Until The Day You Die
Jaime Rush (August 15, 2012)
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THE PAST WON’T LET HER BE.
When Maggie Fletcher’s sister is murdered, presumably by stalker Colin Masters, Maggie is left devastated—and furious. There isn’t enough evidence to prove that Masters did it—unless Maggie falsely claims, under oath, that she saw him leaving the scene of the crime…
THE TRUTH WON’T SET HER FREE.
Maggie’s testimony puts Masters behind bars—but also wrecks Maggie’s life. When she and her teenage son move to a small New Hampshire town to start a new life, Maggie can’t help but feel that she’s being shadowed.
NOW THERE’S NOWHERE LEFT TO HIDE…
Someone is slowly, stealthily invading every part of Maggie’s world, turning everything and everyone against her. Now Maggie fears that a faceless, merciless pursuer wants to make her pay for her lie—with her life.
Read an Excerpt
He stood inside a nearby shop window, waiting for her. Just as he did every day when she left work. As he did every morning when she arrived. Quaint buildings with shops and boutiques lined Market Street in the seacoast town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They offered plenty of places from which to watch her. He ostensibly perused a rack of bibliographies in the bookstore while looking out the window. Mostly he saw tourists, bored teenagers, and women loaded with shopping bags.
All the while he watched for her.
Six months ago he had begun his possession of Dana Mary O’Reilly when he’d dropped into the Mystic Café, the new age coffee shop where she worked. Her weak smile and lack of real eye contact had aroused his instincts. He smelled insecurity, loneliness, weakness. So he’d investigated, scoring her on the pertinent points on his checklist: no boyfriend or husband; no friends; no kids. A steady schedule. A house surrounded by foliage. All the things that made her an ideal pet. The only negative was the sister, but he could handle her.
He’d begun the saturation phase, following her, taking pictures and taping them to his dresser mirror, the bathroom wall, his car dashboard. Wherever he looked, she was there, frozen in a moment-crossing the street, chewing on her fingernail-his for as long as he wanted her.
Then he’d moved into the infiltration phase, playing the guileless suitor in front of her co-workers, bringing puerile gifts like stuffed animals bearing hearts. She’d spurned him, awkward and stuttering, before darting back to the counter. Like any respectable guy, he’d backed off. But they had a secret, he and Dana. He was much more than a naïve schlub with a crush.
Movement caught his eye. His prey. She hovered just inside the café door, searching for him. It had become a game. Their private game. Where, oh where could he be?
A couple walked into the café, and the man held the door open for Dana, forcing her out into the open. Apprehension and frustration filled her brown eyes. He liked the fear. He liked it a lot.
Today her usual gothic ensemble included long, tapered sleeves; long, black skirt; and black Converse sneakers. Her thick, dark hair needed brushing. She pulled a cigarette from her pack and lit it with shaky hands. She walked with shoulders hunched and chin tucked in, her body static but for her legs. He wished he’d made her walk in that insecure manner, but she’d come that way. She reminded him of a mouse now, taking several steps and stopping, searching, everything but sniffing the air and twitching her whiskers. That was his doing at least.
He’d violated her safe little world, all the way down to the panties she wore. It gave him a powerful thrill to know he’d touched the fabric that now shielded her most private parts. While she was at work, he sprawled on her rumpled bed sheets, rubbed her panties over his body, used her deodorant. Then he left subtle clues to let her know he’d been there, that she had no privacy now. Letting her know by degrees that she was never alone.
As she was everywhere in his world, he was everywhere in hers. And most importantly, he was inside her mind. Even in her dreams, if her thrashing and crying out were any indication. He smiled. She couldn’t escape him, even in sleep.
With her free arm tucked around her waist, she walked toward the High-Hanover parking garage. He moved so that when her gaze flashed past the bookstore she would see him. She stiffened, sucked hard on her cigarette, and then walked faster. Acknowledging their exchange wasn’t necessary. Being there, watching her, was enough. She tripped on a raised brick and caught her balance seconds before slamming into a parking meter. Her cigarette went flying, rolling under a car. An old man looked at her with both concern and puzzlement. She glanced back toward the bookstore window. He wasn’t there.
