This book is dedicated to my family: my husband, Ernest, my real-life hero; and Debbie and Jack Sargent for all the good times. I love you all.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The creative process is a long and sometimes arduous journey. As with every book, I have many people to thank, either for their expertise or moral support along the way. First, I wish to thank my agent, Nancy Yost, because she is brilliant and she always gets it. I thank my editor, Charles Spicer, whose editorial genius is just the tip of the iceberg. In the U.K., many thanks to my editor, Trisha Jackson, and her assistant, Thalia Suzuma, for her terrific editorial direction and enthusiasm for the books (not to mention the lovely vase of flowers on release day)! As always, my heartfelt gratitude also goes out to all of the top-notch publishing professionals at St. Martin’s Press in New York: Matthew Shear, Sally Richardson, Andy Martin, Matthew Baldacci, Sarah Melnyk, Bob Podrasky, Kerry Nordling, and Allison Caplin. No doubt there are many more talented people I failed to mention, but please know I am thankful for your expertise, support, and enthusiasm. I’d also like to extend a big thank-you to my childhood friend Colleen Jessup, for welcoming me into her home during my many trips to Ohio, and for that fantastic ride on her Tennessee Walker, Sonny. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my fabulous, dedicated, and talented critique group: Jennifer Archer, Anita Howard, Marcy McKay, and April Redmon. Thank you, ladies. You make it fun, and you always make it better.

These be

Three silent things:

The falling snow … the hour

Before the dawn … the mouth of one

Just dead.

—“Triad,” by Adelaide Crapsey

PROLOGUE

The dogs were going to be a problem.

He’d driven by the place twice in the last week, headlights off, windows down, looking, listening. Planning. He’d heard them barking from their pens. Fuckin’ beagles. He could see the tops of the chain-link kennels from the road. At least a half dozen of them. The old lady had a whole herd of flea-bitten, barking mutts. But then, that’s what dirty old bitches did. Collected dirty animals. Lived like a pig herself. If she thought dogs would keep them from doing what needed to be done, she had something else coming.

Something else.

The wind had come up in the last hour, hard enough to rattle the tree branches. The cold wasn’t a hardship; the wind would help cover any noise. With a little luck, they might even get some rain or snow. Messy with the mud, but messy was good when you didn’t want to get caught.

He’d killed the headlights a mile back. Lowered the window as he rolled past the place one last time. No lights in the house. Dogs were quiet. The moon was a fuzzy globe behind thickening clouds, but then the dark was a plus for the task ahead. He knew what to do, knew the layout of the place, didn’t mind working blind.

Glancing at his passenger, he nodded. “Time to rock and roll.”

He parked the truck on a dirt turnaround a hundred yards from the mouth of the gravel lane. He’d duct-taped the dome light, so there was no telltale glow when he opened the door. Then they were out of the truck. Gray-white breaths puffing out. Winter silence all around. The click of tree branches in the wind. The hoot of an owl down by the creek. The cornfield had been cut, and the fallen stalks whispered like disobedient children.

Standing at the passenger door, he quickly toed off his boots, shoved his feet into knee-high muck boots. Going to need them tonight, and not just for the mud.

The leather sheath came next. He strapped it around his hips like a gun belt. On the backseat, the blade of the bowie knife gleamed like blue ice. It was German-made—the best on the market—with a thick six-inch blade and an epoxy-coated leather handle. He liked the handle a lot. The texture kept your hand from slipping when the blade got slick. The guard was small, so he couldn’t do a lot of jabbing. But the piece was heavy enough to slash and do some serious damage. He’d gotten a free sharpening stone when he’d ordered it four years ago. Damn good knife.

A thrill ran the length of him when he picked it up. It was a comfortable weapon in his hand. Deadly and beautiful. A piece of art to a connoisseur like him. Dropping it into the leather sheath, he silently closed the door.

Then they were across the bar ditch and walking through the cornfield, toward the wire fence on the south side of the property. Nylon hissed against nylon as they walked, but their muck boots were nearly soundless on the cold, wet ground. Twenty yards from the livestock pens, he heard the animals milling about. They reached the fence.

As they ducked between the bars of a steel-pipe gate, a dozen or more sheep began to dart around. With the exception of pigs, most slaughter animals were stupid. But sheep were especially dense. Mindless herd animals. Reminded him of his human counterparts. Stupid. Trusting. Diluted. Letting themselves be led to slaughter. Not him. He knew what was going on, and he was tired of having it shoved down his throat. Time to make a stand. Do something about it.

They stood in the pen, ten feet apart. His eyes had adjusted to the near blackness. The sheep were moving in circles, trying to blend in with the rest of the herd, avoid the threat. There was no safety in numbers tonight.

He could see his partner on the other side of the pen, picking out an animal, lunging at it. A hard rush of a dozen hooves. The glint of a blade. He heard the strangled scream of the condemned animal. Saw the black spurt of blood on the muddy ground. The old bitch was in for a surprise come morning.

The leather handle was rough and comforting against his palm. He spotted a fat old ewe in the corner. That made him think of the old lady. Dirty old bitch. Human pollution. He leapt, grabbed the ewe around the neck, locked it against him by bending his elbow around its throat. The animal bleated, tried to run, kicked out with its hooves. Cursing, he grasped wool in his fist, jammed the stinking, lumpy body against his chest. A single slash. Wet heat on his hand. Slick on the leather handle. The sound of the death gurgle, like wet gravel in his ears. The animal’s body twitched, then went limp.

A righteous kill.

He dropped the dead sheep. He could hear the dogs barking now. No lights yet, but it wouldn’t be long. Time for one more.

He looked around, saw another ewe standing in the corner, looking dazed. He rushed her. The animal tried to dart past him. He brought the knife down hard. Sank in deep. Heard the steel snap of the blade hitting bone. The animal went down.

Not thinking now, just acting, getting the job done. He grabbed the sheep’s ears. Yanked its head back. Slashed hard. The spurt of blood looked black in the darkness. Hot against his hand. On his clothes. Never liked that part of it.…

“Lights,” his partner whispered. “Gotta go.”

He turned, saw the yellow glow through the trees. The dogs were going nuts in their kennels. “Fuckin’ dogs.”

Already moving fast. Not speaking. Ducking between the bars of the gate. Mud sucking at his boots. And then he was running full out. Arms pumping. Breaths billowing white. Adrenaline running hot.

They reached the truck, wrenched doors open, clambered in.

“How many you get?” he asked.

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