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She felt something sickeningly warm and slimy. She turned her head just enough to see her hands covered with blood. Before she had a chance to react, the sound of a second shot echoed through the room as it tore across her skull. Allison collapsed back, her head hitting the floor.
Allison skipped school on Thursday, a rare event. She decided she had to have some time to think. She called into the office as soon as she thought Mr. Forster's secretary would be in. When she answered, Allison gave the excuse of a cold coming on and that she was going back to bed.
“That's the smart thing to do,” the secretary said. “You don't need to be here spreading your germs around. I'll get a substitute for you. I'm sure Susan Webb will be available. She likes all the work she can get.”
Allison thanked her, made sure Lancelot had food and water, and crawled back under the covers. But bed didn’t last long. Allison always thought better on her feet. She climbed into her gray sweats, searched the closet floor until she found her oldest Nike Airs, grabbed her parka, and headed out the door. She took a deep breath and smiled at the emerging day. It had rained during the night, and the grass shimmered in the sun. The stinging cold of the past week had dissipated; the sky was translucent, and somewhere in the distance Allison heard the plaintive coo-coo-oo of a mourning dove. Unlike Fred she knew one bird song didn’t make a spring, but it was uplifting. Hopefully this winter and the horrible events that accompanied it would soon be gone.
She drove toward the river north of town. The city fathers had recently dedicated Riverview Park there, complete with walking trails. One trail started at a majestic magnolia tree, its branches cascading toward the ground, its dark green leaves glistening. No other cars stood in the parking area. She hadn’t expected any. Allison felt deliciously naughty spending a school-day morning all by herself.
She walked at a brisk pace, swinging her arms, breathing in rhythm with her steps. A fragile peace slowly seeped into her body, into her mind. She was in the 'now' where past and future didn't exist. She was one with the trees, the birds, the trail, the fluffy clouds. Her lips and her heart smiled.
Her euphoric state lasted less than five minutes.
A short way down the path, she realized she was not alone in the park. A man’s footprints stared boldly at her from the damp earth. They had to be fresh prints because the recent rain would have washed away any others.
An uneasy feeling teased her brain, heightened her senses. She could hear Fred’s warning words a few days earlier, “There’s a dangerous man loose in your lovely little town, and he doesn’t mind killing people.”
A knot of fear clutched at her stomach. She slowed her steps, but her pulse and breathing accelerated. Allison glanced back at her car. She told herself she needed to get out of the park, get away to someplace safe, not to take any chances.
Then she took a deep breath and scolded herself for being silly. Bad guys don’t take morning walks in parks, she reasoned. They’re too busy hiding, or scheming, or high tailing it out of town. The footprints must belong to a nature lover, or another troubled soul who needed space to think. Allison plunged ahead.
The trail wound around some gray boulders, through a stand of river birch trees, and at one point, followed a narrow peninsula that jutted out into the stream. Allison drank in the winter beauty, the invigorating coolness of the air, and tried to forget about the person on the path ahead.
Rounding a sharp bend, Allison caught a quick glimpse of the man who belonged to the footprints. All she could tell about him before he disappeared behind a clump of bushes was that he was tall and thin and dressed in black. Again she hesitated. She was scared.
Her thoughts swirled around. Should she run to her car? Get out of there as fast as she could? But what if she had Leroy’s partner within sight? Maybe she could get a glance at his face without him seeing her. She couldn't let this chance get away.
She swallowed her fear, quickened her steps, hurried around a curve in the trail.
Helen Goodman is a registered nurse, a native of Michigan and now lives in North Carolina. She is the author of six published books and her short stories have appeared in two anthologies. The Valley of Death is the second in the Allison Aldridge Mystery Series.
“Jess is a rich history and a stirring story that transcends time.” -- Kalamazoo Gazette, Kalamazoo, Michigan
“Jess: Goodman’s skill in writing and extensive research illuminate an era in history.” -- Plainwell Enterprise, Plainwell, Michigan.
Valley Of Death: “There’s evil in the valley, and Goodman will keep you looking over your shoulder…” -- Mignon Ballard, The Agatha Goodnight Mystery Series
Valley Of Death: “Goodman has created a character who will rekindle a spark of hope in readers and take them on a dangerous ride to find a killer.” -- Joyce and Jim Lavene, Sharyn Howard Mystery Series.
Book Publisher: Wings ePress
No. of Pages: 248
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