Excerpt from THE LONELY GIRLS CLUB

Rowe Academy for Girls
Tiburon, California
Winter, 1980

The cotton camisole was too small. It acted like a binder to reduce her breasts to a tidy A cup. She slipped on a crisp white blouse and buttoned it up, leaving just a bit of milky throat exposed. Her ticking pulse could still be seen.

She could see his reflection too, watching her, totally absorbed in her ritual before the full-length mirror. Dressing for sex had always struck her as odd, but this was the way he liked it. Was he caught yet? Ensnared by his own racing heart?

The pleats of her plaid stitch-down skirt just reached her knees. The skirt opened like a kilt, and the flap flew as she twirled on one foot. She was joyous now, child-like. Her dark French-braided hair danced with pleasure. Surely he could see that she was transformed. She didn’t look in the mirror as she bent to draw knee-high cotton stockings on over her bare feet. She preferred silk, but everything had to be totally authentic. No makeup was allowed, only freshly pinched cheeks and lip gloss. No jewelry. That would be trashy.

He was no longer in the mirror. She turned, hoping to see him lying on the bed, awaiting her, fully aroused and trembling with shame. That was how she controlled him, and it had to go right today or their relationship wouldn’t survive. She had something important to tell him. But hope faded as she saw him standing by the window, looking down at the courtyard three stories below her bell tower apartment, where her finishing school students took breaks between classes.

The academy, a U-shaped structure, designed in the manner of the ivy-covered Victorian castles of old England, was more than a school, it was her family home, donated through a foundation to the cause of education when her grandmother died, fifteen years ago. Right now it felt like her prison.

She joined him, but he didn’t acknowledge her presence. He was transfixed by an exquisite creature with cascading red curls and the pensive smile of a Sistine Madonna. The young woman stood near the fountain in the courtyard’s center, seemingly unaware of the mist from the water that hovered around her like a communion veil. Brisk winter weather had kept most of the students indoors today, but this one must have wanted to be alone with her thoughts.

"Is it her then?" the headmistress asked him. "One of my girls? You want a child?"

Her bitterness could have drawn blood, but he seemed oblivious. "She isn’t a child," he pointed out. "She’s fully grown, but still in the first flush of womanhood. She’s fresh and lovely, untouched."

Rage foamed into the headmistress’s throat. Not yet thirty, and she was being tossed aside for a simpering virgin? After everything she’d done for him? She had planned her whole life around him, but there was no way she could tell him her news now. He would think her ridiculous.

Instantly her anger turned cold. She was sub-zero, molten ice. He would get what he wanted, and he would pay the price for it. He was a powerful man. He could easily ruin her. But he had crossed the line, and they both knew it. Yes, he would get what he wanted. Yes, he would pay.

* * * * *

San Quentin Prison
Summer 2005

Haze shrouded the sun, turning it into a silvery moon as the main gate clanged open. A tall, thin ghost of a human being hovered in the entrance. He took a few steps, although it looked more like floating than walking. The dark suit he wore swung loosely on his fence-slat frame, and his heavy blue-black hair fell forward, shuttering the light from his eyes. What could be seen of his face was all jaw bones and cartilage. He was a death row inmate, but he was walking free, the only prisoner scheduled for release that day.

He didn’t seem aware of the road ahead, only of the medieval fortress behind him. After a few steps, he stopped and turned, swaying like a spindly, overgrown tree. He raised one hand and curled back all of his fingers except the middle one. It might have been less an act of defiance than a test of his constitutional rights. Was he really a free man? A car door banged in the distance, and he ducked, clearly expecting to be shot.

Another man stood across the road by a gleaming black SUV with darkened windows. Jameson Cross was as tall as the ex-con, and his jet hair had the same shimmering blue lights, but that was where the resemblance ended. In every other way than the physical, the two men were profoundly different. They could have been alter egos.

"William Broud? Can I give you a ride?" Cross stepped forward cautiously, offering his hand—and his car. "It’s a long walk to civilization."

Broud did not look up or acknowledge Cross in any way. Cross could have been invisible, except that he knew the other man had heard him. This was deeply deliberate. William Broud had been ignoring Jameson Cross since before Broud went to prison. They weren’t enemies. It was worse than that.

Cross began to walk with him. "I’d like to talk to you about the finishing school murders. You’re going to need a job now that you’re out, and I can pay you for your time."

Cross was a best-selling true crime writer, and his stake in this case went beyond the book he might write. Broud had been a gardener and handyman at an exclusive finishing school in Tiburon. He’d spent twenty-three years in prison, most of it on death row for the murder of Millicent Rowe, the school’s headmistress. But Broud had been recently exonerated by DNA evidence, and Cross didn’t understand the man’s reluctance to talk about an injustice of that magnitude. When they’d arrested him, he’d professed his innocence, babbling about conspiracies and cover-ups, a sex ring involving the students. But he’d had drugs in his possession, a record of priors, and B negative blood had been found at the scene, which was his type.

"Who are the lonely girls?" Cross asked. "You claimed they killed the headmistress. Were they students at the finishing school?"

Broud continued walking, head bowed, face buried in hair.

Frustration burned through Cross. This had to stop. "You rotted in jail for twenty-two years and no one cared," he said. "They would have let you die. Whoever did it should pay for putting you through that hell."

Black hair flew, exposing Broud’s tortured visage. He glared at Cross. "You’re right. No one cared. Why should I? Leave me alone."

"It doesn’t have to be like that. Billy—"

"Don’t call me that," Broud ground out savagely. "Billy’s gone. He doesn’t exist anymore."

Cross came to a halt, watching Broud lumber away. If he’d continued, they might well have come to blows. Billy Broud might be gone, he thought, but if zombies existed, this man could have been one. His face was a howling Halloween skull. He’d been spared execution, but any part of him that was human was dead. Only the pupils of his eyes burned with terrifying life. And Jameson Cross would not soon forget them.

Cross was certain that Broud knew who did this to him, but for some reason, he wasn’t talking. Perhaps he wanted to exact his own revenge. Nevertheless, it was a story that Cross intended to tell. He’d just made that decision. His suspicions alone would create headlines.

It would be interesting to see who ran for cover when he fired the first shot. If he was right, he was hunting big game. His murder suspects operated at the highest levels of government, jurisprudence and business. And even more interesting, they were all women.