The Stranger Inside

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In this tautly crafted tale of psychological suspense, a recently widowed mother resorts to the unthinkable to protect her shattered family. But does she go too far?

After mystery author Diane Christie loses her husband to suicide, she and her son move to the small coastal town of Fog Harbor, Massachusetts. Her daughter is attending college nearby, and Diane hopes that her family can now begin to heal. But rebuilding their lives after the tragedy isn’t so simple.

Diane’s depressed college-age daughter, Alexa, still avoids her, critical of everything Diane does, and even her generally amiable teenage son, Josh, has started acting out. Diane pushes forward, focusing on her writing and her volunteer work at a local crisis hotline. She knows that healing takes time.

But then a girl from Alexa’s college is found strangled. Worse still, the murderer uses the crisis hotline to confess to Diane . . . and claims she is the only one who can stop the killing. And just when the glow of new love from an attractive admirer begins to chase away some of the darkness, more girls turn up dead, and Diane races to solve a mystery she fears will hit terrifyingly close to home.


PROLOGUE

AN ICY BLAST of wind roared through the quiet night, sending a beer bottle jangling across the concrete and a shiver sliding down the young college student’s back. Exhaling loudly, she almost laughed at herself for being so creeped out. Almost. But she had the sinking suspicion someone was watching her, and with every step the sensation only grew stronger. What’s more, it wasn’t the first time. She’d had the feeling before.

A week ago, she could have sworn she’d seen someone watching her through her small bathroom window. But when she’d told her friends about it, they hadn’t taken her seriously. They’d just laughed it off, then quickly buried their noses back in their smartphones. And because they’d doubted her, it had been so easy for her to doubt herself. She pulled her wool coat tighter around her body, suddenly wishing she didn’t live off campus. She rented a ground-floor studio apartment from an older couple who lived in the top two floors of a three-level townhouse.

At first she’d been hesitant to live in the same house as the couple, but her space was totally separate and she had her own side door. And the place had been a steal. Her mother hadn’t been very happy about her living alone. She’d seen too many horror stories about kidnappings and murders of young women on the evening news. The girl had seen the same stories on her own social media news feeds, but it hadn’t been enough to scare her off from walking by herself at night. Kidnappings . . . murders . . . those were the types of tragedies that happened to other girls.

Not girls you actually knew, much less yourself. Four nights a week after her classes ended, she took care of an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s. She prepared food for her and read to her until the woman’s son came home from work. And when he did, she normally called her boyfriend, and he walked her home. But they’d been arguing tonight. So tonight she was walking home alone.

Up ahead of her was the alleyway, a poorly lit four-block residential stretch she had to walk through to get to her apartment. She walked faster, the muted lights from inside the townhomes that lined the alley casting long shadows at her feet. The stretch was usually teeming with college students—either walking home from class or heading out for a night of fun. But tonight it was deserted, silent except for the wind rushing through the skeletal trees. Most of the students had already left for Thanksgiving break. Inhaling a combination of icy air and spicy wood smoke from nearby chimneys, she entered the dark alleyway. But she froze when she thought she heard footsteps. She whirled around. No one was there. She frowned and started walking again, even faster. “You’re letting your imagination get the best of you,” she whispered to herself. When a gust of wind blew her long, dark hair forward, she didn’t bother to brush it out of her face.

She kept forging her way closer to her apartment. “Two blocks to go,” she whispered through chattering teeth. “You’ve got this.” Without slowing, she dug her keys out of her backpack and fumbled for the sharpest one, tucking it between her fingers and fist. If someone tried anything, she’d stab them. The gate to her apartment building finally came into sight. The warm, yellow light above her door glowed like a beacon, but it still seemed a million miles away. There were still so many dark corners between her and the wrought iron gate that her landlord had instructed her to always close and lock once she was safely in for the night. She heard it again.

This time she was sure it was footsteps. Whipping around, she peered into the darkness again—and this time she saw someone. A person about three yards away, wearing a hooded jacket and moving toward her. “Um, hey,” she called, walking backward. Still moving. “Pretty dark out tonight, isn’t it?” The person didn’t answer, and the space between them started to close in. Or was she just imagining it? But some primitive part of her kicked in, telling her she wasn’t imagining it at all.

That this was bad. Very bad. A bolt of terror shooting through her, she broke into a sprint. Her legs burned as she raced toward the gate. Just one more block, she told herself, her eyes brimming with tears. A few seconds later, she grabbed the gate’s cold metal handle and, in one swift movement, threw it open. It screeched against the concrete, and she dashed toward her apartment door.

