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Authors: Dana Marton

Deathscape

             
             
1

DEATHSCAPE

A Romantic Suspense Novel

by
Dana Marton

 

 

with contribution by A.G. Devitt

 

 

--He will do anything to put her in jail for her crimes… even if he’s falling in love with her.--

 

Copyright © 2012

Dana Marton

 

 

 

~~~***~~~

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

The fox behind the hundred-year-old Pennsylvania farmhouse inched forward in the withered grass as it stalked the meadow vole. Gray winter clouds rolled above, forcing their way across the sky, large brutes that had been twisted into violent shapes by the winds of the troposphere. The fox paid little mind to the weather, its eyes on its prize.

At the other end of the farmyard loomed a dilapidated barn, filled with the scent of moldy hay and rotting wood—the sweet scent of decay. A man crouched in the shadows of the hayloft, looking out through a gap in the boards to watch the fox.

Some hunters stalked their prey; others baited their trap, then lay in wait for the ambush. He preferred the challenge of setting up the right trap, drawing his victim to him. He liked to think his way, since it required more finesse, was the nobler way.

Anyone could follow a guy into a dark alley and shoot him in the back. But a quick death was not what he had in mind for today. Detective Sullivan had dogged him for too long, had caused too much trouble. Outsmarting the guy over the years might have provided some amusement, but not enough to let him live. He’d reached too close this time.

The man glanced at the tool case at his feet. He couldn’t allow the detective to jeopardize his legacy. His masterpiece had to be preserved for all the ages, for the generations that would be evolved enough to understand and appreciate it.

Outside, the fox pounced; then, a second later, it allowed the wriggling rodent to escape for a few staggering steps before pouncing again. A quick kill left no time to savor, gave the hunter no chance to improve his skills. Then the fox’s ears flicked, and in the next instant, it snatched up the vole and darted into the stand of barren bushes.

Sullivan’s black sedan rolled down the dirt road at last.

The detective had come alone. He would. He was that cocky.

A good hunter knew his prey and used its weaknesses.

The man in the hayloft pushed to his feet as the car rolled to a silent stop. Sullivan got out, surveyed the buildings and the surrounding barren fields, his right hand staying close to the weapon in his holster. He started for the house, crossing the yard in careful strides.

He almost walked past the chunk of bone, damn near tripped over it before he froze mid-step. Judging by the way his expression darkened, he realized pretty fast that the broken section of femur was human.

He squatted and bagged the piece of bone as evidence, by the book, called it in just as the first heavy, half-frozen raindrops crashed out of the sky. Instead of going back to wait in the safety of his vehicle for reinforcements, he kept going.

Jack Sullivan waited for no one. He worked with no one. He trusted no one. He asked for no quarter and didn’t give any.

Anticipation of the pleasure of taking down a man like that, taking him apart piece by piece, gave flavor to the hunt. The man in the hayloft adjusted the rubber gloves on his hands.

He had at least twenty minutes before Sullivan’s backup would show—he’d driven the distance on a half-dozen occasions in various traffic conditions and measured the time.

They would be too late.

* * *

3 days later.


Can I stay?”

The question broke Ashley Price’s heart as she crouched in her messy foyer with her daughter in her arms. She clutched her five-year-old tighter as skinny little arms wrapped around her neck. “Very soon, okay?”

Maddie—pink coat, pink boots, pink hat, pink gloves—pulled back and put on her poor-lost-puppy look. “Mo-om, you always say that. I’ll be good. I’ll be quiet when you paint. You won’t even know I’m here.”

And it broke Ashley’s heart a little more that her daughter thought she couldn’t come home because she wasn’t good enough.


I know, Peanut. It’s not about that. You could talk all you want.” She missed her daughter’s sweet chatter, had come to dread the dead silence of the house. “I’ll be better soon, and you can come home. I promise.”


You don’t look sick. You look better now.” Maddie pouted.

Ashley forced a smile. “Would you like to take your picture back to Grandpa’s place?”

They’d spent part of their day together making art, putting thin paper over various textures and making graphite rubs, then cutting and fitting the pieces together to create a new image. Maddie loved searching for different surfaces: a rough tile, sandpaper, money, the lemon grater, whatever she could find. They’d turned the rubbings into dolls and flowers and even did a giant, scaly dragon.


You can keep them,” her daughter said, the pout quickly disappearing. She wasn’t one to keep grudges. “Then you won’t be sad when I’m gone.”

Ashley blinked hard. She wasn’t going to cry in front of her daughter. And not in front of her father either.

William Price was coming back into the house, wiping his Italian leather shoes on the mat. He was tall and handsome, in his late fifties and in excellent shape. He played both
racquetball
and golf weekly, belonging to some fancy club in Philly where he and his business partners gathered to conduct informal business.

If he was more comfortable at his club than with a five-year-old drenched in pink, he didn’t show it. He doted on Maddie in a way Ashley didn’t remember him doting on her when she’d been little. Of course, back then the man had still been in the process of building his empire, while now he had the luxury of making time for family.


Come on, young lady.” He waited by the door. “You’ve kept your grandfather waiting long enough. Car’s nice and toasty.”


Can I stomp in the snow? It’s not dirty here.”

Pristine white snow was one of the advantages of living in the country.


Of course.” Ashley squeezed the little hand in hers one last time before letting go.

She waited until Maddie skipped out of hearing range, leaving the front door open so she could keep an eye on her, ignoring the icy blast of cold blowing in.


