Growing up, the Schock sisters lived across the street from a serial killer—at least according to their mother. She’s spent years spying on the man and tracking his every move, but no concrete evidence has ever been found.
When Helen Schock joins a citizens cold case group and uncovers a link between her suspicious neighbor and three murdered women found in Virginia fifteen years ago, she does the one thing Meg and Charlie never expect…she hires them to prove she’s been right all along.
As the three work together to expose the truth and bring justice to the dead, they uncover an unexpected twist to the case…and find themselves hunted by a killer desperate enough to destroy them all.
Sunday dinners are something I always look forward to with my parents. Until today.
Dad’s heading out for a fishing trip with his friends, so Mom switched it to Saturday lunch and topped it off by insisting Meg and I bring our boyfriends.
I’m honestly not sure I want JJ to meet them. Yet.
Our relationship is just starting to deepen, and well, my parents can be a handful.
The summer is in full-swing, the temperature pushing the low nineties. D.C. is swamped in humidity and sunshine. “There are three subjects you do not want to bring up or engage in,” I tell JJ Carrington III and Jerome Metcalfe. I hold up a finger. “One, politics.”
In the backseat, Meg expands on this to Jerome. “Dad gets hot under the collar about the state of the economy, healthcare, and just about everything else related to Washington.”
“Two,” I hold up another and spear Jerome with a look in the rearview as I take the offramp from the highway, heading southwest. “Legalized marijuana.”
Meg’s boyfriend deals in the stuff, along with being a brilliant artist, and talks as casually about it as I would breakfast.
Once more Meg chimes in. “Mom is for it, Dad isn’t. Funny too, since they grew up during the sixties. Charlie and I are pretty sure they experimented with pot at least a few times.”
In the passenger seat, JJ laughs softly under his breath. He looks and smells good enough to eat, and I smile when he glances at me with his beautiful blue-gray eyes. My dad will love him—he’s an alpha male, a U.S. District Attorney, and treats me like a queen. His recovery after being shot at my place several months ago has gone well, and I thank the universe for him every day. It was my fault he nearly died. I’ll never take him—or any of my family—for granted again.
“And three,” I continue, “do not bring up anything about serial killers or the neighbors.”
Both men give me odd looks. My sister fills them in about this as well. “Mom’s sure the man across the street is not just eccentric, but a serial killer and she spent the majority of our youth trying to prove it.”
Meg and I run a private investigation service, and it’s only been a few months since our run-in with a legitimate serial killer, so it’s been a frequent topic of conversation. Today, the last thing I want to talk about is work, though things are good right now. However, it’s unavoidable as either Mom or Dad will surely bring it up. After our last two prominent cases in the public eye, we came out looking competent and successful, although it was rocky on the most recent. Business is up enough that I’m considering hiring another junior investigator to help. Expansion is something Meg and I have been discussing off and on for a while now.
“Whoa,” Jerome says, his honey-blond hair is in a low bun and he has removed the earring. He’s clean shaven and wearing a nice polo shirt and khaki pants—somewhat of an upgrade from his usual artistic, pot-dealing self. “That must have been freaky.”
Meg leans her shoulder against his, and I see the love in her eyes. “Mom was an investigative reporter until she gave it up to stay home with us. Dad was gone a lot, being career Army. Her brain needed something besides dirty diapers and endless rounds of Chutes and Ladders. The guy was always a touch suspicious acting, but she does have an overactive imagination, to say the least.”
We arrive, and after I park and get out of the car, JJ takes my hand as we stroll to the door. “Stop worrying,” he says. “It’s just lunch.”
He doesn’t realize he’s about to walk into a gauntlet of my father’s endless questions and my mother’s need to find something wrong with him and Jerome.
I envy Meg—she doesn’t seem nervous at all. She and Jerome laugh and talk as they climb the steps of the back porch. JJ stops me at the bottom and bends to kiss my forehead. “I promise to be on my best behavior.”
“I’m not worried about you. It’s them I’m worried about.”
He puts an arm around me and we climb the stairs together.
Mom greets us and ushers us into the kitchen, her and Dad shaking hands with Jerome and JJ, Mom hugging Meg and kissing my cheek.
Light conversation follows as we seat our boyfriends at the dining room table and Dad takes his spot at the head of it. Meg and I already worked this out. I stay there to referee the conversation, while she helps Mom bring in the food.
