#1 New York Times bestseller Kelley Armstrong’s second Cainsville novel, VISIONS, is on sale tomorrow, but we’ve got an exclusive excerpt for you right here, right now. Olivia Taylor-Jones may have sought refuge in the sleepy town of Cainsville, but her life is anything but calm…
C H A P T E R E L E V E N
When I returned to my apartment after my Saturday shift, TC wasn’t there. Usually, he was in the towel-lined cardboard box I’d assigned him as a bed. The only time he hadn’t been was when I’d found him hiding under my bed, and I suspected someone had broken in.
I searched the apartment, which took about three minutes. Then I searched again. I even pulled out the can of cat treats. Yes, I’d bought him treats. Give it another month and I’d be collecting his shed whiskers and claws like a proud momma preserving her baby’s first haircut and lost teeth.
I shook the treats. I called his name—well, his acronym. Then I conducted a calm and measured search of the apartment. Oh hell, who am I kidding? I tore about, checking every cat-sized space frantically, certain he’d suffered some horrible ailment that prevented him from answering my calls, even for fake-tuna treats.
There were a very limited number of places he could hide in those few hundred square feet, and I checked them all three times. I even looked in the fridge and stove. Hey, I’d been distracted lately; he could have hopped in while I wasn’t paying attention.
Once I was sure he wasn’t in the apartment, I hurried out to the front stoop, where Grace was on troll duty.
“Have you seen my cat?” I asked.
“You mean that stray that you insist isn’t actually yours but you keep feeding—”
“He’s not in my apartment.”
“Did you leave the window open?”
“No.” I’d kept my windows locked since I’d discovered Ciara Conway’s body.
“Well, I haven’t been in there, and I’m the only one with a key.”
She peered up at me. “Didn’t I see you carting trash down to the bin this morning?”
“Right.” I’d taken two bags because I’d forgotten last week.
“Then he snuck out while you were doing that.”
“Maybe. If you see him—”
“Don’t ask me to put him in your room. Still got the claw marks from the last time I touched the damned beast. Stray cats are like two-timing men. He got tired of you and took off. He doesn’t find anyone new? He’ll come slinking back. By then, if you’re smart, you’ll have decided you’re better without him.”
I headed down the steps, scouring the yard for signs of TC. Behind me, Grace snorted and muttered. I checked my watch. I was meeting James in ninety minutes, but . . .
I crossed the street to Rose’s house. When she answered the door, she looked down at me like I was a five-year-old caught ringing the bell, about to dash away. I tried not to quail under that stare. Rose may be in her late fifties, but she’s a brown belt in karate, a few inches taller than me, and as sturdy as an oak.
“Hey, um, Gabriel said you wanted to speak to me.”
“I did. But you keep sneaking out your back door.”
“I didn’t sneak—”
Her look stopped the excuse in my throat.
“Okay,” I said. “I snuck. Gabriel and I have . . . parted ways, and I figured you were checking to be sure he’s getting his due. I wasn’t in the mood for that conversation. I will pay his bill.”
“I know you will. What I wanted to discuss has nothing to do with Gabriel. Come in, and I’ll make tea.”
“I can’t. I have a . . . an engagement.”
“A date with James Morgan.” When I looked surprised, she said, “I have the sight, remember?”
“Or Gabriel told you James hired him to get me back.”
“Either way, a date with James seems—”
“I’d rather not discuss it.”
“Because I’ll tell you it’s a terrible idea? That you know it’s a terrible idea and that you’re only doing it because you feel guilty?”
“Um, no. I—”
“The cards tell me that if you pursue this reconciliation, you will regret it.”
“Uh-huh.” I shook my head. “If you want to help me, use your cards to find my damned cat.”
I expected her to shoot back some variation on what Grace had said, that I hadn’t wanted TC in the first place. But she frowned.
“He is. If you see him, please let me know. Otherwise, if you still want to talk, let’s make an appointment.”
“Tomorrow morning,” she said. “Nine a.m.”
