THE FOg Excerpt
"One of my favorite novels of 2018." -Confessions of an Avid Reader
THE FOG is the *2019 Golden Quill Winner* for Romantic Suspense
WESLEY LOOKED DOWN at the blood on his hands. He hadn’t bothered to wash them, hell, he hadn’t even thought about it, but now he wished he’d taken a quick second to do just that.
He rubbed his thumb over his palm, hoping the dried blood would erase away.
The coffee pot gurgled and beeped. When Chief McCord had asked him to leave the scene and wait in his kitchen upstairs, he’d started a pot. He wasn’t sure why—nervous energy, he assumed. Or maybe it was a subconscious gesture to remind everyone that he was a nice guy and not someone capable of murdering his former lover in his basement. He hadn’t even considered that he would be the initial suspect until he’d seen the questioning look in the Chief’s eyes as he approached the scene.
A thin beam of moonlight shone through the window above the sink, sparkling off a kitchen knife he’d used earlier in the day. A wave of nausea washed over him. He rubbed his hands together again, the blood on his skin beginning to feel suffocating.
Jesus Christ, he needed a shower.
Underneath the table, he shuffled his cowboy boots, knowing that they were covered in blood, too.
It had happened so fast. So fucking fast. The blood… just seemed to drain out of her.
He felt his pulse begin to pick up with anxiety, an unfamiliar feeling for the fearless former Marine. He glanced at the digital clock glowing from the stove—almost one thirty in the morning. The chaos in the basement was beginning to die down, but there were still a number of uniforms swarming his home.
He clasped his hands together on the table and swallowed the knot in his throat.
“Wesley? You alright, man?”
His gaze lifted. He blinked and was pulled back to the moment. “Sorry. Yeah.” He looked at the recorder sitting in the middle of the table.
“Okay.” Detective Dean Walker sat across from him, a line of concern running across his tanned forehead. “We’re going to go through all this again. Remember, this will all be on record now. Everything you say, okay?”
Dean put his finger on the record button, but then paused and leaned forward. “Sure you don’t need a second, man? Want to take a lap outside or something? Gather your thoughts?”
A small, appreciative smile crossed Wesley's lips. He’d always liked Dean; a hardworking, true southern cowboy, who was knee-deep in his first year as Berry Springs’s only detective. Friends for decades, Dean had helped Wesley build his shop when he’d started his own gun manufacturing business eight years earlier, and Wesley had returned the favor when he helped Dean solve the cold case of Dean’s father’s homicide using his ballistics expertise. They respected each other, and it was a relationship Wesley was sure glad he had in his current circumstance.
“No, I want to get this shit done.” He nodded toward the recorder. “Turn it on.”
Dean held up a finger—one minute—and pushed away from the table and walked to the liquor cabinet. He returned with a half-empty bottle of Johnny Walker Blue and handed it to him. Wesley unscrewed the top, took three gulps, then passed it back. After Dean took a shot, he cleared his throat, pressed the red button on the recorder and after rattling off all the mandatory bullshit about Wesley’s rights, he got to the questions.
“Let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell me where you were this evening?”
“Gino’s for dinner, then Frank’s Bar.”
“What time did you leave Frank’s?”
“’Round eleven thirty.”
“You go anywhere else?”
“What time did you get home?”
“Close to midnight.”
“Notice anyone or anything strange on your property?”
“Were you looking?”
“Always.” A side effect of running special ops in the deepest depths of hell for nine years.
“Did you pass any cars or see any parked around your house?”
“How about being followed?”
“No.” He was certain of that.
“Okay, so you got home, then what?”
“I parked in my usual spot, got out and noticed the basement door was cracked open.”
“You’re sure you shut and locked it before you left for the evening?”
He cocked his head with a look that asked, seriously?
Dean glanced at the recorder.
Wesley blew out a breath. “Yes, I locked up before I left.”
“Okay, go on.”
