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Novelist Darell Brooke lived for his title as King of Suspense—until an auto accident left him unable to concentrate. Two years later, recluse and bitter, he wants one thing: to plot a new novel and regain his reputation.

Kaitlan Sering, his twenty-two-year-old granddaughter, once lived for drugs. After she stole from Darell, he cut her off. Now she’s rebuilding her life.

But in Kaitlan’s town two women have been murdered, and she’s about to discover a third. She’s even more shocked to realize the culprit—her boyfriend, Craig, the police chief’s son.

Desperate, Kaitlan flees to her estranged grandfather. For over forty years, Darell Brooke has lived suspense. Surely he’ll devise a plan to trap the cunning Craig.

But can Darell’s muddled mind do it? And—if he tries—with what motivation? For Kaitlan’s plight may be the stunning answer to the elusive plot he seeks...



"Lean style and absorbing plot ... Brandilyn Collins is a master of suspense."
--CBA Retailers + Resources


Prologue

Copyright 2008 by Brandilyn Collins
Used by permission of Zondervan



“Ever hear the dead knocking?”

Leland Hugh watches the psychiatrist peruse his question, no reaction on the man’s lined, learned face. The doctor lists to one side in his chair, a fist under his sagging jowl. The picture of unshakable confidence.

“No, can’t say I have.”

Hugh nods and gazes at the floor. “I do. At night, always at night.”

“Why do they knock?”

His eyes raise to look straight into the doctor’s. “They want my soul.”

No response but for a mere inclining of the head. The intentional silence pulses, waiting for an explanation. Psychiatrists are good at that.

“I took theirs, you see. Put them in their graves early.” Deep inside Hugh, the anger and fear begin to swirl. He swallows, voice tightening. “They’re supposed to stay in the grave. Who’d ever think the dead would demand their revenge?”

From outside the door, at the windows, in the closet, in the walls—they used to knock. Now, in his jail cell the noises come from beneath the floor. Harassing, insistent, hate-filled and bitter sounds that pound his ears and drill his brain until sleep will not, can not come.

“Do you ever answer?”

Shock twists Hugh’s lips. “Answer?”

The psychiatrist’s face remains placid. The slight, knowing curve to his mouth makes Hugh want to slug him.

“You think they’re not real, don’t you?” Hugh steeples his fingers with mocking erudition. “Yes, esteemed colleagues.” He affects an arrogant highbrow voice. “I have determined the subject suffers from EGS—Extreme Guilt Syndrome, the roots of which run so deep as never to be extirpated, with symptoms aggrandizing into myriad areas of the subject’s life and resulting in perceived paranormal phenomena.”

He drops both hands in his lap, lowering his chin to look derisively at the good doctor.

The man inhales slowly. “Do you feel guilt for the murders?”

“Why should I? They deserved it.”

He pushes to his feet.

He pushes to his feet. He slumps back in his chair.

He slumps back in his chair. He aims a hard look

He aims a hard look

The psychiatrist.

Hugh’s hands fist,

He cannot

He can only

He

“Aaghh!” Novelist Darell Brooke smacked his keyboard and shoved away from the desk. All concentration drained from his mind like water from a leaky pan.

His characters froze.

He lowered his head, raking gnarled fingers into the front of his scalp. For a time there he’d almost had it—that ancient joy of thoughts flowing and fingers typing. In the last two hours he’d managed to write three or four paragraphs. Now—nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

King of Suspense. He laughed, a bitter sound that singed his throat. Ninety-nine novels written in forty-three years. Well over a hundred million copies sold. Twenty-one major motion pictures made from his books. Countless magazine articles about his career, fan letters, invitations to celebrity parties. Now look at him at age seventy-seven. Two years after the auto accident and still only half-mobile. And wielding a mere fraction of the brain power he used to have.

What good is an author who can’t hold a plot in his head?

As for his once diehard fans, they were now happily reading King or Koontz, or that upstart Patterson.

Betrayers, all. He made a gagging sound in his throat.

Darell stared at the monitor, reading over his strikeouts, struggling once more to settle into the story. Pictured the psychiatrist, his killer...

No use.

Face it, old man. You’ll never write that hundredth book. You’ve been put out to pasture for good.

He wrenched his eyes from the screen, reached for his shiny black cane. With effort, he pushed himself out of his leather chair to unsteady feet. The broken bones in his left leg and ankle had long since healed, but the ligament damage had not. Despite painful physical therapy his foot never regained its full flexibility. Amazing—the constant flexing of a foot to maintain equilibrium. He hadn’t realized the importance of those muscles and tendons until his were torn apart.