“Meaning you have absolutely no desire to reconcile with James Morgan.”
“You’re going out with him tonight. You just agreed to meet me first thing tomorrow, meaning you do not intend to spend the night—”
“Goodbye, Rose,” I said. “If I can’t make it by nine, I’ll call.”
Rose was right—I had no intention of spending the night with James. I’ll admit to a tiny temptation to reconsider, just to prove her wrong. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to sleep with him. I like sex. Hell, I really like sex. After three weeks, James probably expected me to suggest room service for dinner. Except he’d see that as reconciliation, which meant I couldn’t. Not yet.
I didn’t make any long-term decisions during that dinner date, but the awkwardness dissipated. While the old feelings didn’t reignite, I could sense them there, waiting to kindle as we talked. When I said I had to head home right after dinner, he didn’t argue, just walked me to my car and kissed me good night. It was a nice kiss. A long one, enough for me to feel that particular spark, but I didn’t pursue it. We promised to talk later, and parted.
It was past midnight by the time I got home. My building was silent, which was nothing new. I’d been there almost a month, and I hadn’t caught more than glimpses of my neighbors. Grace had sworn my apartment was the only vacancy, but by this point I suspected half the building was empty.
I stumbled into my apartment, bolted the door, and shed my shoes and dress as I walked. I collapsed into bed in my bra and panties.
As exhausted as I was, I didn’t fall right to sleep. I’d had an espresso to keep me awake on the hour’s drive home. So I hit the mattress and fell into twilight sleep, surfing between consciousness and slumber until I lost track of time and place. When I woke touching hair, I thought I was still with James, that I’d spent the night after all. I pushed my fingers into his hair and touched—
Cold skin. Ice-cold skin.
I jerked awake, flailing, the hair entwined in my fingers, and I scrambled away, the hair falling free. It hit my bare leg, and I stifled a yelp as I looked down to see—
My hair. Lying on the bed.
There was a confused, nightmare moment where my hands flew to my head . . . which was, of course, covered in hair. I leaned forward, my hands on the bed, eyes shut while I heaved breath. As the oxygen overload hit, I truly woke up, and I sat there, eyes still closed, shuddering, trying to throw off the nightmare. Finally, I straightened, opened my eyes, and—
I saw hair. Not mine this time. Dark, short hair, almost hidden under the tangled sheets. There was clearly no one else in bed with me. The dark hair peeked out, covering a lump barely bigger than—
I yanked away the sheet, certain I’d see my poor cat. Someone had killed him and put him here, in bed—
Something rolled from the covers.
I saw skin and a nose and a mouth and—
Black pits where eyes should be.
The neck. Cut clean through. Ragged, bloodless skin and—
The head of Ciara Conway. In my bed.
As I backed away, I touched hair again. I let out a shriek before stuffing my fist in my mouth. A blond wig lay where I’d flung it. I looked at the head and then at the wig, and I tumbled out of bed, kicking free of the twisted covers, hitting the floor hard and then sprinting out the bedroom door.
Phone. I need my—
I spotted my purse on the floor. I grabbed it and yanked the clasp, contents spilling out, clinking and clicking over the hardwood floor. I snatched up my phone and hit the speed-dial number without realizing whom I’d called until I saw the name flash on the screen. Gabriel. I hit the End button. Then I stared at the phone.
Who should I call?
Seriously? You’re asking who to call when there’s a severed head in your bed?
I hit 9. Then 1. Then I stopped.
I needed to take a photo. Ciara Conway’s head was in my bed, and this time I was getting proof.
My fingers shook and my gorge rose, but I went back to the bed, took the picture, and then I e-mailed it to myself and—
My phone vibrated. The sudden movement made me let go. As the phone hit the floor, I saw Gabriel’s name pop up on the screen. Shit. I grabbed for it and—
Something hit the side of my skull. Pain exploded. Everything went dark.
