Zebra, Genre: Suspense
Read an Excerpt
Jamie sat straight up in bed, heart pounding, half awake, fumbling for the light switch.
She’d heard the words plain as day. In her mother’s voice.
The light switched on, flooding her bedroom with warm yellow illumination. She could see her worn, marred chest of drawers at the end of her bed with its untidy array of makeup items, ones she’d used, ones she’d set aside to throw away.
No one there. The room was empty.
Her pulse still rocketing, she sank back against the cushions, eyes wide open. She was no stranger to fear. She’d lived with it ever since the babysitting attack nearly twenty years earlier.
Five A.M. Too early to call Mom and make sure everything was all right with her.
Maybe it had something to do with Emma.
Jamie was swept once more by her age-old guilt. More than half her life had passed since her sister had been changed forever. Closing her eyes, she drew in a shuddering breath and blocked out the memory, but it was etched into the curves and whorls of her brain, never to be forgotten or even diminished. She could push it away, but it was never gone. Just out of reach every time she sought to kill it entirely.
Throwing back the covers, she jumped out of bed, grabbing up the robe which she’d tossed over the end bedstead. She walked to the window and stared out. Beneath the sodium vapor street lights, she could see the roofs of other apartment buildings and the cluster of other residences, houses and condos, all jammed together in this part of Los Angeles. Wires overhead. The beat of helicopter rotors seemingly a daily occurrence. The roads and alleyways crammed with parked cars. She had a designated parking spot for her aging Toyota Camry, but more times than she liked to admit she had to shoo somebody out of her spot. The only positive was that the school where she mainly substitute taught was a quick drive. She’d been trying to get on full-time, but it was almost fall and she’d been yet to be called. Over the summer she’d been working at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant serving up banh mi sandwiches and hearty bowls of Pho to make ends meet. She was trying not to dip too far into her meager savings. It was barely enough to get by and her daughter, Harley, was doing her part by babysitting.
Babysitting . . .
Everything came back to the night of Emma’s attack. Sometimes Jamie felt a spurt of pure fury. Why hadn’t the police caught the guy? There’d been three attacks that summer and fall. One in Vancouver, one in Gresham and one in River Glen. Maybe they were connected. Maybe they weren’t. But why didn’t somebody know? Emma’s attack was a cold case, but damn it, it was still out there.
“Emma deserved better,” she muttered, fully aware that she’d run away from the problem.
After a few moments she crawled back in bed, still in her robe. She drew the lapels up to her chin and watched the digital clock work its way to six. Her cell phone was on the night stand. She unhooked the charger and picked it up, scrolled through her favorites. Her mother’s number was fourth on the list, below Harley’s and the two school districts she worked for most often. After that she had the number for CPK, California Pizza Kitchen, Harley’s favorite restaurant, which made great salads along with pizza, one with easy pickup.
She put a call in to her mother and braced herself for the icy reception she was sure to receive. Mom loved Harley and was always eager to see her, whenever Jamie returned to River Glen, which wasn’t often. But Jamie’s relationship with her mother was fraught. It had been ever since Emma’s attack.
The phone went to voice mail. As soon as it clicked on, she cleared her throat and said, “Hey, Mom. It’s Jamie. Just wanted in and see how things were going.” She cringed at the sound of her voice. So light and careful. “I’ll call back later.”
She hung up and got out of bed again. Shrugging out of her robe, she pulled her sleep shirt off and headed for the shower. She let the hot water stream down her face. In her mind she recalled how Emma had looked that last year of high school. A cheerleader with a bright smile, glinting blue eyes and long, lustrous light brown hair. Her attacker had carved a jagged line down her shoulder blade that looked like a Jack O’Lantern mouth. The scar had faded, but it was still easy to see. Had he meant to kill her? A murder gone wrong? Emma was running from him and likely slipped and –
A dark, shadowy figure appeared on the other side of the frosted glass.
Jamie shrieked and dropped the soap.
“God, Mom, it’s just me,” Harley said, half annoyed. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right.” Her pulse raced.
“Your phone’s ringing. It’s probably the school.”
Harley didn’t like it much whenever Jamie substituted at her own school. But then, Harley didn’t like much of anything when it came to school. She’d asked to be home-schooled by Jamie. Ha. There was no way Jamie was going to put herself through that living hell. Harley was smart, capable and tough as nails. Like her father. She just wasn’t good at taking direction.
But then neither had Jamie been.
Harley left and Jamie toweled off and hurriedly found her phone, on the bed where she’d tossed it.
It was indeed the school district, and she quickly called back and said she would take the job. It was at Harley’s school, of course. Well, too bad. Jamie needed to put food on the table. Paul Woodward might have been Harley’s father, but he was more of a teenager than his daughter could ever think of being.
“Her name’ll be Harley,” he’d insisted, christening her after the motorcycle company, Harley-Davidson. Paul had been a motorcycle freak from the get-go who’d moved Jamie and his young daughter from place to place around Los Angeles where he’d attempted to be a stuntman. Jamie had worked as a waitress and finished up her aborted college career with night classes, finishing her fifth year literally weeks before Paul’s death on the 405 freeway. Paul had pooh-poohed her outrage at the motorcycles that would drive between the cars during traffic tangles, maniacally changing lanes, careless of whenever the stalled cars would start moving again. “It’s legal,” he kept saying.
And then he’d become a victim of that very same thing. Clipping a car as it suddenly slowed, unable to stop himself from flipping end over end to his death.
Jamie quickly dressed and called to her daughter as she headed out the door to her car. When Harley climbed in and learned Jamie was subbing at her school, she groaned. “Tell me you’re not in my classroom.”
“I’m not in your classroom.”
Jamie squeezed the Camry into a spot in the lot. She only had five more payments on it. That would help.
Briefly, she thought of the house she’d grown up in, the one Mom had won in the divorce. It had been in her father’s family for years, but her dad lost it when he drifted away with his girlfriend. He’d been a ghost in Jamie’s life ever since Emma’s attack. His perfect Emma was broken, and he’d gone so far as saying they were all cursed. At least he hadn’t blamed just Jamie.
Harley was silent as they pulled into the school lot. Fifteen years old and moody. She and Jamie had always had a bit of a push and pull relationship, but the last few years had been a living nightmare. Jamie, aware of how difficult those years were, was giving her daughter lots of space. She loved her fiercely, but the ingratitude of youth sometimes caused words to fail her.
Jamie let Harley walk ahead of her. She couldn’t be seen entering with her mother. But today Harley decided to hang back, her steps slowing, almost as if she were waiting for Jamie to catch up.
They reached the double doors together. Harley made no move to open them, so Jamie, aware that students were coming up the steps behind them, clasped a handle.
“Mom,” Harley said, in that tone that bodes serious stuff is about to be revealed.
Jamie’s pulse lifted again. She looked into the serious face of her daughter, noticing the freckles across her nose, the striations of blue in her irises, the dark lashes. Her heart clutched. “Yeah?”
“I had a weird nightmare. Grandma was standing at the door to her house and saying something I couldn’t hear.”
“My mom?” The hairs on the back of Jamie’s arms lifted.
“I think it was . . . come home . . .”