Darell shuffled across the hardwood floor of his thirty-foot-long office, repelled by his writing desk and computer. Every day they wooed, then shunned him. At the tall, mullioned window near the far corner he stopped, spread his feet wide. Hunched over, both hands on his cane, he brooded over the green rolling hills of his estate, the untamed and capricious Pacific Ocean in the distance.

He used to go to the beach to write a couple times a week, tapping his laptop keys as the surf pounded in rhythm to his pulse. Now he never left the house except for doctor’s appointments.

Darell Brooke had no use for a world that no longer had use for him.

His mouth puckered with disdain.

Characters’ faces in shadow, snippets of scenes filtered through his mind. Fredda Lee. Now there was a delectable killer. Or Alfred Stone with his black hair and eyebrows, an intimidating figure much as Darell had appeared in his younger days. Black Tie Affair, that was Alfred’s book.

No. Not that one.

Midnight Madness?

Darell shook his head. He used to know. Before the accident, he remembered every story he’d written, every character.

“You knocked your skull pretty badly,” the doctor said as Darell watched the hospital room spiral from his bed. “The dizziness will pass, but you might find it hard to concentrate...”

Now here Darell stood, a shell of his former self. As the undisputed King of Suspense he’d reveled in playing the part. No longer was there a part to play. His once stern, confident countenance—now blank-faced. His black hair turned an unruly shock of white. The wild gray brows jutting over his deep set, dark eyes no longer intimidating, merely straw-like. Oh, how he used to love to use those eyebrows! The muscular arms—even into his early seventies—sagging. Straight back now bent.

“Pshhh.” His lips curled.

Slowly, with defiance Darell raised his chin.

He focused through the glass once more. At least the gnarled trees on his property still looked formidable.  And his mansion looked just as severe from afar, with its black shutters and multiple wings and gables. From the outside looking in, people would never guess...

Darell glared at the phone near his computer. On impulse he clomped over to it, picked up the receiver. His gnarled forefinger hovered over the keys.

What was the number? The one he’d dialed countless times, year after year.

He lowered himself to the edge of his chair, flipped through his Rolodex. There.

Malcolm Featherling, agent to the country’s top writers, answered his private line on the third ring. Clipped tone, terse greeting. Malcolm was always pushed for time.

“Hello, Malcolm. Just checking in to give you an update.” Darell pushed the old confidence into his voice. After all, his agent worked for him.

“Well, Darell, nice to hear from you. It has been three days.”

Darell blinked. He’d called three days ago? Surely it was at least a month. Maybe two.

He cleared his throat. Sounded phlegmy, like an old man’s. He hated that. “I wrote some today. Almost a page. And another yesterday. You know what they say—write a page a day, and you’ve got a novel in a year.”

He used to write at least two a year. All of them brilliant.

“That’s good, Darell, good..”

“Maybe I can get that contract back. Just think, Malcolm, fifteen percent of ten million is a lot of dough. I’ll make you rich. Again.”

“You do that, man, you do that. Keep up the good work.”

He could hear the disbelief in Malcolm’s response. The agent was patronizing him. Darell’s publisher had waited eight months after the accident, strung along on the promise that he would be able to write his one hundredth bestseller—the assumed milestone that had landed him on the cover of Time magazine. But a worldwide publishing conglomerate couldn’t wait forever, even for Darell Brooke. Not with half the contract—five million dollars—already paid up front, and doctors advising he may never write again. The deal was cancelled. Darell had been forced to give the money back. Malcolm had to cough up his fifteen percent.

I’ll show you, Malcolm. Maybe I’ll even get a new agent.


“All right. Well, got to get back to my writing. See you, Malcolm.” Darell clicked off the line and stared at the phone in his hand.

Just three days ago he’d called?

With a loud sigh, he hung up the receiver. He shifted his legs, focused on the half-empty page on his screen. An emptiness he used to love to fill. Now it mocked him. His killer was still on his feet, frozen. The psychiatrist watched from his chair.

What were they supposed to do next? Where had he been headed with this story?

What was the story?

Oh, to regain half the concentration he’d once had. A fourth. A tenth. The thought of spending day after day in this mansion-turned-prison, in this office, unproductive and used up, filled him with an emptiness as deep as staring into the face of eternal hell...

Straightening, Darell dredged up his self will.

He placed his fingers on the keyboard, straining to turn the gears of his mind. One more paragraph, just one. He’d give anything to finish this book. To gain back his reputation, his life. Anything.

The gears refused to move.