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THE SECRETS WE BURY

THE SECRETS WE BURY

Enjoy this excerpt of the first book in the Undertaker’s Daughter series, THE SECRETS WE BURY!

THE SECRETS WE BURY
Debra Webb
RIP
Geneva Phillips
Beloved Wife and Mother
June 2, 1946–May 5, 2019

Geneva Phillips was born in Winchester, Tennessee, on June 2, 1946. She was a loving wife and mother, a consummate homemaker and a treasured member of the Ladies Civic Club as well as a talented musician and a member of the choir at the Second Avenue Methodist Church. She died at home on Sunday, May 5, 2019. Geneva was predeceased by her beloved husband, Howard, and her only sibling, a brother, Gerald. She is survived by two daughters, Patricia Patterson of Winchester and Jennifer Brinkley of Louisville, Kentucky, and three grandchildren.

The family will receive friends on Tuesday, May 7, 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., at the DuPont Funeral Home.

Chapter One

Winchester, Tennessee

Monday, May 6, 7:15 a.m.

Mothers shouldn’t die this close to Mother’s Day.

Especially mothers whose daughters, despite being grown and having families of their own, still considered Mom to be their best friend. Rowan DuPont had spent the better part of last night consoling the daughters of Geneva Phillips. Geneva had failed to show at church on Sunday morning, and later that same afternoon she wasn’t answering her cell. Her younger daughter entered her mother’s home to check on her and found Geneva deceased in the bathtub.

Now the seventy-two-year-old woman’s body waited in refrigeration for Rowan to begin the preparations for her final journey. The viewing wasn’t until tomorrow evening, so there was no particular rush. The husband of one of the daughters was away on business in London and wouldn’t arrive back home until late today. There was time for a short break, which turned into a morning drive that had taken Rowan across town and to a place she hadn’t visited in better than two decades.

Like death, some things were inevitable. Coming back to this place was one of those things. Perhaps it was the hours spent with the sisters last night that had prompted memories of Rowan’s own sister. She and her twin had once been inseparable. Wasn’t that generally the way with identical twins?

The breeze shifted, lifting a wisp of hair across her face. Rowan swiped it away and stared out over Tims Ford Lake. The dark, murky waters spread like sprawling arms some thirty-odd miles upstream from the nearby dam, enveloping the treacherous Elk River in its embrace. The water was deep and unforgiving. Even standing on the bank, at least ten feet from the edge, a chill crept up Rowan’s spine. She hated this place. Hated the water. The ripples that broke the shadowy surface…the smell of fish and rotting plant life. She hated every little thing about it.

This was the spot where her sister’s body had been found.

July 6, twenty-seven years ago. Rowan and Raven had turned twelve years old that spring. Rowan’s gaze lingered on the decaying tree trunk and the cluster of newer branches and overgrowth stretching from the bank into the hungry water where her sister’s lifeless body had snagged. The current had dragged her pale, thin body a good distance before depositing her at this spot. It had taken eight hours and twenty-three minutes for the search teams to find her.

Rowan had known her sister was dead before the call had come that Raven had gone missing. Her parents had rushed to help with the search, leaving a neighbor with Rowan. She had stood at her bedroom window watching for their return. The house had felt completely empty and Rowan had understood that her life would never be the same after that day.

No matter that nearly three decades has passed since that sultry summer day, she could still recall the horrifying feel of the final tug, and then the ominous release of her sister’s physical presence.

She shifted her gaze from the water to the sky. Last night the temperature had taken an unseasonable plunge. Blackberry winter, the locals called it. Whether it held some glimmer of basis in botany or was merely rooted in folklore, blackberry bushes all over the county were in full bloom. Rowan pulled her sweater tight around her. Though today was the first time she had come to this place since returning home from Nashville, the dark water was never far from her thoughts. How could it be? The lake swelled and withdrew around Winchester like the rhythmic breath of a sleeping giant, at once harmless and menacing.

Rowan had sneaked away to this spot dozens of times after her sister was buried. Other times she had ridden her bike to the cemetery and visited her there or simply sat in Raven’s room and stared at the bed where she had once laid her head. But Rowan felt closest to her sister here, near the water that had snatched her life away like the merciless talons of a hawk descending on a fleeing field mouse.

“You should have stayed home,” Rowan murmured to herself. The ache, no matter the many years that had passed, twisted in her chest.

