I never thought Edward would come back…
When the court case against my ex was finished, I thought we were finished, too. But it turns out, it was only the beginning.
Victim in the Valley is Book Four in the Vangie Vale Mysteries Series and provides so many answers about what really happened “back then” with Vangie. I hope you enjoy!
“Let yourself be carried away by this captivating cozy suspense!”
“This book will grab you from the first page. R. L. Syme has a way of captivating the reader. This is a hard book to put down. Excellent story teller. Love her books!”
Saint Agnes, Montana
Tourist season had barely died off before our little mountain town felt abandoned. By day, Saint Agnes was still stunning, with its frosted peaks, its carpet of evergreens, its quaint alpine architecture. But by night, it was shadows and ghosts and a dark so black, it had its own zip code.
That dark had been my constant friend, for the three years I’d been in Saint Agnes. Nearly every morning, I’d pull my giant tank of a green Hummer off the narrow two-lane highway at the edge of town, into the Matchbakery parking lot. My headlights would cut across the building, illuminating the same swath I saw every morning.
Until one morning in early December, when they landed on something unfamiliar.
A figure. Standing near the mural. By my door.
I couldn’t tell immediately if it was a man or a woman. Not tall, not short. A little stocky. A frizzy dusting of shoulder-length hair peeking out of a poncho.
My headlights stayed fixed on the person as I parked. A little wormy dread crawling up the back of my throat. Usually, around Saint Agnes, surprises were bad.
“Can I help you?” I asked, hanging out the window into the cold mountain air.
“Are you Vangie Vale?” A deep, throaty voice came from the colorful poncho like a campy Darth Vader.
“Uh…” Objectively, the man seemed harmless, but I hadn’t shifted to park yet. I ventured a quavery, “Y-yeees.”
“And you’re the pastor at Saint Agnes Community Church?”
He nodded, letting the hood down. His face was familiar, though I couldn’t place a name. Thick-fingered hands drew two envelopes out of his front poncho pocket.
“That’s what I thought. I have a letter for you.” He kept one and shoved the other back into the jacket. As he stepped away from the building with the envelope outstretched, I tried to keep my serial killer radar on hold. If he wanted to hurt me, he wouldn’t be trying to pass off my mail.
“And you are?” I asked, like his name would make him less dangerous.
“Kenneth.” He waved the envelope at me. “You would have met my wife when you rented from us.”
“Riiiiiiight…” I shifted the Tank into park, turned it off, and climbed out. “How can I help you?”
“Y’know, there are eighteen rectrices on a turkey’s underlayer.” Kenneth pointed at the mural on my big plate-glass window. “Yours only has three.”
I had to stifle a laugh as I pulled my purse onto my shoulder and looked at the mural to decipher what he meant. Rectrices must mean feathers on some planet, since there were three of those, and this guy seemed the type to take turkey’s backsides pretty seriously.
“I don’t paint the murals,” I said with a forced smile, pointing at the door to the attached agate store. “That’s Emma’s territory. She’s got some theory about matching pictures being a magnet for passing cars.”
“Yup. Emma and Josh.” I finally got close enough to take the envelope out of his hand.
“Well, I’ll tell her about the rectrices, then,” he said, absently.
“You do that.” I opened the enclosed paper to find the blocky logo of my landlord’s management company. The letter was short and hand-signed, and said I had thirty days to make an offer on the building, or it would be sold.
That word had me counting to ten in every language I’d ever learned. Including Hebrew. Hebrew, y’all.
“I’ve still got to find Mr. & Mrs. Brent,” he said like he hadn’t just dropped a bomb on my life.
“They won’t be in for about five more hours.” I almost offered to take the letter, but I didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news for my best friend. Poor Emma. This would wreck her.
Neither of us had the money to buy our building.
“Five hours?” he asked, screwing up his face like doing math was hard today.
“They open somewhere around nine or ten.”
