Her Mother’s Grave – Lisa Regan

She started the fire in the nursery. Her lips curved into a smile as amber flames licked the walls and spread throughout the room, consuming the perfectly matching furniture and the carpet from which she’d spent so many hours scrubbing invisible marks. The gossamer crib canopy she painstakingly arranged every day went up in a satisfying whoosh. Don’t wake the babies. Don’t go in there till the children are up. Don’t, don’t, don’t. This’ll teach her. As the air thickened and began burning her nose and throat, she backed out of the room. Tendrils of thick, black smoke slipped around the edges of the door, coating the ceiling and chasing her out into the hallway. She used her forearm to cover her mouth as she ran. Soon the flames would rage through the house, burning up every fancy thing that spiteful, snobby bitch owned. It was going to be wonderful. She fled downstairs, stopping to hold a match to the heavy drapes and valances that adorned each window in the living and dining rooms until the taste of fire in her throat became unbearable. She made her way to the kitchen, intending to leave through the back door before she was caught. She was never supposed to set foot in the house again after they’d accused her of stealing.

She was halfway there when a glimpse of something in the family room stopped her dead in her tracks. A frisson of excitement spiraled inside her. Here was something even more destructive than fire, a way to bring down that bitch for good. The grin spread further across her face as she darted into the room, hands outstretched. CHAPTER ONE PRESENT DAY Six-month-old Harris Quinn giggled from his high chair as the small plastic pot of pureed baby peas hit the kitchen floor with a splat, covering Josie’s sneakers with drab green mush. Startled, Josie took one look at his little food-covered face and laughed too; it was impossible to get mad at him. Plucking a paper towel from above the sink, she bent to clean the mess from the floor, muttering “Rookie mistake” to Harris, who banged his palms against the tray in delight. Throwing things on the floor and watching Josie pick them up was his new favorite game. Dumping the clump of paper towels into the garbage can, she turned back to see Harris’s pea-covered little fists pressed into his eyes for just a moment. Josie looked at the clock on Misty’s microwave.

“Time for a nap, little man,” she told him. She looked around her for any further traces of food on the floor or walls of Misty Derossi’s immaculate home. It wasn’t often that she asked Josie to look after her son, but every once in a while, if Harris’s grandmother wasn’t available, she would get the call. Josie looked forward to these rare visits and didn’t want to jeopardize her status as one of Harris’s trusted babysitters by leaving a mess for his mother. Grabbing a cloth from the sink, she cleaned Harris’s face and hands as he squirmed and wailed in protest. “All done,” she announced as she unfastened the straps of the high chair and lifted him out of it, marveling at how big he had grown in such a short amount of time. She could still remember the first time she had held him, pinned against her chest after rescuing him from the deathly cold currents of the Susquehanna River. He had only been a few days old then, tiny, frail, and lucky to be alive. Now he was chunky and solid, his blond locks growing thicker each day, with a real personality beginning to emerge. Now that Harris was older, Josie enjoyed making him giggle, watching him spread his meals across his rosy cheeks, cleaning him up and then falling asleep together in the rocking chair that Josie had bought for Misty.

It was one of only a handful of modern pieces of furniture in the house, and completely out of place in the sitting room, which looked as though it had been torn from the pages of Victorian Homes magazine. Harris rested his head on Josie’s shoulder as she settled there now, using her feet to gently rock the chair back and forth. From the cloth pocket beside her, Josie pulled out one of Harris’s pacifiers, which he reached for greedily. Shifting him a little lower so that his cheek rested on her chest, Josie stroked his hair until he slipped into a deep sleep. There was nothing quite like this feeling, she thought as she began to doze off herself. The digitized beat of her cell phone broke into the silence, and Josie’s eyes snapped open, alert and searching. The sound was muffled and coming from the other side of the room, where her jacket was slung over the back of the couch. If it was important, whoever it was would call back. Looking down at Harris, she was relieved to find him undisturbed, his pacifier teetering just on the edge of his bottom lip, about to fall. A pool of dribble fanned across her T-shirt below his head.