Everything goes well, the dishes are passed around, both guests making complimentary comments about the house and the different items Mom made. It is an impressive spread. She never seemed interested in cooking when Meg and I were young, and many of our meals consisted of Cheerios and mac and cheese. In recent years, she’s become quite a foodie. Everything in front of us is homemade, some of it organic, and most requiring more than three ingredients—something Mom never tackled before.
There’s general conversation regarding the weather and heat—we haven’t had rain in weeks, and everyone is weary of all the sunshine and humidity.
JJ asks about the family homestead and Dad fills him in, proud of his father and grandfather, the two generations who lived here before him. He also throws in a little zinger about how he hopes Meg or I might move in when he and Mom are gone. I suppress an eye roll as this subject seems to come up more and more as they age. As if they’re both going to up and disappear on us at the same time.
Meg and I exchange a glance across the table, her slight brow lift my cue to redirect the conversation. “How’s your golf game, Dad?”
I know very well how it is—he pretty much stinks—but he likes to talk about it and the details regarding his latest outing with a group of fellow retired, veteran friends.
This is a safe, although slightly boring, topic, that allows the rest of us to eat. He moves onto his upcoming trip, and yep, I relish the fact that everyone I love is safe, and the biggest thing we all have to discuss is lures, fishing poles, and trips.
Mom interjects and turns to JJ. “What do your initials stand for?”
He swallows and dabs the napkin to his lips. “Joseph Jefferson. I was named after my grandfathers.”
Dad makes an approving noise. “Joseph Jefferson Carrington, the third. Sounds like a strong presidential candidate.”
Dad winks at me while cutting the meat on his plate and loading his fork. “Ever think of running for office?”
JJ takes a drink of iced tea. Buying time? “Not high on my list of priorities, but it’s not off the table.”
This makes my father extremely happy, while I turn a raised eyebrow on my boyfriend. “You never told me that.”
He gives a deprecating smile. “I like to keep my options open.”
I’m truly stunned. With a “hmm,” I signify we’ll discuss this more later.
Mother turns to Jerome. “Meg mentioned the other day you’re thinking of moving. This is a lovely residential area, and I know the Petersons on the next block are putting their condo up for sale. Ask Meg, it’s a great place for artists. We’re one of the few neighborhoods left with woods so nearby. You like to connect with nature, I bet. I know Meg does.”
Her hint is obvious, and I try not to laugh, thinking about Jerome, who can barely match clothes or remember when he’s supposed to pick Meg up, buying a condo in this neighborhood.
“I’ll have to check it out,” he says, and Meg smiles. She knows as well as I that he has no intention of doing so, realizing he’d be far too close to our parents for one thing, as well as out of his price range in this area. Hell, I doubt JJ could afford it. The only reason my parents are here is the generational inheritance.
“It’s too bad we can’t get the neighbor across the street to move,” Mom says in a disgusted voice. “I’m getting closer, though. It won’t be long until I’ll have enough for the police to arrest him.”
Meg kicks me under the table. Here we go.
Lunch was going so well, and now I have to find a way to divert Mom off the subject we feared would come up. A tense silence falls from JJ and Jerome, the two knowing we just dove head first into the hot zone.
Dad puts down his fork with a clank. “Helen, not now.”
Mom looks around, wide-eyed and innocent. “What? I’m just saying, the man is going to jail. I’ll make certain of it. Of course, who’d want that house, knowing a serial killer lived in it.”
She totally believes this is the truth. At the continued silence, she straightens her spine. “I’m working with the CSCC.” She nods at Meg and I, as if this makes sense to us. “We’re compiling all the evidence we can find linking Gayle to at least three cold case deaths. My notes from all these years are key to proving he’s been getting away with murder.” She leans forward and lowers her voice. "Literally.”
JJ digs into his mashed potatoes. “CSCC?”
I pinch him under the table for engaging the enemy, as Mom nods adamantly. “Citizens Solving Cold Cases. The group has grown considerably in the last year, and we’ve had success with more than six cases. You should join,” she says to him. “We have former police officers, detectives, even a retired FBI agent. He founded it.” At this, she flicks her eyes to me. “We could use people like you helping us.”
Meg kicks me again, and I give her a look telling her I don’t know how to change this flow of conversation. “Mom, can we talk about this later? Tell us what you made for dessert.”
She screws up her face, letting me know she’s not going to be diverted. She rises from the chair and walks out of the room. Meg and I glance at Dad.
