Just three hours and it would be over.
Amber Kingston slid into a chair at an empty table and watched the colorful crush of bodies gyrating on the dance floor. A banner hung over the stage: 10-Year Reunion in gold and blue letters. The music of Linkin Park blasted through the speakers at a volume capable of shattering glass.
Amber observed the activity from her solitary perch in the back, thankful for a few moments alone. This wasn’t how she’d wanted to spend her Saturday night. She’d come because of Ramona, who she hadn’t talked to in almost ten years. Who, a month ago, sent her a Facebook message out of the blue, begging her to come to this stupid high school reunion. Mona had said she was dying of cancer and had six months to live. She didn’t want to be remembered as the girl she’d been in high school.
Actually, Amber didn’t, either.
The music faded and another song grew to full volume within seconds. Ramona had twisted her arm to get her there and hadn’t even shown up.
“Fancy seeing you here.”
The male voice close to her ear drew her gaze to the smiling face behind it. He’d slipped into the event space from a side door.
She returned the smile. “Caleb.”
He eased into the chair next to her. Though the planes of his face had matured, his eyes were still the same Caribbean Sea blue. Sandy-blond hair fell in soft layers. Little had changed since high school, but he’d acquired some mass over the past ten years, the kind that came from hard work rather than too much Southern cooking.
He leaned toward her, the closeness necessary for conversation. He even smelled nice, a light citrusy scent with hints of spice. “I hope it’s all right if I join you.”
Caleb Lyons had always been nice to her. Of course, he’d been nice to everybody. Defender of the underdog. He’d lived four doors down. They’d even gone to the same church for a while. Other than that, their circles had rarely intersected, although they were in the same grade. His gang was filled with the good kids—band members, chess club participants, straight-A students, kids who never missed Sunday school or youth group because they wanted to be there. Back then she’d been sure their sole purpose in life was to make her and her friends look bad.
He propped an elbow on the table and rested his chin in his hand. “What are you up to these days? Still living in Florida?”
“I’m a cop for Cedar Key.”
He threw back his head and laughed, the sound carrying over the decibels pounding from the speakers. After slapping his hand on the table a couple of times, he shook his head, still chuckling. “I’m sorry. I knew you’d have dealings with the police, but that wasn’t the kind I expected.”
The grin he flashed her tugged one out of her. “What can I say? I finally got some sense.” Fortunately she’d acquired it before any of her stupid shenanigans made it onto her adult record.
Growing up with two older brothers who were polar opposites, she’d always thought Harold’s daredevil lifestyle looked more exciting than Hunter’s straitlaced ways. Good thing she’d wised up when she had. Now Hunter was serving the people of Cedar Key alongside her and Harold was a long-time resident of Florida State. The prison, not the school.
The music faded and the DJ took the microphone.
“Y’all having a great time?”
Shouts echoed throughout the room. After welcoming everyone, his tone turned somber.
“There are four classmates who are no longer with us. Let’s remember each with a moment of silence.”
Amber knew about the first death. It had happened two days after graduation, a murder that had rocked the small town of Chiefland. The next two names were familiar. Both had died in their early twenties. Amber didn’t know them well, but sadness wove through her anyway. The other guests apparently felt it, too. Silence hung over the room, a stark contrast to the noise that had shaken the walls less than five minutes earlier.
The DJ continued. “Lastly, in April of this year, we lost Ramona Freeborn.”
Amber’s jaw dropped as the words slammed into her. Ramona died two months ago.
So who’d sent the Facebook message in May, pretending to be Mona? And the follow-up ones, as recently as last weekend, confirming she hadn’t changed her mind about coming to the reunion?
Someone who wanted to make sure I’d be here.
The temperature in the room dropped. Or maybe the chill was internal.
“Amber? Are you okay?” Caleb sat staring at her, an eyebrow lifted in concern. Before she could formulate a response, a scream pierced the silence.
She shot to her feet, snatching her purse from the table. The scream had come from outside. Another followed it. She dashed to the nearest exit with a handful of other people. The others remained glued to their seats, their eyes wide and jaws lax.
She soon located the source of the commotion. A woman stood in the glow of the garden lights, hands pressed to her mouth. Shivers racked her body and wails escaped between her fingers.
Olivia Chamberlain. Liv. They’d been the best of friends—Amber, Liv and Mona, along with Alex, Vince and Ray—until they’d all racked up growing lists of misdemeanors and increasingly serious alcohol addictions. And a dead body.
Caleb brushed past her at a full run before dropping to the stone walkway in front of Liv. Someone was on the ground.
When Amber reached them, Caleb had his cell phone pressed to his ear. She stifled a gasp. Alex O’Dell.
Caleb held up a hand. “Everyone stay back.”
She knelt beside him. Everyone didn’t include her. “I’m a cop.” She cast the words over her shoulder and then grasped her former friend’s wrist to check for a pulse. Nothing. Judging from the awkward angle of Alex’s head, his neck was broken. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. Another small trail came from his nose, both combining to form a darkening oval on the garden pavers.
Amber drew in a shaky breath. Mona, now Alex. One-third of them gone before age thirty.
“This is Detective Caleb Lyons with the Levy County Sheriff’s Office.” Caleb spoke into the phone, his voice all cool professionalism. Detective? Caleb? She figured he’d be a preacher or something equally righteous.