Josie smiled, running her hand up and down his back and nudging the chair into a gentle rocking motion. The phone stopped ringing, and she closed her eyes again. If it was a true emergency, Lieutenant Noah Fraley and Detective Gretchen Palmer knew where to find her. She had just drifted back into a warm drowsiness when her phone rang again. This time, Harris stirred. Josie tucked the pacifier back into his mouth as quickly as she could, and he sucked loudly for a moment before crinkling his brow in preparation for what she suspected would be an unhappy howl. She held her breath in anticipation, but his features smoothed and he let out a little sigh instead. Silently, Josie cursed her phone, knowing there was no way to get them both across the room to her jacket without waking him. Not that it mattered—a moment later she heard the front door open and close, and Misty’s voice called out, “I’m home!” Harris stirred again, eyes scrunching, pressing his face into Josie’s chest as Misty’s voice drifted in from the hallway. “Josie? You in the living room?” Harris lifted his head, his blue eyes bleary with sleep as he searched the room for his mother.

She appeared in the doorway, a huge smile lighting her face at the sight of him. One side of her mouth still drooped, like an invisible finger was drawing it downward, but she had regained a lot more function since the assault she’d survived the day Harris was born. Clapping her hands together, Misty crossed the room and scooped him off Josie’s body, cooing and smoothing his wayward locks down. “Hi baby,” she murmured to him. “Did you have a good nap?” Josie stretched and adjusted her T-shirt. She glanced up at Misty. “How did it go?” Grinning, Misty pointed to her top front teeth. “Got my permanent implant. Feels great. I’m so glad to be done with it.

” When she’d had one of her top front teeth knocked out during the attack, she’d been given a temporary crown in the hospital, but it had taken a few months for her to save up the money to have it permanently repaired. Josie had been helping her when she could, but Misty used all the funds Josie gave her for Harris’s needs first. Before Harris came along, Misty made a lucrative living dancing at the local strip club, which had enabled her to purchase and furnish her lavish home. She had used her savings for an in vitro procedure to get pregnant with Harris and decided not to return to stripping once she gave birth—even if she wanted to, the injuries she’d sustained placed dancing again firmly outside the realm of possibility. Josie stood and moved over to the couch, riffling through her pockets to find her cell phone. “Looks good,” she told Misty. Misty shifted Harris from one hip to the other. He rested his head on Misty’s shoulder, the pacifier bobbing in his mouth. “Did he eat?” “Some fruit puffs and a bit of mashed peas. He was more interested in seeing how it looked on the floor.

” Misty laughed. “Oh yeah, that’s his new thing. No worries. I’ll see if he’ll take a bottle.” Josie pulled up her missed calls. Both from the same number. Not one she recognized. “Thank you again,” Misty said, although she had thanked Josie about a dozen times before she left for the dentist. “If Mrs. Quinn wasn’t so sick, she would have watched him.

Some kind of stomach bug.” Josie pulled on her jacket and walked over, patting Harris’s back. “No problem. We don’t want him catching whatever’s going around. You can call me. We’re finally finishing up all the paperwork for the district attorney on our last big case, so things are slow.” “That drug dealer, right? Lloyd Todd?” “More like a kingpin,” Josie said. “Hard to believe he had such a big operation,” Misty remarked. Lloyd Todd had been considered a pillar of the community in the small city of Denton. His general contracting company was one of the busiest and most well-known, but as Josie and her team had found out in the last two months, it had been mostly a front for a large drug-dealing operation.

Todd had had nearly two dozen young men and a couple of young women working for him as mules and low-level dealers. He’d been supplying about eighty percent of the city’s illegal drugs to needy customers. It was no surprise to Josie that the number of overdoses had gone down sharply after his arrest. Of course, they’d go back up once Todd’s customers found their fixes elsewhere. “It was a shocker,” Josie agreed. Misty followed her through the labyrinth of lavish rooms until they reached the front door. Once on the front porch, Misty said, “Want to stay for lunch?” It wasn’t the first time she had asked Josie to stay a little longer, but while Josie would love to spend more time with the baby, she wasn’t sure her relationship with Misty was quite ready for a girls’ lunch. It had taken them a long time to reach the civil place they found themselves in now. Several years earlier, when Josie’s marriage to her late husband, Ray Quinn, fell apart, he had started an affair with Misty. Ray had cared deeply about Misty, and his dying wish had been for Josie to respect his choice.