She had already been unbalanced, as evidenced by the array of prescription drugs in her medicine cabinet. He had pushed her to the edge. Soon, very soon, she would break. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song, “Breaking the Girl,” played in his mind. He liked watching the pieces of his pets’ souls splinter away in his hands.
She walked into the garage and aimed the remote key fob at her car as soon as she approached it. The chirp echoed off the concrete. Her fingers wrapped around the car handle but paused. The folded piece of green paper awaited her on the driver’s seat.
She snatched open the door, crinkled the paper, and dropped down into the seat as though her bones had liquefied. The car’s engine roared to life, and tires squealed as she sped out of the garage. A few minutes later, he pulled up next to her at a red light. His dark windows prevented her from seeing him. She chewed her fingernail while she waited. Glanced at the seat beside her. Forward. Then back to the seat. Then reached over.
Yeah, open it, baby.
A grin split his face as she wrestled the ball of paper open. He shoved aside a fast food bag, a dog-eared paperback thriller, and packs of soy sauce to find his camera on the seat beside him. With his other hand, he lowered his window and recited the words as she read:
I live in her mind,
Under her skin.
Though she denies me,
I am already a part of her.
She dreams of me,
When she sleeps,
So fitful through the night,
As though sensing I am there,
Her guardian angel,
Watching over her.
She balled up the note and threw it with an angry scream. Then she looked his way. He snapped one last picture, capturing her shock and indignation. Beautiful. Joy tingled through his body. The light turned green, and she burned rubber through the intersection.
No hurry. He knew where she lived.
He had gone much further with Dana than the others, not only slipping into her home but sometimes being there when she arrived. His nostrils flared. He could smell her, as he watched from his place in the closet or the pantry. The prospect of getting caught tantalized him.
Maybe she would catch him tonight. Maybe he would make sure she did.
“Ms. Fletcher, you’re one busy woman,” my client said when my cell phone rang for the umpteenth time.
I smiled another apology as I glanced at the incoming number. I’d told the two men I was showing million-dollar homes to that I had to make sure it wasn’t my nine-year-old son, Luke, who was at his best friend Bobby’s house. In fact, the number on the screen represented my bigger concern: Dana.
“Sorry, I’ve got to take this.”
I ran to the foyer to get as far out of hearing range as possible. My fingers went right to my worry curl. “What’s wrong?” I answered, the way I’d started answering my sister’s calls lately. Forget hello, or how are you?
“He’s been here,” came her strained voice.
My heart dropped. Earlier, Dana had called from her car to tell me about the latest poem, terrified that it meant he was watching her sleep. The thought totally creeped me out.
She didn’t wait for me to respond. “I went shopping. Then I got stuck in traffic for an hour, an accident. I felt safe, ‘cause he wasn’t around. Then he called my cell phone, playing that song that sounds like Enigma, about a heart going boom, boom, boom whenever he thinks of her. Nothing threatening. Probably a nice love song he’s made ugly.
“It was dark when I came home.” She had an edge in her voice at that; she hated being out in the dark. “The closet door was open. I know I closed it when I left, Mags. These are the games he plays with me. Little things to let me know he’s been here. And the bed was made. And he left a pair of my panties out again, too. He’s touching my panties. I know that’s what his ‘Silk’ poem was about: ‘The silk and cotton slide against my fingers. I have touched what now touches her-”
“Stop! Please stop memorizing those icky poems.”
“I can’t help it! They keep bouncing around in my brain, like a jingle you can’t push out. But I’ll show him. I bought new panties today. They’re big and ugly, like the kind Mom wears.”
Dana had only just bothered to tell me, the person closest to her, that someone was stalking her-stalking, for God’s sake! He’d appeared five months earlier. At first she’d been embarrassed about her discomfort over her suitor. Her co-workers thought Colin Masters was sweet, if a bit overeager. Dana had finally told him she wasn’t interested. On the surface he had taken it well. He didn’t come in as often and no longer brought gifts.
