Their eyes darted back and forth as the Sig Sauer P226 waved slowly in front of them. The shine on the oiled black metal had them captivated; no one dared to look away. Sweat beaded on her forehead. She’d never been in control of so many at one time. If any of them, just oneof them, decided to go rogue, she’d be at their mercy.
A hand shot up into the air. “Do you get free sodas at the 24 / 7 downtown?”
Relief began to creep in. Maybe Micki could handle this after all. “No, but some places offer discounts to police officers. I think the 24 / 7 takes a dollar off the total price.”
Another hand wriggled in the air. “Do you really eat doughnuts all the time?”
“Um, no. We don’t. Sometimes we bring doughnuts in to share, but we don’t do it every day or anything.”
The first-grade class at Winter Valley Elementary hung on Micki’s every word, rapt. This was her first career day since becoming the deputy chief of police, and it was right up there with drug busts and fistfights.
A tiny boy with a buzz cut raised his hand. “My dad tells me that the police are going to put me in jail if I unbuckle my seat belt while he’s driving. Is that true?”
Micki squirmed, not interested in creating family drama by telling kids their parents were lying to them. “Well, no, not exactly, but you definitely should never do that. If your dad got into an accident, you could get seriously hurt.”
The dam broke, and questions were shot at her from every direction.
“Can I touch your gun?”
“Can I hold your handcuffs?”
“Can we tie you up with a jump rope so you can show us how to break out of it?”
“Have you shot anybody?”
One of the students who Micki actually knew raised her hand politely. “Yes, Eliana?”
“Ryan doesn’t believe that you’re my friend. He thinks I’m making it up.”
Micki smiled. “Actually, Ryan, Eliana’s right. We arefriends. She’s my junior deputy,” she said, throwing a wink to the small brunette. She grinned back, showing off the bare bit of gums where her two bottom teeth had recently fallen out.
“Well, if no one else has any questions, I think my time is just about up,” Micki said. She pulled a bag of plastic police badges out from under her chair. “Any takers?”
The entire class jumped up from their seats and swarmed her. Micki turned sheepishly to the first-grade teacher, who was looking at her sternly.
“I thought we agreed that I would pass those out after your presentation.”
“Sorry, Mrs. Gross. My bad.”
The students were affixing their badges to their shirts, their belt loops, and their backpacks. Micki felt a sense of pride that they all thought her work was important. They didn’t need to know that in such a small town, the most exciting thing that had happened in the last week was a stolen wallet. And it was later found in the owner’s trunk.
“Let’s give a round of applause to Chief Blake,” Mrs. Gross said, starting it herself. The kids dutifully clapped while Micki waved good-bye.
Rebecca Raye was standing in the doorway, clapping along with the children. “Very nice, Chief.”
“Did you see the whole thing?” Micki asked, tightening her belt once they were out in the hallway. Police belts were meant to stay put, but they couldn’t stand up to a bunch of children pulling at handcuff cases and flashlights.
“No, just the end. Mrs. Gross was pissed at you.”
“I seem to have that effect on teachers.”
“You want some chicken nuggets? I have extras. It’s the students’ favorite lunch day. Besides pizza, of course.”
Micki paused. “Yeah, I could eat.”
She followed Rebecca down the long corridor to the cafeteria kitchen. Micki tied her hair into a ponytail to avoid getting any in the food. She plucked a wavy blond strand off her sleeve and held it over into the trash can, making sure it wasn’t one of the gray ones she’d seen popping up lately. She was glad Rebecca hadn’t asked her to put on a hairnet.
“Chicken nuggets again?” a voice asked from behind them.
“Oh, hi, Savannah,” Rebecca said. “Yeah, that’s our usual Thursday lunch. The kids love it.”
Savannah Castillo held up a nugget, though she didn’t look as if she actually wanted to touch it. “They also love cotton candy and ice cream, but neither of those things are appropriate lunches.”
