Disclaimer: I own nothing, neither the Hardy Boys nor Nancy Drew. I do own all the original characters presented herein and the basic idea for this story.
A/N: This story follows on the footsteps of Home for Christmas, Murder by the Sea, and Meet Me at Midnight. You do not have to read those stories to understand this story. I like stories to be able to 'stand alone' and I write them that way. I write the characters as adults, doing adult things. Joe is 30 years old, Vanessa is 27, Nancy and Frank are 31. Mind the "T" rating. There is some language, violence, and adult themes. But foremost, this is a murder mystery, the classic who-dun-it. If you're interested, I invite you to continue reading.
He ran as fast as his ten year old legs would allow. The night was damp and musty and the cool air chilled his skin as he raced into the woods. Trees towered over him. Their branches reached out and looked as if they might grab him. Here though, he wasn't afraid. The woods were his home, his secret sanctuary. The trees would protect him, hide and shield him from the monsters.
He had run a long way and was breathing hard, running out of energy.
Don't stop! Don't stop!
Those words propelled him on, his legs continued pumping, taking him deeper into the woods. He had to get away from the monsters.
Had to, had to, had to!
A quick glance over his shoulder. No one there. It was late at night, well past eleven p.m. No one knew he was gone. The consequences for sneaking out of the house were a severe beating. He'd endured plenty of beatings and didn't relish another.
A tree root tripped him and he almost fell. He stumbled, arms wind-milling, and caught himself at the last second.
Pay attention! You're going to hurt yourself if you don't.
He could never explain a bruise or a cut. Injuries would demand questions. How'd you get those? There'd be hell to pay if the monsters found out he'd left the house at night.
Up ahead, he saw it. The tree. The biggest one in the woods. He ran to it and, panting, collapsed against the trunk. Gulped in lungfuls of air. Finally, he was safe. He laid his cheek against the gnarly bark and hugged the tree trunk. Wrapped his arms tight around it. It was so thick his arms didn't go completely around it. Pine scent and earthy smells filled his nose. This was his tree. The king of the woods. It was strong and sturdy, taller than any of the other trees. It was a silent sentinel. It watched over the trees and animals and even him. Or so he believed. It was a belief he needed and clung to desperately.
The tree was the only family he had. The only thing in his life he truly loved.
Tears squeezed out of the corners of his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. He hated crying. Only weaklings cried.
No tears, he told himself between sobs. No tears. But they came anyway. He swatted them away. Why couldn't he be strong like his tree? It was a silly fantasy that crept into his dreams at night. He told himself he had to face facts, he was just a boy, a ten year old kid. He wasn't strong at all and he wasn't tall either.
Anger exploded inside his small heart. He hated the world and all the things in it he couldn't control. Too many things!
Soberly, he thought of the people he hated.
The monsters. That's what he called them. They weren't really people at all and he hated every one of them.
The monsters lived in his house. They ate breakfast and dinner with him. A visitor to their home would think the monsters were normal people, no different than anyone else. A visitor would be very, very wrong. Sure, on the outside the monsters looked like normal people. It was on the inside, where no one could see, that they were monsters. Black hearts and souls lay hidden within those normal looking bodies.
Hot tears ran down the little boy's cheeks and his nose began to run. He sniffed as tears dripped off his cheeks and fell on his t-shirt.
Several minutes passed before he was able to calm himself. Now, he was tired. Oh, so tired. Too much running. Too much crying. Too much fear. Too much anger and hate. It had taken a toll on his small body. And heart. Couldn't forget his heart. He still had one and it had suffered so very much.
He wondered, how much could one heart bear?
The boy slid to the ground, his t-shirt snagging on the tree bark, and sat Indian-style on the damp ground. Indian-style, that's what his kindergarten teacher had called it when the students gathered on the carpet for storytime.
He was in the fifth grade now and big kids didn't sit on the floor, they sat at desks. He wished he was an even bigger kid. A teenager. Teenagers were big and strong.
Well, one day he would be bigger. One day he would be full grown. He had big plans for when he was all grown up. At night he dreamed about those plans. When he grew up, he was going to kill all the monsters. Every. Last. One of them.
Dan, his stepdad, would be first. Dan was the reason Wayne ran to the big tree in the woods behind his house. Dan was big and strong and mean. A shiver crawled down Wayne's back as he thought about Dan. Dan beat Wayne with his belt for the smallest of offenses.
Wayne had the feeling that Dan just sat around waiting for Wayne to screw up. It didn't take much. At first, Wayne had tried to please Dan. That hadn't lasted long. It soon became apparent that there was no pleasing Dan. And soon, Wayne didn't care. He quit trying to please a person he could never please.
When the beatings first started Wayne would run and hide in the house, in a closet, under a bed, in the backyard. Any place he could squeeze his little body into. That had been a mistake. Hiding had only made Dan angrier. He didn't like to hunt Wayne down. It was time and effort that he could spend doing other things, like drinking beer. So, when he'd find Wayne – and he always did – he'd beat him twice as hard.