But, according to Dana, his actions had actually become more sinister. He watched her when she arrived at work, was waiting when she left, and now the poems. At first he left them on her car window, and then inside her locked car. That’s when she’d finally told me, three weeks ago.
The poems weren’t threatening, but they were creepy in a warped-love way. The gifts he’d given her reminded me of the kind gawky teenage boys give their girlfriends, except this guy was in his mid-twenties. Was he warped or was Dana, in fact, being paranoid? Besides, stalkers usually chose celebrities or ex-lovers. Didn’t they? Not someone quiet and barely noticeable like Dana.
I got especially concerned when Dana started talking about the “evidence” of Colin’s presence in her home, despite her house being secured. The more hysterical she got about that, the more my stomach twisted. Paranoia will destroy you. Wasn’t that an old Kinks’ song? I remembered one called Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues. I hated thinking it, on multiple levels. My doubts felt like a betrayal. And if she were imagining things, her mental state had deteriorated to a whole new level. That scared the hell out of me.
I shoved those thoughts aside. “What we need is proof that he’s breaking in. We changed the locks, added another deadbolt. Was there any sign of forced entry this time? How about the windows?” I had installed double locks on those, too. Every time I’d run over to Dana’s house, we’d found nothing tangible. I’d so wanted to. And then I didn’t.
“Just like always. He’s like a damned ghost!”
I had never seen him, even when I purposely arrived at the café when Dana did or left when she left. I wanted to talk to him, get a feel for what this was really about. Was he deranged or was Dana misinterpreting? She had once pointed out his beige sedan with dark tinted windows as it slowly cruised by. I had held up my hand in a “wait” gesture while running up to the car, but the driver had continued on.
I felt conflicted, not sure whether I wanted to believe Dana or not. Which was worse, insidious stalker or mental disease?
I’d done research, and yes, stalkers did target ordinary strangers. Sometimes all it took was a polite smile to engage one. I convinced Dana to go to the police and file an incident report. In all one chunk, I had to admit it sounded even more paranoid, but Detective Thurmond took her information and ran it through his software program.
The problem was, the subtle behaviors Dana had described-deodorant in the sink, for goodness sake- didn’t match the stalker typologies, particularly the naïve pursuer Colin seemed to be. Her impassioned observations didn’t help: His eyes touch me. When he looks at me, I can feel them on my body.
When Thurmond warned us that the person filing a restraining order must face her stalker in court, No, no, and absolutely not! was Dana’s immediate response. I hadn’t pressed. I’d read that restraining orders sometimes incited a stalker into violence. When we left, Dana was sure the detective was, at that moment, laughing at her. More signs of paranoia.
After a pause she said, “You saw his car that one time, but you haven’t actually seen him. You don’t think I’m making this all up, do you, Mags?”
I took a breath, needing to get this right. “I believe you’re afraid of this man.” But I wasn’t sure he was stealing into her home to move things around. If he were some sicko, he’d leave creepy gifts like chicken hearts and jars of semen. “And I’ll do everything I can to help you. But I wish you’d see Dr. Reese, and no, not because I think you’re crazy. I think he could help you to cope with-”
“No. He put me on those drugs, and I felt muzzy. I have to be on alert.”
I squeezed my eyes shut in fear and anger. How long could this go on before she cracked? How long could I? “First thing tomorrow I’m calling a security company to have cameras and an alarm installed.”
“Okay,” she said on a breath.
“Do you want me to come over?”
“Are you with clients?”
“Yeah. I can’t run over right this minute. Serena’s had a couple of complaints from clients annoyed because I abandoned them.” To look at an open cabinet or a made up bed.
“Serena’s your best friend. She understands, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, but as the broker of her own real estate company, she’s got to make sure the clients are happy. And it’s the beginning of busy season. We’ve been straight out at the office for the past few weeks.”
“I’m sorry, Mags. I know how much being a good real estate agent means to you. I’ll be fine. If he was here, he would have come out and slashed my throat already.”