Rebecca cleared her throat. “We use all-natural chicken breast, and we bake them, so they’re not really unhealthy.”
Micki popped one into her mouth. “Mmm, delicious. And I can taste the healthiness with every bite,” she said, looking pointedly at Savannah.
“Aren’t you due back at the police station? I didn’t realize an elementary school career presentation lasted an entire day.” Savannah pulled the sunglasses from the top of her head and dangled them from her fingertips.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at the town hall? I didn’t realize that the town manager’s agenda included an inspection of every public building in Winter Valley.” Every single time she and Savannah faced off, Micki felt the need to get the last word in, which wasn’t her style. But something about Savannah brought out her biting sarcasm.
Rebecca interrupted. “Lunch is going to be served in fifteen minutes. If I don’t get these plated up, we’re going to have a mutiny on our hands. Savannah, I’ll see you at five?”
It was clear Micki had been dismissed as Savannah turned her attention to Rebecca. Savannah nodded. “Yes. Please make sure all of her homework is done. Yesterday, she still had math to do when she got home.”
“Absolutely. Sorry about that. I’ll make sure Eliana finishes everything before you pick her up.”
Savannah nodded and walked out of the cafeteria without another word.
“I think she likes me,” Micki said, stuffing another chicken nugget into her mouth.
Rebecca laughed. “Do you have to antagonize her allthe time? I think your life would be a whole lot easier if you just let things go once in a while.”
“Nah. Where’s the fun in that? You working at the diner tonight?” Micki asked, shrugging on her windbreaker.
“No, not tonight. Once Savannah picks up El, I’m just going to chill on the couch, drink some wine, and drunk text Patrick.”
“Oh God, please don’t. I don’t need to walk in on thatagain.” There were definite drawbacks to having a roommate, and coming home to find someone blindfolded and draped over a chair was certainly one of them.
Wrapping up about six more chicken nuggets into a napkin, Micki said good-bye and walked out of the school, feeling as if she’d just been sprung for the day. She waggled her fingers sweetly in a sarcastic wave to Savannah, who was pulling out of the parking lot in her jet-black Infiniti. Savannah didn’t wave back.
Micki sat at her desk in the bullpen of the police station. Normally, the chief would have an office, but the only office in the building was under remodel. The fact that it had been that way since Micki’d been appointed chief didn’t go unnoticed. The construction was moving at a snail’s pace, and knowing Savannah, were it any other project in the town, it would have been completed approximately thirteen months earlier, around the same time Savannah had hired the crew to do the work. But every time Micki brought it up, Savannah would shoot her right down. She’d make her feel selfish and egocentric for even suggesting that her office take precedence over a wheelchair-accessible ramp at the high school or a playground outside the community daycare. So, Micki just shut her mouth and sat next to Jack and Billy in the white-walled bullpen. At least their computers had been upgraded to technology that had been released in the 2000s.
“Yes, Mom,” Micki said, toying with the coiled phone cord. “I don’t see what the big deal is. Having a roommate doesn’t bother me, and Rebecca is great. Yes, I know I’m the chief of police, but have you googled what the chief of a town like this makes? I don’t live in San Francisco. Okay. I didn’t think I would have a roommate at thirty either, but what can you do?” She pinched the bridge of her nose, exhausted by the conversation they had every time she called. “They just brought in a serial killer; I have to go. I’ll call you later. Tell Dad I love him. Bye.”
Micki sighed dramatically and looked toward the ceiling. She knew her mother meant well, but it was draining to have to defend her career and her living situation over and over again. Though she might have envisioned herself storming through windows for the SWAT team at one time, even Micki was surprised to find that she was perfectly content exactly where she was.
“I hope I don’t have a roommate at thirty,” Billy said, smirking.
Micki peeked at his monitor and saw he was playing one of those seek-and-find games that takes place in a detective’s office. Fitting.
“Really?” Micki asked, raising her eyebrows.
“What? It’s on-the-job-training. I should get a bonus for this.”
