about eviction as long as she paid her rent on time. Which just left the worry that Buddy would have her killed off and buried in a shallow grave somewhere out of town.
One long, cool shower and a nap later, she wandered into the kitchen to pour a large glass of wine. A glance out of the window into the garden assured her that the shadows had begun to lengthen into evening. This time of year, darkness would fall quickly, but that didn’t bother her. A night owl, she liked to sit outside on the porch and watch the stars.
She put the bottle back in the fridge and turned. There was someone standing in her garden, a shadowy broad-shouldered someone by the bushes in front of the back fence. She shrieked, shock loosening her grip on her glass, and it fell to shatter on the tiles.
“Shitshitshit,” she muttered, glancing at the mess on the floor for a second before fear dragged her gaze back to the window. The figure was gone, as though it had never been. Someone had been there though. She hadn’t imagined it.
Her gaze shot to the side door. The front she always locked, but had she locked the side door after taking the garbage out? Shit, she couldn’t remember, and even so, the flimsy lock wouldn’t stand up to much. She needed to throw the deadbolt.
Heart slamming against her ribs, she slid her feet through the broken glass, trying to push it out of the way instead of stepping on it. Shards stabbed into the delicate skin, but she gritted her teeth and carried on. Secure the house first, deal with the blood later. A footstep on the porch outside drew a squeak from her lips and she threw herself across the remaining space to throw the bolt.
She leaned against the wall by the door, her breathing coming in ragged pants as she listened. The soft chuckle on the other side of the door froze her in place. She hadn’t imagined it; there was someone outside.
Buddy’s men. This was it. Tonight was the night he’d been telling her about in his little body-disposal call last week.
Fear galvanized her, and she took off across the kitchen. Blood on her feet made them slippery and she almost fell on the wooden floor in the hall, one shoulder slamming hard into the wall but she recovered immediately and hit the stairs. Taking them two at a time, she turned right at the top and raced into her bedroom.
Her hands shook as she yanked open the drawer on the bedside cabinet. At the back was a handgun, one given to her by her lone friend in the town, Thomas. Her fingers closed around it, and she yanked it free to check it as she’d been shown. As she did, she moved to the window, trying to look down on the back garden from behind the blinds. Dark figures moved in the lengthening shadows.
“Oh my god .” There was more than one of them.
Trying to suppress her panic, Julia reached for the phone by her bed and lifted it to her ear. It was dead.
“Nonono....” She pressed the button a couple of times, waiting for the tone, but it remained stubbornly dead. They’d cut the phone line. “Shit.”
Dropping the phone, she took another look down into the garden. Three figures stood motionless, watching the house. As though they sensed her attention, all three looked up. A cold chill washed over her, and she backed up out of sight, looking around the room. Without a car, she was screwed. Probably with it as well, since she was sure they’d have the front of the house covered. And since no one in this town gave a rat’s ass about her, screaming wouldn’t help.
She needed her cell, needed to call Thomas. The local sheriff, he could help her, even if it was only getting her to the nearest city she could disappear into.
“Dammit. Downstairs.” She’d left her purse by the front door. She had to get to it, before they got in.
Ignoring the bloody footprints she left in her wake, she launched herself out of the room, thundering down the stairs. No sense in being quiet. They knew she was in here. Almost at the bottom, she screamed when she heard the back door burst open. Turning that way, she fired blindly, backing up to reach her purse. If she could just get her cell.
“Hello, ma’am. Pleasure to see you again.”
She turned, eyes wild and heart pounding, to find the guy from the street by the front door, her purse dangling from his hand. But something was wrong. He wasn’t wearing shades now and his eyes were too dark.
Then he smiled, revealing sharp fangs. Julia screamed and turned to run. These weren’t Buddy’s men, but she didn’t care. One nightmare or another, if she didn’t get out of here, she was going to die.
She didn’t make it. Another figure stepped into her path, a hard hand closing around the handgun and plucking it from her grasp with ease.
“Well hello, pretty one,” he leered down at her.
Tall and handsome, he could easily have passed for a poster boy. Except for the darkness in his eyes and the cruel twist to his lips. She shivered, unable to stop the whimper escaping her lips as he leaned down.
“I do hope the boss lets me have a little playtime with you when he’s done.”