Lapped by he gentle waters of Locust Lake, the small resort town of Tranquility, Maine, seems like the perfect spot for Dr. Claire Elliot to shelter her adolescent son, Noah, from the distractions of the big city and the lingering memory of his father's death. But with the first snap of winter comes shocking news that puts her practise on the line: a teenage boy under her care has committed an appalling act of violence. And as Claire and all of Tranquility soon discover, it is just the start of a chain of lethal outbursts among the town's teenagers.
As the rash of disturbing behavior grows, Claire uncovers a horrifying secret: this is not the first time it has happened. Twice a century,the children of Tranquility lash out with deadly violence. Claire suspects that there is a biological cause for the epidemic, and she fears that the placid Locust Lake may conceal an insidious danger. As she races to save Tranquility and her son from harm, Claire discovers an even greater threat: a shocking conspiracy to manipulate nature, and turn innocents to slaughter.
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Chapter 1: The Present
"Someone's going to get hurt out there," said Dr. Claire Elliot, looking out her kitchen window. Morning mist, thick as smoke, hung over the lake, and the trees beyond her window drifted in and out of focus. Another gunshot rang out, closer this time. Since first light, she'd heard the gunfire, and would probably hear it all day until dusk, because it was the first day of November. The start of hunting season. Somewhere in those woods, a man with a rifle was tramping around half-blind through the mist as imagined shadows of white-tailed deer danced around him.
"I don't think you should wait outside for the bus," said Claire. "I'll drive you to school."
Noah, hunched at the breakfast table, said nothing. He scooped up another spoonful of Cheerios and slurped it down. Fourteen years old, and her son still ate like a two-year-old, milk splashing on the table, crumbs of toast littering the floor around his chair. He ate without looking at her, as though to meet her gaze was to come face to face with Medusa. And what difference would it make if he did look at me, she thought wryly. My darling son has already turned to stone.
She said again, "I'll drive you to school, Noah."
"That's okay. I'm taking the bus." He stood up and grabbed his backpack and skateboard.
"Those hunters out there can't possibly see what they're shooting at. At least wear the orange hat. So they won't think you're a deer."
"But it looks so dorky."
"You can take it off on the bus. Just put it on now." She took the knit cap from the mitten shelf and held it out to him.
He looked at it, then finally, at her. He had sprouted up several inches in just one year, and they were now the same height, their gazes meeting straight on, neither one able to claim the advantage. She wondered if Noah was as acutely aware of their new physical equality as she was. Once she could hug him and a child would hug back. Now the child was gone, his softness resculpted into muscle, his face narrowed to a sharp new angularity.
"Please," she said, still holding out the cap.
At last he sighed and jammed the cap over his dark hair. She had to suppress a smile; he did look dorky.
He had already started down the hallway when she called out: "Good-bye kiss?"
With a look of exasperation, he turned to give her the barest peck on the cheek, and then he was out of the door.
No hugs anymore, she thought ruefully as she stood at the window and watched him trudge toward the road. It's all grunts and shrugs and awkward silences.
He stopped beneath the maple tree at the end of the driveway, pulled off the cap, and stood with his hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched against the cold. No jacket, just a thin gray sweatshirt against a thirty-seven-degree morning. It was cool to be cold. She had to resist the urge to run outside and bundle him into a coat.
Claire waited until the school bus appeared. She watched her son climb aboard without a backward glance, saw his silhouette move down the aisle and take a seat beside another student a girl. Who is that girl? she wondered. I don't know the names of my son's friends anymore. I've shrunk to just a small corner of his universe. She knew this was supposed to happen, the pulling away, the child's struggle for independence, but she was not prepared for it. The transformation had occurred suddenly, as though a sweet boy had walked out of the house one day, and a stranger had walked back in. You're all I have left of Peter. I'm not ready to lose you as well.
The bus rumbled away.