“You’re definitelygoing to have a roommate at thirty. Your mom.”
Billy scoffed but laughed anyway. He was used to being ribbed for his age. The only three employees of the Winter Valley Police were Billy, who’d graduated high school three years earlier; Micki, the chief; and Jack, who didn’t ever let on what his real age was. Could have been sixty, could have been ninety. Only Micki knew, since she had to provide his annual reviews, but she was happy to keep his secret.
“TM was in here earlier looking for the public safety budget proposal,” Billy said, not looking up from his screen. Random visits from the town manager were never a good thing.
“Shit, why? She said it had to be in by the end of the day.” Micki checked her watch. “It’s only four o’clock. That gives me eight hours to finish it.”
“I bet she hasn’t hassled the fire department for theirbudget proposal yet,” Micki muttered. She sharpened a pencil down to a nub.
“I didn’t have to, Chief Blake. Chief Patel had his budget on my desk yesterday.”
Micki closed her eyes as the raspy, biting voice of the esteemed town manager filled the bullpen. “Yes, Ms. Castillo. Chief Patel is a shining star of public service, and I am a walking example of what notto do.” Micki didn’t bother to turn around, knowing full well it would irk Savannah.
“As long as we’re on the same page. I need your proposal no later than six tonight. Email it to me. I have to start reviewing them, and yours takes a verylong time to weed through.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Micki said through gritted teeth and started sharpening another pencil down to its nub.
“Good night, Officer Parker,” Savannah said to Billy, and her heels clicked as she walked back out of the station.
“Good night, Ms. Castillo!” Billy called out loudly.
Micki glared at him. “Traitor.” She pulled out the stack of half-completed forms and requests and sifted through them. Micki wished that Billy or Jack could take on some of the administrative duties, but neither of them had shown any kind of predisposition toward them in her admittedly half-assed training session earlier that year. Jack had nodded off a few times, and Billy had seemed to find his fingernails fascinating. What she really wanted was that admin person she’d been routinely denied.
Pushing the paperwork to the side, Micki scrolled through the 9-1-1 database to see if anything interesting had come in. Nothing. She checked her appointment schedule. A meeting with Parks and Rec on Thursday at nine a.m. She refreshed her in-box. Twenty percent off all ankle-length socks. Hurry, sale only lasts twenty-four hours!She looked back to the messy scatter of forms and checked her watch.
“Fine,” she grumbled and pulled up last quarter’s spreadsheet.
“Third one this week! Someone definitely has a secret admirer,” Chloe said, raising her eyebrow playfully.
Savannah cast a glance at the coffee table in her office, the unwanted gifts lying in a messy pile. “What is it this time?” Savannah asked, sighing in frustration.
“Not sure. It’s wrapped.” Chloe gently placed the box on Savannah’s desk. There was no return label, and the only identifying mark on the package was the word “Savannah” scrawled in sprawling calligraphy.
Savannah first eyed Chloe, who was smiling gleefully, and then the nondescript package. She had hired Chloe against her better judgment. The need for an assistant won out over the glum reality of a consistently chipper presence in the office. Chipper wasn’t really Savannah’s thing.
“If they’re too cowardly to identify themselves, then why should I bother opening it?” Savannah brushed the box aside and began flipping through the papers on her desk.
“Aw, come on, don’t you find it the least bit romantic? Someone has a crush on you from afar and is working up the nerve to tell you.” Chloe gestured toward the wilting flowers and heart-shaped box.
“No. In fact, I find it quite trite. Flowers? Candy? When was the last time you saw me eat a truffle? Exactly. Never. This admirerclearly doesn’t know me in the least.”
“Just open it. If it’s another bust, I’ll throw it all out, and we never have to speak of this again,” Chloe said, smiling with her head cocked.
