Authors: Todd Ritter
“This year,” Burt continued, “you’re asking for new patrol cars.”
“New Dodge Chargers,” Kat added.
Top-of-the-line ones at that. The department in Mercerville, the next town over, got some two years ago. They were sleek and safe and fast as hell, an asset Kat never really thought was necessary until the events of last year.
“Unfortunately,” Burt said, “you’re not getting them. There’s just not enough money in the budget. Nor is there any money for a new hire, even though you’ve made it abundantly clear that you want another officer in the ranks.”
Burt never stopped smiling. Kat had seen more sincere grins on corpses, and she wanted to wipe it off Burt’s face with the back of her hand.
“I’m just doing my job,” he said.
“And I’m doing mine. Which is looking out for my department.”
“This isn’t just about your department. We’re all making sacrifices here.”
The word made Kat roll her eyes. “Sacrifices? Talk to the families of the people who died last year. They’ll tell you all about sacrifice, Burt.”
“I know things were bad—”
“It was a serial killer.” Kat spoke slowly, elongating every word. “Living in this town. And every day I think about the lives I could have saved if there had been one more cop on the streets.”
“Considering that death toll, you should feel lucky to still have a job at all.”
Jumping out of her chair, Kat stood chest to chest with Burt. It didn’t matter that he was a foot taller than her. Nor did it matter that the mayor, along with the rest of the town council, was technically her boss. He was implying that she hadn’t done everything in her power to protect her town at the height of the Grim Reaper killings, and Kat couldn’t let that slide.
“I don’t like you, Burt,” she said, anger heating her cheeks. “You don’t like me. That’s fine. Neither of us gives a damn. But if you ever doubt my commitment to this town again, I swear to God, I’ll—”
Kat didn’t know what she was going to say next. A thousand different responses popped into her head, each more risky than the last. The one on the tip of her tongue, just waiting to be set free, was “yank that mole right off your face.”
Fortunately, she never got the chance. Just as she was about to say it, her cell phone rang, cutting off her torrent of anger. Saved by the bell. Literally.
She paused, breathing hard, as the cell phone continued to ring. She backed away from Burt Hammond, finally noticing just how much he towered over her five-foot-tall frame.
“I think you should go now,” she said.
Burt nodded and said tersely, “That’s a good idea. We’ll discuss this later. Hopefully after you learn to control your emotions.”
He left Kat alone with her pounding heartbeat and her ringing cell phone. She answered it with a rattled “Hello?”
“I’m just outside of town.”
The caller was Nick Donnelly, who had never met a greeting he didn’t like to forsake. The lead state police investigator during the Grim Reaper killings, he was fired after assaulting an employee at the county hospital. Normally, Kat frowned upon such behavior, but since his actions saved her life, she cut him some slack.
“Outside of what town?” Kat asked.
“Yours. I’m meeting a client there.”
When he was booted from the Pennsylvania State Police, Nick started a nonprofit foundation devoted to cracking unsolved cases. His clients were mostly families of victims seeking answers to long-forgotten mysteries. If one of his clients was in Perry Hollow, that meant the crime most likely occurred there, too.
Only there weren’t any unsolved crimes in Perry Hollow. It was a tiny town, a speck of commerce amid the mountains and forests of southeast Pennsylvania. Before the Grim Reaper murders, the crime rate had been almost nonexistent. If there was a cold case buried among the old files that filled the station’s basement, Kat didn’t know about it.
“Who’s the client?”
Nick played coy. “I’ll tell you when I get there. Let’s meet at Big Joe’s in fifteen minutes.”
“Not until you tell me who hired you.”
“I’ll do you one better and tell you who the case is about.”
The name made Kat gasp. She couldn’t tell if Nick heard it or not. Knowing him, he did. But at that moment, she didn’t care. She was too busy wondering why someone was interested in the Olmstead case—and how Nick’s involvement would quickly and inevitably drag her into it.