“I walked inside, searched the floor and that’s when I found her.” His gut clenched—what he should have said was that he smelled her first, then found her. That sweet, metallic scent of blood.
He looked down and shifted in his seat.
“What condition was she in?”
Wesley’s jaw twitched as he focused on a small nick in the shiny, wooden dining table. He’d built it himself out of the trunk of a massive oak tree that had fallen during last spring’s storms. It had taken him two months and more splinters than he could count. The table was perfectly imperfect with uneven edges and a dozen different shades of brown. Except for tonight. Tonight, it had smears of blood on it. He looked up and narrowed his eyes. “Her throat was slashed.” A heavy silence filled the room. “Fresh.”
“What makes you say that?”
“She was still pink, warm. The blood was still pumping out of her neck when I walked up.” He gritted his teeth and shook his head. “Minutes, Walker. If I had just gotten home minutes earlier…”
“Doesn’t do us any good to think like that, Cross. Keep going.”
Wesley nodded. “I kneeled down, looked her over, you know, and that’s when I heard the upstairs door slap shut.”
“Exactly how long from the moment you found her to when you heard that?”
“Maybe a minute. Maybe even less. So I went after him.”
“Assuming, based on height, weight, and movement.”
“Okay, go on.”
“I ran out on the deck and saw him running through the field. Followed him into the woods, lost him for a second, then heard an engine start up.” He shook his head. “Son of a bitch parked in a small clearing just off the road.”
“And you didn’t see a vehicle when you drove past?”
“No, there’s a thick line of bushes that block the view.”
“He took off, and…” His defiant gaze settled on Dean’s. “I shot at the fucker.”
Dean's eyes flickered to the recorder. “How many shots?”
“Where’d you hit?”
“Not sure if I did.”
Dean cocked his head, narrowed his eyes. “You could hit a dove in a snowstorm. Best target shooter I’ve ever seen in my life. And you don’t know if you hit the vehicle, at least?”
“Fucker kicked gravel in my face. I was damn near blind when I took the shots.”
“Well, then, that explains why we aren’t examining a dead body right now. Where’d you aim? The tires?”
“The back glass.”
Dean scribbled on his notepad. “I’ll have Willard call around to the area hospitals tonight. See if anyone’s brought in. We’ll also look for your bullet shells where he parked. What was the vehicle?”
“Thanks to the cloud of dust, I didn’t get a good look. Boxy, not round. Definitely not a van.”
“Who’s your nearest neighbor? Any chance they saw a vehicle?”
“Old man Ericsson lives about a mile north. Closest to me. No one else lives down this road. So, no, no one else would’ve seen it.”
“Maybe he saw an SUV on the main road, at least?”
“You mean to back up my story that I saw the suspect, and I’m not just making this up to take the focus off of myself?”
Dean stared at him a minute—cool it. “Alright. I’ve got Willard checking for tracks now. But…”
“I know, I know, not a good bet in gravel.”
Dean nodded and continued his questioning. “To confirm, her car was not at your house when you got home?”
“Correct. He must’ve brought her in his SUV.”
“What about over the course of the evening? Did you see the SUV parked anywhere you were at?”
“To confirm, you didn’t see Leena earlier tonight, correct?”
“Did she have a key to your place?”
“Have you given a key to anyone lately?”
“No. Bobbi and my dad are the only two people who have keys.”
“Where is your sister?”
“Home, safe. I called, just to make sure.”
“Did you tell her what happened?”
He shook his head. “No. I will when the sun comes up.”
“Good thing, considering.”
“Yes, considering she’d drive her over-protective ass out here and beat down the door demanding answers.” Apparently, Bobbi’s reputation for being a bit high-strung preceded her.
Wesley sat back. “It’s a fucking setup, Dean. Someone’s setting me up.”
“I have no idea.”
“Any arguments with anyone lately?”
“What about anyone you’d done business with lately?”
“I issue background checks for every person who purchases one of my guns. Not only that, I look into them myself. Hell, I know most of the locals who’ve bought from me.”
