True crime writer Leah Nash is stunned when police investigating the murder of a beautiful young college professor focus on her ex-husband Nick. Leah has no illusions about her ex, but despite his flaws, she just can’t see him as a killer. Reluctantly, she agrees to help Nick’s attorney prove that he isn’t.
But Nick’s lies make it hard to find the truth, and when a damning piece of evidence surfaces, Leah plunges into doubt. Is she defending an innocent man or helping a murderer escape? She pushes on to find out, uncovering hidden motives and getting hit by twists she never saw coming. Leah’s own flaws impede her search for the truth. When she finds it, will it be too late to prevent a devastating confrontation?
How did everything go so wrong? But then again, why did she ever think that this could come to anything but disaster? She knows now there are only a few ways this can end and none of them are good.
She sighs, then bends down to put the leash on Tenny, her crazy little mixed-breed dog, looking up at her with big brown eyes. He’s so happy and so oblivious. Despite her sense of coming catastrophe, she can’t help smiling at him. He begins wagging his tail, then dancing around eagerly in anticipation of his nightly run. She can barely get the leash hooked.
“Come on, then, you heartless beast. I’m in the worst situation of my life, and all you can think about is getting out and having fun. Tell me again why I bother with you?”
They leave and walk down the road—no sidewalks here—toward the county fairgrounds, an expanse of 80 acres just a short distance away. She loves the odd mix of town on one side of her home and country on the other.
She shivers a little. Her exhaled breath leaves a small trace of vapor in the air. Under the silvery light of the full moon, everything stands out in crystalline splendor: the piles of snow left by the plow, untouched yet by the dirt and grime of passing cars; bare branches of trees shimmering with frost; the stars themselves, flashing and glittering like sparkling beads sewn on the black night sky. It is incredibly beautiful. But she barely notices. She is too lost in thought.
Should she do as she threatened, confess and bring everything to a head? If she does, there’s no going back. And she isn’t the only one who will suffer—or be saved. Because isn’t it possible that freedom, not tragedy, will be the outcome? Things do, sometimes, turn out better than we expect. She feels a momentary spark of optimism, but it fades. This is too important for wishful thinking. She must be realistic. Once the truth is out, the consequences will be devastating. But this—the way she’s living now, lying, denying, pretending that everything is fine—is crushing her. So intent is she on her thoughts that she doesn’t hear the crunch of footsteps behind her.
Doesn’t notice the increasing agitation of her little dog. Doesn’t recognize the impending danger.
“I finally caught up with you.”
Startled, but not alarmed—she recognizes the voice—she turns.
“What are you doing here?”
“We didn’t finish. I need to know you understand.”
She doesn’t want to have this conversation. Not tonight. Not when her mind is so filled with jumbled and conflicting thoughts. Her reluctance shows on her face.
“You said you want to do the right thing. I do too, but you’re wrong about what it is. Please, let’s talk.”
“Tomorrow would be better. I—”
“No! It wouldn’t be!”
The words are said with such force that she takes an involuntary step backward. Tenny growls softly at her side.
“I’m sorry. But we’re talking about my life! Don’t I deserve a few minutes at least? I’ll walk with you. Please?”
She sighs. But now Tenny is pulling at his leash, eager to run free on the frozen surface of the pond.
“All right.” She slips off her gloves and bends down to release the dog. Her cold fingers fumble and his eager jumping makes it hard work. He spies something on the ice and springs forward with excitement. Both the collar and the leash come loose in her hands, and he dashes away.
She tucks them into her pocket as she stands. It’s then that she notices the barricades around a large hole in the frozen pond.
“I forgot about the Polar Plunge tomorrow. Let’s go that way, in case Tenny gets too close. The barriers should keep him out, but he’s a wily little devil.”
They walk around the edge of the pond. She is silent; she doesn’t interrupt. But she isn’t persuaded. Her focus turns inward, as she searches for the right words to explain. All the while she knows they will be unwelcome. As she struggles for a way to be both truthful and kind, she misses the rising tension in her companion’s voice. She doesn’t register the transition from desperation to danger.
A loud series of barks causes her to look up. Tenny is chasing a muskrat across the ice. Both of them are heading toward the barrier-shielded hole in the frozen pond. For the muskrat, it will mean escape. For Tenny, it will mean calamity.