Savannah drummed her fingers. Chloe was getting very comfortable very fast. She wasn’t sure how to feel about it. The perky little redhead didn’t seem to treat her with the same apprehension she had come to expect from nearly everyone. Over time, Savannah had come to appreciate the control her standoffishness had afforded her, but she had to admit, she didn’t completely hatethat someone seemed interested in her as a person. “Fine,” Savannah said sullenly, tearing the brown paper off the box. She used scissors to slit the tape at the top, and they both jumped when something sprang out at them.
A battered jack-in-the-box, caked with what appeared to be years of dirt and mildew, swayed haphazardly on its rusted spring. Its eyes had been removed, leaving only the hollowed-out circles where they once had been. Savannah backed up quickly, knocking her chair into the wall.
“This one’s not so romantic,” Chloe said as the head creaked eerily back and forth. She tugged at the corner of notebook paper sticking up behind the toy. “I don’t get it.”
“It’s obviously someone’s idea of a sick joke. And it’s not particularly funny. What does the note say?” Savannah asked, her hand on her hip. At first, there was the tiniest bit of flattery associated with the attention. But unpredictability wasn’t something Savannah embraced. So, by the time the second item had arrived, she was over it. Now she was definitely irritated.
As Chloe unfolded the bulky paper, her eyes grew wide. The plastic eyes that had been removed from the jack-in-the-box were glued to the white page, with only three words written below in the same scrawl as the package.
“I’m watching you,” Chloe read, holding the paper out to Savannah. “Well, this just took a creepy turn.”
Savannah scoffed. “I know there are plenty of people who don’t like me. I’m sure someone is having a laugh at my expense. It’s nothing,” she said, though she knew her voice lacked conviction, and she hated the feeling of being out of control.
“I don’t think you should ignore this, Savannah. We should do something.”
“And what do you suggest we do? Plan a stakeout? Rig a booby trap?”
Chloe ignored her sarcasm. “I think we should call the chief.”
Savannah would rather eat pasta with a thumbtack. “We will do no such thing. That woman is an imbecile. I’d have better luck with a stakeout.”
“Certainly no disrespect, but Micki’s actually quite good at her job. I know you two have had your differences, but—”
Savannah interrupted with a well-placed “Ha!” a tad louder than she had meant to.
Again, Chloe ignored her. “Butshe has experience with this kind of thing. I mean, she was basically a private eye before coming to Winter Valley. And what does a private eye do for a living? They stalk people professionally. So, I’m sure she knows what to look for in a stalking case.”
“Chloe.” Savannah wasn’t about to let this become something more than a stupid prank. She refused to give a foolish jokester that type of credence. “Please do not refer to this as stalking. Someone is trying to scare me. That’s all. And it won’t work, I assure you.” She flipped her hair and straightened her back, hoping she looked more confident than she felt.
“Can we just run it by her? Maybe you’re right. Maybe she’ll think it’s nothing.” Chloe stared at the creepy toy with distaste. “I just think we’re better safe than sorry on this one.”
“While I appreciate your concern, Chloe, there is no ‘we’ in this situation. I’m a grown woman, and I can handle this on my own. Please dispose of this,” Savannah said in disgust, motioning toward the jack-in-the-box.
At Savannah’s nod, Chloe took the offending items in her arms and closed Savannah’s door behind her.
Savannah let out a deep sigh once Chloe had finally left the office. She rationalized that what she had said was true—she did have a fair number of people who disliked her, even if it was on a surface level. Mostly disgruntled politicians, scorned employees, and others who just didn’t care for her. Savannah didn’t care about that; she never had. Winter Valley was where she had finally hung her hat, but before she had settled in the small town to raise her daughter, she’d worked in political positions throughout New England, and she’d been damn good at it. She’d worked hard to get to where she was. And she didn’t do it by being soft. Her obligations in this world didn’t include coddling others. She was blunt; she was direct; she was straightforward. She was fair. Most of the time.
As much as it pained her to admit it, this latest gift was more than a little unsettling. The flowers and candy and other assorted gifts were just silliness. She paid no attention to those things. But this one…this one had a message. And Savannah didn’t appreciate it.