“Great.” He spun around and waddled toward his car like an Oompa Loompa on his way to rescue a child from the chocolate milk lake.
Done and done? Was it just that easy for him?
I leaned on the Tank for support. What would I do?
Kenneth had parked around the corner, along the side of Emma’s agate store, and as he pulled out, his headlights swung across me and the mural and the Tank and everything I would be leaving behind to go back home.
I still wasn’t ready. In the back of my mind, the list of morning baking was pressing on me. I was already late, justifying it by the fact that we rarely had a packed house anymore. But I still needed to get to work.
Couldn’t stand in the parking lot all day wishing I hadn’t just been handed the equivalent of an eviction notice. I couldn’t even process the moment. If I couldn’t rent from the new buyer at the same price, I couldn’t stay open.
Tears prickled at the insides of my nose. I loved Saint Agnes. I was nearly finished with my probation—or, as we were now calling it, my interim at the church—but it wasn’t enough money to keep me here. I didn’t want to leave.
I threw the letter on the desk in the back office and started gathering ingredients for baking. I put Bonhoeffer on my iPhone and pushed through my morning routine, keeping my head down and my thoughts away from the bombshell remnants.
With a strange desire for comfort food, I put together the ingredients for a batch of lava cakes. Somehow, when I needed to feel like the world was right, I always made them.
Maybe I could sell these as a winter treat. Or a trial for Christmas. I’d have a bunch of taste testers ready for new menu items, pretty much any time of year.
Christmas Lava Cakes could be just the thing.
I finished the rest of the morning prep before I gathered the ingredients to make the lava cakes and buttered the ramekins. I stuck them in the refrigerator to chill while I made the batter. I’d forgotten how easy it was.
Half an hour later, I pulled the fragrant chocolate cakes from the oven, after making good notes on Sunday’s sermon. I’d almost forgotten about Turkey Guy when the coffee ladies showed up. They weren’t in a lava cake mood, but they almost cleaned me out of the fresh donuts.
When the breakfast rush passed and I had finished cleaning off the tables, I finally pulled out my phone to check messages for the first time. In case Derek had called, I wanted an ETA so I could adequately prepare myself.
I’d have to tell him about the letter.
I touched the power button and saw a notification for a 919 missed call. Raleigh. More than an hour ago. I hadn’t gotten 919 calls since the trial.
Ignore. Ignore. Ignore.
I swiped the screen and called Derek. When he didn’t answer, I left him a message to text when he would be coming over.
In case he didn’t catch the voicemail, I texted him the same thing. I typed no rush, at the end, because if I called and texted, sometimes he dropped everything and ran over, only to find me elbows-deep in cookie dough and not needing to break-or-enter anything.
He was a good guy, but sometimes too quick on the trigger finger.
“No customers today?” said a familiar voice that wasn’t as perky as usual. Emma Brent had stuck her head through the push-glass door between her gift shop and my bakery. Her blonde curls bounced when she looked around the empty room, as though underlining her point.
I tried to gauge her mood, from her not-as-upbeat-but-not-devastated tone. Had Turkey Guy been over there already?
“I had a few earlier,” I said, testing the waters. “What are you up to?”
“Is Derek here?”
“He’s at work, but guess whaaaat?” I walked out from behind the bake case like a very messy Vanna White. “I made lava cakes. You want one?”
Emma pulled her head back—like she’d multiple-choiced internally—then plastered on a load-bearing smile. “Actually, can you help me for just a sec?”
“Sure.” I scooted through the little round tables and into her dark gift shop. “Didn’t open yet?”
“I wondered if you would be closed all day. You’re usually open before ten.”
“Just…” She went behind the cash register, gaze fixed on the ground. “Can you help me with this?”
I rounded the edge of the sales counter and was hit with stale alcohol and sweat and Joshua Brent curled up with one of their mountain-scene body pillows.
“Crikey Moses, Em.”
“I know, I know,” she said. Not quite a cold shoulder, but maybe a frosty elbow.
