Read an Excerpt
News of the warehouse fire aired as yet another in a string of mysterious arsons. The remains of the body found in the ruins were beyond recognition. At best, they had only the teeth, skull, and bones with no telltale marks on them. The best clues to the person’s identity would come from the coroner’s examination.
Two days later as Abi and Joe watched a newscast Abi became intrigued by police photos of an angry-looking young woman with a shaved head that appeared in the upper corner of the TV screen. Abi paused from setting the table to watch. Joe crossed the room behind her carrying a hammer.
“Upcoming on Top o’ the Hour News,” the commentator said, “more about the abominable plight of inmate Megan Winnaker, one of only fifty-or-so women sentenced to death in the United States.”
Abi stepped forward, studying the photos. Joe stopped to watch, too, but then a commercial intruded.
“Suppose a radical like her turned out to be my daughter,” Abi said.
“It’s a sad world,” he said, shrugging. “Anyone could be standing beside a murderer and never know it.”
“Pity that poor girl,” she said as she resumed placing utensils on the table.
“If any help was coming for her, it would have happened by now,” Joe said.
They had placed a small occasional table and chairs directly in front of the fireplace, their favorite spot to enjoy meals, instead of in the dining room. Glow from the embers cast flickering shadows over the dinner table and danced through prisms of the crystal water goblets. Half-spent logs crackled and popped in the fireplace, the heat staving off the nighttime chill. The smell of burning oak was always synonymous with shelter from winter’s ragged edges.
Daily rains and a lingering bite in the air dashed all hopes for an early spring. Still, Abi felt changes stirring, similar to the spring fever she felt when she and Joe met five years earlier. The excitement of a new relationship had triggered metamorphoses on all levels.
“Her eyes were too close,” Abi said, mumbling to herself as Joe headed for the dining room. “Nose… too long.” She had never seen a close-up of Megan Winnaker in all the years the case had lasted.
From the day her five-year-old was abducted, Abi vowed never to stop looking till her daughter was safely returned to her arms. Twenty-three years had passed without a trace of Becky Ann. Multiple fruitless searches had caught up with Abi and worn her ragged. Over the years, she had gone so far as to become involved in several missing-person cases. She stayed involved till each young girl was reunited with family, or whose skeletal remains were identified.
With each disappointment, alone in bed at night, she ached for the families and suffered their tragedies with them. In luckier cases, she felt their elation and triumph. Those inspirational reunions gave her hope toward an eventual happy ending with her daughter. They were rehearsals, meant as a sign that she and her daughter, too, would be re-united. Abi’s need to find her little girl intensified until, at times, she found herself grasping at the most intelligible of clues.
After years, when weariness took over, Abi sometimes thought that her gifted child had slipped through the cracks of society. That’s why she had to look everywhere and at every young woman. As time wore on, clues diminished. Fewer and fewer cases turned up with girls the same age as her daughter.
Not until recent years did Abi learn to tone down her desperation. She had grown envious to the point of depression each time she heard of someone else’s joyous reunion. Morose had been her state of mind when Joe Arno happened into her life. He was a breath of sanity she so desperately needed. So she suppressed her despair, yet kept alert to any possibilities, still determined to leave no clue untested.
Stirrings of renewal brought on by an unexpected relationship helped her change her image and outlook on life. She cropped her thick dark wavy hair so it required minimal care, and exercised to tone back the firmness she once had. She shed a few pounds and looked younger than her forty-eight years. How could she have let herself go? Soon after her renewal, pseudo-friends drifted away, taking morbid curiosity and pity with them. It was just as well. Abi needed to stay strong, healthy and focused both physically and emotionally. She never knew when a clue to Becky’s whereabouts might appear.
“No, thank heaven,” she said. “That one’s not my daughter.”
Suddenly, Joe was standing beside her again and touched her shoulder. “Abi,” he said, interrupting her reverie. “What did you just say?”
She had to think a moment. “The inmate,” she said as she glanced at him quickly. “She doesn’t look a bit like me.”
Joe seemed instantly repulsed. “She’s not your daughter.” His voice was exaggerated, misdirected, and made the idea seem ludicrous. Such a gesture was not typical of his gentle, oftentimes-humorous nature, but he did have a way of making a point. This special man was a pillar of strength and carried himself more like a stately baron than a hotshot photographer. He seldom raised his voice. What could be eating at him?
It was times like this that reminded her of the private hell she suppressed. When Joe suggested they have dinner at her home that evening and watch his documentary, Abi had thought to finally explain the secret she kept hidden in the spare bedroom upstairs. He had not seen all the rooms of the house since just after she remodeled. With him definitely edgy about something else, it would not be an opportune time to divulge yet undisclosed skeletons in her closet.
“How can you say that?” she asked, mostly curious about the tone of his words. “I have to look at everyone if I’m to find—”
“Sh-h-h!” he said, grabbing up the remote and turning toward the TV.
“This just in,” the news anchor said.
Joe laid the remote on the tabletop. “Listen!” he said, taking a step closer to the TV as the insets popped up again.
“As we continue our coverage of inmate Megan Winnaker in these months,” the news anchor said in a voice that droned. “Rachter Valley Prison psychiatrist, Dr. Gilda Sayer, reports that Winnaker is deeply despondent and has succumbed to pneumonia yet again.”
A photo of the inmate in prison appeared over the newscaster’s shoulder. Abi stepped closer trying to get a better look at the young woman’s face.
Joe still held the hammer and tapped the head in his palm as he watched. “Damn it!” he said under his breath. “Why?”
The newscaster continued to speak without showing emotion. “The psychiatrist states that although Winnaker maintains her innocence, she will be put to death immediately should she lose her final appeal. She is both physically and emotionally exhausted, which is probably the cause of her failing health.” Other photos of the inmate flashed across the screen.
Several motorcycles intrusively rumbled past on the street outside Abi’s home. The air itself seemed to vibrate. She strained to hear till the noise abated.
“Winnaker’s mental state is also deteriorating,” the newscaster said. “Dr. Sayer claims this is caused by a repressed wish to die, an unconscious effort to extract her from a situation she can do nothing more about.”
Abi glanced at Joe, whose gaze was glued to the TV screen. “Joe…?”
A picture of the state capital building appeared as the newscaster continued.
“Winnaker’s appeal is now before the state Supreme Court,” he said, as the building in the background disappeared and the newsroom showed again. “But due to the backlog of cases, their decision is not expected till early next year. Though Winnaker has been adamant all along about proving her innocence, all the lower courts upheld her conviction. The Supreme Court’s favorable decision would be her final chance for a new trial and an attempt to overturn the sentence of death by lethal injection.”