Don’t Close Your Eyes – Christie Craig

Thu-thump. Thu-thump. The sounds came to Annie Lakes first. The sound of her young heart thudding in her chest. The night sounds of insects, owls, and unknown creatures scuttling around the woods at night. The sound of…fear. Then a panic-laced young voice echoed in the dark distance. “Faster, Annie.” She couldn’t run faster. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t…wake up. She felt trapped in the blackness. Then the dark curtain lifted and she saw it all. The thicket of trees, the thorny brushes encroaching the dirt trail. Her pink Cinderella tennis shoes slapping against the dirt.

Her small feet racing, rushing, running to someone to save her. Running away from someone who wouldn’t. “Keep up!” The same voice, a young voice, echoed again. All Annie could see of this person was snippets of a pink nightgown appearing and disappearing between the trees ahead. Too far ahead. Alone. She didn’t want to be alone. She hugged the teddy bear, once white but now sticky and red-stained. “Don’t leave me!” Annie cried, unable to move faster. Her side pinched from running.

Her leg muscles burned. She wanted to scream. Wanted to cry. Wanted her daddy. Thorns caught and snagged on the ruffle on her Smurf nightgown. The toe of her tennis shoe hit a stump. She tripped. Went down. Hard. The bear hit the dirt before she did.

Small rocks ripped at the tender flesh on her palms. A jagged one sliced into her knee. The raw sting brought tears to her eyes. She could no longer hear the person in front of her, but the footfalls of the person chasing her grew closer. Louder. She really wanted her daddy. Now. Struggling to her feet, she let soft whimpers slip from her lips. She took one slow step, and someone grabbed her from behind. Grabbed her tight.

She screamed. And screamed. Annie’s own bloodcurdling cry echoing through her bedroom yanked her awake. No longer the frightened child, she was now a frightened woman, but she still wanted her daddy. Swallowing air that felt solid, hand clutching her chest, she felt her heart slamming against her rib cage. Realizing what this meant, she rolled over and buried her face in the pillow. The dream, the recurring nightmare was back. And she knew why. Brittany Talbot. She really needed to stop watching the news.

Chapter One Annie, sitting at her usual table, refocused on the stack of ungraded papers. The dark circles under her eyes were hidden behind darker sunglasses. Blond and fair skinned, she lacked sleep, which brought out raccoon eyes. Too bad she couldn’t wear the shades while teaching. “Happy hump day.” Fred waved his cup of espresso with extra milk as he moved to his booth. For reasons unbeknownst to Annie, the elderly widower was always happier on Wednesdays. Sometimes, when the place was full, he’d even sit with her to chat. Annie smiled. “Did you have a good night last night?” “Sure did.

” A sparkle brightened his light blue eyes. He sat down and pulled out his newspaper. Was he seeing some lady on Tuesdays? Not that it mattered, Annie liked seeing happy people. Glancing out the window, she took in the early-morning walkers trying to get their steps in. The quaint coffee shop nestled between high-rises in downtown Anniston, Texas, was conveniently located a block from the junior college where she’d taught for the last five months. Coming here had become part of her morning ritual. Being an only child, she liked feeling as if she was part of a community. She knew the regulars. They knew her. At least most of them did.

The door swished open. Pretty sure who it was, she glanced up, without lifting her head. He always arrived between seven and seven thirty. The coffee shop was conveniently located a block from the police precinct, too. Detective Sutton liked the dark roast and drank it black. Sometimes, he added a skinny hazelnut latte to his order. Probably for some long-legged, lucky secretary at his office. While Annie was certain he’d never noticed her—he was one who didn’t speak or even nod— she’d noticed him. Even before she’d seen him on television. It wasn’t just his big-gulp size, or his big-gulp good looks.

Oh, she noticed those, too—hard not to —but it was the fact that, like her, he hid behind sunglasses. Considering most of his cases involved murder and some involved children—she wondered if he wasn’t suffering from some bad nightmares, too. He shot to the counter with his usual determined pace. Not so much rude as running late. Today, he wore his navy Dockers and his light blue buttoned-down oxford. The shirt, creases down the sleeves, no doubt professionally cleaned, hugged his broad chest. His dark hair appeared freshly showered damp. The customer ahead of him, an elderly grandmother—not a regular—looked antique and frail. “I know I’ve got some coins…” Her arm, lost in her big purse, fumbled for loose change. Annie waited to see if he’d do it again.