C H A P T E R T W E L V E
My eyes fluttered open, then closed again, the effort too much, the light too painful. My hand clenched something soft and cool. Sheets. A pillow under my head. I was lying in bed. I opened my eyes. Blue. I saw pale robin’s-egg blue. Then eyes; light irises ringed dark, gorgeous eyes framed with inky lashes and . . .
The deep timbre was almost a rumble. I knew that voice. I knew those eyes. My brain sputtered, neurons firing, pain threatening to snuff out thought. Then . . .
I was in bed. Looking up at Gabriel. My head pounding like I’d downed a fifth of tequila.
I shot up so fast my head and stomach lurched, and I retched. My hands flew to my mouth, my eyes clenched shut. I smelled plastic and felt something cool bump my cheek and opened my eyes to see my bedroom garbage pail shoved under my chin.
I shook my head and backed up as my stomach settled. As I swallowed, I looked around. I was in bed. Gabriel was there. But he was standing beside me, fully dressed, and—
And I was not fully dressed. I grabbed the sheet to cover up, then froze as I saw the bedding. A memory flashed, and my brain finally clicked on, reminding me of what I’d seen—
I scrambled up, knocking into Gabriel as I flew out of bed. I whirled and stood there, breath coming fast, stomach clenching as my gaze swept over the twisted sheets.
“There’s . . . there’s a . . .”
I looked around. No wig. No head. I grabbed the sheets and pulled them straight. Nothing. I ran to the other side of the bed. Nothing on the floor.
“Phone,” I said. “I took a picture. I need—”
I stopped, staring at Gabriel, my brain still sputtering as it jammed puzzle pieces into place.
“I . . . I didn’t mean to call you,” I said.
It was, quite possibly, the stupidest thing to be worrying about. But that’s what came out.
“I hit speed dial, and I wasn’t . . . I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry. I . . .” I blinked and it was like moving through a room stuffed with
cotton, everything soft and blurry and unfocused and thick.
“Sit down,” he said.
“I . . . There was a . . .” I spun around. “My phone. I took a picture this time. I need—”
When I didn’t move, he propelled me down onto the edge of the bed. Pain shot through my skull. I winced. My fingers rose to touch the side of my head, but Gabriel caught them.
“Yes, you’ve got a goose egg, possibly a concussion.” He crouched in front of me. “Do you know what day it is?”
“Sat— No, Sunday. June third.”
“And your name?”
“Well, that one’s tougher, since I apparently have two. I’ll go with Olivia Taylor-Jones for today.”
He lifted two fingers. “How many—?”
I swatted his hand away. “I’m fine.” I paused. “You didn’t need to come out.”
“After you called me at one thirty in the morning, hung up, and wouldn’t answer when I phoned back?”
That wasn’t really an excuse for driving an hour to check on me. I could have been drunk-calling. Or dialed wrong and then couldn’t face talking to him. If he had been convinced it was urgent, his aunt lived across the road and could have checked on me.
“I was already out,” he said, reading my thoughts.
He looked as if he’d just gotten out of bed. His shirt was misbuttoned. His hair looked finger-combed, already falling forward in a cowlick, his cheeks dark enough that I was sure he hadn’t shaved since Friday. Like hell he’d been “out.” Not looking like that. Unless the bed had been “out” . . . as in “not his own.”
“You should have just called Rose,” I said.
“She doesn’t keep a phone in her room.” He straightened. “I’m here now, Olivia, so let’s not argue about why. Tell me what happened.”
“What hap—? Oh God.” I jumped up too fast, and my stomach lurched. I doubled over, one hand to my head, the other to my mouth. He took me by the shoulders and tried to get me to sit down, but I shook my head. Even that movement made my stomach wobble.
“Olivia? Sit. You’ve taken a serious blow to the head. Tell me what happened so I can get you to the hospital.”
“No, I don’t need— I’m just— It’s all muddled, and I’m having trouble—”
“— focusing. Which is why you need a doctor.”
“My phone. Did he take— Or she— I didn’t see—”
Gabriel had my phone. I didn’t notice where it had come from. I really was having trouble staying focused, my brain sharpening only to slide off into jumbled thoughts.
