Trees lined both sides of the gravel drive. Their half-bare limbs framed the old house at its end and lent a spooky edge to the air of abandonment that hung over the property. A branch dangled from an oak, curled leaves barely visible against the moonlit sky.
Andrea Wheaton slowed her Escalade to a crawl. It didn’t help. The long screech against the roof set her teeth on edge and sent a shiver down her spine.
At the end of the drive, she released a sigh as childhood memories bombarded her. The old Wheaton place projected a rustic hominess that had always called to her. It didn’t hold a candle to their place in Atlanta, with its soaring columns and manicured grounds, but she’d always loved it. It had represented freedom, the one place she could let down her guard and simply be Andi.
Now it was hers. Six days later, and she was still reeling from the news.
She retrieved her small suitcase from the back seat and carried it to a porch covered with a three-inch-deep blanket of dead leaves. A swing hung from one end, and two Adirondack rockers sat side by side in the center. Judging from the layer of debris on each, neither the swing nor the rockers had been used for some time.
She laid the bag down and then pulled a wooden keychain from her purse. It was cut into the shape of North Carolina, the word Murphy burned onto its face. For twelve years, the key had lain in the bottom of her jewelry box, untouched. Partly because she’d been busy, first with college, and then with marriage and job responsibilities. Partly because she’d wanted to avoid the neighbors on both sides.
One she’d never cared for. The other she’d cared for too much.
When she slid the key into the lock, it turned without resistance. She frowned. Had her father forgotten to lock the dead bolt? A quick check of the doorknob told her it was unlocked, too.
A wave of uneasiness swept over her, and she shook it off. This wasn’t the city. This was Murphy, North Carolina, where neighbors helped one another out and it wasn’t uncommon to see a car parked in front of the Daily Grind downtown, keys still in the ignition.
She opened the door and swiped the double switch inside. Light flooded the porch and living room. When she stepped over the threshold, a sense of grief cut a wide swath through her heart. This had been her and her father’s retreat, the opportunity for them to escape the incessant demands of her mother.
Less than a week ago, she’d been sitting at the huge table in her aunt and uncle’s lodge near Asheville, enjoying turkey dinner, her parents across from her. Now they were gone. After leaving the lodge, they’d apparently taken a curve too fast and plunged down an embankment to their deaths. Driving fast wasn’t in her dad’s nature. Neither was carelessness.
But neither was moodiness. Or brooding. Or several other behaviors she’d seen over the past months. Lately, her fun-loving father had become someone else entirely.
Something had been bothering him. Now she’d never know what.
After locking the door, she lowered her carry-on and extended the handle. The wheels rumbled against the hardwood floor as she made her way to the first bedroom. It had always been hers. When her grandparents were alive, the second one had been her dad’s. He’d long since taken the master bedroom and reallocated the middle one as an office.
She laid the bag on her bed and transferred the contents to the chest of drawers. She hadn’t brought much. The purpose of the trip was to scout out the place, see how much it had deteriorated over the past twelve years and decide what to do with it.
The decision about the Atlanta place was a no-brainer. As marketing manager for a large sporting goods manufacturer, she spent more hours at work than at home. Her two-bedroom condo was plenty of house for her. She’d already contacted a realtor, and her parents’ seven-thousand-square-foot spread was going on the market next week.
This one was harder to let go. It had been in her dad’s family for three generations. Four, if she counted her own.
After shutting the last drawer, she picked up her toiletry case and headed for the bathroom. As she stepped into the hall, something moved in her peripheral vision. She snapped her gaze in that direction.
A huge man barreled toward her. Except for two eyeholes, a knit mask hid his face. He slammed into her, knocking her hard against the wall. Her head hit the doorjamb. Pain shot through her temple and stars exploded across her vision.
Another figure ran past, this one much smaller. As retreating footsteps grew softer, blackness encroached. She gripped the jamb, willing herself to remain conscious, but strength drained from her limbs. She slid to the floor, landing on her hands and knees.
The front door creaked open but didn’t slam shut. They’d left it ajar. She needed to secure the house. And she needed to call the police. The front door seemed miles away. The bedroom was just across the hall, and her purse was on the bed. If she could crawl there…
She moved her right knee forward, followed by her right hand. The darkness spread, seeping in from all sides. The walls tipped ninety degrees, and the cold floor met her right side.
She lifted one lead-filled arm, trying to grasp the last threads of consciousness.
Her hand fell.
And even that small circle of light faded and disappeared.