“Tenny, no! Come here!” She runs out on the ice, calling him, moving as fast as she can on the slippery surface, trying to distract the dog. But intent on his prey, he ignores her. He dashes under the barricade just as the muskrat slips into the water to safety. Tenny slides to a stop, gives a few frustrated yips, then turns toward her. His expression clearly says, “Thanks a lot. I almost had him.”
She reaches the edge of the barricade and pushes it aside, holding out the leash and collar.
“Tennyson, come here right now.”
He makes as if to obey, but when she leans to get him, he scampers away. She calls him again.
He comes tantalizingly close, then eludes her grasp and retreats with a cocky grin on his face.
He likes this game.
She sets the collar and leash down on the ice. She gets on one knee and reaches in her pocket.
When her hand emerges, it’s holding a dog treat. In a honeyed, coaxing voice, she says, “Hey, Tenny. Look, sweetie! Your favorite, cheesy bacon.”
She stays very still as he approaches. When he gets within range, she intends to scoop him up, scold him, and never let him off the leash again. He moves slowly, maintaining eye contact with the treat, not her. She stretches her hand out ever so slightly. He streaks forward, snatches it from her open palm, and runs away across the pond. Then his attention is caught by a deer just reaching the middle of the ice. He gives chase.
She sighs with relief. At least he’s away from the open water. She starts to rise. Without warning, a strong shove from behind sends her sprawling. Her head hits the ice. She’s dazed for a second. Then terrified as another shove pushes her forward and into the hole cut in the pond.
The shock of hitting the water takes her breath away. The weight of her clothes pulls her down.
She struggles back to the surface, disoriented and confused. Her breathing is shallow and quick—too quick.
She swallows a mouthful of water and starts to choke. Panic rises. Her arms flail.
One hits something hard. The edge of the ice. Her fright lessens as she can see a way out.
She works her body around so she can grab the icy lip of the opening in the pond. She begins to move her legs, stretching out as though she were floating on her stomach. As she transitions from vertical to horizontal, she’s able to get one forearm on the ice. She tries to lift her knee. If she can get it on the ice—she’s too weak. The weight of her water-logged clothes pulls her back into the water. She feels the panic rising again. She pushes back against it with her desperate determination to survive.
She tries again, kicks her legs again, stretches out again, gets her forearms on the ice again.
But this time, she doesn’t try to lift herself. Instead, she begins to inch forward with a writhing motion, like a very slow snake crawling on the ground. She fights for every awkward, painful inch of progress. How long has it been? Five minutes? Ten? Twenty? It feels like forever.
Her arms are numb. Tiny icicles in her hair slap gently against her face as she twists and turns her body out of the water. Tenny is nearby. He’s barking, and then he’s by her left arm, tugging at her sleeve.
“No, no, Tenny, get back.” She thinks she is shouting, but the words are a whisper. She has to rest, just for a minute. She stops. She closes her eyes. But as her cheek touches the ice, Tenny’s bark calls her back to life. She will not give up. She will not die this way, this night.
Again, she begins her hesitating progress forward. She can do this. She will do this. Almost her entire upper body is on the ice now. Just a little longer, just a few more inches, just another—hands grab her shoulders. Someone has come. Someone is pulling her to safety. As she turns her head to look up, she realizes the hands aren’t pulling, they’re pushing, pushing, pushing her back.
No, no, no, no! She tries to fight, but she has nothing left. She’s in the water.
The hands lock onto her shoulders like talons. They push her down, down, down. Water enters her mouth; her throat closes over. She can’t breathe. The last sound she hears from far, far away is Tenny’s mournful bark. Then darkness closes in.
Excerpt from Dangerous Flaws by Susan Hunter. Copyright © 2018 by Susan Hunter. Reproduced with permission from Susan Hunter. All rights reserved.
Susan Hunter is a charter member of Introverts International (which meets the 12th of Never at an undisclosed location). She has worked as a reporter and managing editor, during which time she received a first place UPI award for investigative reporting and a Michigan Press Association first place award for enterprise/feature reporting.
Susan has also taught composition at the college level, written advertising copy, newsletters, press releases, speeches, web copy, academic papers, and memos. Lots and lots of memos. She lives in rural Michigan with her husband Gary, who is a man of action, not words.
During certain times of the day, she can be found wandering the mean streets of small-town Himmel, Wisconsin, looking for clues, stopping for a meal at the Elite Cafe, dropping off a story lead at the Himmel Times Weekly, or meeting friends for a drink at McClain’s Bar and Grill.