She’d seen it happen six times. “I got her coffee,” he spoke over the woman’s gray hair to Mary, the barista. The older woman looked back, and up. And up. “Why that’s sweet, but I’ve got…” My good deed for the day, Annie said in her head, right before he did. A smile curled up in her gut and gave her good-guy butterflies. She’d even borrowed his act of kindness herself. Shamelessly, she’d considered attempting to be his good deed for the day for an introduction—and maybe more. But she’d failed at her last attempts of “more.” And considering the return of her nightmares, she needed to get her life fixed before she asked for company.

He eased up to the counter, paid for the elderly woman’s coffee, then carefully—with more patience than he normally exuded—he handed it to her. The good-guy flutters commenced again. Annie’s phone chimed. She pulled her gaze away from the detective and glanced at the number. Her mom. She never called this early. Something had to be… “Hello.” The soft sounds of her mom’s sobbing sent thick air rushing into Annie’s lungs, and her heart filled with empathy before even understanding. “Mom? What’s wrong?” * * * Detective Mark Sutton skipped his Thursday-morning coffee run and went straight to the lake. It was one of those perfect days for fishing.

Hot, but not too damn hot. Windy, but not too damn windy. Cloudy, but not too damn cloudy. White cotton-like clouds hung in the blue sky, appearing so picture-perfect they looked like a lie. The sunset sparkles danced on top of the water. The breeze, cooler than the air, flowed through the trees and offered relief from the Texas temperature. But nothing ruined a good day at the lake more than when it wasn’t a fishing line in the water, but a winch connected to a wrecker. When what was being reeled in wasn’t a blue cat, or a bass, but a fifty-pound drum containing the body of a four-year-old girl. Days like this caused a raw kind of hurt—the kind that chipped away at one’s soul. “I’d give my left ball to be wrong about this.

” Mark looked at Juan Acosta, another cold-case detective, standing beside him. “No shit,” Juan said. Mark, Juan, and Connor Pierce, the three-man team that made up the Anniston Cold Case Unit, had spent hours of personal time the previous week scuba diving in the lake searching for barrels. Forget asking the local volunteer divers. Homicide had them booked. Forget having a special dive team do it. Their division didn’t have a budget. If they needed something done, they had to do it themselves. The fact that they’d gotten cases solved shocked the shit out of the big brass. And this particular case was going to be a real pisser for their sergeant.

That was why Connor and Juan had chosen the case. Well, that and because the kid had been related to the mayor. Mark would’ve preferred a different case. One that didn’t feel so goddamn familiar. He had only so much soul left. Exhaling a piece of that soul now, he watched Albert Stone, the medical examiner, use a crowbar to pry the top off of the drum they’d pulled from Sunshine Lake. Stone looked into the barrel, grimaced, then glanced at Mark and Juan. He didn’t say anything, or even nod. The despair in his eyes said it all. “Damn!” Mark’s stomach muscles cramped like he’d just done fifty sit-ups.

Stone re-capped the drum and gave the motion for the forklift driver to load the evidence into the van. After taking a few seconds, he walked over. “I won’t be able to say it’s her for a while. But there’s long brown hair.” Stone ran a hand over his face as if to wipe away the image. A move every cop who’d ever worked in homicide knew well. A damn shame it didn’t work. “The body is submerged in concrete.” Stone’s tone came out as heavy as the barrel looked. “Weren’t they looking at the father for this?” “Yeah, but they couldn’t prove it,” Juan said.

“Then prove it. Catch the bastard who did this.” Stone exhaled. We will. We have to. Mark gave him a tight-lipped nod. Catching bastards was the way to get back a tiny piece of his soul that these cases robbed from him. He never got it all back, but a little was better than nothing. “This would make…what? Three cases you’ve solved this year?” Stone asked. Four.

But who’s counting? Mark nodded. Juan did the same. They weren’t doing this for the notoriety. Not that it didn’t feel good every time they showed the department how wrong it’d been to discount them. The forklift groaned as it picked up the rusty metal drum. Stone frowned. “It’s been years. How the hell did you know where to find her?” “Johnny Cash,” Mark said. Stone chuckled. “You been hitting the bottle early?” “No.

” Mark resented the implication, even when he didn’t resent Stone. “It was the only lead they had on the case,” Mark explained. “A day after she went missing, a homeless man, Mr. Johnny Cash, reported he saw someone pushing a barrel into the lake. Reports says he was drunk and about as credible as a rock, but being the only lead, APD sent some divers out. They found nothing. One of the divers was on record stating that due to the weather conditions earlier, visibility wasn’t really good. Between the lack of a budget and a drunk witness, they didn’t do another search.” “Well, keep this up, and the department will be forced to move you off the shit list.” “I hope not,” Mark said.