When she got there, she heard the metal squeal of someone opening the gate behind her, and the keys fell from her hand to the concrete. Oh my God. “Help! Please help! Somebody!” she tried to scream, but her throat was closing up on her, so her pleas were no louder than a whisper. She retrieved the keys, then fumbled to find the right one. Hurry, hurry! Sweat sprang up on the nape of her neck as she flipped through the keys: the key to her parents’ house, one for her mother’s car, for her father’s car, for her PE locker. Finally finding the one that opened her apartment door, she jammed it into the lock. When the lock turned over, she shoved her apartment door open and felt a soothing curtain of warm air caress her face. She could also smell the savory aroma of a hot dinner wafting down from the floor above. As she scrambled to get inside, a hand shot out of the darkness and clamped down hard against her mouth.


CHAPTER 1

A STUBBORN RAY of sun weaseled itself into mystery writer Diane Christie’s bedroom window and shone brittle morning light across her face. She stirred out of a restless sleep, an all-too-familiar feeling filling her stomach. Something is very wrong. At the thought, adrenaline flooded her veins. Stop it, she murmured to herself, her eyes still closed. Forcing the thought away, she pulled her thick down comforter closer to her body and turned to her side. She’d been feeling the same curl of dread in the pit of her stomach every morning for over a year.

Memories flashed into her mind, a recounting of the all-too-brief moment when her life seemed to be looking up: the six-week period when her rocky marriage seemed to be getting better, her five-year-old daughter adored her, and the adoption agency called and said they had the perfect baby for her. A little boy who had been abandoned by his mother at a hospital. But the season had been short-lived, and before long her marriage had crumbled all over again. Now her husband was dead, and her daughter, who’d just turned nineteen, showed nothing for her but contempt and disdain. She couldn’t do anything for her husband now, but she wanted desperately to repair her relationship with her daughter.

It had been an uphill battle over the years, but the last thing she would do was give up on one of her kids. She would do anything for them. And more than anything, she wanted her family to finally come together and feel whole. To feel as though, for once, they were all on the same team, the same side. She inhaled the briny sea air that wafted in through her bedroom window and tried to relax her mind.

Today was the day before Thanksgiving . . . exactly a year since she and her sixteen-year-old son, Josh, had moved to the small coastal town of Fog Harbor, Massachusetts, to escape what had happened back in New Jersey and be closer to her daughter, Alexa. Fog Harbor had been very good to them. The house and community had been everything their landlord, Mr. Davidson, had promised it would be. Their rental was clean, large, and sunny. And even better, the neighborhood was quiet, the people were friendly, and the area was safe. Her alarm clock sounded. She switched it off and swung her legs out of bed, her bare feet sinking into the carpet’s lush pile. She went to her bedroom window that she had left cracked open the previous night and peered out at the harbor. She gazed out at the jewels of light that sparkled on the surface of the dark blue water.

The fishing boats had long left for the morning, and only sailboats now floated in the distance. She placed her palm on the cold glass of the window and let the calming scent of the sea loosen the knots in her shoulders. But then her eyes caught a flash of color in the yard and her heart sped up. A man in a long leather coat was walking the property line. It took her a moment to realize it was her landlord. Before she could duck out of sight, she saw his eyes flicker up to the window and zero in on her. A smile spread across his face. Sighing, she opened the window wider and chilly winter air rushed into her bedroom. “Good morning, Mr. Davidson,” she called. “How’s my favorite mystery writer this morning?” he asked cheerily, rising on his tiptoes, then rocking back onto the hard winter ground. The man was never in a bad mood—or else he never let on that he was.

He was an older gentleman, rail thin and friendly, and owned several rental properties in the area. He was also an avid mystery reader. When she’d filled out the rental application and he’d discovered who she was, he’d told her he’d read every book she’d ever written. “No complaints. And you?” “Great as always,” he said. Still smiling, he pointed to the binder in his hand. “Just doing the usual monthly rounds, checking out my properties. Didn’t mean to disturb you none.