Claire returned to the kitchen and sat down to her cup of lukewarm coffee. The house felt hollow and silent, a home still in mourning. She sighed and unrolled the weekly Tranquility Gazette. HEALTHY DEER HERD PROMISES BOUNTIFUL HARVEST, announced the front page. The hunt was on. Thirty days to bag your deer.
Outside, another gunshot echoed in the woods.
She turned the page to the police blotter. There was no mention yet of last night's Halloween disturbance, or of the seven rowdy teenagers who'd been arrested for taking their annual trick-or-treating too far. But there, buried among the reports of lost dogs and stolen firewood, was her name, under VIOLATIONS: "Claire Elliot, age forty, operating vehicle with expired safety sticker." She still hadn't brought the Subaru in for its safety inspection; today she'd have to drive the truck instead, just to avoid getting another citation. Irritably she flipped to the next page and was scanning the day's weather forecast cold and windy, high in the thirties, low in the twenties when the telephone rang.
She rose to answer it. "Hello?"
"Dr. Elliot? This is Rachel Sorkin out on Toddy Point Road. I've got something of an emergency out here. Elwyn just shot himself."
"You know, that idiot Elwyn Clyde. He came trespassing on my property, chasing after some poor deer. Killed it too a beautiful doe, right in my front yard. These stupid men and their stupid guns."
"What about Elwyn?"
"Oh, he tripped and shot his own foot. Serves him right."
"He should go straight to the hospital."
"Well you see, that's the problem. He doesn't want to go to the hospital, and he won't let me call an ambulance. He wants me to drive him and the deer home. Well, I'm not going to. So what should I do with him?"
"How badly is he bleeding?"
She heard Rachel call out: "Hey, Elwyn? Elwyn! Are you bleeding?" Then Rachel came back on the line. "He says he's fine. He just wants a ride home. But I'm not taking him, and I'm certainly not taking the deer."
Claire sighed. "I guess I can drive over and take a look. You're on Toddy Point Road?"
"About a mile past the Boulders. My name's on the mail box."
The mist was starting to lift as Claire turned her pickup truck onto Toddy Point Road. Through stands of white pine, she caught glimpses of Locust Lake, the fog rising like steam. Already beams of sunlight were breaking through, splashing gold onto the rippling water. Across the lake, just visible through fingers of mist, was the north shore with its summer cottages, most of them boarded up for the season, their wealthy owners gone home to Boston or New York. On the south shore, where Claire now drove, were the more modest homes, some of them little more than two-room shacks tucked in among the trees.
She drove past the Boulders, an outcropping of granite stones where the local teenagers gathered to swim in the summertime, and spotted the mailbox with the name Sorkin.
A bumpy dirt road brought her to the house. It was a strange and whimsical structure, rooms added haphazardly, corners jutting out in unexpected places. Rising above it all, like the tip of a crystal breaking through the roof, was a glassed-in belfry. An eccentric woman would have an eccentric house, and Rachel Sorkin was one of Tranquility's odd birds, a striking, black-haired woman who strode once a week into town, swathed in a purple hooded cape. This looked like a house in which a caped woman might reside.
By the front steps, next to a neatly tended herb garden, lay the dead deer.
Claire climbed out of her truck. At once two dogs bounded out of the woods and barred her way, barking and growling. Guarding the kill, she realized.
Rachel came out of the house and yelled at the dogs: "Get out of here, you bloody animals! Go home!" She grabbed a broom from the porch and came tearing down the steps, long black hair flying, the broom thrust forward like a lance.
The dogs backed away.
"Ha! Cowards," said Rachel, lunging at them with the broom. They retreated toward the woods.
"Hey, you leave my dogs alone!" shouted Elwyn Clyde, who had limped out onto the porch. Elwyn was a prime example of an evolutionary dead end: a fifty-year-old lump bundled in flannel, and doomed to eternal bachelorhood. "They're not hurtin' nothin'. They're just watchin' after my deer."
"Elwyn, I got news for you. You killed this poor creature on my property. So she's mine."
"What you gonna do with a deer? Blasted vegetarian!"
Claire cut in: "How's the foot, Elwyn?"