“If I’m gonna open, I’ve got to get him into the office and air this place out.”
“Did you try waking him up?”
“If I had, do you think I would have come to find your boyfriend?”
“At ten in the—”
“Don’t, Vangie.” Her tone was so soft and so pliant, it melted my resolve. I didn’t want to upset Emma, but her husband was a lazy mooch, and if I could have snapped my fingers and sent him to Timbuktu, I would have.
I bent down and grabbed one of his arms. Emma caught the other, and we half-dragged-half-carried him through the back of the store and into the office. He didn’t even wake up.
“He was at a bachelor party last night.” Emma threw out the words like a bag of beer bottles she hoped the truck would pick up before I did.
I released his arm and he fell onto the couch in the narrow office, but the pause wasn’t enough to stop the proverbial blurt. “Blackout drunk on a Tuesday night?”
“Don’t do that, Vangie.”
I held up innocent hands. “I’m not judging. Just asking.”
I was such a liar. Totally judging. Someone had to.
Emma pushed past me, heading back into the store. Usually, she was chipper and bright, even when her husband was douchey and dumb. Today, she seemed… defeated.
Like something had changed.
Like she’d read the letter, maybe, and didn’t want to talk about it.
Crap on a cracker.
She called out, asking me to open the back door—circulate some air. I stepped over the deadbeat husband and unlocked the deadbolt, pushing open the exterior door. The cold autumn air gave me a shiver and, to escape the chill, I went back onto the shop floor.
“That’s better.” Emma came out from behind a big rack of coffee mugs.
We faced each other for the first time all morning, and she had that same slump to her shoulders she’d always had after dealing with Joshua. I couldn’t shoot the elephant in the room, but I wanted her to talk.
“Girl, you look beat. You’re not getting that bird-flu-thing that’s going around, are you?”
A pause while I searched for a new topic. “You’re gonna change the Thanksgiving mural to Christmas soon?”
“One of these days.”
One more chance. “I made lava cakes. Want to be my taste tester?”
“Great. Come over anytime.” My secret hope was, if I kept her hopped up on a sugar high, she’d forget about the letter she must have gotten from Turkey Guy. Lava cakes would cheer anyone up.
“Unless I have too many customers…” She tried to land a goodbye smile, and as her friend, I gave her a ten, but it would have gotten a five from the German judge.
That was the shortest conversation we’d had in months. Giving her the space she obviously needed, I pushed through the swing door and headed for the lava cakes.
Now who needed cheering up?
I re-warmed and un-plated one of the little domes, cutting it open and watching the gooey center stream out onto the white porcelain. A memory tugged at my subconscious, so visceral, I had to catch my breath. White plate, thick dark river of deliciousness. A hazy face hovering in front of me with a fork full of chocolate.
So many years ago, I’d forgotten.
Lava cakes had been Edward’s favorite. It hadn’t even crossed my mind when I had the craving, but now… memories were swimming back.
No. I was past all that. The trial had been over for almost two years. Edward was in prison. It was just a Christmas treat. Lava cakes were a normal Christmas treat, and it was almost Christmas…
Shaking off the memory, I forked a bit of the tender cake into my mouth. It was exactly what I remembered making for Edward when he’d first given me his mother’s recipe. With the swirl of earthy chocolate and the sweet spike of cinnamon, the past surged through me like a backdraft.
The bakery bell dinged and I turned around, mouth full of lava cake, expecting to see my big, broad-shouldered biker of a boyfriend, greased up and dirty from the mechanic’s shop.
Instead, my gaze slow-panned up the dark-washed skinny jeans, the thick-rimmed throwback glasses, and the long sweep of hipster hair I’d been trying to forget since that first bite of cake.
“Evangeline Vale.” He dripped out each syllable like they belonged to him and only he could decide who used them.
I didn’t say his name, the last shudder of resistance before the gravity of Edward Archer sucked me out of orbit and into the pitch black past.