A storm was coming. Nick felt it in his right knee as he shuffled up the sidewalk to Big Joe’s. It was a steady throbbing at the joint, which was held together by titanium pins and polyurethane supports. After the surgery, Nick joked that he was a few bolts shy of being the Six Million Dollar Man. In reality, though, he had become a walking weather vane, able to pick up a low-pressure system from miles away.
The one he detected that morning was a whopper. He had no idea what direction it was traveling or when it would reach Perry Hollow, but the buzzing pain he felt told him it was most definitely on its way. The knee didn’t lie.
The downside to feeling the weather was that it also made walking difficult. Nick’s right leg felt like jelly whenever he put weight on it, which made his limp more pronounced. By the time he entered Big Joe’s, he was leaning on his cane so much he felt like Tiny Tim.
Kat was already inside, as Nick knew she would be, and waved when she saw him. Nick tried to wave back, which wasn’t easy with one hand still holding the door and the other firmly gripping his cane. The end result was an awkward shifting of limbs and jabbing of elbows that ended with him simply nodding a greeting.
The coffee shop was laid out in such a way that walking a straight line from the door to the counter was impossible. Instead, patrons had to wind their way around tiny tables scattered across the floor. It was annoying for someone with two good legs. Since Nick was technically working with one and a half, he found it to be a royal pain in the ass.
“Sit,” Kat said. “I’ll get your coffee.”
Nick declined the offer. “I can do it. My physical therapist says I need to learn how to do things for myself. The bitch.”
His physical therapist, a brick house of a woman named Shirley, also told him he needed to rely less on the cane and more on his leg. He was using the cane as a crutch, she said, which made Nick logically ask, “Isn’t that what it’s for?”
Shirley hadn’t found that very funny. Nick did, because he had no intention of laying off the cane. For one thing, it helped him get around. It also, he had to admit, was a pretty cool accessory. The staff was solid teak. The handle was bronze, sculpted into the shape of a pit bull. A gift from his former colleagues in the state police, its meaning was clear—never stop being tenacious.
He took that message to heart, even if it meant limping to the counter of an overpriced coffee joint and ordering an extralarge house blend. Once the coffee was in hand, he returned to the table, sat down, and let out a relieved sigh. The knee felt better with some weight off it. And now that he was indoors, the Weather Channel embedded inside it had been muted.
“How’s the leg?” Kat asked.
“Still hurts, but I’ll live.”
“And because of it, so will I.”
Nick had shattered his knee while saving Kat’s life, although she didn’t make a big deal out of it and neither did he. Both of them liked it that way.
“Have you heard from Henry?” Nick asked.
He was referring to Henry Goll, the other person he had destroyed his leg to save. Like Kat, Henry had come face-to-face with the killer known as the Grim Reaper and lived to tell about it. Barely. Now he was in Italy. Maybe. Nick wasn’t sure anymore. All he knew was that Henry was no longer in Perry Hollow, and the town was poorer for it.
“Nothing since New Year’s Day,” Kat said, frowning. “And I honestly doubt I’ll hear from him again.”
Nick took that as a sign that he should drop the subject. He did, turning his attention to a sheet of paper that he removed from a jacket pocket and placed on the table. The page was a reproduction of an old newspaper article, accompanied by a photograph of a boy who had a tiny nose and jug-ears. He wore a shirt and tie and had spit-slicked blond hair, leading Nick to assume it was a school picture. And although the boy was giving a lopsided smile, there was sadness in his eyes.
Above the article and photo was a simple, devastating headline:
PERRY HOLLOW BOY, 10, MISSING
“Charlie Olmstead,” Kat said.
“So you know the story?”
“Everyone in town has heard about Charlie.”
“What happened to him?”
“No one knows. Which is probably why everyone has heard about him.”
Nick stabbed the article with an index finger. “The story is pretty vague. Although it quotes the police chief at the time. Jim Campbell. Does that name ring a bell?”
The man in question was Kat’s father, who had been Perry Hollow’s police chief until he died when she was eighteen. Nick knew this bit of information, and Kat knew that he knew. He had hoped it would make her smile. Instead, she frowned at the page.
“This was a long time ago, Nick.”
“And it’s really the foundation’s next case?”
