Virtue Falls, page 1
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Dear Scott, here we are at fifty books, and not one would have been possible without your belief and support.
Loving you is the best thing I’ve ever done.
Having you love me is the best gift I could ever have.
The journey to create the world of Virtue Falls has been by turns difficult and dark, humorous and romantic, complex and fascinating. I couldn’t have done it without the advice and support of the remarkable professionals at St. Martin’s Press.
Jennifer Enderlin is unmatched in her guidance and editorial direction, and I look forward to a long, close relationship.
The art department, led by Ervin Serrano, thrilled me with the evocative Virtue Falls cover.
The publicity team, Anne Marie Tallberg, Stephanie Davis, Angela Craft, Jeanne-Marie Hudson, and Nick Small, have created a Virtue Falls publishing event, and held my hand all the way.
To everyone on the Broadway and Fifth Avenue sales teams—thank you for putting Virtue Falls into the eager readers’ hands.
A huge thanks to managing editor Amelie Littell and Jessica Katz in production.
Blessings upon Caitlin Dareff for handling so many details so efficiently.
Thank you to Sally Richardson, St. Martin’s president and publisher.
And of course, thank you to Matthew Shear for your faith in me and this book. We miss you, Matthew, but what a wonderful publishing team you left to shape the future! Thank you so much.
Also by Christina Dodd
About the Author
Last night in San Francisco
Avery Laine served a mojito to the most morose guy in the bar. “I got home,” he said, “and she had cleaned out the house. Not just the furniture and the assets. She even took the ice cube trays. What kind of woman takes the ice cube trays? We had an automatic ice maker. She made a big fuss about buying ice cube trays as backup, and two weeks later she was gone. She bought the trays to make a point? Was that necessary?” His name was Carl Lynch, but to Avery and the other servers, he was their Norm, a hung-over, grumbling basset hound of a guy and their resident barfly.
Avery nodded as if she was interested. She had been here at AskME Club for the whole four years of her employment. She had moved from newbie barmaid easily seduced by a hotshit black musician to the single bartender with a two-year-old kid at home. Like a mournful backdrop to her life, Carl had moved from one disaster to another, depressed and stressed the whole time.
Now she was the AskME’s longest-time employee. Not that she wanted to do this forever, but she’d flunked out of San Jose High School, the recession had hit the city hard, and she was good at mixing drinks and serving sympathy to out-of-towners.
Darren Ferrugia proposed on a regular basis, mostly when he was drunk and mostly after his wife had called and given him hell for staying out past his curfew and spending too much on liquor. The guy had impulse control issues.
But in here, after enough liquor and a good look at her long legs bared by her short black skirt, most men did.
Shawn Hendriks came in every few months, whenever he was in San Francisco on business. He had two gin martinis, up, with a twist, and occasionally called his girlfriend in Paris. Not that Avery believed he had a girlfriend in Paris. His shiny bald head with the thin strands of dark hair arranged in a comb-over didn’t inspire lust. But once she had eavesdropped and he was speaking French … or at least it sounded like French. Plus he never did more than look her over when he thought she wasn’t paying attention, and to her, nothing said class like a guy in a nice suit who managed to keep his mouth shut and his zipper up.
Maya Flores sidled up to the bar. “Men. Who needs them? Even the good guys are crap.”
“I was thinking exactly the same thing,” Avery said. “What’s the matter? Norm pinch your ass so hard you’ve got a bruise?”
Maya rubbed her butt. “Not Norm. Greasy.”
“Greasy? Our boss, Greasy?” Tall, ugly, bony, forty-five-year-old Greasy?
Maya’s lips peeled back from her teeth; she looked like a pit bull about to attack.
“O-kay. Greasy put the moves on you. I always knew he was a creep, but I didn’t realize he … You’re young enough to be his daughter.”
“He’s a pig.” Maya was twenty-one, same as Avery had been when she started at AskME, but she was smarter than Avery had been; Avery would bet that Greasy was nursing bruised gonads. The thought made her smile.
“I’ve gotta go. Ready to take over?” Avery stripped off the band that held her blond hair away from her face and tossed it in the Tupperware box under the sink. She pulled her navy blue quilted vest out of the cupboard, slipped it on over her red silk shirt, and zipped it up to her chin. She took her cash drawer out of the register and said, “
To Avery’s surprise, Maya didn’t grin. “Why don’t you stay until I get off? It’s only another hour until last call, and that latest killing makes me nervous.”