“Any of your guns missing?”
“I don’t think so, although I’ll do a full inventory tonight. Regardless, there’s no way this was some robbery gone wrong. I had plenty of guns laying out, just feet from her body. And besides, why would Leena be involved?”
“Okay. Let’s go back to tonight. When you found Leena in your basement, did you recognize her immediately?”
His heart skipped a beat. He’d remember that exact moment for the rest of his life. “Yes.” His throat suddenly felt like it had been wiped with a fresh coat of sand. He swallowed deeply.
“Was she your girlfriend?” Dean's voice wavered.
“No, not a girlfriend.”
Dean cleared his throat. “I’ll need you to elaborate.”
“She wasn’t my girlfriend. It was casual.”
“Friend with benefits?”
Wesley cocked a brow at the bluntness of the question. He shifted in his seat. “Fine. Sure. Yes, you could say that. We’d gone on a few dates. Three, I think. But that was it. We moved on.”
Just then, Officer Willard opened the back door and stepped into the kitchen, his face abnormally pale, highlighted by dark circles under his green eyes. A rookie officer and son of a retired cop, Willard made an effort to always be on his A-game, but tonight, he carried the weight of seeing an almost-decapitated Berry Springs woman. Someone he very likely knew.
Dean paused the recorder. “What?”
Willard sent a nod at Wesley, then said, “No viable tracks. Nothing I can pull a cast from.”
Wesley rolled his eyes.
“What about the road?”
Willard snorted, “Three cop cars, an ambulance, Jessica’s car, and Wesley’s truck have trampled any tracks the SUV might’ve left.”
“Look again in the morning, and for Wesley’s shells, too. Things tend to turn up in the light.”
“Will do. Hayes just got to her apartment.”
“Leena’s?” Wesley asked.
“Yeah. Her car’s there. The door was locked, and there’s no sign of forced entry or struggle. Lights were off, back door was securely locked.”
Dean frowned. “Purse, cell phone?”
Willard shook his head. “Hayes is searching the place now.”
“Okay, check her social media accounts. We need to know every single thing this girl did and who she talked to in the last twenty-four hours. Someone knows something.”
Wesley leaned forward. “Was the engine of her car cold?”
“So she hadn’t been out in a while… she was either with someone and taken from wherever they went, or whoever killed her picked her up at home. Voluntary or forced.” He looked at Dean. “Has Jessica bagged up her body yet?”
“Did she see any other injuries? Bruises?”
“Not that I’m aware of right now. She’ll start the autopsy ASAP, and we’ll know for sure.” Dean looked at Willard. “Okay. Hit Leena’s accounts, see if there’s any recent activity. Let me finish up here, and we’ll go talk to her folks.”
Wesley's heart sank. Leena Ross’s parents didn’t even know she was dead.
As Willard left the room, Dean shifted his attention to Wesley. “Let’s get this done. We’ve got a long night ahead of us.” He hit the record button. “You just said you and Leena had moved on. You guys had stopped seeing each other?”
“Three weeks ago.”
“She wanted…” He looked down. Goddammit. “I didn’t want a full-blown relationship.”
Dean nodded, as if he didn’t need to ask, and was only asking for the record. “When was the last time you spoke with her?”
Here we go. “Two days ago.”
Dean’s eyebrows tipped up. “What was the nature of that conversation?”
“She wanted to meet up.”
“As I said, I didn’t want a relationship.”
“How’d she take that?”
He looked down again, and another unfamiliar feeling crept up—guilt. “We got into an argument.”
“That. I reiterated that I didn’t want a relationship. She did, and because of that, it wasn’t going to work out.”
“Did she mention anything else? Any arguments with anyone else?”
“No.” He’d replayed their conversation in his head a million times over the last hour.
“How’d the conversation end?”
“With her calling me a piece of shit playboy and hanging up on me.”