“Shit list equals ‘no expectations.’” Stone offered a half-assed grin. “Where’s Connor?” “Searching for Cash.” They watched the forklift loading the evidence. “Is the poker game on for Saturday night?” Stone asked as if needing a mental U-turn. “Not this Saturday, but next,” Mark answered. “Well, I should get back…” Stone looked over Mark’s shoulder, and his expression soured. “You’re gonna get a chance to secure your place on that list. The vultures are waiting.” He waved toward the road and walked off.

Mark didn’t have to look back. He knew what vultures Stone meant. Proving him right, someone, a feminine someone, yelled out, “Detective Sutton? Can I have a word?” Recognition of that voice struck like a painful thump to his balls. “Fuck.” Probably not the word the Channel 2 reporter wanted. But it was the one Judith Holt pulled out of him. Glancing away from the police van, he looked at Juan. “Who called the press?” “Why don’t you ask your girlfriend?” Juan’s tone said he hadn’t forgiven Mark for almost screwing up the last case. Not that Mark blamed Juan. He hadn’t forgiven himself, either.

Mark looked back. Judith stood in front of six other reporters from both newspapers and television stations. “Ex-girlfriend.” Not that she’d really been his girlfriend, just a warm body for about a month. One he hadn’t missed. Oh, the sex had been great. But she’d been using him, and not just for fun in the sack. She wanted story leads, inside information, and she didn’t care who it hurt. When he refused to give her anything, she’d stolen it. The leaked information had almost cost them the arrest.

If he could’ve proven she’d stolen the info from him, he’d have hauled her ass in. But he couldn’t. So she became another life lesson for him to file away. A lesson that had kept him celibate for five months. Juan looked back. “I’m walking through the woods and will meet you by the car.” Juan hated the press more than Mark did. Well, not the press—it was the cameras and seeing his face on the six o’clock news or on the front page. Mark didn’t know a cop who’d served for more than ten years who didn’t have a few scars. Most of them on the inside.

Juan hadn’t been that lucky. “Keys?” Juan held out his hand. Mark watched the detective take off. Swallowing a mouthful of hopeless air, he told himself to hold his temper. His bank account couldn’t take another hit. Who knew film cameras cost that much? Thankfully, the city had picked up that first one. But when APD stuck him in the Cold Case Unit, they’d made it clear. Any further destruction of news-media property would come out of his pocket. So the tripod he’d used to dent the bumper of the Channel 6 van a few months back had been on him. He started back to the street, away from the crowd, but like hungry piranhas they followed.

With Anniston’s population encroaching on a hundred and thirty thousand, they had plenty of piranhas. “Detective Sutton?” They pushed toward him. “We don’t know anything yet.” He quickened his pace. “But Detective—” one of the newspaper reporters started. “No comment!” He got about two feet past them. Someone snagged his arm. Unfortunately, he’d know the feel of Judith’s nails anywhere. “Was Brittany Talbot’s body in the drum? Isn’t that what the Cold Case Unit is working on?” She shoved her mic in his face. Damn it! Didn’t she realize how hearing and seeing this on the local news would make the kid’s mother feel? Sure it’d been four years, but hurting from losing someone you love didn’t have time limits.

He knew firsthand. It was the scar he carried with him. “No comment!” he growled. “Can you confirm that this is about the Talbot case?” “Go chase another ambulance!” He started off. He heard her say something to the camera. Another reporter blocked his path and then Judith grabbed his arm again. He stopped. Stared at her nails biting into his forearm. He’d never been into scratchers. She cut off her mic, lowered it to her side.

“Just because we didn’t pan out—” “This has nothing to do with us.” He shot forward. The wish-wush of her expensive heels sinking in and out of the wet ground as she chased after him ratcheted up his frustration. “You got that right!” she said to his back. “It’s about my career. And if you think—” He swung around so fast the heels of his shoes cut divots in the ground. Then, because he didn’t care to air his dirty laundry—and fuck yeah, he considered their relationship to be dirty laundry—he pulled her away from the crowd of reporters. Scowling, he held out his hand in warning that no one should follow. Once he got out of earshot, he swerved and faced her. “This may be a hell of a shock to you, Judith, but it’s not always about you.

” The muscles in his neck knotted. Her eyes glittered with determination. The kind that didn’t let up. The kind he didn’t admire. The kind that stemmed from selfish ambition. “I’m just doing my job,” she said with a jab. “And it doesn’t matter who you step on as long as you come out looking good. I’m still dusting off your footprints myself.” “Just because I don’t have to drink myself into oblivion when bad things happen doesn’t mean I don’t care.” Okay, that poke was personal.