Did I wake you?” “No, I was up.” “Oh, good.” The wind picked up outside, racing through the barren trees that bordered the yard and whipping through Mr. Davidson’s gray hair. “Well, if you don’t need anything, I should go and get my day started,” Diane said. “Yes ma’am! Write me another one of your fantastic books, will you? And make the next one extra scary!” Diane returned his smile. “I’ll try and do that.” She slid the window closed and glanced at the clock on the bedside table: 7:47 a.m. She grabbed her phone and texted Alexa, asking if she was planning to come to Thanksgiving dinner. She’d called already and had sent two texts. But, as was typical, she’d gotten no answer. She threw on her robe and tied it tight against her slender frame, then headed to the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee. But as she passed her son’s bedroom, she heard a cough. She froze in her tracks. Josh had been expected at the high school by eight a.m. sharp for a makeup exam. They’d discussed this last night. Had he overslept again? She knocked on the door. “Josh? Please tell me you’re not in there.” She was answered by two more coughs, then a muffled “I’m not in here.” She opened the door to find not her son but a lump beneath the covers. “Are you feeling okay?” Josh had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called pulmonary sarcoidosis shortly after they’d adopted him at eighteen months old. And because of everything he’d been through medically, she couldn’t help but be a little panicked anytime he exhibited symptoms of becoming ill again. “Relax, Mom. I’m fine,” he croaked. “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “Then up. Now. You can’t be late again.” “I’m up. I’m up,” Josh protested from beneath the covers. “You can’t blow this exam. You’re doing so well this semester.” Josh surfaced, his dark hair unkempt and his eyes tired half-moons. “Don’t worry. I’ve got it in the bag.” WHEN DIANE STEPPED into the kitchen, coffee was already brewing. She poured a cup, then made Josh a quick sandwich to take with him.

She licked mayonnaise off the butter knife and set it in the sink, then flipped on the small, under-the-cabinet TV just as Josh clumped into the kitchen. As she pulled some stationery out of a cabinet to start her grocery list, she was distracted by the local news anchor: “. . . a report that a University of New Cambridge student was found murdered this morning. The student’s body was discovered just over an hour ago by the property owner of the basement apartment she’d been renting—” Oh my God. A surge of adrenaline shot through her. “What the—?” Alexa attended the University of New Cambridge. “Holy crap,” Josh said a few feet away. Diane swung around to face the television.

The coverage continued at the crime scene, where a bundled-up reporter was interviewing onlookers. Tiny spikes of fear crawled up Diane’s arms as she tried to simultaneously focus on the reporter’s words and scan the scene in the background to see if anything looked familiar. “Relax, Mom. It wasn’t her. See?” Josh said, stepping forward and pointing at the screen. “That’s not her apartment complex. It’s a townhouse.” Josh was right. The crime scene was a townhome . . . not the apartment building where her daughter was leasing a studio apartment.

She sank into a chair at the kitchen table to watch the rest of the report, her heart still drumming in her chest. When it was over, she glanced at her son. “Maybe I should drive you to school this morning.” “Seriously? That happened in New Cambridge . . . that’s, like, ten miles away. Besides, I’m a big boy. I’ll be fine.”

Diane contemplated her son’s words and realized he was right. Trying to ignore her instinct to be overprotective, she mustered a smile. “You’re right.” She got up and followed him to the front door. “Good luck today.” Josh shrugged. “Luck? With this brain, luck’s got nothing to do with it.” Diane smiled at her son, marveling at how quickly he was growing up. He’d been born with an innate sense of confidence and was much more laid-back than she or Alexa. Perhaps a little too laid-back at times, especially when it came to time management, but overall, she’d take the laxness over her near-constant state of anxiety anytime.

A few minutes later she watched him disappear around the corner in his Jeep. She stepped back into the house, grabbed her phone, and called Alexa again. As the phone rang, she finished her coffee and poured a second cup, then returned to the television set to watch for more news coverage. But now they were airing a dog food commercial. Most of the time when Diane called Alexa, she didn’t answer. She had better luck texting her, but even then, Alexa didn’t respond 95 percent of the time. Alexa was angry with Diane—she had been since she was five years old.

Although Alexa wouldn’t admit it, Diane suspected much of the anger had to do with her adopting Josh, who was three years Alexa’s junior. After all, Alexa had gone from a seemingly happy and loving five-year-old girl to a melancholy, painfully reserved, and rather awkward child shortly after they had brought Josh home as a foster child and learned that Josh would require frequent hospitalizations . . . which meant long stints away from home for Diane. And long stints away from Alexa. “Dammit, Alexa,” she said, again getting a computerized voice for her daughter’s outgoing voice message. “For once, just answer,” she said to the phone. After a few minutes and no reply from Alexa, she poured her coffee into a to-go cup and bundled up. She was driving to New Cambridge to make sure her daughter was okay.

 

 

Author Jennifer Jaynes
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