She had begged Raven not to go to the party. Her sister had been convinced that Rowan’s behavior was nothing more than jealousy since she hadn’t been invited. The suggestion hadn’t been entirely unjustified, but mostly Rowan had felt a smothering dread, a panic that had bordered on hysteria. She had needed her sister to stay home. Every adolescent instinct she possessed had been screaming and restless with that looming sense of trepidation.

But Raven had ignored her sister’s pleas and attended the big barbecue and swim party with her best friend, Tessa Cardwell. Raven DuPont died that day, and Rowan had spent all the years since wondering what she could have done differently to change that outcome.

Nothing. She could not rewrite history any more than she was able to change her sister’s mind.

Rowan exhaled a beleaguered breath. At moments like this she felt exactly as if her life was moving backward. She’d enjoyed a fulfilling career with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department as an advisor for the Special Crimes Unit. As a psychiatrist, she had found her work immensely satisfying, and she had helped to solve numerous homicide cases. But then, not quite two months ago, everything had changed. The one case that Rowan didn’t recognize had been happening right in front of her, shattering her life…and sending everything spiraling out of control.

The life she had built in Nashville had been comfortable, with enough intellectual challenge in her career to make it uniquely interesting. Though she had not possessed a gold shield, the detectives in the Special Crimes Unit had valued her opinion and treated her as if she was as much a member of the team as any of them. But that was before…before the man she admired and trusted proved to be a serial killer—a killer who murdered her father and an MNPD officer as well as more than a hundred other victims over the past several decades.

A mere one month, twenty-two days and about fourteen hours ago, esteemed psychiatrist Dr. Julian Addington emerged from his cloak of secrecy and changed the way the world viewed serial killers. He was the first of his kind: incredibly prolific, cognitively brilliant and innately chameleon-like—able to change his MO at will. Far too clever to hunt among his own patients or social set, he had chosen his victims carefully, always ensuring he or she could never be traced back to him or his life.

Julian had fooled Rowan for the past two decades and then he’d taken her father, her only remaining family, from her. He’d devastated and humiliated her both personally and professionally.

Anger and loathing churned inside her. He wanted her to suffer. He wanted her to be defeated…to give up. But she would not. Determination solidified inside her. She would not allow him that victory or that level of control over her.

Her gaze drifted out over the water once more. Since her father’s death and moving back to Winchester, people had asked her dozens of times why she’d returned to take over the funeral home after all these years. She always gave the same answer: I’m a DuPont, it’s what we do.

Her father, of course, had always hoped Rowan would do so. It was the DuPont way. The funeral home had been in the family for a hundred fifty years. The legacy had been passed from one generation to the next time and time again. When she’d graduated from college and chosen to go to medical school and become a psychiatrist rather than to return home and take over the family business, Edward DuPont had been devastated. For more than a year after that decision, she and her father had been estranged. Now she mourned that lost year with an ache that was soul-deep.

They had reconciled, she reminded herself, and other than the perpetual guilt she felt over not visiting often enough, things had been good between her and her father. Like all else in her life until recently, their relationship had been comfortable. They’d spoken by phone regularly. She missed those chats. He kept her up to speed on who married or moved or passed, and she would tell him as much as she could about her latest case. He had loved hearing about her work with Metro. As much as he’d wanted her to take over the family legacy, he had wanted her to be happy more than anything else.

“I miss you, Daddy,” she murmured.

Looking back, Rowan deeply regretted having allowed Julian to become a part of her life all those years ago. She had shared her deepest, darkest secrets with him, including her previously strained relationship with her father. She had purged years of pent-up frustrations and anxieties to the bastard, first as his patient and then, later, as a colleague and friend.

Though logic told her otherwise, a part of her would always feel the weight of responsibility for her father’s murder.

Due to her inability to see what Julian was, she could not possibly return to Metro, though they had assured her there would always be a place for her in the department. How could she dare to pretend some knowledge or insight the detectives themselves did not possess when she had unknowingly been a close friend to one of the most prolific serial killers the world had ever known?

She could not. This was her life now.

Would taking over the family business completely assuage the guilt she felt for letting her father down all those years ago? Certainly not. Never. But it was what she had to do. It was her destiny. In truth, she had started to regret her career decision well before her father’s murder. Perhaps it was the approaching age milestone of forty or simply a midlife crisis. She had found herself pondering what might have been different if she’d made that choice and regretting, frankly, that she hadn’t.

Since she and Raven were old enough to follow the simplest directions, they had been trained to prepare a body for its final journey. By the time they were twelve, they could carry out the necessary steps nearly as well as their father with little or no direction.