He looked it Claire and blinked, as though surprised to see her. "I tripped," he said. "No big deal."
"A bullet wound is always a big deal. May I take a look at it?"
"Can't pay you..." He paused, one scraggly eyebrow lifting as a sly thought occurred. "'Less you want some venison."
"I just want to make sure you're not bleeding to death. We can settle up some other time. Can I look at your foot?"
"If you really want to," he said, and limped back into the house.
"This should be a treat," said Rachel.
It was warm inside the kitchen. Rachel threw a birch log into the wood stove, and sweet smoke puffed out as she dropped the cast iron lid back in place.
"Let's see the foot," said Claire.
Elwyn hobbled over to a chair, leaving smears of blood on the floor. He had his sock on, and there was it jagged hole at the top, near the big toe, as though a rat had chewed through the wool. "Hardly bothering me," he said. "Not worth all this fuss, if you ask me."
Claire knelt clown and peeled off the sock. It came away slowly, the wool matted to his foot not by blood but by sweat and dead skin.
"Oh God," said Rachel, cupping her hand over her nose. "Don't you ever change your socks, Elwyn?"
The bullet had passed through the fleshy web between the first and second toe. Claire found the exit wound underneath the foot. There was only a little blood oozing out now. Trying not to gag on the smell, she tested movement of all the toes, and determined that no nerves had been damaged.
"You'll have to clean it and change the bandages every day," she said. "And you need a tetanus shot, Elwyn."
"Oh, I got one of them already."
"Last year, from ol' Doc Pomeroy After I shot myself."
"Is this an annual event?"
"That one went through my other foot. 'Tweren't a big deal."
Dr. Pomeroy had died back in January, and Claire had acquired all his old medical records when she'd bought the practice from his estate eight months ago. She could check Elwyn's file and confirm the date of his last tetanus shot.
"I guess it's up to me to clean that foot," said Rachel.
Claire took out a small bottle of Betadine from her medical bag and handed it to her. "Add that to a warm bucket of water. Let him soak in it for a while."
"Oh, I can do that myself," said Elwyn, and got up.
"Then we might as well just amputate right now!" snapped Rachel. "Sit down, Elwyn."
"Gee," he said, and sat down.
Claire left a few packets of bandages and gauze wrappings on the table. "Elwyn, you come into my office next week, so I can check the wound."
"But I got too much to do "
"If you don't come in, I'll have to hunt you down like a dog."
He blinked at her in surprise. "Yes, ma'am," he said meekly.
Suppressing a smile, Claire picked up her medical bag and walked out of the house.
The two dogs were in the front yard again, fighting over a filthy bone. As Claire came down the steps, they both spun around to stare at her.
The black one trotted forward and growled.
"Shoo," Claire said, but the dog refused to back down. It took another few steps forward, teeth bared.
The tan dog, spotting opportunity, snatched the bone in its teeth and began dragging away the prize. It got halfway across the yard before the black dog suddenly noticed the thief and streaked back into the fight. Yelping and growling, they thrashed around the yard in a tangle of black and tan. The bone lay, forgotten, beside Claire's pickup truck.
She opened the door and was just sliding in behind the steering wheel when the image registered in her brain. She looked down at the ground, at the bone.
It was less than a foot long, and stained a rusty brown with dirt. One end had broken off, leaving jagged splinters. The other end was intact, the bony landmarks recognizable.
It was a femur. And it was human.
Ten miles out of town, Tranquility Police Chief Lincoln Kelly finally caught up with his wife.
She was doing about fifty in a stolen Chevy, weaving left and right, the loose tailpipe kicking up sparks every time she hit a dip in the road.
"Man oh man," said Floyd Spear, sitting beside Lincoln in the cruiser. "Doreen got her snookerful today."
"I've been on the road all morning," said Lincoln. "Didn't get a chance to check up on her." He turned on the siren, hoping that would induce Doreen to slow down. She sped up.
"Now what?" asked Floyd. "Want me to call for backup?"
Backup meant Hank Dorr, the only other officer on patrol duty that morning.
