THE PERSON SHE USED TO BE:
All Carolyn Brighton wants is to be left alone. She abandoned her life in San Francisco and moved to the small foothill town of Channa Creek to escape from the world and her painful memories of the past. Then her fragile peace is shattered. Her home is broken into and a dead man is found hanging from a rafter in the garage.
Nightmares and panic attacks are enough to deal with. Now she has the police, the media and intrusive neighbors knocking on her door. Worse, the hanging turns out to be murder, and the police have no leads. Carolyn tells herself it has nothing to do with her until she wakes up in the middle of the night to the sounds of another intruder inside her house. Now she must fight back or run away, and Carolyn’s tired of running.
She goes looking for the truth about the dead man, believing it will lead her to the killer. In a town where everyone knows everything about everyone else, no one seems to know anything about the murder. Fighting herself every step of the way, Carolyn must also confront her own demons and, in so doing, begins to rediscover the person she used to be.
Carolyn pulled into her driveway as rain poured out of the sky. What started as a drizzle just after sunset, an hour before, had become a downpour that forced her to squint to see the roads, even with the wipers full on. She parked at the back corner of her house and turned off the engine. Raindrops ricocheted off the roof of her Toyota as she closed her eyes and breathed out a long, low sigh. Her umbrella was still in the kitchen, hanging neatly on its peg by the back door, so she was getting wet regardless, but at least she was finally home.
Carolyn grabbed the strap of her purse, tucked her chin and opened the car door. She moved as quickly as she could towards the back stairs, but, having sat for two hours straight, her right knee and hip were stiff. She gripped the metal banister to help herself up to the door.
On the second step, she froze.
A hole, about the size of a softball, gaped in the glass in the top half of the door. Carolyn leaned forward to peer through the window. The house was dark. She heard nothing but the wind and rain in the trees. She turned her head slowly, towards the backyard, the patio, the garage. Nothing seemed out of place. Carefully, she backed down the stairs, still holding on to the railing.
Inside the car, her hands shook as she locked the doors. Her breath was shallow and it felt like giant hands had were squeezing her chest in on itself. Carefully, she backed out of the drive and maneuvered the car to the curb across the street, where she parked.
Carolyn looked over at her house. The little blue Victorian sat in shadows. She thought she’d left the hall light on, but maybe she was mistaken. Either way, it wasn’t on now. The porch was nearly invisible in the darkness, but the front gate was latched. Everything looked fine, dark but fine. Still, someone had been inside, might still be there. In her house, inside her home. The shaking of her hands had moved up to her shoulders; it felt as if her entire body was trembling. She fumbled in her purse for her cell phone and dialed 911.
The rain let up before the police arrived, changing to a fine mist that hung in the air. A shadowy patrol car, lights out, pulled up behind her. From her side mirror, she saw a dark male figure emerge with a flashlight in hand. She lowered the window when he reached her car. Fresh faced and clean cut, he was impossibly young to be a cop.
“Ma’am? Ms. Brighton?” He flashed his light along the floor and backseat of her car. “Are you all right?” His nametag identified him as Officer Jason Melmer.
“I haven’t seen anything since I called you,” Carolyn said. Her voice cracked on “anything”. She took a breath before she continued. “I was going in the back when I saw the broken window. I moved the car out here and called 911.”
“You didn’t go into the house?”
“No. I absolutely did not go into the house.”
“You stay here, and we’ll take a look around.” Two more patrol cars, also with their lights out, pulled up behind the first, and one officer emerged from each. Officer Melmer walked back to meet them. Carolyn rolled up her window, slid down a bit, and watched in the side mirror. They stood together for a few moments, then moved across the street. Guns in one hand and flashlights in the other, they held their arms out as they swept the front of the house with light. She sank even lower in her seat but kept her eyes on them. One of the officers turned back towards Carolyn. It was Officer Melmer. She rolled her window down when he got to her car.
“Ms. Brighton, your front door is open. Was it closed when you left?” He pointed his flashlight at her porch and, sure enough, the front door was standing wide open.
“That door was definitely closed and locked. When I left this morning, I went out the back.”
“And it was locked when you left?”
“It’s always locked.”
“Ma’am, I’d like you to sit in one of the patrol cars while we take a look inside and make sure no one’s still in your house.”
“Why? I’d rather stay here, in my own car.”
“You’ll be safer in the patrol car, ma’am. If you don’t mind.” It wasn’t really a question.
“Fine.” She grabbed her purse and got out of her car, locking it behind her. Under the streetlight, she felt exposed, vulnerable. Her first inclination was to climb back inside her car, start it up and speed away. But no, she wasn’t going to run. Instead, she followed Officer Melmer to his patrol car. He opened the front passenger door.
“You’ll be more comfortable up here.”
Carolyn looked through the grate at the hard plastic back seat and silently agreed. Once she was inside, Melmer went back across the street, where the other officers were spaced out along the sidewalk. When he reached them, the other two headed down the driveway, the beams of their flashlights arcing back and forth in the dark. Officer Melmer walked through the front gate and stopped half way down the gravel walk to the porch. He turned his chin towards his shoulder; Carolyn assumed he was talking into the radio clipped to his uniform.
What seemed hours later, flashlights flickered through her house. One of the officers came out the front door and waved to Melmer, who headed up the steps and went inside. All at once, the downstairs lights came on, followed quickly by those upstairs. From the patrol car, Carolyn watched the police make their way through her house, her breath catching every time they moved from one room to another. Finally, Officer Melmer came back outside.
“We don’t see anyone or any sign of a disturbance,” he said as he helped her out of the car. “We’d like you to come in and tell us if anything is missing.”