Oblivious to the world around her, Micki weeded through the folder of parking tickets, one of the most lucrative violations in the town. Somehow, it seemed fitting that the majority of the tickets came from restricted spaces in front of Town Hall. She startled when a box was unceremoniously dumped onto her yellowed blotter.
“Chloe! What the hell? What is all this?” Micki asked, moving her cup of coffee to the other side of the mess.
“I’m here on the down-low, Mick. Don’t tell anyone.”
“Anyone meaning a certain brunette? About yea tall? Generally unpleasant?”
Chloe rolled her eyes. “Yes.”
Micki sighed. “So, what is all this?” She poked at the jack-in-the-box with a pencil, grimacing.
“First of all, I know Savannah acts like she has control over everything and everyone, but this is not one of those things. I can’t ignore the pit in my stomach. I mean, I thought it was a little odd for someone to send the town manager this stuff, but this is like something out of a horror movie.” Chloe pursed her lips.
“Whoa, slow down. What’s been happening?”
“Savannah’s been getting…gifts, I guess, over the last few weeks. They weren’t obvious at first. Someone left a peach on her desk with a smiley face sticker on it. Of course, she immediately threw it in the trash. There was a basket of cookies with a ribbon tied around it. Again, right in the trash, but that could have been anyone. One of the new planning board members she hired, trying to suck up. We don’t have the office locked up all the time, and I’m not always at my desk, so really, anyone. Then there was this pen and pencil set. This week, she received the flowers and a box of candy. Then today, this.” Chloe curled her lip as she pointed to the damaged toy.
Micki frowned. “Yeah, this is weird. This isn’t normal secret admirer behavior, if there even is such a thing. In this day and age, that sort of attention isn’t usually welcome. But this…thing…has threatwritten all over it.”
“There was a note, too.” Chloe handed it to her.
Micki’s eyes widened. “Oh, okay, yeah. She’s being stalked.”
“She doesn’t like that word.”
Micki looked up. “What? What do you mean?”
“She thinks it’s someone just trying to have some fun at her expense. She doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it, and when I suggested calling the police, she was adamant that she didn’t want to.”
“Of course she was.” Micki bit her lip distractedly. “This only happens at her office?”
“As far as I know, yes. She hasn’t mentioned anything about packages being left at her house, thankfully. Especially with Eliana there.”
“Eliana. Yeah, she needs to take this seriously. I’ll talk to her,” Micki said, lifting a wilted rose with an ancient letter opener. Eliana, Savannah’s seven-year-old daughter, was one of the coolest kids Micki had ever met. She loved to talk about comic books and video games and 80s movies. Strange that a child so easygoing could have been raised by a woman with the warmth of an iceberg in January.
“So, did you miss the part where I said you couldn’t tell anyone?”
“How I am I supposed to investigate this if the subjectdoesn’t know that I’m investigating? I have questions!”
“She’ll kill me! Maybe not killme but definitely fire me! I love this job,” Chloe pleaded, clasping her hands together. “I’m on thin ice half the time anyway, but it’s so much better than driving an hour each way into the city. Can’t you just, you know, watch the building but not say anything?”
“So, basically stalk her to see who is stalking her, is what you’re saying.”
Chloe raised her hands. “Come on, Micki. What if it really is nothing? She’ll be so pissed at me.”
“It’s notnothing. Even if it is someone who doesn’t mean her physicalharm, this still falls squarely into suspiciously threatening territory.” At Chloe’s crestfallen expression, Micki conceded. “I’ll keep an eye on the office tonight, okay? I won’t say anything. Yet.”
“Thank you!” Chloe leaned in and hugged her. “I don’t want her hurt, obviously, but I also don’t want to get canned.”