Too personal. “I don’t have to drink myself into oblivion.” He yanked off his sunglasses. “I choose to. But the difference between you and me is that I do my job to catch sorry sons of bitches. You do your job so you can prance your little ass up the career ladder.” He stormed off, not caring if his words struck a nerve. Not even feeling better for delivering them because, like he’d told her, this wasn’t about her. Or him. He had to go see Bethany Talbot now, the kid’s mom, hoping like hell she wouldn’t see the news report before he got to her.

Mark hadn’t made it to the road when another reporter and his cameraman blocked his path. It was Matthew Kelly from Channel 6, one of Judith’s on-again, off-again lovers, who’d been pissed that Judith had taken a shine to Mark. So this approach was likely to be just as personal, but probably more fun. Call him a male chauvinist pig, but he couldn’t completely unleash on a woman. Even when they deserved it. “No comment.” Mark gave it a good college try. Matthew stuck his mic in Mark’s face. “Is it true that the Cold Case Unit is the police department’s dumping ground for cops who don’t play well with others?” Yup, personal! Mark hoped this was a live feed. “Is it true you still fuck Ju— a certain Channel Two reporter even though you got married last year?” The cameraman let out a burst of laughter.

But before Matthew could react, Mark yanked the microphone from the man’s hand and chucked it. The splashing sound in the lake was as good as a big-mouth bass slapping against the water. “That was a five-hundred-dollar piece of equipment,” Matthew seethed. “I know,” Mark said. “But it was a lot cheaper than paying to have your nose fixed.” Mark took off to his car. Juan, in the driver’s seat, had the engine running as if he expected the worst. Climbing into the passenger seat of his racing-green Mustang, stepping into a week’s worth of fastfood bags, he looked at Juan. A touch of humor reflected in his partner’s brown eyes. “I think you enjoy that.

” “Yeah, but it’s an expensive hobby.” Juan chuckled, but his smile faded fast. “I’ll go help Connor look for Cash. You going to see Bethany Talbot?” “Yeah.” He’d have loved to push that job over to either Connor or Juan, but he’d drawn the short straw. Mark snatched his file from the backseat to get the Talbots’ address. “Do you still like the dad for this?” Juan’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. Mark reached back and squeezed his knotted right shoulder. He’d only spoken with Brian Talbot once. He didn’t think he was behind this, but the guy’s alibi had been shakier than a drug addict needing a fix.

“I don’t know.” Mark wanted to believe no father could do that to his child, but he knew better. Being a parent didn’t stop someone from being a sick bastard. He let out a gulp of frustrated air. “When I’m done, I’ll call you and hit any shelters you haven’t.” “You know finding him is going to be almost impossible. It was four years ago, and Johnny Cash probably isn’t even the guy’s name.” “I know,” Mark said. “But I’m hoping if he picked that name, it means he actually sings, and that might help us find him.” Juan turned into the precinct and parked.

Mark set the file on the dash. A picture of the dark-haired little girl slipped out. He saw the toothy, gotta-love-me grin and the sweet life in her freckled face. But mostly he saw the innocence. There went another chunk of his soul. * * * “He’s dead.” “I know, Mom. I’m sorry.” Annie meant it. She wasn’t heartless.

She just… “How could you not want to go?” Her mom’s arms crossed over the front of her yellow tailored suit. Then Annie got the you-disappoint-me sigh. Annie hated that sigh. Hated disappointing her mom. “You’ve turned me down to go see them three times since you’ve lived here.” Yeah, her move to Anniston five months before—for a job—had put her only an hour drive from her mother’s family. She’d worried her mom would use her location to push Annie closer to the Reeds. She’d been right. She met her mom’s woeful gaze and felt heartless, like she’d feared. Her mom’s visit was a surprise, but after she’d called yesterday morning to informAnnie that her uncle had died, she should have expected it.

“I said I’d go.” Her mom popped up from the living room chair. “After you said you preferred not to.” Well, there was that. “I was thinking about work when I said it.” Lie. The truth—it was hard going to the funeral of someone you didn’t know. Okay, maybe it was harder to go to the funeral of someone you did know. Someone you loved. Like her dad’s.

And if he were still alive, he wouldn’t let her mom put her through this. Annie stared at the papers she’d been grading in her lap. “He was your uncle.” The grief in her mom’s voice drew Annie’s gaze up. The emotion echoed inside Annie. “I’m going.” “How could you be so uncaring?” Uncaring? No! Annie had lost two jobs because she cared too much. She had to give up teaching elementary school because she cared too much. She couldn’t watch the news because she cared too much. “I didn’t know him.