He shakes his head, as conflicted about what to say as we are. He tosses his napkin on the table and stands. “I’ll check on dessert.”
Before he steps away, Mom strides in, arms loaded with blue file folders. She thunks the stack next to my plate, making the silverware jump. “No one move. Here are my notes, and the recent internet investigation Al conducted with my guidance.”
I look up to see determination and something else brewing behind her brown eyes—the investigative reporter she was in her heyday. “I’d love to go through these after lunch. It’s great that you’ve joined a group.” Total lie. That’s the last thing she needs, other people encouraging and supporting her obsession with our neighbor.
“Who’s Al?” Jerome asks, and I see Meg turn her fierce gaze on him.
“Alfonzo Baez,” Mom answers. “The retired agent I mentioned. He and I were going through my notes from the mid-nineties, and he saw a link between information I had on Gayle, our neighbor, and a place in Virginia he knew about where three women’s bodies turned up in the early 2000s.”
Now that, as much as I hate it, catches my interest.
“The fishing cabins on Whitetop?” Dad asks.
The mountain is a popular spot with hikers, hunters, and fishing enthusiasts. Mom nods and points at him, like we’re playing charades and he’s guessed right. “Remember the weekend you took me up there? We went without the girls, so we could have some alone time, and I thought I saw Gayle’s car at another cabin on that lane?” Mom turns back to me. “Your father wouldn’t let me go say hi, but when we got home, Gayle was putting the garbage out. I told him I thought I saw him there and he threatened me.”
Her face is flushed and she’s shaking slightly with anger. I’ve never heard this story and I glance at Meg, questioningly and she shakes her head.
“You never told me that,” Dad says, and I can see he’s now angry at Gayle. Dad is extremely protective of all of us. “Why, that no good bastard. I ought to walk over there and knock his block off!”
Perfect. Could this spin any farther out of control? I jump to my feet, ready to intercept him, even though I feel like confronting Gayle myself. “Let’s take a deep breath.” I turn to Mom. “How exactly did he threaten you?”
“Told me I was a nosy bitch and needed to leave him alone. He went to the woods to get away from everybody, especially his snoopy neighbor. Said he knew I was always watching him, and if I didn’t stop, he’d get a restraining order.”
“Mom,” Meg says, sounding astonished. “What if he is a killer? You could’ve been in serious danger.”
She waves this off. “I had my can of pepper spray, and your father was within shouting distance. That’s not the point.” Another tap of the files. “Last week, I was telling Al about the run-in and he remembered that bodies were discovered buried in that location, and now he has Gayle linked to that area, thanks to my research.”
Okay. That is something, even though it’s still circumstantial. Mostly, I’m relieved she didn’t end up with the other bodies.
“You never should have confronted him,” Dad chastises. “Not without me there to look out for you.”
Wrong thing to say. “I took care of myself and your daughters just fine while you were traveling all over the world. Gave up my career for yours. I think we did just fine.”
She looks at me and nods, encouraging me to support this declaration.
It is true, but I still hold out hope of salvaging our lunch. “You know what? I’m sure Al and his group can continue to assist you in your investigation. Meanwhile, I’d like to finish our meal and talk about something less depressing.”
She slams a hand on top of the folders. “There’s a man next door who’s been murdering young girls for years and no one’s done a damn thing about it.”
That’s because there isn’t any actual proof. I’ve had this argument with her many times, and yet, there’s no winning it. Still, this development with the bodies has me curious. I may have to look into it on the downlow while I try to distance my mother from it.
I set my hand on top of hers. “You’re an amazing investigator, and I’m sure that’s where Meg and I inherited our skills,” I attempt to placate her, “but this is the first time JJ and Jerome have had a chance to meet you and Dad. I’m sure they’d prefer to discuss less gruesome things over their food. Let’s get back to something normal.”
Please, I mentally plead.
“Well, guess what? I’m tired of everyone acting like I’m crazy. I’ll make you a deal, Charlize.”
I know I shouldn’t ask, but what else can I do? “Okay, Mom.” I start to pick up the folders, attempting to take this on alone so the others can resume eating. “How about we go in the other room and talk about this deal?”
She won’t take her hand off the stack, pressing down and not allowing me to cart the folders off. “I know I’m right. If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll prove Gayle Morton is a serial killer, and you’re going to help me.”