Dean’s gaze leveled on his and he knew what the detective was thinking. Getting into an argument with his former lover two days before her throat was slashed didn’t bode well for him. Especially considering Leena had no doubt vented to her friends about him after the fact. Not good. There was a good chance half the town knew about their argument.
And then she turned up dead. In his basement.
Dean must’ve read the look in his eyes because he said, “You were on a date earlier this evening, correct?”
“Yes, first date. Blind date, set up by my sister. And I’ve given you Toni’s number.”
Dean nodded. “Yes, we’ve already spoken with Miss Monroe and confirmed you were with her, as well as Red up at Frank’s Bar, where you went after.”
“They’ve also got two cameras, one above the front door and one in a tree out back.”
Wesley held his gaze—so, I’m covered. Those are my alibis.
The rumble of the last vehicle faded in the distance as Wesley pushed out the back door and stepped onto his deck, his SIG in one hand, the bottle of Walker Blue in the other. They were finally gone. Everyone. At three in the damn morning.
A full moon rested on the peak of a mountain in the distance, its silver glow washing over the vast landscape ahead of him. Dark shadows stretched across the ground. A cool breeze swept past him, carrying the moldy scent of dead leaves. Fall was crisp in the air.
The seasons were changing.
He walked to the railing and gazed down at the field, its tall brown grass swaying in the wind. A thin fog was just beginning to slither above the ground.
He took a deep breath, hoping to cleanse his body from the sickness he felt inside and the nerves squeezing his stomach. His fingers tingled as he gripped the handle of his gun, narrowed his eyes and scanned from left to right, searching for any movement in the cloud of gray. A perfect place to hide.
Come and get me, you sick son of a bitch. If you’re still here, come and get me.
As if nature responded to him, a gust of wind tossed leaves across his boots. The fog moved, danced, taunting him in the breeze. He gazed out at his property. All ninety-eight acres of it.
What the hell had happened tonight?
Jesus Christ, why her?
His mind had been in a constant spin since he’d found her body in his basement. It didn’t make sense. The whole thing seemed off. Someone had gone to great lengths to execute her murder. It had been carefully planned out, that much was obvious.
He glanced over his shoulder at the basement door on the side of the house. They’d dusted for prints and searched for trace evidence, but before Dean had left, he’d implied they’d found nothing useful.
There had to be something. He’d already decided that he was going to scour every inch of his place, and his property, himself. Whether they liked it or not. He’d start tonight and wouldn’t stop until he found something.
He tipped up the bottle and chugged the smooth, amber liquid for a solid three seconds, welcoming the familiar burn down his throat. The pain before the calm. He blew out a breath, turned toward the house and leaned against the rail, his mind reeling.
Leena’s throat had been slashed no more than a few minutes before he’d found her. This possibly meant one of two things, either the killer knew Wesley wasn’t home and had poorly timed his murder, or he timed it perfectly, waiting until Wesley drove up the driveway to do it… Waited to send the knife into Leena’s neck to ensure Wesley would find his former lover just seconds after death had taken her. It was a chilling thought but had much more weight to it than a random killing, or robbery gone wrong, which he didn’t believe anyway. Either way, the fact that she was taken to his house to be killed in his basement screamed setup.
He turned back to the mountains. The killer had parked a good fifty yards from his house. How had he gotten Leena inside? Did she go voluntarily? If so… what the hell was she thinking? Or, was she forced? Or, drugged and dragged?
Another fact that he couldn’t wrap his head around was that there were no apparent signs of struggle or break-in at her place.
Did she know her killer?
He didn’t know of a single person who didn’t like Leena. Who would do that to her?
Leena Ross was a blonde, bubbly former cheerleader, a few years younger than Wesley. They’d gone to high school together and had always flirted, but nothing more… until two months ago when she’d had one too many long island iced teas at Frank’s Bar and walked right up to him and asked him out. He was surprised—shocked, really. He’d been asked out by women before, but not very often. He liked it. He liked her confidence. He said yes, and the next evening they’d gone to dinner and a movie… and to his place after. He enjoyed her company, and the sex was good, but it was like every other woman—no chemistry. No sparks.