Avery knew immediately which killing; not that there weren’t murders galore in the Bay Area every day, but this one … “It was in Santa Cruz.”
“I don’t care. The guy’s been all up and down the coast, but he started out in San Francisco, he loves the fog, and it’s a pea soup night out there.”
“I’ve walked home in the fog lots of times. Trust me, it’s a lot worse when guys can see me than when they can’t.” There was some truth in that.
Maya was not distracted. “How many girls has he killed now? Six? Eight?”
Avery tightened her grip on her cash drawer. “I don’t know. I heard seven, but now they think he got that woman and her daughter in Marin County.” Local news had been all too specific about every detail. “The FBI has informed us we officially have a serial killer in the area. Because we couldn’t have figured that out on our own.”
Maya leaned close. “I heard they’re looking at a murder in San Diego, too. Last year. They found the woman’s body. They thought her ex had done it, kidnapped the kid and taken him to Mexico. Now they’re not so sure.”
The rattle of ice interrupted them. “Hey! Who do I have to screw around here to get a drink?” Carl was well into his belligerent stage.
Maya smiled so pleasantly Avery knew Carl was in trouble. “We won’t make you do that, Carl. This is mojito night?” She poured him an Irish whiskey, muddled it with lime and mint, and put it on the bar in front of him.
Too bad the mojito recipe called for rum.
As Avery headed up to Greasy’s office, she heard Carl choke and spit.
She grinned. These guys never learned. Don’t mess with Maya.
Avery found Greasy with his pants around his ankles, examining his balls.
He glared maliciously and almost spat his rage. “You girls. You think you’re so goddamn smart.”
“Not me. I’m not smart.” She put her cash drawer on his desk, backed out the door, and muttered, “I’m not laughing, either.”
When she got back down to the bar, Carl was subdued, Darren was proposing, and Shawn was rearranging his comb-over. It didn’t matter; it still looked like he had a bar code on his head.
Maya picked up their conversation as if it had never been interrupted. “The press is calling him Edward Scissorhands, and he targets blondes. Like you. With kids.” She flipped up her own black braid to show her that she was safe. “He stalks ’em, follows ’em, uses his scissors on ’em.”
Avery lifted her hands, and dropped them helplessly. “What am I going to do? My babysitter said if I was late again, she was going to quit. Carter has night terrors. He wakes up screaming. He’s only two. I can’t take a chance no one will be there for him.” Grace had started out so well, then disintegrated, and lately Avery had been wondering if the woman smoked weed on duty. “I have to go.”
Maya didn’t like it. But she couldn’t argue. “Dye your hair.”
Avery touched the ends of her shoulder-length blond bob. “I am. I’m going brunette tomorrow. It’ll cut into my tips—but oh, well.”
“So you’re worried, too.”
“Sure. They said he’s been killing … for years. It wasn’t until he started murdering the children that the cops figured out it was all the same guy. Tonight I’ve got no choices.” Hadn’t since the baby was born. But Carter was worth the worry and heartache. “I’m careful. I’ve got a cell phone.”
“So did the other women.”
“I carry a can of pepper spray in my hand and a brick in my purse. I know how to scream and I know how to run. No pretending to be brave for me.”
“You should get a gun.”
“If I shot every guy who made a pass at me on the streets—”
“The world would be a better place.”
Avery laughed. “Yeah. Listen. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
“Keep an eye out for Edward.” Maya headed around the bar toward Shawn with his second gin martini perched on a tray.
Avery hurried to the ladies’ room, opened her locker, and slipped out of her heels and into her running shoes. She pulled out her massive purse, loaded with her cell phone, baby paraphernalia, and the brick she’d picked up off the street. She slid her house keys in one front vest pocket and her can of pepper spray in the other, and headed out the back door.
Maya was right. It was pea soup out here, so thick Avery couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. She sure as hell couldn’t see if the serial killer stood at the end of the alley with his scissors gleaming. Avery gripped her pepper spray, pointed the nozzle away from herself, and inched toward the street.
No one was there. In fact, the street was spookily empty. Usually the area buzzed with people, with noise, with lights. But tonight even the homeless huddled under dirty blankets or disappeared into the missions. Nobody came out, not at this hour, not even when there were no reports of a serial killer.
Nobody … except women like her.
