Home > The Hidden One (Kate Burkholder #14)

The Hidden One (Kate Burkholder #14)
Author: Linda Castillo

 

PROLOGUE


He’d always known this moment would come. Judgment day. The great reckoning. The adjudication that had been lying in wait the entirety of his adult life. For years, he’d denied his guilt. He spent every waking hour proving he hadn’t done what they said and making reparations because he had. He’d nearly convinced himself none of it had happened. That was his truth and he clung to that tenuous connection with the desperation of a man who knew his life depended on it.

But while he had duped the fools, and perhaps his own conscience, fate would not be hoodwinked. The wicked beast of his heart, the one he’d been running from for so long, had finally caught up with him.

He wasn’t sure why he’d agreed to the meeting. Some dark compulsion. Curiosity at play. Or maybe it was some crazy notion that telling the truth would set him free. What did a master liar know about truth? Maybe his need to see this through, to finish it once and for all, was as simple as admitting he deserved what was to come.

Meet me at the windmill. Midnight. Come alone.

It was the third such note in two weeks. The kind an ordinary person would ignore or toss in the trash. The kind an innocent man might take to the police. As desperately as he wanted to believe otherwise, he was not an ordinary person. He sure as hell wasn’t innocent. No, he thought darkly. He had no choice but to meet this problem head-on. Deal with it. Finish it. Make it right if he could. And then bury it once and for all.

But how could anyone know? How could anyone uncover a past he’d buried with such meticulous care? The most frightening question of all, the one that had kept him up every night since he received that first mysterious dispatch: How could anyone remember something that he himself had all but forgotten?

I know who you are. I know what you did. I know your secrets. All of them.

The words had tormented him for days now. He hadn’t eaten or slept or had a moment’s peace. He desperately wanted to believe he’d misinterpreted their meaning, their intent. That the cryptic words were the result of some petty incident or mundane proclamation he made that had provoked someone in the community. Is it possible he was reading something into it that had never been intended?

I know who you are.

No, he thought as he walked along the southern edge of the woods. There was no way he’d misinterpreted any of it. Right or wrong or somewhere in between, he needed to get to the bottom of this—put a stop to it before the situation spiraled out of control—and there was only one way to do it.

The wind rattled the leaves of the trees, the cold bite of it slicing through his coat and the layers beneath. It was a long walk to the old farm; he was glad he’d brought the walking stick. He’d brought the lantern, too, but he didn’t need it. The three-quarter moon provided more than enough light for him to follow the old two-track.

At the turn in the road, he traversed the ditch and crossed to the barbed-wire fence. Hanging his cane on the top strand, he tested its strength, stepped onto the lowest wire, and swung his leg over the top. His knees protested when he came down on the other side. His feet followed suit. Such was the lot of a man who’d lived beyond his time.

He walked another two minutes before the silhouette of the ramshackle barn and windmill loomed in the distance. The steel blades spun, whining like a banshee, the vane shifting with a gust. Normally, he loved the sound. Tonight, the screech of steel against steel sent a shiver to his bones in a way that had nothing to do with the cold.

“Hello?” he called out. “Is anyone there?”

The only reply came from the squeak of the turbine. The rattle of wood siding come loose. The clang of the vane shifting in the wind.

Feet reminding him that he’d just traversed two miles, he waded through the grass to the base of the tower. Grunting, he propped the walking stick against the wood-rail fence and sat down on the crumbling concrete base of the windmill tower. Cold, his joints aching, he pulled his coat more tightly about his shoulders, shoved his hands into his pockets, and settled in for a wait. He’d give his midnight caller ten minutes to make his appearance. Another two to state his case and declare his intent. If no one showed, he’d walk home and throw away the notes. He’d forget about the silly messages, the way he’d forgotten so many other things over the years.

He was wishing for the gloves he’d left on the kitchen table back at the house, the tobacco pipe he kept tucked into his pocket, when the voice came at him from the dark.

“I didn’t think you’d come.”

He jolted, hefted himself to his feet, squinted into the dark recesses of the barn. He didn’t need to see a face to know who it was. The thunderbolt of recognition slayed him as thoroughly as any sickle, and cut him to his soul—what was left of it.

“My bones are too old for a walk this far,” he said, his voice calm despite the riot of emotions coursing through him. “Especially at a time when an old man should be home in his bed, sleeping.”

“And how is it that you sleep?”

“‘He grants sleep to those He loves,’” he replied, quoting a psalm from the Bible he knew so well. “God loves all of His children, after all.”

A figure emerged from the shadows. The sense of betrayal punched him, hard enough to take his breath, with enough force to make his legs go weak. Never in a hundred years would he have imagined this. Not this.

“You know nothing of God,” the figure said. “Only lies.”

For the first time he noticed the rifle. His midnight caller held it muzzle down. Unthreatening. The way a hunter might carry his weapon when he’s tired and on his way home after a long day of hunting. Even so, his heart rolled and began to pound.

“What is it you want?” he asked.

Bitterness suffused the laugh that followed. “I want you to be gone.”

A dozen thoughts battered his brain at once. The realization that he was in danger. A rush of incredulity. Like ice water splashed on an exposed nerve. A tine against a broken bone.

The rifle came up and was leveled at him. Finger inside the guard, the quiver of the muzzle nearly imperceptible.

“I fear for your soul,” he whispered.

“And I for yours. What’s left of it. We both know you’ll not make it to heaven.”

The lantern slipped from his hand and clattered to the ground. The globe shattered, but he barely noticed. Breathing heavily, he raised his hands, stepped back. “Don’t sacrifice your life for mine. I’m not worth it.”

A whispered prayer floated on the breeze, as chilling as a scream in the night, and suddenly everything became crystal clear. Spinning, he launched himself into a lumbering run. Arms outstretched. Mouth open and gasping. The pain he’d felt earlier hijacked by terror. He looked around wildly as he ran, but there was no cover. No structure or tree. He shambled toward the fence a few yards away. The woods were his only hope. If he could scale the barbed wire, he might make it. He’d deal with the rest later.

He ran as fast as his joints allowed, his gait as teetering and clumsy as an old dog’s. Twice he stumbled, arms thrashing, regained his footing just in time to avoid a fall. Behind him, the feet of his pursuer pounded the ground. He heard the racking of the rifle. The utterance of words he couldn’t discern.

A tremendous blow slammed into him from behind. Like a baseball traveling at a hundred miles an hour striking between his shoulder blades. He pitched forward. A clap of thunder in his ears. A ping of confusion. And then he was falling.…

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