He wasn’t even at the reunion I went to. It makes it awkward.” “We lived in the same town until you were almost five.” “I don’t remember him.” Nada. Zip. She refocused on her papers. Her sketchy childhood memories had created interesting discussions in her therapy sessions. Sessions Annie no longer indulged in. After more than a year of getting nowhere, and doubting herself even more, she decided to keep her distance from shrinks and got herself a cat instead.

And frankly, she was better. Or had been until… “It’s because of your dad, isn’t it?” Maybe. Not completely. “No.” Annie ran a finger over the scar right below her kneecap. Harsh streaks of sunlight slashed through the miniblinds and brought with them the ugly memory of hearing her parents in the kitchen having a blowout. Her mom’s mother had died—a grandmother Annie hadn’t known she had. Her mom had wanted to take Annie to the funeral. She’d never heard her soft-spoken, choir minister of a father so outraged. The next day, worried about her mother, Annie confronted her dad.

He didn’t hold back. They aren’t nice people. They’re angry and they’re alcoholics and they’ve spent more time in prison than they have in church. Since her dad’s death, Mom had reconnected with her family. Six months back, she’d begged Annie to go to a family reunion. Curious but leery, she went. And maybe her father’s opinion had tainted her view, but the Reed clan gave her the heebie-jeebies. Her mom’s blue eyes teared even more. Guilt took a few laps around Annie’s sore heart. No matter how she felt about the Reeds, her mother had lost someone she loved.

Setting her papers down, Annie stood. “I’m sorry. Drive here tomorrow, and we’ll go together.” Annie hugged her. “Thank you.” Her mom ended the embrace a second earlier than a normal person. Funny how one second made a difference. Her mom, three inches taller than Annie, frowned down at her. “You’ve got dark circles under your eyes. Are you…having sleeping issues again?” Sleeping issues? Mom always called it that as if it would make it less than it was.

“I’m fine.” When twelve, she’d asked her mom about the recurring nightmare she’d been having. It had felt so real. Mom had blamed it on her watching The Blair Witch Project at a friend’s house. That could’ve explained things. Well, everything but the scar. Her mom, however, insisted Annie had fallen off her bike. Five minutes later, Annie stood by her apartment window, still longing for that extra second, and watched her mom drive off. Her dad had been the hug giver. Sometimes Annie missed him so much her toenails ached. All grown up and still a daddy’s girl. She’d have to discuss this with her cat. Speaking of Pirate: The one-eyed, three-legged orange tabby sashayed into the room. It wasn’t easy to sashay with a limp, but he pulled it off with charisma. She scooped him up. “Looks like I’m going to a funeral in Heebie-Jeebie Land.” Pirate bumped her nose with his scarred face. Annie moved toward the sofa. “I know, going makes me a pushover. But don’t rub it in. I brought you home, didn’t I?” Dropping into the soft leather cushions, Pirate in her lap, she clicked on the television. The screen flashed with a breaking news story. A perky blond reporter was saying, “We believe there may be news on the Brittany Talbot disappearance.” Emotion crowded Annie’s throat. Turn it of ! She couldn’t. The image of the five-year-old ballerina shot straight to the heart. The screen again showed the reporter standing in front of a lake. “We’ve—” She turned, and the camera did, too. “Detective Sutton, can you give us a word?” Coffee-shop Sutton filled the screen. Once again, he wore Dockers and dark shades, but new to his apparel was a darker frown. Darker than usual. “No comment!” The camera focused on his face. Annie leaned in closer. What was he hiding behind his glasses? “Can you confirm that this is about the Talbot case?” “Go chase another ambulance.” He left the woman holding the microphone and a scowl. “A man of few words.” The reporter’s perky mask reappeared. “Sources tell us that the body of a child fitting the description of…” Eyes closed, Annie saw a little girl twirling in her tutu, clutching a white teddy bear. Annie’s eyes shot open. Brittany Talbot didn’t have a teddy bear. A shiver climbed her back. The news went to a commercial. She clicked off the TV. Her phone rang. The number belonging to Isabella, Annie’s neighbor and the one friend she had made in Anniston, showed on the screen. “Come over for wine,” Annie said in lieu of hello. “Sure. I just saw your coffee-buddy cop on TV.” “He’s not my buddy.” The teddy bear image flashed again. “Right. Was that your mom’s car I saw?” “Yes.” Annie stared at the blank TV screen, wishing she could cut off her mind. “You cratered, didn’t you? You’re going to the funeral.” Annie nipped on her lip. “You said I would.” “You didn’t have to prove me right. It’s not too late. The stomach virus is going around. Diarrhea works like a gem.” “I can’t. She’s hurting. Besides, it’s only two days. What could possibly happen in two days that I can’t survive?”

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