“I get it. Do the two of you get along now? I thought she was bitchy to you, too.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever be best buddies or anything, but I’ve seen flashes of humanity in there, I promise. She even has a sense of humor, if you can believe it. Dry and biting, but it exists. She’s snide and derisive and crusty, but yeah, I guess I sort of like her now. When we’re talking about her daughter or about the town, she comes off like a real person. Borderline caring and understanding. For real,” Chloe said.
Micki realized she must have looked like a caricature of disbelief. “That’s certainly news to me. But okay, go back to work. I’ll deal with this,” Micki said, motioning to her door. She snapped on a rubber glove and began to inspect the jack-in-the-box.
She frowned, looking at the evidence as a whole. It had started out innocently enough, with small tokens of affection. But then this. Was it because they hadn’t gotten a response with the other items? Micki didn’t necessarily like Savannah, but she didn’t wish her ill either. She’d worked a few stalking cases as a PI in Providence, and in her experience, it was never simply misguided emotions. There was always more to it than that. And it was never good.
Working on something a little meatier than an illicit Rollerblader in Dr. Marvin’s parking lot was exhilarating, but Micki almost felt as if she was out of practice. She quickly scanned her mind for the very few citizens of Winter Valley who frequented the lone jail cell, but none of them seemed likely. This was too personal.
Micki thought back to her last case in Providence, where she’d exposed a woman blackmailing her ex-husband for thousands of dollars a week. He’d been involved in an elaborate money laundering operation, and both of them were looking at serious jail time. Micki remembered the adrenaline, the fast pace of her legwork, the information forming a perfect puzzle. Did she miss it? Maybe a little. Would she go back? Not a chance.
The head of the toy creaked back and forth on its hinges while Micki examined the bottom for any identifying marks.
Savannah stood at her full-length window, her dark-rimmed glasses dangling from her index finger. She was still bothered by the “present” she had made light of in front of Chloe earlier. If she hadn’t fostered such an adversarial relationship with Deputy Chief Mackenzie Blake, she would have brought the box straight down to the station. But she didn’t feel as if she could. Maybe there were times when she could have eased up on Chief Blake, but she had waltzed into town with her sweet nature and easygoing attitude, and it set Savannah on edge from the moment they met. She just didn’t trust that anyone could be that genuine. Those people didn’t exist. Everyone had an agenda, and although Micki hadn’t shown hers yet, she’d turn out to be like everyone else. Even so, Savannah knew that Mackenzie would take the situation seriously if she brought it to her and look into it, but then Savannah would be at her mercy. She would appear weak. And that was something Savannah simply refused to do.
Savannah rejected any notion that her demand for order and control stemmed from anything other than her own self-confidence. And it had paid off. Her career was on track, the town was at ease, and her daughter was everything she could have hoped for. Savannah cast a glance at the framed photo of her daughter on her desk, Eliana about three years old and drinking from a garden hose. She smiled softly at the memory. Savannah vowed to make sure Eliana never questioned her own self-worth. She was enough. She would always be enough.
People walked back and forth beneath her window. The tiny town of 1,433 people at last count felt even more claustrophobic than usual. Savannah didn’t see anything out of the ordinary or anyone who looked suspicious. She liked to think she’d honed her skills for spotting those who were sly or devious. She’d started wide-eyed and filled with excitement when she began her congressional internship after college, but the game had left her jaded and cynical over the years. Her first run for city council, in a midsize city in central Massachusetts, had given her a taste of the cutthroat nature of people. Savannah had been painted as a naïve little rich girl who would only work for the upper-class neighborhoods, who was only interested in helping the elite. She’d been shocked and angry, but she didn’t know how to combat the lies. She’d lost that election by a wide margin. That night, surrounded by a cockeyed banner that read “Savannah for Southbridge” and what supporters she had left, Savannah decided the only way to win was to strike first. Always strike first. She sighed and sat back down at her desk, determined not to let a game of cat and mouse rattle her. Since the phantom toying with her didn’t have a physical form yet, she had no one she could strike first. She’d just have to ignore them and hope they’d go away.