"No," said Lincoln. "Let's see if we can't talk her into pulling over."
"At sixty miles an hour?"
"Get on the bullhorn."
0 Floyd picked up the mike and his voice boomed out over the speaker: "Hey, Doreen, pull over! C'mon, Sweetheart, you're gonna hurt someone!"
The Chevy just kept dipping and weaving.
"We could wait till she runs out of gas," Floyd suggested.
"Keep talking to her."
Floyd tried the mike again. "Doreen, Lincoln's here! C'mon, Sweetheart, pull over! He wants ta 'pologize!
"I want to what?"
"Pull over, Doreen, and he'll tell you himself!"
"What in hell are you talking about?" said Lincoln.
"Women always expect a man to apologize."
"But I didn't do anything!"
Up ahead, the Chevy's brake lights suddenly lit up.
"See?" said Floyd as the Chevy rolled to a stop at the side of the road.
Lincoln pulled up behind it and climbed out of the cruiser.
Doreen sat hunched behind the steering wheel, her red hair wild and tangled, her hands shaking. Lincoln opened the door, reached over his wife's lap, and removed the car keys. "Doreen," he said wearily, "you gotta come back to the station."
"When are you coming home, Lincoln?" she asked.
"We'll talk about that later. Come on, Honey, let's get in the cruiser." He reached for her elbow but she shook him off and slapped his hand for good measure.
"I just want to know when you're coming home," she said.
"We've talked about this and talked about this."
"You're still married to me. You're still my husband."
"And there's just no point in talking about it any more." Again he took her elbow. He already had her out of the Chevy when she hauled off and slugged him in the jaw. He staggered back a few steps, his whole head ringing.
"Hey!" said Floyd, grabbing Doreen's arms. "Hey now, you don't wanna go doing that!"
"Lemme go!" screeched Doreen. She broke out of Floyd's grasp and took another swing at her husband.
This time Lincoln ducked, which only made his wife madder. She got in one more swing before Lincoln and Floyd managed to get her arms secured.
"I hate to do this," said Lincoln. "But you're just not being reasonable today." He snapped the handcuffs on her wrists. She spat at him. He wiped his sleeve across his face, then patiently guided his wife into the backseat of the cruiser.
"Oh man," said Floyd. "You know we're gonna have to book her."
"I know." Lincoln sighed and slid in behind the wheel.
"You can't divorce me, Lincoln Kelly!" said Doreen. "You promised to love and cherish!"
"I didn't know about the bottle," said Lincoln, and he turned the car around.
They drove at a leisurely speed toward town, Doreen cussing a purple streak the whole time. It was the drinking that did it; it seemed to pop the cork off her bottle of demons.
Two years ago, Lincoln had moved out of their house. He figured he'd given the marriage his best effort and ten years of his life. He wasn't by nature a quitter, but the despair had finally gotten to him. That and the sense that, at forty-five, his life was racing by, joyless and unfruitful. He wished he could do right by Doreen, wished that he could recapture some of that old affection he'd felt for her early on in their marriage, when she'd been bright and sober, not bubbling over with anger as she was now. Sometimes he'd search his own heart for whatever trace of love might still linger, some small spark among the ashes, but there was nothing left. The ashes were cold. And he was tired.
He had tried to stand by her, but Doreen couldn't even see clear to help herself. Every few months, when her rage boiled up, she'd spend the day drinking. Then she'd "borrow" someone's car and go for one of her famous high-speed drives. People in town knew to stay off the roads when Doreen Kelly got behind the wheel.
Back at the Tranquility police station, Lincoln let Floyd do the booking and locking up. Through the two closed doors leading to the cell, he could hear Doreen yelling for a lawyer. He supposed he should call one for her, though no one in Tranquility wanted to take her on. Even down south as far as Bangor, she'd worn out her welcomes. He sat at his desk, flipping through the Rolodex, trolling for a lawyer's name. Someone he hadn't called in a while. Someone who didn't mind being cussed out by a client.
