Somehow they seemed macabre in the early-morning light.
He shifted gears, brakes squealing as he rounded a curve and sped down the street. He scanned the neighboring yards, the road, the trees beyond the house, searching for Dugan.
But everything seemed still. Quiet. A homey little neighborhood to raise a family in.
Except he had heard that scream.
His chest squeezed for air, and he slammed on the brakes and skidded up the drive. He threw the Jeep into Park, and held his weapon at the ready as he raced up to the front door.
Cop instincts kicked in, and he scanned the outside of the house and yard again, but nothing looked amiss. He glanced through the front window, but the den looked normal...toys on the floor, magazines on the table, TV running with cartoons.
Only the Christmas tree had been tipped over, ornaments scattered across the floor.
He reached for the doorknob, and the door swung open. His breath lodged in his throat, panic knotting his insides. No sounds of holiday music or Timmy chattering.
Gripping his weapon tighter, he inched inside, senses honed for signs of an intruder.
Slowly, he made his way through the den to the kitchen. The Advent calendar glared at him, mocking him with a reminder that Christmas was only a few days away.
There was a half-empty coffee cup on the counter and an overturned cereal bowl on the table. Milk dripped onto the floor.
Terror seized him.
A creaking sound suddenly splintered the air, and he swung around, braced to shoot but he saw nothing. Then another sound came from above, water running...the shower? No, the tub...overflowing...
He clenched his jaw, then inched toward the staircase, slowly climbing it and listening for an intruder, for Marie, for his son.
Any sign of life.
A quick glance into Timmy’s room and it appeared empty. Bed unmade. Toy airplane on the floor. Legos scattered. Stuffed dinosaur on his pillow.
Where was his son?
His hand trembled as he bypassed the room and edged toward the bedroom where Marie slept. One look inside, and his heart stopped.
The lamp was broken on the floor. Pillows tossed on the carpet. The corner chair overturned. Glass shards from the mirror were scattered on the vanity.
A sea of red flashed in front of him. Blood...it soaked the sheets and led a trail into the bathroom.
His stomach revolted, but he forced himself to scan the corners of the room before slowly entering the bathroom. Blood streaked the floor and led toward the claw-foot tub.
A groan settled deep in his gut.
Marie. Her eyes stood wide-open in death. Blood dripped down her neck and bare chest. Her arms dangled lifelessly over the tub edge, one leg askew.
For a moment, he choked. Couldn’t make himself move. He’d seen dozens of dead bodies before but none so personal...none that he cared about.
Emotions crowded his throat and chest, and he gripped the wall to steady himself. He had to. Had to get control. Slide that wall back into place so he could do his job.
Every second counted.
Fighting nausea, he slowly walked toward her and felt for a pulse. Although he knew before he touched her that it was too late.
Dugan had done this. Had gotten his payback by killing his son’s mother.
That creaking sound suddenly echoed again. He froze, hand clenching his gun, then spun around.
Nothing. Except the evidence of Dugan’s brutal crime.
Where was Timmy?
For a fraction of a second he closed his eyes on a prayer. The sound echoed again...
Heart hammering double-time, he headed toward Timmy’s room. The door to the space had been built inside his closet. Timmy had called it his secret room.
Had Dugan found it?
Hope warred with terror as he inched inside the closet and pushed at the door. It was closed, but he had insisted the lock be removed for fear Timmy might lock himself inside and be trapped.
Now he wished he’d left that damn lock on so his son could have locked Dugan out.
Darkness shrouded the cavernous space as he climbed the steps. He tried to move soundlessly, but the wood floor squeaked. As he reached the top step, a sliver of sunlight wormed its way through the small attic window, allowing him to sweep the interior.
It appeared empty, but he had heard something.
“Timmy,” he whispered. “Son, are you here?”
Praying he was safe, Miles examined the room. Timmy’s toy airplanes and horses, his train set...
Another squeak, and he jerked his head around. An antique wardrobe sat in the corner, one Marie had used to store old quilts. He held his breath as he approached it, then eased open the door.
Relief mingled with pain when he saw his little boy hunched inside, his knees drawn to his chest, his arms wrapped around them. He had buried his head against his legs, silent sobs racking his body.
“Timmy, it’s okay, it’s Dad.” Anguish clogged his throat as he gently lifted his son’s face. Blood dotted Timmy’s T-shirt and hands, and tears streaked his splotched skin, a streak of blood on his left cheek.