When?” She spoke the single word in a low voice.


Do you have everything you need? Can I do anything to help?”


Thanks. I’m okay.” To ask for anything would have been a sign of weakness, an indication that she hadn’t gotten her life together yet, an excuse for delaying Maddie’s return to her. “I’m fine. Really.” Everything was a negotiation with William Price, head of Price Financial Consulting, a successful center city brokerage firm.


She should be able to finish out the school year. It would be best.”

The what’s-best-for-Maddie trump card. And how could Ashley fight that?

The end of the school year dangled four unbearable months away. Her eyes burned.
Show no weakness
. She drew a deep breath and prepared to fight.

Her father spoke first. “Will you come to see us next weekend, or should I bring her out again?”

The final thrust of the knife.

Her throat burned. Her hands clenched into fists.
I’ll come to Philly.
The words were on her tongue.


You could come here,” she said instead, defeat tasting bitter in her throat. “If you don’t mind.”

She’d been tested and had failed. Again.

The implication was, if she wasn’t well enough to drive into Philadelphia, then she wasn’t well enough to take care of her daughter. She swallowed, knowing she truly wasn’t, letting any misguided jealousy and anger dissipate.

Her father didn’t know the half of her problems. Nobody did. Nobody ever would. She couldn’t let anyone find out just how crazy she was, the secret she kept. She would fight her way out of that dark hole somehow. She had to, or it would swallow her for good.

Her father glanced up at her loft studio, at the H-frame easel and the nearly complete painting on it. “Glad to see you’re making progress,” he said before he walked out the door.

An acknowledgment to give her hope. He was a hard man, but not cruel. He wouldn’t keep Maddie from her forever.

She went after him. “I’ll see you next Saturday?” The time until then stretched in front of her, interminable.


Bright and early.” He strode to his new BMW, elegant in his camel-hair coat, a distinguished gentleman of means who lived an orderly life, in a different world from hers.

Maddie hopped around the car, making a giant circle with her boot prints. When she spotted Ashley, the little girl ran back into her arms again. “You’ll call tonight to tell me a story?”


Would I ever miss calling my sweetest peanut?”

Maddie smiled. “About the princess and the unicorn?”


If that’s want you want.” She would have done anything to make her daughter happy, to keep the darkness from touching her in any way.

Which was why back when she’d been released from the hospital and had come home, Ashley had agreed for Madison to stay on with her grandfather. She’d thought it would be a short-term arrangement, but she hadn’t been able to shake the darkness. So even if she wanted to pick her baby up and carry her back into the house right now, she didn’t.

She would regret that decision from the moment the car pulled away until it appeared at the end of her driveway again a week from today. But when one of her spells came, she would know she had done the right thing, even if Maddie living away from her was killing her inside.

Until the end of the school year.
Then her daughter would come home–if Ashley could fix herself by then. She had four months to get her act together, wrestle down her demons, and prove to her father that she was back to normal.

No more depression, no more paralyzing anxiety. She knew what brought them on. If only she could stop
that.

She stood in the open door, waving until the car drove out of sight, disappearing behind the trees. She was all alone then, with nothing but gray sky, the empty road, and the barren, snow-covered fields that lined it on either side. She blinked hard a couple of times, then stepped back inside, suddenly cut off at the knees. No feeling in the universe compared to that of a mother watching her child being taken away.

She turned the old-fashioned brass key in the lock. She used to love its warm patina, the way it perfectly complemented the deep color of the hundred-year-old oak door. Braided wool rugs covered most of the wide-paneled floor that matched the door. The narrow stained-glass window above the door painted the walls with color and light in the foyer.

When they’d first moved in, she’d spent hours walking around the house, drinking in the colors and textures, the play of light and shadow, absorbing the visual feast through her skin. Maddie and she had giddily sketched every interesting nook, their way of taking possession of their new home.

For a moment, she could clearly remember that deep sense of contentment, the pure joy. Then it slipped through her fingers and she was left with longing and a sharp ache in her chest.

She glanced up to the loft, to the waiting easel. She’d started a project early this morning when she couldn’t sleep. She needed to paint as much as possible, needed to catch up a little.

She owned the old farmhouse outright, but her heating and electric bills were a month overdue, and she didn’t dare to be late with her health and home insurance. She needed to catch up and then set some savings aside. She had to regain solid footing by the time school ended.

She climbed the stairs.
Through the nose, breathe in—calm, creative energy. Through the mouth, breathe out—release all bad and negative thoughts.

Her studio loft, designed by her, was her favorite place in the house. She’d had one wall taken out so it could be open to downstairs; another wall, on the north side of the house, had been replaced with windows for the perfect light.

The same oak planks covered the floor as below, the walls painted in something called “gallery white,” so she could correctly judge her colors. She’d even had a sink installed so she could clean her brushes here.

Since the painting she’d been working on hadn’t dried enough yet for the next layer of color, she set up another canvas that she’d already stretched and prepped herself, gessoed to a smooth finish. The prepping process, her small rituals, helped her relax. A prefinished, frame-stretched canvas couldn’t give her that.

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