“It’s okay,” I tell them, though there’s no way I can possibly know that. I go to the door and check the peephole, carefully, and see a tired-looking African American woman standing there. She looks familiar, but I have trouble placing her for a few seconds because the last time I saw her, it was a fleeting glimpse and she was wearing a police uniform.
It’s the cop who was with Graham last night, who handled the drunks while he talked to us.
I disarm and unlock, and she freezes a second as her eyes fix on the shoulder holster. “Yes?” I ask, neither inviting nor rejecting. Her dark-brown eyes move up to fix on mine, and she very carefully shows me she has nothing in her hands.
“My name’s Claremont,” she says.
“Officer Claremont. I remember you from last night.”
“Yeah,” she says. “My father lives on the other side of the lake. He says he met you and your daughter when you were out on a run.”
The old man, Ezekiel Claremont. Easy. I hesitate, then extend my hand, and we shake. She has a firm, dry, businesslike grip. Up close, in casual clothes, she has an elegant style to her, something not only in the drape of her clothes but in the cut of her hair, her perfectly shaped fingernails. Not what I would have expected from the Norton PD. “Can I come in?” she asks. “I want to help.”
Just like that. She keeps her gaze steady, and there’s something quiet and strong about the way she says it.
But I step outside and close the door behind me. “Sorry,” I tell her, “but I don’t know you. I don’t even know your first name.”
If she’s taken aback by my lack of warmth and courtesy, she doesn’t show it; she narrows her eyes just a bit, just for a second, and then smiles over it to say, “Kezia. Kez, for short.”
“Nice to meet you,” I tell her, which is empty politeness. I’m wondering why the hell she’s really here.
“My father wanted me to come check on you,” she says. “He heard about the trouble you were in. Not much a fan of the Norton PD, my pa.”
“Must make things awkward over Sunday dinners.”
“You have no idea.”
I gesture to the porch chairs, and she settles into the one that I realize, with a sharp, glancing sort of pain, Sam Cade has always taken. It hits me with an unwelcome weight that I miss the son of a bitch. No, I don’t. I miss someone who never existed in the first place, the same way my Mel never existed. The real Sam Cade is a stalker and a liar, at the very least.
“Pretty over on this side,” she says, scanning the view to the lake. I’m sure she’s also thinking, just as everyone else has, of how good a view I would have had of a body being dumped right out there. “His side’s a little more blocked by the trees. Cheaper, though. I keep trying to get him to move down the hill so he doesn’t have to climb that trail, but—”
“I’d love to make small talk, but my pancakes are getting cold,” I tell her. “What is it you want to know?”
She shakes her head just a little, gaze still fixed on the lake. “You know, you don’t make it easy to help you out. In the position you’re in, you might want to put a rein on that attitude. You’re going to need some friends.”
“This attitude keeps me alive. Thanks for stopping by.”
I start to get up again. She puts out a perfectly manicured hand to stop me and finally turns her gaze to lock on mine. “I think I might be able to help you find out who’s doing this to you,” she says. “Because we both know it’s somebody close. Somebody local. And somebody who’s got a reason.”
“Sam Cade has a reason.”
“I helped confirm his alibi, both times the girls went missing,” she says. “He is absolutely not the guy. They’ve already let him go.”
“Let him go?” I look at the paint slopped on my garage, the words sprayed on the brick in a red fury of anger. “Great. I guess that explains this.”
“I don’t think—”
“Look, Kez, thanks for trying, but you are not helping me at all if your point is to convince me Sam Cade isn’t a bad guy. He stalked me.”
“He did,” she says. “He’s admitted to that. Said he was angry and wanted revenge, but you weren’t what he thought. If he’d meant you harm, he had plenty of opportunities to do something, wouldn’t you say? I think this is somebody else altogether, and I’ve been working on a lead. Now, do you want to know what I think, or not?”
It’s so tempting to say no, shove out of the chair, and stalk away . . . but I can’t make myself do it. Kezia Claremont may have ulterior motives, but her offer seems pretty sincere. And I do need a friend, even if it’s someone I can’t trust any farther than I can jump. No more than I can trust Sam.
“I’m listening,” I finally say.
“Okay. So, Stillhouse Lake’s always been a pretty closed-in community up here,” she says. “Mostly white. Mostly well-off if not wealthy.”
“Not since the downturn, when all these houses went into foreclosure.”
“True, about a third of the properties ended up getting sold or rented out in a rush last year. If we eliminate the residents who are original to the lake, that leaves about thirty houses to look at. We take yours away, that’s twenty-nine. Hope you don’t mind if I take my father out. Twenty-eight.”
I’m not willing to grant much, but I’m willing, for argument’s sake, to eliminate Easy Claremont. He hadn’t looked up to scaling the hill to his house, much less abducting, killing, and disposing of two healthy, strong young women. I can exempt myself. Twenty-eight houses. That includes Sam Cade, whom the police already eliminated and I suppose, grudgingly, I might have to as well. Twenty-seven, then. That’s a small number.
“Do you have names?” I ask her. She nods, and from her pocket she produces a folded piece of paper that she hands over. It’s plain copy paper, standard from any office printer, and on it is a list of the names and addresses and phone numbers. She’s been thorough. Some have asterisks, and I see that those notate criminal records. I’m not particularly suspicious of the two guys with the conviction for cooking meth who share a cabin way up the slope, but it’s certainly good information to know. There’s a sex offender, too, but Kezia’s bold handwritten notation shows he’s already been thoroughly questioned and, though not eliminated, mostly discounted as a suspect.
Kezia says, “I would have done more on my own, but I figured you might need something to do to take your mind off things. This is all my own time, nothing on the books.”
I look at her. She’s not smiling. There’s something unyielding in her, something that bends but doesn’t break, and I recognize it. I feel it in myself, too. “You know who I am,” I say. “Why do you want to help me?”
“Because you need it, and Easy asked. But also . . .” She shakes her head and looks away. “I know what it’s like to be judged for something you never got to control.”
I swallow hard, taste the fleeting ghost of my cooling pancakes and syrup. I’m thirsty for coffee. “You want to come inside?” I ask her. “We’re having pancakes. I’ve got enough to stretch to another plate.”
She gives me a slow, quiet smile. “I wouldn’t mind.”
Kezia Claremont, it turns out, is a hit with my kids, who start off quiet and wary, but she has a way with them, a natural charm that teases out conversations from silence. She, I think, will make a great investigator someday. She’s wasted in uniform, handling rowdy drunks—though she was flawless at that, too. I warm up my breakfast as I make hers, and we eat together as the kids clean their plates and wander off to their separate areas. I think Lanny wants to stay, but I give her the quiet shake of the head, and she retreats.
“I have some contacts,” Kezia tells me quietly, once we’re alone. “I can start them on background work, off books. Listen, my father said you were in trouble, and no shit, those vandals hit you fast. You’re going to need some on-site protection.”
“I know,” I tell her. “I’m armed, but—”