At the front door, Carolyn stopped. At first glance, everything looked fine. The hall table next to the stairs on the left held the phone, a lamp, and a small basket with mail she needed to deal with. Straight ahead was the kitchen, with the living and dining rooms to the right. Her house was sparsely furnished. Carolyn saw immediately that nothing major was missing, but little things were harder. How many envelopes had been on the table by the phone? Had the books on the coffee table been scattered about like that? She walked slowly through the living room, the dining room, kitchen. Even the little half bath under the stairs. She saw nothing missing, nothing out of place.
In the kitchen, Carolyn turned to Officer Melmer. “You checked the basement?” She nodded towards the door next to the pantry.
“We did. Is there usually anything down there other than the washer and dryer?”
“I’d like you to take a look anyway.”
Carolyn flipped on the light switch at the top of the stairs, then led the way down to the cellar. On the cement floor, she stopped and looked around. Washer. Dryer. Cleaning supplies on a shelf. A banker’s box of old stuff was shoved into one corner, but she didn’t even remember what it contained. Otherwise the basement was empty.
“Everything looks fine,” she said.
“Then let’s try upstairs.”
She followed him back to the kitchen and then up to the second floor. Here there were two bedrooms, each with walk-in closets, separated by a bathroom off the hall. Carolyn looked in each room, in both closets and under the beds. Nothing seemed to be missing. Nothing was disturbed. That didn’t make her feel better. Just the thought of some stranger in her house started her heart pounding. She didn’t want the police here either. She wanted to tell them to leave, go away and let her alone. But of course she couldn’t do that.
Back downstairs, she leaned a shoulder against the kitchen doorway while Officer Melmer stood in the hall, making notes in a small, black-bound notebook. The other two officers were out of sight. She wanted to find them, make them all stay where she could see them, but that would sound crazy. She didn’t want to sound crazy. Her hands were still trembling, so she clasped then behind her back. She took several deep breaths. That helped. Marginally.
“I don’t understand,” she finally said. “Why break in and not take anything?”
“Might just have been a prank. Or teenagers looking for booze. Do you keep any in the house?”
“There’s a bottle of wine in the fridge.” Carolyn pushed off the doorway and moved across the kitchen. She pulled open the refrigerator door and peered inside. “It’s here.”
“It’s possible your coming home, or something else, interrupted them and scared them off. You’re lucky nothing’s missing.”
One of the other officers opened the back door. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. “Is the side door to the garage usually unlocked?”
“No. Everything is always locked.”
“Well, it’s not locked now, but it doesn’t appear to have been broken into. We’d like to check it out, if that’s okay with you.”
Immediately, her first thought was no. Absolutely not. She didn’t want them in her house. She certainly didn’t want them in her garage. But that was stupid. And, at the moment, possibly dangerous. Still, she had to force herself to give the right response. “Of course. It’s okay. Check anything you want.”
Carolyn expected Officer Melmer to follow the other patrolman outside, but he stayed rooted in the hallway. He looked almost like he was on guard, and it occurred to her that he might in fact be. Her house was broken into, her garage inexplicably unlocked, and her front door still stood wide open.
She walked forward to close the door. The rain had returned and was streaking through the glow of the streetlights. Another wave of anxiety washed over her. She’d tried to be calm, but how was that possible when someone, some strange person had broken into her home, had been here, among her things, and invaded her life. And now the police, just doing their jobs, were doing the exact same thing.
She locked the door and leaned forward onto it. There was no fear mixed into her anxiety. It was frustration. It was anger. Her privacy had been violated, was still being violated, and she could do nothing about it. When she moved here, she’d deliberately insulated herself from the rest of the world. She didn’t meet people, she didn’t talk to people, and she certainly didn’t have them in her house. This house was her refuge, her sanctuary, and now, now she stood in the middle of that sanctuary, defiled and full of police.
“Melmer, you need to come out here.” The voice of the one of the officers outside brought her back to the moment.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Officer Melmer said as he headed toward the kitchen.
Carolyn followed him to the back door, stopping at the top of the stairs. He stood by the side door to the garage, talking quietly to the officer who’d asked permission to go inside. The door stood wide open.
“Is there something wrong?” she called out, but they didn’t seem to hear her. The third officer stood to her right, in the middle of the driveway and in front of the garage doors, facing the street, feet planted, one hand on the holster of his gun.
“Ma’am?” Officer Melmer said. “Would you please go back into the house, to the living room? I’ll be with you in a minute.”
“What did you find? What’s going on out here?”
“Please, ma’am, I’ll be with you shortly.”
It was far more than a minute later when Officer Melmer finally came back into the house. Carolyn had started out on the couch but was now pacing back and forth in front of the dining room table, wondering what the hell was going on. When he came through the doorway from the kitchen, the look on his face stopped her in her tracks. People expect the police to be composed and stoic, to see the horrors of life and deal with them calmly. Officer Melmer was neither composed nor stoic. She saw he was making the effort, but the look in his eyes and the set to his jaw told Carolyn that whatever was wrong had gotten far worse.
“Ma’am, I have to ask you, that is, well … ”
Carolyn stopped still. She realized she was holding her breath and inhaled deeply. “What is it, exactly, that you’re trying to say?”
Officer Melmer swallowed and made an obvious effort to collect himself. If he’d looked young before, he now looked in need of a couple of chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk. “The question is, ma’am, do you live alone?”
“Yes. I do.”
“And no one is staying with you.”
“No.” She answered slowly. Where was this going?
Officer Melmer gave a sigh of what seemed to be relief. “Mrs. Brighton, I regret to tell you that we’ve discovered a body in your garage. There’s a man,” he said. “There’s the body of a man hanging from the rafters.”