Only cowards run and hide, Dan would say as he pulled his belt free from the loops on his pants. Real men stay and take their punishment. And real men don't cry. You hear me, boy?
Wayne didn't know if that was true. That real men didn't cry. Deep down, he sensed real men did cry. Everybody cried once in a while. Even men had to cry sometimes.
No matter what, there was one thing Wayne knew in his heart; if real men beat children, then Wayne didn't want to be a real man.
The belt buckle had left scars on Wayne's back and buttocks. Scars his mother had seen and said nothing about. Her mode of living was to ignore the things she found unpleasant. She gave no indication she cared about Wayne or the fact he was being beaten. Alcohol was the only thing his mother cared about. When the beer started to run low in the house, then she cared and then she did something. No beer in the house was a real problem and had to be fixed. An immediate trip to the store was made.
No food in the house? Who cared? Food they could live without. Beer they couldn't.
It was no surprise that Wayne despised his mother. She was a dumb, stupid drunk and the reason he lived in fear. She was the one who'd brought Dan, the monster, into their home.
Wayne used the hem of his shirt to wipe his nose. Over the past two years Dan had turned everyone in the house into monsters. Everyone except Wayne. Wayne couldn't be turned. He was too smart and because of that Dan had punished him constantly.
Tears flowed in a steady stream and Wayne wiped them away with the heels of his hands. Why couldn't he be bigger? Stronger? Older?
His sister, Connie, was sixteen. She had a car and worked at a fast food place. Wayne hardly ever saw her. Connie didn't come home much. Wayne didn't blame her. If he was sixteen and had a car and a job, he wouldn't come home much either. Actually, he'd move far, far away and never come back. This place and, the people who lived here, could rot in hell for all he cared. He'd heard his mother say that once … rot in hell. Wayne figured his mother could do the same.
Connie was lucky. She lived in her own little world. A happy little world. Dan didn't beat her and Wayne didn't get the impression she cared about him or his beatings. Connie only cared about one thing, her boyfriend Jason. Jason was everything Wayne wanted to be – big, tall, and strong. Jason was a high school football player and Wayne was in awe of him. Wayne had to tip his head way back just to look up and see Jason's face.
What Jason saw in Connie, Wayne's ten year old brain couldn't fathom. She giggled like an idiot whenever Jason came to the house and when Jason held her hand, Connie got a goofy smile on her face. She looked so stupid Wayne wanted to laugh at her. He never did though because he liked Jason and didn't want to hurt his feelings.
Wayne had a feeling that if Dan ever hurt Connie, ever laid a finger on her, Jason would do something. Jason would protect Connie. Wayne wasn't exactly sure what Jason would do though. Maybe he would beat Dan up.
Wayne gave the idea some serious thought and then sighed. That was never going to happen. Dan never paid much attention to Connie. She was free to come and go as she pleased. It was Wayne who drew Dan's attention.
Wayne didn't want to think about Dan anymore and went back to Jason. Jason actually seemed to care a little about Wayne. Jason had shared his plans for the future with Wayne. He'd told Wayne how he was going in the army right after he graduated high school.
Jason had winked at Wayne and, in a half-joking way, said, "I'm gonna learn how to shoot guns and kill people." He'd made his hand into a gun and had pretended to shoot the bushes.
Wayne had smiled and laughed right along with Jason. It was their secret.
One time when Jason came to visit he'd brought two baseball gloves and a ball. He'd tossed one of the gloves to Wayne and they'd played catch in the backyard. It was the best hour of Wayne's short life. No adult male had ever spent time with him doing normal little boy stuff. He'd never met his real father. Truth be told, Wayne didn't know who his father was or where he was. His mother never talked about him. Maybe she didn't know who he was. There'd been a lot of men in her life.
Unfortunately, playing catch with Jason hadn't lasted long. Connie had showed up and spoiled everything. She'd grabbed Jason by the arm and said they had to go, had to leave right that minute. She was hungry and wanted to try that new fast food place. Couldn't they go there? Please, please, please.
The goofy smile had made its way to her lips and she'd batted her eyelashes seductively. Wayne had found the act sickening and had hated how Jason got all mushy and did what Connie wanted.
"Yeah, babe. Sure. I was just playing catch with the kid."
Jason had looked at Wayne, patted him on the head, and said, "Sorry kid, gotta go. We'll play catch next time I come. You can keep the glove."
Wayne had hid his disappointment well. Jason never saw see how crushed he was. Jason was the only good thing in Wayne's life and he didn't want to lose the friendship, if it was a friendship. Wayne wasn't sure, he didn't have any friends. Having secrets had made him a loner. He didn't talk to other kids at school. Didn't want any of them knowing what was happening to him. He was ashamed of it .. and himself.
Wayne had flopped on the front porch steps, his heart heavy, and had watched Jason's car disappear down the street. Tears welled in his eyes as he thought of Jason and what he'd said about joining the army. Wayne had decided right then and there that he was going to join the army, too, when he grew up. He was going to learn how to shoot guns and kill people.