It was a difficult task, even on her best day. It had taken the assault on Misty and the birth of Ray’s son to finally bring the two women together. Still, Josie knew she could be abrasive, even when she tried not to be, and she was afraid the fragile relationship she had developed with Misty would be ruined if they spent more time together. “I have to work,” she lied. Misty’s mouth sagged with disappointment, the partial paralysis of her face making the expression even more acute. Josie felt a prickle of guilt. “Maybe next time.” Misty’s gaze dropped to the wooden floorboards. “You always say that. Listen, I know we haven’t always gotten along, but I want you to know that I—” The ring of Josie’s cell phone interrupted Misty’s speech before it had started.

Both women stared down at Josie’s jacket pocket. Fishing the phone out, Josie gave Misty a sheepish smile and glanced at the screen. It was the same number as earlier. Desperate to avoid the topic of their reconciliation, Josie quickly swiped answer and pressed the phone to her ear. “Quinn,” she said. A man’s voice answered. “Josie Quinn?” “Yes. Who is this?” “I—I—you can call me Roger.” “I can ‘call you’ Roger? Who is this?” Hesitation. Then, “I’m calling about your ad.

You know, on craigslist?” A sinking sensation swept through Josie’s stomach. She looked up at Misty, who was looking at her with puzzled concern. Josie stepped off the porch, using her free hand to mimic bringing a phone receiver to her ear and mouthed, “Call if you need anything.” She turned away from Misty and strode to her car, turning her attention back to Roger. “My craigslist ad? Which one was that?” “Which one?” Roger asked, and again Josie heard more hesitation in his voice. “You don’t—do I have the right number?” “You called me, Roger.” More dead air. Then Roger said, “You don’t sound like you’re looking for fun.” “Being pranked through craigslist isn’t my idea of a good time, Roger.” But Roger had hung up.

Josie glanced back toward Misty’s house, but she’d gone inside with the baby. With a sigh, Josie got into her Ford Escape and started the engine. She used the internet app on her phone to pull up Denton’s craigslist site. It took a couple of minutes of browsing to find the ad. This time it was under Casual Encounters. It had been posted three hours earlier. Kinky girl seeks playmate—Woman seeking man. Dread froze her finger over the screen. She didn’t want to read it, didn’t want to know what it said, but she had to look. Better to do it now, in the privacy of her vehicle, than to do it at the police station with her lieutenant and detective reading over her shoulder.

The first time it happened, her face had taken fifteen minutes to recover from the flush that had reddened her cheeks. She took a deep breath, held it, and pressed the link to the ad. Looking for some kinky fun. Hot girl early thirties seeking afternoon delight. A tongue so skilled I will never leave you unsatisfied. Always clean, always discreet. Call to hook up. Below that was Josie’s name and cell phone number. She let out the breath she’d been holding and tossed the phone onto the passenger seat as though it had burned her hand. A movement in one of the windows of Misty’s house caught her attention.

It was likely Misty peeking from behind the curtain, wondering why Josie was still sitting curbside. Josie pulled away and headed to the police station. It was her day off, but this couldn’t wait. CHAPTER TWO The calls had started just after Lloyd Todd’s arrest a month earlier. They were always the result of a craigslist ad that gave her name and cell phone number, some so disgusting and graphic she could barely get through reading them. She’d changed her number three times already. Whoever was writing the ads managed to get hold of her new number each time. She’d tried to figure out how—in fact her entire staff had come under suspicion —but she still couldn’t track it. She’d gone to the cell phone store, even gone so far as to bring in the store associates for interrogation, but that lead had fallen flat pretty quickly. Even if someone at the cell phone store was giving out her new number each time she changed it, she had no way of proving it.

She’d switched cell carriers after the last ad, but it was now obvious that hadn’t worked. Josie weaved through the streets of downtown Denton. Her city was roughly twentyfive square miles, many of those miles spanning the untamed mountains of central Pennsylvania, with their one-lane winding roads, dense woods, and rural residences spread out far and wide. The population was edging over thirty thousand, and it increased when the college was in session, providing plenty of conflict and crime to keep Josie’s team of fifty-five pretty busy. She arrived at the police station in only ten minutes, parked in the chief’s spot in the municipal parking lot, and went in the front door. Her desk sergeant nodded to her. “Is Lieutenant Fraley here?” she asked him. He pointed to the ceiling. “Upstairs finishing the paperwork on the Todd case.” “Great,” Josie said.