Damn Maya for bringing it up. Like Avery wasn’t already scared to death.
She had a good mile to walk to her tiny, crappy one-room apartment. She looked overhead at the streetlight. Droplets of moisture swirled aimlessly, without wind, without volition. Malice and an evil glee filled the fog and muffled sound, so that her own footsteps seemed dull and soft.
She walked quickly toward the nearest busy corner, chilly spider webs of fog brushing her face. On the curb, under the streetlight, she stopped and teetered on the edge. A cab. No matter the expense, she needed a cab.
But no. None were out tonight. She lingered until she heard footsteps approaching.
Two guys, big like retired football players, appeared out of the mist, hanging on each other the way drunk guys do. They looked surprised to see her, then they leered, and she realized … she looked like a streetwalker.
Shit. She was in trouble. She tightened her grip on the pepper spray.
The biggest guy staggered back a few steps, then staggered forward. “Hey, honey, you are just what we were looking for.” And he grabbed her boob.
She sprayed her Mace, missed, and got his friend.
That guy screamed and rubbed his eyes.
She swung her weighted bag. Hit boob guy in the nuts.
He yelled and let her go.
She ran across the street, right in front of the cab she’d been wanting.
Boob guy dodged around the back. He bashed his knee on the bumper, stumbled in a circle, then came after her again.
Thank God for the fog. She hid, cowering, in the doorway of a town house.
He ran past.
She searched frantically in her purse for her cell phone. She found the brick first, then a package of wet wipes, a disposable diaper Carter had outgrown, her wallet, a hairbrush, a Ziploc of crumbled Cheerios … and her cell phone with a shattered glass face.
The brick had killed it.
She had no way to call the cops. No one would open a door to her. And she didn’t have time to try for another cab. She had to get home before Grace left.
Avery started to cry, then forced herself to stop and concentrate on the good news—after this, even Edward Scissorhands couldn’t track her. She doubled back on the other side of the street, and ran for it, sprinting into the residential area where the dark now seemed like sanctuary. The neighborhoods got crummier, the streets narrower, lined with street-level apartments sporting rusty bars over the windows … She was close to home.
A car cruised by, slowly, feeling its way.
Sweaty and exhausted, she hid behind garbage cans, then ran again.
When she could finally see the porch light’s feeble yellow glow above her own narrow door, she slowed and drew in a relieved breath. After scaring herself witless, she’d made it again. It was two minutes after one, Grace should stil
The hair stood up on the back of Avery’s neck. What was that?
She swung around and scanned the darkness. She could see nothing but shifting gray shadows. But she could have sworn she heard … something. Breathing. Heavy footsteps. Somehow, Edward Scissorhands had followed her.
How? How was it possible? She had long legs. She was in shape. Every survival instinct told her she should have outrun him … unless she’d made a mistake, and he hadn’t been following her earlier.
The cops said he was a stalker. He had watched her for days, maybe months. He knew when she came home, and he’d been here all along, waiting …
Maternal instinct kicked in, strong and hard. She had to get away from her apartment, lead the killer away from her boy.
Her heart thumped as she hurried past. Sweat trickled between her breasts. She didn’t want to die, but Carter, sweet and young, his brown eyes bright with trust … to think of him murdered in his bed …
Someone lunged out of the darkness, caught her arm.
She screamed and used the pepper spray. This time she nailed the bastard.
The killer fell backward, clawing at his eyes.
She started to turn and run. Then she recognized him. “Greasy?” Greasy was the killer? Yeah, that made a weird kind of sense. He was dysfunctional. He had no family. Just now in his office, he had sounded like he hated her. Hated all women. But … Greasy?
“What the fuck did you do that for?” he shouted. “Damn it, I paid for a cab to tell you … that guy with the hair, he—” Blindly he lunged at her again.
In a panic, she smacked him on the head with her purse.
Greasy hit the pavement, and he didn’t come up again.
She stood over his body, breathing heavily.
She didn’t know what to think. Was he dead? Was he the killer? What was he talking about, the guy with the hair?
Unsteadily, she traced her steps toward her apartment, and as she did, she listened. She drew out her keys, fumbled to fit one into the lock—and heard the slow snick of scissors opening and closing.
No. No. Please, God, be her imagination.
Turning, she saw a gray swirl of movement.
Somebody stood just out of sight.
Not her imagination. He was here.
Behind her, the door jerked open.
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