It was all too much, too early in the morning. He shoved away the Rolodex and ran his hand through his hair. Doreen was still yelling in the back room. This would all be reported in that nosy Gazette, and then the Bangor and Portland papers would pick it up because the whole damn state of Maine thought it was funny and so very quaint. Tranquility police chief arrests own wife. Again.
He reached for the telephone and was dialing the number for Tom Wiley, attorney at law, when he heard a knock at his door. Glancing up, he saw Claire Elliot walk into his office, and he hung up.
"Hey, Claire," he said. "Got your safety sticker yet?"
"I'm still working on it. But I'm not here about my car. I want to show you something." She set a dirty bone down on his desk.
"It's a femur, Lincoln."
"A thigh bone. I think it's human."
He stared at the dirt-encrusted bone. One end was splintered off, and the shaft showed the gnawings of animal teeth. "Where did you find this?"
"Rachel Sorkin's place."
"How did Rachel get it?"
"Elwyn Clyde's dogs dragged it into her yard. She doesn't know where it came from. I was over there this morning, after Elwyn shot himself in the foot."
"Again?" He rolled his eyes and they both laughed. If every village had an idiot, then Tranquility's would be Elwyn.
"He's okay," she said. "But I guess a gunshot wound should be reported."
"Consider it done. I already have a folder for Elwyn and his gunshot wounds." He gestured to a chair. "Now tell me about this bone. Are you sure it's human?"
She sat down. Though they were looking directly at each other, he felt a barrier of reserve between them that was almost physical. He had sensed it the first time they'd met, soon after she'd moved to town, when she had attended to a prisoner suffering from abdominal pain in Tranquility's three-cell jail. Lincoln had been curious about her from the start. Where was her husband? Why was she alone raising her son? But he had not felt comfortable asking her personal questions, and she did not seem to invite such intrusion. Pleasant but intensely private, she seemed reluctant to let anyone get too close to her, which was a shame. She was a pretty woman, short but sturdy, with luminous dark eyes and a mass of curly brown hair just starting to show the first strands of silver.
She leaned forward, her hands resting on his desk. "I'm not an expert or anything," she said, "but I don't know what other animal this bone could come from. Judging by the size, it looks like a child's."
"Did you see any other bones around?"
Rachel and I searched the yard, but we didn't find any. The dogs could've picked this up anywhere in the woods. You'll have to search the whole area."
"Could be from an old Indian burial."
"Possibly. But doesn't it still have to go to the medical examiner?" Suddenly she turned, her head cocked. "What's all that commotion?"
Lincoln flushed. Doreen was shouting in her cell again, letting fly a fresh torrent of abuse. "Damn you, Lincoln! You jerk! You liar! Damn you to hell!"
"It sounds like somebody doesn't like you very much," said Claire.
He sighed and pressed his hand to his forehead. "My wife."
Claire's gaze softened to a look of sympathy. It was apparent she knew about his problems. Everyone in town did.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Hey, loser!" Doreen yelled. "You got no right to treat me like this!"
With deliberate effort, he redirected his attention to the thigh bone. "How old was the victim, do you think?"
She picked up the femur and turned it over in her hands. For a moment she held it with quiet reverence, fully aware that this broken length of bone had once supported a laughing, running child. "Young," she murmured. "I would guess under ten years old." She lay it on the desk and stared down in silence.
"We haven't had any missing children reported recently," he said. "The area's been settled for hundreds of years, and old bones are always turning up. A century ago, it wasn't all that unusual to die young."
She was frowning. "I don't think this child died from natural causes," she said softly.
"Why do you say that?"
She reached over to turn on his desk lamp, and held the bone close to the light. "There," she said. "It's so crusted over, you can barely see it through the dirt."
He reached in his pocket for his glasses another reminder of the years' passage, of his youth slipping away. Bending closer, he tried to see what she was pointing at. Only when she'd scraped away a clot of dirt with her fingernail did he see the wedge-shaped gash.
It was the mark of a hatchet.
Copyright © 1998 by Tess Gerritsen