Jeez. She’d always been a morbid drama queen. “I’ll call you in a bit. If you feel in danger, promise you’ll call the police. And you’re welcome to stay with us.” Though I knew she wouldn’t. She treasured her sanctuary and privacy too much.
“Mags, you’re the only person in the world I can depend on. I know I put a lot on you. I always have. Mom wrote me off as being born under a black cloud. But you never did. I want you to know how much I love you for that.”
My throat thickened. “I love you, too.”
Dana hung up, leaving me with a knot in my stomach. I’d known her for twenty-seven years and still didn’t really know her. We were nothing alike. I took after our Irish dad, with his sprinkling of freckles, curly light brown hair, and quick laugh. Dana took after our mother, with her sturdier body, striking features, and serious demeanor. I had somehow taken responsibility for trying to draw her out of the shadows. Even as far back as when I was four and she was two, I could remember working to make her smile. Oh, the joy of seeing that rare, brief smile.
The more I saw my mother distancing herself from Dana, the more I moved into her vacated role. Mom did the necessary things, like buying her clothes and helping with her homework. I put her hair into ponytails every morning; I heard what was between the lines and coaxed her feelings and fears from her. I gave her hugs just because she looked like she needed them.
I felt I needed to make up to her that I was capable of happiness and she wasn’t. I would never forget a night when I was a teenager, laughing in the living room with my friends. I caught sight of Dana lurking in the hallway. I tried to put her out of my mind. My friends didn’t like her, and Dana didn’t like them either. When they’d gone home, I went to her room and found her on the floor. She’d tried to overdose on vitamins. While I had been laughing. Even now, when I was having a good time, I sometimes thought of Dana, alone and in shadow, and found my laughter fading.
Minutes after I’d stumbled all over myself apologizing to my clients, the phone rang again: my boyfriend’s number. Marcus and I had no plans to cancel or modify, so I let it go to voicemail and tuned back in as the men nitpicked everything.
“Would you be interested in buying a historic home with the intention of restoring it?” I asked them. “I know one that’s a steal. I’d buy it myself if I had the resources.”
I had a fascination with home restoration. I was addicted to HGTV. Marcus and Luke used to tease me about my crush on Ty Pennington. There was no point in denying it, so I just gave them a sly smile.
The men tossed around my suggestion but, unsurprisingly, couldn’t come to an agreement. “Too messy,” the tall, skinny one said with a dismissive wave. “All that dust, those construction types loitering about.”
“But think of preserving historical integrity,” the shorter one said, and then with a wistful grin, “And all those construction types loitering about.”
“Let’s move on then, shall we?”
“Gentlemen,” I said when I could break into their debate about elongated versus round toilets twenty minutes later. “I’d love to stay longer, but I’m already late to pick up my son.”
I had been working too much lately. When cancer took my husband, Wesley’s, life three years ago, our part of the medical costs depleted our savings. It wasn’t greed that drove me but a deep need for financial security.
As soon as I escaped, I called Bobby’s mother, who happened to be my boss and friend, Serena Reese.
“Did they finally make an offer?” she asked after I identified myself.
“No, another wasted evening. I have this terrible feeling they’re just looking at homes to pass the time. And drive some poor, unsuspecting real estate agent crazy.”
She laughed sympathetically. “Hang in there, girl. I’ve heard what a bulldog you can be.”
“Bulldog? Who said that?”
“The Millers. They told me how you were ready to walk away from the house they were in love with unless the seller updated the plumbing. They were horrified until you got your way. Now you’re their idol.” She chuckled. “Listen, the boys are already asleep, worn out by their tag football game. How about you pick Luke up in the morning?”
“No point waking him up, I suppose.” We said goodbye and hung up. I felt even less like a good mother. But I could still be a good sister. I dialed Dana’s number. “Just making sure you’re all right. Want me to come by?”
Her voice sounded light and thready when she said, “No, no, that’s okay. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Hey, wait. If you’re in trouble, give me a sign. Say the word”-I scrambled for something-“banana.”
“I’m fine. Just tired. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” She hung up.