“As a matter of fact, it is.”
The Sarah Donnelly Foundation was named after Nick’s sister, who was murdered when he was ten. The killer was never caught, but Nick had a pretty good idea who did it. Since that man had died in jail years ago, there would be no closure for him. That’s where the foundation came in. The Philadelphia newspapers referred to Nick as a cold case philanthropist. Nick couldn’t have said it better himself. His mission was straightforward—find unsolved cases and solve them. It didn’t matter if his clients were rich or poor, young or old, city slickers or backwoods hillbillies. They needed closure and Nick tried to help them get it.
Other than himself, everyone who worked on a case did so on a voluntary basis. Kat had helped him out in the past, flipping through files, riding with him to distant crime scenes, even calling a few police colleagues in other towns and asking for information. Only this time, the situation was different. Her town was involved. So was her father’s police work. It understandably put her on edge.
“You know I’m happy to share whatever information I have,” she said. “If you want, we can go to the station’s basement right now and take a look at the report. But if you’re expecting me to help, I can’t. The case has been officially closed for decades.”
“Would it change your mind if I told you who hired me?”
Kat sighed. “Not likely.”
“You talked to Eric?”
She had done a good job of trying to temper her surprise. Her voice remained steady. Her body stayed loose. The only thing she couldn’t control was a slight widening of the eyes, which Nick naturally noticed. He was good at spotting the little things that betrayed people’s emotions. It’s what had made him a great cop.
“I guess you two knew each other,” he said.
Nick watched her closely, searching for the slightest sign that told him the whole story. But Kat was on to him. She remained as still as a stone, her face and voice a complete blank. This was uncharacteristic for Kat, whose emotions were usually so transparent they could have been pinned right next to her badge. She knew Eric Olmstead better than she let on.
“What can you tell me about him?”
“It was a long time ago,” Kat said. “You’d get more accurate information from the Internet. He probably has a page on Wikipedia.”
Nick had looked at it five minutes after getting off the phone with him. He’d done a Google search, too, finding out lots of useless tidbits about Perry Hollow’s most famous native son. Eric Olmstead, forty-three, author of seven bestselling mysteries. Two-time winner of the Edgar Award. Sometimes played baseball with John Grisham and guitar with Stephen King. The search yielded links to his official Web site, to fan fiction based on his most famous creation, private eye Mitch Gracey, to online retailers that sold all of his books.
What Nick couldn’t find was any reference to his brother or why, after more than forty years, Eric Olmstead was so interested in finding out what happened to him. Their conversation had been brief, covering only the basics of his brother’s disappearance—who, what, and when. The why part had been omitted, although finding that out was the point of Nick’s midweek jaunt to Perry Hollow.
“Do you know why he’d ask me to look into Charlie’s disappearance?”
Kat nodded while simultaneously taking a sip of her coffee—the skills of a hard-core java junkie. “I suspect it has something to do with his mother. She died two weeks ago.”
“Interesting. I guess I’ll find out soon enough. Want to tag along?”
“To pay Eric a visit. I told you I was coming here to meet a client.”
This almost made Kat drop her mug. “Eric’s still in Perry Hollow?”
“So he says,” Nick replied. “Might be nice to see him. Catch up on old times.”
“I never said we had old times.”
“You didn’t need to.”
Kat abruptly stood, pushing in her chair so hard that it slammed against Nick’s good knee. While she acted apologetic, Nick remained suspicious. The topic of Mr. Olmstead seemed to bring out the worst in her.
“So are you going with me or not?” he asked.
Kat paused at the door, holding it open for Nick and his cane. “Of course.”
“Good. In the car, you can tell me all about how Eric Olmstead broke your heart.”
And with that, Kat let go of the door. It slammed shut inches from Nick’s face, forcing him to struggle once again to open it while wrangling with his cane. Through the glass, he saw Kat watching him with what could only be described as bemusement.
“That,” Nick yelled through the door, “was not an accident!”
Kat smiled sweetly. “Neither was the chair.”
Sitting in front of his laptop, staring at the blank screen he had faced so many times before, Eric typed two words: