A Faint Cold Fear

Excerpts

SUNDAY

Sara Linton stared at the entrance to the Dairy Queen, watching her very pregnant sister walk out with a cup of chocolate covered ice cream in each hand. As Tessa crossed the parking lot, the wind picked up, and her purple dress rose up past her knees. She struggled to keep the jumper down without spilling the ice cream, and Sara could hear her cursing as she got closer to the car.

Sara tried not to laugh as she leaned over to open the door, asking, “Need help?”

“No,” Tessa said, wedging her body into the car. She settled in, handing Sara her ice cream. “And you can shut up laughing at me.”

Sara winced as her sister kicked off her sandals and propped up her bare feet on the dashboard. The BMW 330i was less than two weeks old, and Tessa had already left a bag of Goobers to melt in the back seat and spilled an orange Fanta on the carpet in the front. Had Tessa not been nearly eight months pregnant, Sara would have strangled her.

Sara asked, “What took you so long?”

“I had to pee.”

“Again?”

“No, I just like being in the bathroom at the damn Dairy Queen,” Tessa snapped. She fanned her hand in front of her face. “Jesus, it’s hot.”

Sara kept her mouth shut as she turned up the air conditioning. As a doctor, Sara knew that Tessa was merely a victim of her own hormones, but there were times when she thought the best thing for all concerned would be to lock Tessa up in a box and not open it until they heard a baby crying.

“That place was packed,” Tessa managed around a mouthful of chocolate syrup.

“God damn, shouldn’t all those people be at church or something?”

“Hm,” Sara said.

“The whole place was filthy. Look at this parking lot,” Tessa said, swooping her spoon in the air. “People just dump their trash here and don’t even care about who has to pick it up. Like they think the trash fairy’s gonna do it or something.”

Sara murmured some words of agreement, eating her ice cream as Tessa began a litany of complaints about everyone in the Dairy Queen, from the man who was talking on his cell phone to the woman who waited in line for ten minutes then could not decide what she wanted when she got to the counter. After a while, Sara zoned out, staring at the parking lot, thinking about the busy week she had ahead of her.

Several years ago, Sara had taken on the part time job as county coroner to help buy out her retiring partner at the Heartsdale Children’s Clinic, and lately Sara’s work at the morgue was playing havoc with her schedule at the clinic. Normally, the county job did not require much of Sara’s time, but a court appearance had taken her out of the clinic for two days last week, and she was going to have to make up for it this week by putting in overtime at the clinic.

Increasingly, Sara’s work at the morgue was infringing on clinic time, and she knew that in a couple of years she would have to make a choice between the two. When the time came, the decision would be hard to make.

The medical examiner’s job was a challenge, one Sara had sorely needed thirteen years ago when she had left Atlanta and moved back to Grant County. Part of her thought her brain would atrophy without the constant obstacles presented by forensic medicine. Still, there was something restorative about treating children, and Sara, who could not have children of her own, knew that she would miss the contact. She vacillated daily on which job was better. Generally, a bad day at one made the other look ideal.

“Getting on up there!” Tessa screeched, loud enough to get Sara’s attention. “I’m thirty-four, not fifty. What the hell kind of thing is that for a nurse to say to a pregnant woman?”

Sara stared at her sister. “What?”

“Have you heard a word I’ve said?”

She tried to sound convincing. “Yes. Of course I have.”

Tessa frowned. “You’re thinking about Jeffrey, aren’t you?”

Sara was surprised by the question. For once, her ex-husband had been the last thing on her mind. “No.”

“Sara, don’t lie to me,” Tessa countered. “Everybody in town saw that sign girl was up at the station Friday.”

“She was lettering the new police car,” Sara answered, feeling a warm flush come to her cheeks.

Tessa gave a disbelieving look. “Wasn’t that his excuse the last time?”

Sara did not answer. She could still remember the day she had come home early from work to find Jeffrey in bed with the owner of the local sign shop. The Linton family was both amazed and irritated that Sara was dating Jeffrey again, and while Sara for the most part shared their sentiments, she felt incapable of making a clean break. Logic seemed to be the last thing on her mind where Jeffrey was concerned.

Tessa warned, “You just need to be careful with him. Don’t let him get too comfortable.”

“I’m not an idiot.”

“Sometimes you are.”

“Well, you are, too,” Sara shot back, feeling foolish even before the words came out of her mouth.

But for the whir of the air conditioning, the car was quiet. Finally, Tessa offered, “You should’ve said, ‘I know you are but what am I?’”

Sara wanted to laugh it off, but she was too irritated. “Tessie, it’s none of your business.”

Tessa barked a loud laugh that rattled in Sara’s ears. “Well, hell, honey, that’s never stopped anybody before. I’m sure damn Marla Simms was on the phone before the little bitch even got out of her truck.”

“Don’t call her that.”

Tessa waved her spoon in the air. “What do you want me to call her? Slut?”

“Nothing,” Sara told her, and meant it. “Don’t call her anything.”

“Oh, I think she deserves a few choice words.”

“Jeffrey’s the one who cheated. She just took advantage of a good opportunity.”

“You know,” Tessa began. “I took advantage of plenty of good opportunities in my time, but I never chased after a married one.”

Sara closed her eyes, willing her sister to stop. She did not want to have this conversation.

Tessa added, “Marla told Audra Brock she’s put on weight.”

“What were you doing talking to Audra Brock?”

“Stopped up drain in their kitchen,” Tessa said, smacking her mouth around her spoon. Tessa had quit working full-time with their father in the family plumbing business when her swollen belly made it impossible to crawl around, but she was still capable of taking a plunger to a drain.

Tessa said, “According to Audra, she’s big as a house.”

Despite her better intentions, Sara could not help but feel a moment of triumph, followed by a wave of guilt that she could take pleasure in another woman’s widening hips. And ass, too. The sign girl was already a little too full in the flank for her own good.

Tessa said, “I see you smiling.”

Sara was; her cheeks hurt from the strain of keeping her mouth closed.

“This is horrible.”

“Since when?”

“Since…” Sara let her voice trail off. “Since it makes me feel like an absolute idiot.”

“Well, you am what you am, as Popeye would say.” Tessa made a great show of scraping her plastic spoon around the cardboard cup as she wiped it clean. She sighed heavily, as if her day had just taken a turn for the worse.

“Can I have the rest of yours?”

“No.”

“I’m pregnant!” Tessa squeaked.

“That’s not my fault.”

Tessa went back to scraping her cup. To add to the annoyance, she started scratching the bottom of her foot on the dashboard’s burled wood inlay.

A full minute passed before Sara felt an older sister’s guilt hit her like a sledgehammer. She tried to fight it, eating more ice cream, but it stuck in her throat.

“Here, you big baby.” Sara handed over her cup.

“Thank you,” Tessa answered sweetly. “Maybe we can get some more for later?” she suggested. “Only, can you go back in and get it? I don’t want them to think I’m a pig, and…” she smiled sweetly, batting her eyelids. “I might have ticked off the kid behind the counter.”

“I can’t imagine how.”

Tessa blinked innocently. “Some people are so sensitive.”

Sara opened the door, glad for a reason to get out of the car. She was three feet away when Tessa rolled down the window.

“I know,” Sara said. “Extra chocolate.”

“Yeah, but hold up.” Tessa paused to lick ice cream off the side of the cell phone before she handed it out the window. “It’s Jeffrey.”

Sara pulled up onto a gravel embankment between a police cruiser and Jeffrey’s car, frowning as she heard stones kicking up against the side of her car. The only reason Sara had traded in her two-seater convertible for the larger model was to accommodate a child’s car seat. Between Tessa and the elements, the BMW was going to be trashed before the baby came.

“This it?” Tessa asked.

“Yep.” Sara yanked up the parking brake and looked out at the dry river basin in front of them. Georgia had been suffering from a drought since the mid-1990s and the huge river that had once slithered through the forest like a fat, lazy snake had shriveled to little more than a trickling stream. A cracked, dry carcass was all that remained and the concrete bridge thirty feet overhead seemed out of place, though Sara could remember when people had fished from it.

“Is that the body?” Tessa asked, pointing to a group of men standing in a semi-circle.

“Probably,” Sara answered, wondering if they were on college property. Grant County was comprised of three cities, Heartsdale, Madison and Avondale. Heartsdale, which housed the Grant Institute of Technology, was the jewel of the county, and any crime that happened inside its city limits was considered that much more horrible. A crime on college property would be a nightmare.

“What happened?” Tessa asked eagerly, though she had never been interested in this side of Sara’s job before.

“That’s what I’m supposed to find out,” Sara reminded her, reaching over to the glove box for her stethoscope. The clearance was tight, and Sara’s hand rested on the back of Tessa’s stomach. She let it stay there for a moment.

“Oh, Sissy,” Tessa breathed, grabbing Sara’s hand. “I love you so much.”

Sara laughed at the sudden tears in Tessa’s eyes, but for some reason, she could feel herself tearing up as well. “I love you, too, Tessie.” She squeezed her sister’s hand, saying, “Stay in the car. This won’t take long.”

Jeffrey was walking to meet Sara as she shut the car door. His dark hair was combed back neatly, still a little wet at the nape. He was dressed in a dark charcoal suit, perfectly pressed and tailored, with a gold police badge tucked into the breast pocket. Sara was in sweat pants that had seen better days and a tee shirt that had given up on being white around the same time OJ Simpson had. She wore sneakers with no socks, the laces loosely tied so she could slip in and out of them with as little effort as possible.

“You didn’t have to dress up,” Jeffrey joked, but she could hear the tension in his voice.

“What is it?”

“I’m not sure, but I think there’s something hinky–“ he stopped, looking back at the car. “You brought Tess?”

“It was on the way and she wanted to come…” Sara let her voice trail off, because there really was no explanation, other than Sara’s goal in life at the moment was to keep Tessa happy—or, at the very least, to keep her from whining.

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About the Book

Sara Linton is called out to an apparent suicide on the local college campus. The mutilated body provides little in the way of clues — and the college authorities are eager to avoid a scandal — but for Sara and police chief Jeffrey Tolliver, things don’t add up.

Two more suspicious suicides follow, and a young woman is brutally attacked. For Sara, the violence strikes far too close to home. And as Jeffrey pursues the sadistic killer, he discovers that ex-police detective Lena Adams, now a security guard on campus, may be in possession of crucial information. But, bruised and angered by her expulsion from the force, Lena seems to be barely capable of protecting herself, let alone saving the next victim.