I found it odd, yet odd and Dana often went together without meaning anything ominous. “Banana?” I uttered, shaking my head. Next I tried Marcus’s cell phone, trying to score good girlfriend points, but he didn’t answer. He had only left a cursory, “Call me” message, typical of the “non-phone” person he’d warned me that he was.
When I met Marcus Antonelli at the Pirates’ Treasure cancer benefit a year ago, my heart did a stone-across-the-water skip. He was tall, with a full head of short, dark hair. Mostly I was attracted to his easy confidence. I was afraid of loving and losing again, but I was also ready to embrace happiness. Marcus gave me the comfort and emotional security I craved. And he was good for Luke. Marcus understood Luke’s dyslexia, since he had it, too. The best part was when we all spent time together. Sometimes I muted my laughter just to hear the two of them guffawing together.
And yet, I felt darkness hovering at the edge, heard the rumble of thunder like an approaching storm. I found myself counting my sins-worse, in my mother’s voice-fearing which one could bring down my world again. Premarital sex (but with a man I loved). Calling that guy who’d pulled out right in front of me a dirty word (at least Luke wasn’t in the car). All sins I was pretty sure my soul could get away with.
I drove into Wellwood Manor, which had been an older community of family Cape Cod and Colonial homes when Wesley and I moved here. It was undergoing yuppie revitalization, for better or worse. Elaborate play sets replaced swing sets, houses were being remodeled. Even the birdfeeders had become fancier.
Two restaurants and a bar had sprung up nearby, inviting nightlife and mixed reactions from residents. I’d recently bought a bungalow a couple blocks away from my house and let Dana live there for a hundred dollars a month. I’d had to convince her I was merely holding onto it for an investment, not as a rental property. She didn’t want charity, but she couldn’t afford her own place on her salary without a roommate, something she detested. So, as her surrogate mother, I made sure she had a home of her own.
I passed Chubb’s Pub where live music drifted out into the air. People wandered down the sidewalks, happy to be wearing light coats and sweaters on this early summer night. After the long New England winter, residents celebrated the first hint of spring.
A block away, things quieted again. It was still too chilly for sitting out on front porches, a favorite pastime for our area. A couple on one side of the road huddled close as they headed away from the activity. On Dana’s block, a lone man stumbled toward the restaurants, crossing the side street with his head ducked into his jacket. I slowed in front of Dana’s bungalow and glanced at the clock: nine forty-five. My fingers went to my worry curl, a gesture so automatic, so engrained, I’d never get rid of it. My finger wound it tighter and tighter as I stared at the entrance to the driveway.
The house was shrouded in foliage, a feature Dana wouldn’t be persuaded to eliminate, even for security reasons. Lights glowed from behind the dark curtains. All looked well. No one lurked, no beige sedans in the vicinity. I thought about calling again, but she’d been pretty definite-no banana.
I continued down the road toward home. On her next day off, I was going to take her out for lunch and to the salon. Just the thought lifted my spirits; I knew it would lift hers, too.
The prospect of an empty house loomed before me as I walked in, even as I told myself I should be relishing the time alone. Not completely empty, I realized, when Bonk, our brown lab, bounded up to me. Luke gave him the moniker when, as an unnamed pup, he kept sliding across the wood floors and bonking his head on the wall. I knelt down and petted him, and a minute later he was through the dog door that allowed him access to the backyard. Bonk was even happier about the warm weather than I was, continuously racing in and out.
I eyed the knitting needles and jumble of pink yarn that would become a blanket for Serena’s coming baby. I found knitting relaxing and giddily feminine, even though I wasn’t very good at any of that stuff. I’d always been too much my dad’s girl to be girly, being into sports and hanging out with the guys at the car dealership. For a long time, I’d viewed being a woman as being chaste and subdued, like my mother. It was only when I grew into womanhood that I realized that wasn’t the case. I embraced my femininity and took up knitting.
I fingered the weave of soft yarn. No angel would grace the corner of this one. Most of the blankets I knitted were for the hospital, to swaddle stillborn babies.