And that pretty much summed up Wesley’s dating life.
He’d begun to think something was wrong with him. Why couldn’t he commit to a woman? Or to an exclusive relationship, at least? Why couldn’t he just settle? Leena Ross would’ve hardly been settling. She was popular in town, beautiful and single. But she was looking for a husband, that much was obvious. Her biological clock was ticking, he'd known that from the first few minutes of their first date. There had been a sparkle in her bright blue eyes, hopeful with the possibility that maybe, just maybe, he was the one.
And now, those bright eyes were forever closed.
He’d never forget looking down at her eviscerated throat, the pink flesh puffing up from her once narrow, elegant neck, opened up like a red flower. She’d been sliced ear-to-ear. He’d seen the white bone of her spine.
The knot in his gut squeezed, and for a moment he thought he might puke. He tipped up the whiskey and took another gulp. His eyes watered, his throat burned.
A rush of frustration had him pushing off the rail. He clenched his jaw, grabbed the whiskey, his SIG, and began pacing. There was no way in hell he was going to be able to sleep. He had to do something. Something productive, something to help find the son of a bitch who’d turned his life upside down. He’d promised Dean he would inventory his guns, so that’s what he’d do. After bleaching the hell out of the floor, of course. Then, he'd count his guns until he was so tired he passed out.
That’s it. Make a plan, Wes.
He took one last look into the fog, then turned and began making his way across the deck. He paused and looked up at his house, dark against the shadows. His house. The house he’d built from scratch, the house he’d put blood, sweat, tears and every penny of his bank account into. The house that would now always be remembered as the scene of Leena Ross’s murder.
Wesley had meticulously planned every inch of his three-thousand square foot home, using all local rock and lumber. He’d purchased the land and drawn up his own blueprint even before hiring a contractor. Loyal to small-town culture, Wesley had hired only local construction workers and vendors. Along with help from his buddies, they’d constructed his house, the “Maritime Mansion” as the crew had dubbed it. The nickname was a nod to his career in the Marines although the word “mansion” didn’t sit well with him. But Wesley had worked his ass off to pay for exactly what he wanted and bottom-line it was, by all counts, a very large home.
The master bedroom took up half the top floor with sweeping windows, a log-burning fireplace, reading nook, two walk-in closets, and a huge marble bathroom with windows that overlooked the mountains. The main floor was complete with a state-of-the-art kitchen, two bedrooms, an office, and a spacious living room. He operated his business, Cross Combat, from the basement.
He designed the sprawling deck to be a space of comfort. To celebrate the outdoors. He’d designed the multi-level space with an outdoor kitchen, a covered seating area, and a built-in firepit. He had coffee in the handmade lounge chairs in the morning, and cocktails in the same spot hours later. Sunrises and sunsets, each watched and appreciated.
Wesley liked to build things, to create things. He took pride in his home. This was his place, to think, to plan, to relax, to reflect. It was a safe place for him to just be himself, no matter what the day had brought him. He didn’t need palm trees, the ocean, or tall, glass buildings. He needed nature and lots of it. And that’s exactly what he got in his hometown.
Nestled deep in the Ozark Mountains, Berry Springs was a stereotypical small, southern town where a cowboy hat and boots were the uniform of choice and calling each other “sir” and “ma’am” was a part of daily conversation. It was a country town, with events centered around the outdoors, celebrating the dozens of hiking trails, campsites, and fishing holes in the area. Hitting up the gun range after a hard day’s work was as common as heading to the bar. The monthly rodeo was a sold-out event, no matter what the weather. The town even had a country diner where locals gathered every morning for eggs, grits, and their daily dose of gossip.
This was his town, his house, and nothing was going to take that away from him.
He just had to figure out who the hell was trying to frame him for murder.