One day, he would come back to Healy, Illinois. One day, he would kill all the monsters. He'd start with Dan, kill him first. And then his mother. And finally his sister Connie.
Wayne would kill every last one of them.
# # # #
Eighteen years later
What the …
They'd warned him it was bad. Worst crime scene Healy, Illinois police had ever seen.
Jesus H. Christ.
Detective Ziegler swallowed the bile rising in his throat.
Blood everywhere. Walls. Floor.
Dear god, even on the ceiling.
Whoever had killed Dan Sagget had hated the man. Hated him with a deep, abiding passion. Christ, they'd hacked him to bits with an ax. Detective Ziegler knew this because the ax was lying right there, next to the body, wooden handle splattered with blood and the blade covered in it.
Detective Ziegler ran a weary, trembling hand down his face. Yeah, the worst crime scene he'd ever had the misfortune to see.
Jesus. How was he ever going to get that image out of his mind? He'd have nightmares for the rest of his life.
# # # #
River Heights, Illinois
Joe Hardy sat at his office desk and stared at his computer screen. It was rare for Joe to sit at his desk and contemplate his computer screen. He preferred movement. He was an action oriented sort of guy. Seven years in the army as an MP (military police) had provided him plenty of action. More action at times then he'd really wanted. However, if asked, he would say he'd enjoyed most of those seven years. He'd certainly appreciated the constant change of scenery. Maybe not the two tours in Afghanistan, but the other tours had been fine. Stateside duty was always easier than overseas duty.
Now, Joe was a private investigator working with his brother, Frank, and Frank's fiancée, Nancy. The three of them owned and operated a detective agency in River Heights, Illinois, Nancy's hometown. Joe and Frank had moved here almost two years ago. Joe had met the woman he planned to marry. She worked next day at an insurance company. Her name was Vanessa Bender and she'd said yes when Joe had proposed to her last December.
Things in Joe Hardy's world were looking pretty good. Well, until today. He leaned back in his chair and thought about the e-mail staring back at him from his computer screen. The first e-mail had come six days ago. Joe had cringed a little when he saw it. Sworn a little, too. It wasn't from someone he wanted to hear from. He'd sighed, felt a little regret, hit delete, and forgotten all about it.
Two days later a second e-mail had arrived. Joe had cringed again, sworn again, and hit delete again.
Today, a third e-mail had popped up in his inbox. Joe figured it was time. He had to do something. He couldn't let the e-mails pile up. It appeared they would keep coming. It was clear that the sender wasn't going to give up. He wasn't that type of guy. Joe knew this due to his long association with the sender. The two men had served together in the army as MPs. They'd done two tours together in Afghanistan. You don't forget people you serve with in a combat zone. You certainly don't turn your back on them. Joe had trusted the guy with his life in Afghanistan and that said a lot about the guy.
You owed people like that. You owed them a response at the very least.
Damn. Joe hadn't ever wanted to hear from Wayne Banyan again. Not that Wayne wasn't a good soldier because he was. One of the best actually. Top-notch. Joe could find no fault in Wayne as a soldier.
No, that wasn't why Joe didn't want to hear from Wayne. It was more about Wayne himself. Wayne was … well, to put it delicately, a little different. There was something about him, something that made people shy away. In the army, people had given Wayne a wide berth. That had worked both ways. Wayne didn't like people getting too close. He wasn't in to socializing. He didn't party, didn't go to the bars and get drunk with the guys, and didn't chase women. Bottom line, Wayne kept to himself and expected others to do the same.
However, in a combat or work situation, Wayne was all in. He was one hundred percent committed to the unit and fellow soldiers. Joe had respected that, even admired it. If you had asked Joe his opinion he would have said Wayne was a shining example of a professional soldier, a true team player.
Wayne and Joe had been an unbeatable team in Afghanistan. They'd done hundreds of patrols together. The fact they'd managed to get through two tours relatively unscathed said a lot. Not everyone came back to the States in one piece .. or alive.
Joe's blond hair was cropped short just like in the army. He was thirty years old and had been out of the army for close to four years. When he'd left the army, he'd purged Wayne Banyan from his mind. Joe had hit the delete button and forgotten all about him. Harsh, but true. Now that Joe thought about it – really thought about it – he'd done it because Wayne was different. A little odd. Did that truly warrant ignoring a man's e-mails?
Joe looked at the computer screen. Three e-mails in six days. Might be something important. Had to be something important. Wayne wouldn't send an e-mail, let alone three, if it wasn't something important.
Damn. Joe had to respond. He owed Wayne that much.
Maybe Wayne just wanted to say, 'Hi.' Could be, but that didn't feel right. Wayne wasn't the type of guy that e-mailed just to say, 'Hi.'
Nope, had to be something else. Something important.
Only one way to find out. Joe hit reply and answered Wayne's e-mail.