She took the steps two at a time and found Noah at his desk, staring at his computer screen, a gnawed pen hanging from his mouth and his thick brown hair in disarray. Without moving his head, his eyes tracked her. “I hate paperwork,” he mumbled, pulling the pen from his mouth. “Did I mention that?” Josie perched on the edge of his desk. “You might have,” she said. He tossed the pen onto his desk, used his mouse to close out the programs on his computer, and turned his attention to her. Brow furrowed, he said, “What’s going on?” She held up her cell phone. “I got another one.” He glanced at the phone, then stood up, nodding toward her office where they could speak in private. Noah closed the door behind him and already had his notepad out by the time Josie rounded her desk.

She plopped into her chair, pulled up the ad on her phone, and read it aloud to him as his pen flew across the page and his face grew increasingly stern. She told him about the call from Roger and rattled off the phone number. “I’ll flag this as prohibited and fax another warrant over to the craigslist offices,” Noah said. Josie sighed. “And that will get us nowhere, just like the last three times.” “But we need to build a case. When we find out who’s doing this, we need to have everything in order to be able to put them away.” “We know who’s doing it. Lloyd Todd and his legion of assholes.” “Fine, then we need to be prepared to put those assholes away.

” “Like we did when they slashed the tires of all the cars in the police lot? Or when they egged the downstairs windows? They’re angry because we arrested their boss and took away their drugs, and now they’re all unemployed and in withdrawal. They’re blowing off steam.” “Directed specifically at you,” Noah pointed out. “Because I’m the one who gets the job of going on TV every time something big or bad happens in this town.” “Yeah,” Noah said, smiling. “I know that’s your favorite.” She glared at him. “You should hire a press liaison,” he suggested. Josie rolled her eyes. “We can’t afford a press liaison.

Just get today’s ad taken down, would you?” “Fine, but I’m faxing over a warrant as well.” “So you can get dummy email addresses and IP addresses that don’t help us find the person who’s doing this? Knowing the person posted the ads from an IP address somewhere in the city of Denton doesn’t exactly narrow it down. Who knew these idiots were so tech-savvy?” “Last time we narrowed it down to the Starbucks near the college,” Noah pointed out. “Yes,” Josie said. “Someone piggybacking on their wifi. We have no idea if that person was even in the store, or if they were in a car or across the street. There was no way to tell from the video footage inside the cafe whether it was one of the patrons. Everyone in that place is on a damn computer or a phone.” “It’s still worth looking into,” Noah said. “We might catch a break.

This is getting serious. I think these craigslist ads rise to a higher level than pranks, Boss.” “Noah.” He stared at her, and she knew what was coming. “Don’t even say it,” she said. “Boss, let me put a detail on you. Just until we catch these punks.” “I don’t need a detail,” Josie said. “Not for this. This is dumb high school shit.

” “You’ve got men calling you for sex.” “Men who think I’m someone I’m not. Believe me, I’m not worried about the Rogers of the world. That guy couldn’t even handle a phone call with me. I doubt he’s going to try to track me down.” “I’m not worried about Roger,” Noah said. His eyes bored into her. “I’m worried about the jerk placing the ads. Are you certain this is coming from Lloyd Todd’s camp?” “Well, I’ve put a lot of people away as Chief of Police. It could be anyone, but it started after we arrested Todd, after I’d given at least three press conferences.

If his lackeys are looking for someone to direct their rage toward, I would be that person. But listen, this is just a nuisance. It hasn’t risen to the level of putting a detail on me.” He opened his mouth to speak again, but Josie stopped him with a raised palm. “I’m not ruling out the possibility of a detail—although I can certainly take care of myself—but not now, okay? Right now, I have to go back to the phone store and get my number changed. Again.” He knew her well enough by now not to push her. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll get to work on this. Text me with your new number.

.

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