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Authors: Tamsen Schultz

Tainted Mind

Copyright 2013 Tamsen Schultz

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

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Cover Design by Greg Simanson

Edited by Julie Molinari

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to similarly named places or to persons living or deceased is unintentional.

PRINT ISBN 978-1-62015-118-1

EPUB ISBN 978-1-62015-108-2

For further information regarding permissions, please contact
[email protected]
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Library of Congress Control Number: 2013935896

To Nav, even though you don't share my love
of white wine and country music

and

To the boys, because you inspire such a range
of emotions and give me lots to work with

CONTENTS

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A
CKNOWLEDGMENTS

P
REVIEW OF

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1

MORE GREAT READS FROM BOOKTROPE

C
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1

VIVIENNE DEMARCO GUIDED HER CAR
onto the shoulder of the country road and peered out through the windshield into the black night. Her eyes skirted to the side windows as she tried to see something, anything. When that failed, she turned her gaze to the rearview mirror then let out a long, slow breath. There was nothing. Nothing but the darkness and the deafening sound of rain hammering her car.

It was a dark and stormy night
, she thought to herself with a rueful sort of inevitability as she loosened her grip on the steering wheel. Here she was alone, in the dark, on a deserted road, and in the middle of a torrential spring downpour. Her life had become a series of clichés lately and tonight was no different. Like in a bad movie, she'd been felled by a simple flat tire.

She craned her head forward and looked up through the windshield again, debating whether or not to risk the pelting rain. She knew storms like this moved on as fast as they came in. And so, after listening to rain drops the size of New Hampshire lash at her car, Vivi put her faith in experience and opted to wait.

Still, as she sat listening to the metallic sound of her roof taking a beating, the cliché-ness of the situation—of the past year—did not escape her. She was just a woman who'd thrown herself into her job after a searing loss—a job that had propelled her to the brink and finally catalyzed a meltdown of epic proportions. A meltdown that drove her away from everything she knew in an effort to find herself again. Honestly, all Vivi needed now was the urban legend hitchhiker scratching his hook along her window. But at least the hitchhiker would make a good story. As it was, her life story was all
so prosaic that, if it were a book, it would never make it past an agent's slush pile.

With a sigh, she pulled her mind from her uninspiring existence and glanced at her GPS. Judging by the tiny map, she wasn't all that far from her destination, a place she'd been hearing about for years from her aunt. Windsor, New York, was a small town in the Hudson Valley and, having been in her fair share of small towns, Vivi figured if she saw anyone on this night, he or she was more likely to stop and help than stop and slit her throat. But either way, the storm was letting up and she wasn't going to sit around and wait for help, or anything else, that may or may not come. She knew how to change her own tire.

But in the dark and wet, what should have taken her no more than twenty minutes took forty and, after tightening the last bolt, she needed to stand and stretch out the kinks in her back and shoulders. The now gentle rainfall had soaked her clothes, and water was running under her jacket's hood, down her neck, and onto her back. At least the job was done.

With the smell of wet earth hanging in the humidity, Vivi paused. Taking a deep breath of the heavy air, she inhaled the cleanliness of it, the purity of the scent. No pollution, no smells of the dead and decomposing. And knowing Windsor would have somewhere she could stay for the night, Vivi ignored how uncomfortable she was for a moment and savored the peace as a sense of calm settled over her.

But as if to object to her enjoying such a small luxury, an owl screeched in the night, jarring Vivi back to the here and now. Gathering her flashlight and tools, she tossed the jack into the car, wiped the grease from her hands with a wet rag, and shut the trunk. She turned toward the driver's door as a sound behind her, muffled by the dense air, caught her attention. Vivi stilled and cocked her head. It wasn't a car and it hadn't sounded like footsteps either.

There
, she heard it again. Vivi frowned. Judging by the gentle thuds and cracks, it was nothing but a few rocks tumbling down the shoulder behind her. But there wasn't much wind to speak of now that the storm had reduced to a drizzle, nothing strong enough to move rocks around. Shining her flashlight onto the water-soaked road, she realized that it was possible the runoff from the storm was
stronger than she thought and the rain had dumped enough water to loosen the soil under the asphalt. Or maybe there was something else causing the disruption.

This thought came out of nowhere and disturbed her more than the sound itself. Despite her experiences, despite her job, she was
not
one of those people who saw danger or evil everywhere she looked. And, more to the point, she didn't ever
want
to be one of them. So, forcing herself to come up with some alternate logic for her errant thought, she remembered her aunt telling her that bears were endemic to the area. Maybe one had come out for the night, dislodging the earth as it made its way into the field across the road?

Yes, bears—or maybe even a deer or a fox. That made more sense than anything else out here on this quiet road. That option gave her a small sense of relief until she realized that, while she might know how to change a tire, she knew nothing about bears. What did someone do when encountering a bear? Run? Stay still? Vivi's mind had just started spinning when she brought it to a purposeful halt. She was getting ahead of herself. She had no idea what, if anything, was out there. And so, with some trepidation, she made a half turn and swept her flashlight across the road. Nothing.

She glanced to her left. A forest of elm and birch trees lined the road. Even if she shined her flashlight in that direction, which she did, she wouldn't see more than a few feet into the dense woods, which she didn't. To her right, and steeper than she had originally thought, the side of the road dropped down about ten feet before leveling out onto a cornfield filled with stalks about a foot high. Curiosity got the better of her, and she moved a step away from her car. She'd seen lots of deer in her time, but she had never seen a bear, or even a fox, in the wild. As long as she knew an animal wasn't right next to her, she wouldn't mind catching a glimpse of one moving about in nature.

She pointed her light along the line of corn at the edge of the field, looking for some sign an animal had disturbed the crops. After two passes, the only thing she saw were neat rows of baby stalks, their tops and leaves battered by the heavy rain. Vivi should have felt comforted by the lack of wildlife, but she didn't.

As she took another step away from her car, the night encompassed her. Steamy fog was rising from the road, casting eerie shadows that
drifted in the weighty air and made the hairs on her neck stand up. She thought about getting in her car and driving away—she hadn't gathered up the courage a few weeks ago to take a much-needed leave of absence from all the violence of her work only to step right back into the thing she was trying to get away from.

But it wasn't in her makeup to let fear guide her response, so Vivi took a deep breath, moved away from her car toward where she thought the sound had originated, and stopped. Standing silent and still, she let the night become familiar. After a few moments of hearing nothing but cicadas and frogs, Vivi directed her beam down the edge of the road as far as the light would go. But the fog and shadows blended with the black of the night and the darkened roadway, so it was hard to see much of anything.

Rather than move farther along the road, she redirected the light down the side of the slope to the field's edge, the contrast of the lighter dirt making it easier, just a bit, to see any anomalies. Starting below where she stood, she swept an area in a straight line away from her as far as the beam would go. Then, shifting it up a foot or two, she brought it back toward her, searching the area in a grid-like way, looking for what might have made the noise.

Standing on the side of the road, wet and exposed, combing the area for something unknown, Vivi couldn't ignore the reality that, to her dismay, she
had
become one of those people—one of those people she never wanted to be. She no more expected to find a simple little rock slide than she expected to see Santa Claus. The pain and death and evil she worked with every day had filtered into her life and colored her experiences.

The irony of her situation did not escape her. Whatever was compelling her to stay and find answers on the side of this country road was the same thing that had gotten her here in the first place. She didn't like to let things go, and because she couldn't let things go, she had almost destroyed herself with her last case. She'd taken to the road to escape, to maybe find some balance. If she were to hazard a guess, though, she'd say that whatever balance she'd found in the past few weeks was about to be tipped.

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