He continued with the same somber tone. “We have a homicide.”
Several gasps sounded around them. “He was murdered?”
Amber looked up at the former cheerleader who’d spoken. “Any suspicious death is investigated as a homicide until foul play is ruled out.”
Alex had apparently fallen. Or been pushed. Her gaze followed the side of the stucco building to a curved balcony, its wrought-iron railing thirteen or fourteen feet up. Situated halfway between Chiefland and Bronson, the Mediterranean Revival-style structure had likely been someone’s home. But during her lifetime, it had been a venue for weddings and other events. Tonight, Amber hadn’t gone upstairs. Their group had booked only the bottom floor.
So what had Alex been doing up there?
She straightened and draped her arm across Liv’s shoulders. The wails had quieted to sniffles, but shivers still shook her body.
“Did you see what happened?”
Liv shook her head. “I hadn’t been here long.”
Amber nodded. That would explain why they hadn’t seen each other.
Liv continued. “It was so crowded inside, I came out here to be alone. That’s when I found him.”
Amber scanned those gathered. Other classmates were now filing out of the building. The police would need to talk to all of them. Of course, almost everyone had been inside, like her, and probably hadn’t seen anything.
As she studied the faces around her, one man snagged her gaze. He was standing to the side. The glow of the garden lights didn’t reach his face, but she didn’t need to see him to know he was watching her. She could feel it. The hostility rolling toward her was almost palpable.
Logan Cleary. Anytime she came back to Chiefland, she tried to avoid him. Although she hadn’t been ready to leave her friends, moving to Ocala right after graduation had been a relief.
“He blames us, you know.”
Amber started at hearing a new voice close to her ear and frowned at Vince Mahoney. “He blames me.”
“He blames all of us.”
She crossed her arms, warding off a sudden chill in spite of the balmy June night. Vince and the others were part of the gang, but she was the one who’d sent the texts, inviting Logan’s brother to join them at their hangout in the woods. Landon Cleary had been a class-A jerk. But even after she’d learned the truth, she hadn’t wanted him dead.
She dropped her arm from Liv’s shoulders and cast a glance at Alex. Caleb was doing a good job of preserving the scene. No one had ventured near the body. She started to turn away then hesitated. Something white was caught in the branches of a shrub a few feet from where Alex lay. Paper? She pressed her purse against her side, unease chewing at the edges of her mind.
When she’d been in the bathroom earlier, someone had slid a sheet of paper, folded in quarters, under the stall door. Black sequined ballet slippers and a hand covered by a black silk glove were all she’d seen. No one at the reunion was wearing either.
She put a hand on Vince’s arm. “Did someone give you a sheet of paper tonight?”
His eyes widened, providing the answer before he opened his mouth. “I was standing at the bar talking to someone. When I went to pick up my drink, a sheet of paper was sitting next to it.”
Raymond Ellis staggered up to join them. Not much had changed. He was as wasted as he’d been when they’d hung out in high school.
She turned her attention to Vince. “What did the paper say?”
“‘All of life’s pleasures surround you.’” He studied her. “You got one, too.”
She nodded. “‘A sworn public servant, you’ve answered the call.’”
“You’re a cop.”
It wasn’t a secret. When she’d first arrived, she’d caught up with everyone except Liv, and they’d filled each other in on their lives. Raymond worked as a mechanic in a tire-and-lube place, and Alex was a trim carpenter. Vince had scored big. He’d married into money and had a cushy management job in his father-in-law’s manufacturing business. He was probably enjoying some of those pleasures mentioned in his note.
Ray squinted at them. “What are you talking about?”
“Someone slipped us notes,” Amber said. “One line about each of our lives.”
“I didn’t get anything.” After patting his back pockets, Ray produced a piece of paper. His brows drew together. “I didn’t know I had this.” After unfolding the single page, he read it aloud. “‘Once you were bound, but now you’re free.’”
Vince wrinkled his nose. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Ray had suddenly sobered up. “I did a couple years for drug charges. Not many people know about it. I was living in Georgia.”
Amber turned. “Liv?”
Liv spun around, eyes filled with panic. “My purse. I had it when I came into the garden.”
Amber put a hand on her shoulder. “You probably dropped it when you found Alex. I’m sure it’s here somewhere.”
Sirens sounded in the distance, gradually increasing in volume. When the police arrived, the contents of those notes were going into the report, regardless of what her friends wanted.
Caleb approached and handed Liv a black clutch. “It was under a bush.”
She snapped open the small bag and looked inside. “I have no idea who put this in here.”
“Wait.” Amber held up a hand. “Maybe they can get prints.” Vince, Raymond and she had already handled their notes. But Liv, and possibly Alex, hadn’t.
Ray frowned. “Someone knows a lot about us.”
“You know what’s really creepy?” Vincent lowered his voice, his tone ominous. “A month ago, someone pretending to be Mona messaged me on Facebook, begging me to come here.”
Ray’s eyes widened. “Me, too.”
Liv nodded and Amber sighed. “I think we all received the same messages.”
Flashes of blue and red tugged her gaze to the shaded drive, where two emergency vehicles moved toward them.
Someone had lured them all here. Now they each had a piece of paper bearing a single line of print.
And one of them had died tonight. Whatever had happened to Alex, the notes tied the five of them together. Monday morning, she’d ask some questions.
First would be how did Ramona Freeborn die?