In the end, the rare opportunity to soak in my Jacuzzi tub won out over anything productive. I wandered through the too quiet house decorated in a mixture of contemporary and nine-year-old-boy styling.
I took a Dove dark chocolate out of the bag I’d hidden in my nightstand and unwrapped the foil. The little message printed inside read: You’re allowed to do nothing. Ah, appropriate. I popped the piece into my mouth. When good health meant eating a piece of dark chocolate every day, I embraced the notion.
I sank in with a groan and then had to catch several Batman figurines swirling around in the bubbly water since Luke preferred my tub to his. Even as I lined them up on the ledge, I knew he’d tease me about the preciseness of their alignment. I skewed them on purpose.
Lulled by the sound of the jets, I drifted off. I wasn’t sure what woke me, but my eyes opened with a start. I pulled myself from the water, dried off, and trudged into the kitchen for a glass of water. I blinked idiotically at the clock: eleven thirty. I’d been in the tub for an hour and a half?
I was surprised to hear the cell phone beeping. Hadn’t I taken it into the bathroom? I’d meant to, in case Marcus called back. When I retrieved the message, the hairs on the back of my neck shot up. A sob, I thought, but couldn’t be sure. Then a squeak. I had to play it twice more to figure out it was Dana saying my name in a voice so filled with anguish that tears sprang to my eyes. That was all, just a sob and my name. She’d called an hour ago.
I fumbled with the speed dial numbers. The phone rang until the machine picked up. Dana’s droll voice instructed, “Hope you don’t hate these things as much as I do. Leave a message.”
“Dana, it’s me, Maggie. I’m sorry I missed your call. I was in the tub and didn’t hear the phone. I’m coming over in about ten minutes unless I hear from you.” I’d never heard her sound like that, and it terrified me.
I phoned Mom next. She would be tuned into the Sky Angel network until midnight.
“Mom, it’s me,” I said when Angelista answered in a gruff voice.
“Amen,” she said before greeting me. “You must have some sixth sense when you decide to call me. You always call during prayer.”
I caught myself feeling guilty and stopped. “It’s just dumb luck-”
“Or Satan trying to use you to interfere.”
“Then don’t answer the phone! That’s what the machine I bought you is for.” I took a quick, calming breath. I loved my mother because she was my mother. But I didn’t like her much. “Have you talked to Dana tonight? She left a disturbing message on my machine an hour ago and now she’s not answering.”
“She only calls me a little more often than you do,” Mom said in a plaintive voice. “And speaking of which, I tried calling you earlier, too. I hope you weren’t working until now.”
“I got home at ten, got into the tub, and fell asleep.”
“Falling asleep, very dangerous. The reason I was calling was that the youth pastor mentioned he hadn’t seen Luke in three weeks.”
I reigned in my impatience. “I’m not going to force him to go.” Like you forced us, I didn’t say. Religion had saturated my childhood. It was only after I’d moved out that I learned not every Christian denomination believed in harsh punishment and rules. “I’ve got to check on Dana. Bye.” I hung up and ran into the bedroom to dress.
I pulled into her driveway a few minutes later. Her car was there. The lights were still on inside. Everything seemed normal. When I knocked on the door, I thought I heard a thump inside. I knocked again.
“Dana! It’s me!”
After a few seconds, I rummaged in my purse for the key tucked in a crevice. I had convinced her to give me a spare key, which I’d promised only to use in an emergency. Did I think she was going to do something crazy like take her life, she’d asked. I’d said No, of course not. Then added, Well, maybe.
Did this count as an emergency? Damn right, it did. I used my key to let myself in.
Hang in there, sis. I’m coming.
Praise & Reviews
“This dark, extremely suspenseful story has an exceptionally twisted, yet intelligent villain. The minor thread of the heroine’s romance with a younger man is nicely portrayed.” —RT Book Reviews
“It’s scarily believable, fast-paced and has well-drawn characters.” —Valley of the Devil Dolls
“For anyone who likes suspense, Tina Wainscott delivers. The suspense builds and the mysteries come together well in this cat and mouse game that really begs the question — what wouldn’t you do for your family?” —Once Upon A Romance