When I looked up, Gabriel was flipping through the photos on my phone, and I considered snatching it back. Not that there was anything private on it, but you don’t go through someone else’s phone any more than you’d hunt through her purse for breath mints. Yet my head hurt too much to work up any righteous indignation. Besides, he wouldn’t have any interest in uncovering anything personal. He’d go straight to what he wanted: the photos.
“They’ve been erased,” he said.
“What? No. There are the ones I took of the hound and—”
“They’ve all been erased.” He continued tapping the screen, gaze fixed on it.
“Wait. I e-mailed it to myself—”
“Yes, I see.” He stopped. Froze, actually, staring down at the tiny screen. I’d say he paled, but with his fair skin it wasn’t easy to tell.
“That’s Ciara Conway’s . . .” he began.
“Head. In my bed. Which I discovered when I was half asleep and—” I took a deep breath. “It was her head. With a blond wig. I don’t think that’s in the photo. I threw it off over . . .” I pointed. “Over there. It’s gone. Along with the head.”
My foggy brain slid away and—
And I was still dressed in only my bra and panties.
Well, at least it’s a nice set of bra and panties.
Yep, these were the thoughts going through my brain as I looked at a photo of a decapitated head on my bed.
I blinked hard and squeezed the bridge of my nose.
“You need to see someone,” he said. “You might have—”
“— a wee bit of shock at waking to find a head beside me. Not a concussion or brain damage.” I hope. “Where was I? Right. I sent the photo, and then I got hit. I didn’t see my attacker. I presume he— or she— was in here the whole time. Am I supposed to do something? I mean, obviously, yes. I should have been on the phone to the police, not my ex-lawyer. . .”
“There’s no evidence. The police would have presumed you had a nightmare and fell out of bed.”
“Until I showed them the photos.”
“Even then . . .” He didn’t say more, but I knew what he meant. Even with this photo of a weirdly bloodless, almost waxen, eyeless head, lying on my sheets, they’d have thought someone had played an elaborate prank on me. Or worse, that I was playing one on them. I was Eden Larsen, child of serial killers.
“So now what?” I said.
“Now you get that security system. This is obviously a very serious threat—”
“I mean what do I do about Ciara Conway?”
A flicker of annoyance, as if I’d interrupted him with something meaningless, like “Umm, I’m not wearing pants.” We didn’t have proof that Ciara Conway was dead, and it wasn’t like he gave a damn about her. The important thing was . . .
What was the important thing? Making sure I was safe? Why? Because he sure as hell didn’t give a damn about that, either, not unless someone was paying him to, and—
My hand shot to my head, and I winced as fresh pain stabbed through it.
Gabriel moved closer, bending down. “Olivia . . .”
“Okay. So someone killed Ciara Conway and is leaving body parts, dressed like me, as a warning. Locking my doors isn’t going to solve the problem.”
“Which is why you need a security system.”
Not what I meant. But what did I mean? I have to get to the bottom of this, and I need your help.
Fresh pain stabbed through my head, bringing a wave of nausea.
If Gabriel wants to help me find a security system, wonderful. Let that be the extent of his involvement. He’ll be happy with that. He’s sure as hell not going to suggest—
“We should look into this,” he said.
I ran to the bathroom and heaved into the toilet. One would think my reaction was all the answer he needed, but when I finished puking, he was standing there, calmly holding a towel. He handed it to me and then waited to make sure I was done vomiting before saying, “If you won’t see a doctor tonight, you need to do so tomorrow.”
I shook my head and washed up.
“I’ve been investigating Ciara Conway,” he said.
“Okay.” I tossed the dirty towel in the hamper and brushed past him. “Give me what you have, and I’ll add it to what I know. I’ll get the security system installed. In the meantime, if you don’t mind, I’m going to put on some clothing.”
I glowered at him. “If it offended you, you could have just asked.”
“You were distraught, and I didn’t want—”
I walked into my bedroom and slapped the door shut, cutting him off.
So what happened to Ciara Conway? Find out tomorrow…