photo Jonnie Jacobs
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MURDER AMONG US

[cover]Prologue

Orphaned.

The girl rolled the word around in her mind. It sounded like something out of a Dickens novel. Like she was some poor, rag-bedecked child of the slums, not the daughter of a prominent network newscaster.

But here she was, fourteen years old, raw with grieving over her mother's death—and utterly alone. She'd been spared the orphanage at least, but she was afraid the alternative would prove just as bad.

The girl glanced at the lawyer. He sat sideways in his chair, fingers steepled at his chin.

"Are you listening to me, Julie?" His voice was as flat and dry as summer asphalt.

Julie nodded. She kept her shoulders square, her spine erect, her chin firm. Inside, the pain and loneliness churned.

"Your mother's sister and her husband live near San Francisco. They've agreed to take you in."

"Half-sister," Julie corrected.

The lawyer frowned, removed his reading glasses and cleaned them with his handkerchief. He wasn't interested in splitting hairs. "As far as I've been able to determine, there isn't any one else."

Aunt Patricia and Uncle Walt. Julie had only the faintest recollection of them. A stern man. A woman whose face wore the look of immutable disapproval and was otherwise lifeless as straw.

The lawyer's voice droned on but Julie had stopped listening. She was thinking about her plan. Her secret.

A quest conceived one rainy afternoon late last winter. It had begun with a simple "what if?", and then lodged immediately in her breast like a ray of warm sunshine.

And now it had taken on new importance.

 

Chapter 1

Julie has come to live in Walnut Hills and is one of Kate's art students.

When I arrived at my classroom, my star pupil, Julie Harmon, was leaning against the wall, waiting for me to open the door.

She raised her eyes and gave me a smile that barely touched the corners of her mouth. She was a tall girl with the kind of regal bearing and grace that most of us never achieve, even in maturity. Her classmates found her stand-offish. A number of the teachers agreed. For myself, I was inclined to see Julie's reserve as a sign of uneasiness rather than disdain.

Julie stood for a moment near the front of the room looking uncertain. Finally, she turned my direction. "Can I work more on that charcoal drawing we did the other day?"

"Sure. You know where the unfinished pieces are."

She glanced toward the back of the room but showed no inclination of retrieving the sketch. Instead, she hovered around my desk, lingering the strap of her backpack. Twice, she cleared her throat as if to speak.

"You have a question?" I asked.

She tugged harder at the strap, clamped her lips together and studied her feet.

From the look on her face, I thought it might be more than a question. "You want to talk?"

Julie's shoulders rose and then fell in an almost imperceptible shrug. I took a seat at one of the student desks and motioned for her to join me. "What's on your mind? You seem bothered by something."

"You won't tell anyone, will you?"

"It depends. If you're in trouble—"

Just then Mario Sanchez appeared at the door, slouching against the frame as if he owned the place. "Mornin' mizz Austen," he said, then crinked his neck in Julie's direction, beckoning her.

She chewed on her lower lip for a moment before heading for the door. "Guess I'll work on that drawing some other time," she told me. "Thanks though."

Five minutes later, on my way to the office, I passed Julie and Mario in the breezeway. Mario leaned against the grey stucco exterior, bracing his wiry frame with his elbow. His voice was low and intent, his jaw tight. Julie, who was several inches taller, stood facing him, arms crossed, face determined. If they saw me, they didn't acknowledge it.

I picked up my mail and the daily stack of announcements, and was headed back to my classroom when Yvonne Burton beckoned me into the science lab. I stepped inside then stopped in my tracks. A shiver worked its way down my spine. Harvey, the lab skeleton, was grinning at me from under a hooded black cape. A scythe had been wired to his right hand, a knife to his left.

"I see you've decked Harvey out for Halloween," I told her, stepping back.

"This wasn't my doing. If I had to guess, I'd bet it was someone from my senior physiology class."

"They've got a macabre sense of humor."

"That's what I thought, too. But then I figured maybe I was letting what happened in the park get to me."

This was common shorthand for the murder of a twenty-year-old Berkeley co-ed whose body had been found two weeks earlier near the duck pond in Walnut Hills' Park. With unspoken accord, we'd somehow adopted the manner of speaking obliquely, as if by avoiding the word "murder," we could avoid the fact itself.

Not that we'd talked of much else since it happened. Walnut Hills is a quiet, comfortable suburb whose residents are more at home talking golf handicaps and bond yields than crime. And while this wasn't the first homicide in the town's history, it was one of the most unsettling because it had the earmarks of a big city depravity. A young woman had been strangled to death, her body discarded with indifference, like the used tissues and bottle caps that littered the shore. Her blond hair had been shorn, her feet painted with blood-red polish.

The notion of a madman loose on our streets had shaken the town in ways too numerous to name. It wasn't just that we looked over our shoulders as we left the grocery and jogged only with a friend, even in daylight. There was a subtler, more unnerving change as well, a sense of undefined menace that hovered continually somewhere in the back of our minds.

The killer shadowed us all.

I took another look at Harvey and met his ghoulish grin with one of my own. "Maybe the kids have the right approach, after all. Thumb your nose at the dark forces and ward off evil with a little humor."

"I'm not sure," Yvonne said, "that I consider this humor."

 

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