Growing up surrounded by death had, of course, left its mark. Her hyperawareness of death and all its ripples and aftershocks made putting so much stock into a relationship with another human being a less than attractive proposal. Why go out of her way to risk that level of pain in the event that person was lost? And with life came loss. To that end, she would likely never marry or have children. But she had her work and, like her father, she intended to do her very best. Both of them had always been workaholics. Taking care of the dead was a somber albeit important task, particularly for those left behind. The families of the loved ones who passed through the DuPont doors looked to her for support and guidance during their time of sorrow and emotional turmoil.

Speaking of which, she pulled her cell from her pocket and checked the time. She should get back to the funeral home. Mrs. Phillips was waiting. Rowan turned away from the part of her past that still felt fresh despite the passage of time.

Along this part of the shore, the landscape was thickly wooded and dense with undergrowth, which was the reason she’d worn her rubber boots and was slowly picking her way back to the road. As she attempted to slide her phone back into her hip pocket, a limb snagged her hair. Instinctively she reached up to pull it loose, dropping her cell phone in the process.

“Damn it.” Rowan reached down and felt through the thatch beneath the underbrush. More of her long blond strands caught in the brush. She should have taken the time to pull her hair back in a ponytail as she usually did. She tugged the hair loose, bundled the thick mass into her left hand and then crouched down to dig around with her right in search of her phone. Like most people, she felt utterly lost without the damn thing.

Where the hell had it fallen?

She would have left it in the car except that she never wanted a family member to call the funeral home and reach a machine. With that in mind, she forwarded calls to her cell when she was away. Eventually she hoped to trust her father’s new assistant director enough to allow him to handle all incoming calls. Wouldn’t have helped this morning, though, since he was on vacation.

New assistant director? She almost laughed at the idea. Woody Holder had been with her father for two years, but Herman Carter had been with him a lifetime before that. She supposed in comparison, new was a reasonable way of looking at Woody’s tenure thus far. Her father had still referred to him as the new guy. Maybe it was his lackadaisical attitude. At forty-five, Woody appeared to possess absolutely no ambition and very little motivation. Rowan really should consider finding a new, more dependable assistant director and letting Woody go.

Her fingers raked through the leaves and decaying groundcover until she encountered something cool and hard but not metal or plastic. Definitely not her phone. She stilled, frowned in concentration as her sense of touch attempted to identify the object she couldn’t see without sticking her head into the bushes. Not happening. She might have chalked the object up to being a limb or a rock if not for the familiar, tingling sensation rushing along every single nerve ending in her body. Her instincts were humming fiercely.

Assuredly not a rock.

Holding her breath, she reached back to the same spot and touched the object again. Her fingers dug into the soft earth around the object and curled instinctively.

Long. Narrow. Cylindrical.

She pulled it from the rich, soft dirt, the thriving moss and the tangle of rotting leaves.

Bone.

She frowned, studied it closely. Human bone.

Her pulse tripped into a faster rhythm. She placed the bone aside, reached back in with both hands and carefully scratched away more of the leaves.

Another bone…and then another. Bones that, judging by their condition, had been here for a very long time.

Meticulously sifting through the layers of leaves and plant life, she discovered that her cell phone had fallen into the rib cage. The human rib cage. Her mind racing with questions and conclusions, she cautiously fished out the phone. She took a breath, hit her contacts list and tapped the name of Winchester’s chief of police.

When he picked up, rather than hello, she said, “I’m at the lake. There’s something here you need to see and it can’t wait. Better call Burt and send him in this direction as well.” Burt Johnston was a local veterinarian who had served as the county coroner for as long as Rowan could remember.

Chief of Police William “Billy” Brannigan’s first response was, “Are you okay?”

Billy and Rowan had been friends since grade school. He had made her transition back to life in Winchester so much more bearable. And there was Herman. He was more like an uncle than a mere friend of the family. Eventually she hoped the two of them would stop worrying so about her. She wasn’t that fragile young girl who had left Winchester twenty-odd years ago. Recent events had rocked her, that was true, but she was completely capable of taking care of herself. She would never again allow herself to be vulnerable to anyone.

“I’m fine, but someone’s not. You should stop worrying about me and get over here, Billy.”

“I’m on my way.”

She ended the call. There had been no need for her to tell him precisely where she was at the lake. He would know. Rowan DuPont didn’t swim, she never came near the lake unless it was to visit her sister, and she hadn’t done that in a very, very long time.

Strange, all those times Rowan had come to visit Raven, she’d never realized there was someone else here, too.

 
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