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Book Jacket

1414308124
Trade Paperback
400 pages
Feb 2006
Tyndale Publishers

The Witness

by Dee Henderson

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

Chapter One

Stopping at the mall to pick up a cut-glass vase for his sister’s birthday, a mystery novel for his day off, and a few items needed for the house had seemed like a good idea an hour ago, but Luke Granger was still short two items on his shopping list, and he had no desire to try another store.

        “Officer.”

        He turned.

        The lady clutching two Bergner’s shopping bags and the hand of a three-year-old girl looked worried. “There’s a woman in the restroom who needs help. She asked me to find mall security.”

        He was city police and off duty, still in uniform after a day in court; she was close enough. “Anyone else in there?”

        “No.”

        He nodded and crossed the corridor into the hallway with pay phones and restrooms. A cleaning-service cart sat outside a door marked Utilities. He pulled it over to block the entryway to the women’s restroom. “Police officer coming in,” he called in warning. He walked through the sitting area with four chairs and a stroller station and into the lavatory area.

        He saw the lady: early forties, sick, her face alabaster white, the counter doing more to hold her upright than her legs. He turned, set down his purchases, and returned with a curved-back and cushioned chair. “Sit down, ma’am.”

        He shut off the water streaming over her hands in the basin and eased her back into the chair. She wore a white tailored blouse and black dress slacks, the retailer version of a uniform, and they were no longer neat or straight. He wondered at sexual assault even as he stripped off his jacket and bundled it around her to deal with the chill he could feel. He was a big man, broad shouldered and tall, and the jacket swallowed her slim frame.

        “His eyes were caramel, cold.” A shudder rippled through her body.

        “Okay.” He swept hands down her midsection looking for the source of the smeared blood on the front of the sink counter. Blood darkened her slacks at the right thigh, but it hadn’t soaked through the fabric from a wound.

        “Bressman’s Jewelry, the storeroom.”

        His gaze shot to hers.

        “They’re all dead. I checked.”

        He briskly closed his jacket snaps up to her neck. “Stay right here.”

        She gave a jerky nod.

        He left her there.

        

Luke walked into Bressman’s Jewelry. The sign turning above the front display counter advertised 30 percent off diamond pendants this week only. No salesclerks were in sight. He walked around the counters and into a small back office, then turned down the narrow hallway that paralleled the public restrooms. A door moved back and forth in the breeze of the overhead air-conditioning, and a radio tuned to a country station began a new song; nothing else spoke of life.

        He looked.

        And because he was a cop, he stood. The horror took a good minute to wash through his system as he cataloged the killings. Four store staff herded back here and shot as a group, the blood splatter staining the storage shelves. The youngest looked to be barely out of high school with her makeup perfect and her nails painted a soft pink. A lady his mother’s age had been shot in the head. The store manager and a third sales associate, both middle-aged men, had died in front of a holder for gift boxes. The blood hadn’t attracted more than a couple flies yet: ten minutes? twenty?

        The fact it had been done in his town, within his reach, and as deputy chief of police he hadn’t been able to prevent it, chilled his anger to a hard, sharp edge. Luke reached for his radio. “55-14.”

        “10-2.”

        He recognized the dispatcher’s voice in the brief answer. “Janice, there’s a multiple 187 at Ellerton Mall, Bressman’s Jewelry.” He mentally ran through the list of detectives on duty. “I need Connor, Marsh, Mayfield, and St. James. Tell them minutes matter.”

        “Yes, sir. Priority calls are going out.”

        “Assign a band for this case.”

        “Four.”

        He switched over his radio frequency.

        “Emergency Services?” Janice asked.

        “Dispatch forensics code orange to the scene and alert the coroner. I’ll need forty officers pulled in. Locate as many as you can in-house, tap the Westford district, and then start calling men back to duty. Marsh will be handling assignments on scene. Where’s Paul Riker right now?”

        “His schedule shows a Q&A with print journalists.”

        “Have someone pass him a message. I need him on scene.”

        “Yes, sir.”

        “Questions?”

        “I can handle it, sir.”

        “Good. I’m code four.”

        Footsteps had him turning. Two mall security officers, both hurrying.

        “Stay up front.” Luke left the door swinging in the air-conditioned breeze and walked back to the showroom. “There’s been a shooting. How many security officers does the mall have on duty?”

        “Four.”

        “Okay. I want the two of you to close this storefront. Parker, once the gate is locked, I want you to sit at the side entrance to this store. No one but Brentwood or Westford officers enter or you won’t be employed tomorrow, you understand?”

        “Yes, sir.”

        “Richards, I want you to get the other two mall guards and start working the parking lot starting at this entrance. I want a list of license-plate numbers for every vehicle on the lot.”

        They stood there.

        “Move.”

        They rushed to bring down the security gate, pulling the first panel from the ceiling to cover the main section of the store entryway.  

        Luke walked over to the east wall of the display area and took down the sixth framed picture. His witness looked better in her official photo. Kelly Brown. It didn’t sound like a fortysomething’s name. Her hair had changed—it was now a couple inches longer and a shade darker auburn—but the blue eyes were the same.

        He kept the photo and walked the display cases. Nothing appeared disturbed. A robbery with multiple murders and no jewelry taken? How much would be here in inventory? A hundred thousand? More? Do you have a special sales area, Kelly Brown? Rings, watches, the necklaces that would cost a year of my salary? You were wearing no jewelry today, not even a ring. That surprised me. The cash register also appeared untouched.

        Luke looked up as the first officers he had requested began to stream in. Connor was in the lead with his partner, Marsh, towering over him a step behind. Connor was all of five nine, wearing the black jeans and sweatshirt he favored for days working the streets. Marsh, at six four, still looked like a hungover drunk after too many days staking out alleys, and the dark shadows under his eyes were more pronounced than normal. Luke considered them to be among the best officers in the department, even though neither would like to hear that commendation repeated in public for fear they would end up in management one day.

        “What do we have, Boss?”

        Luke pointed to the back hallway. “I’m leaving the scene to you, Connor. Marsh, you’re coordinating the officers coming in to assist. I’ve got a witness to deal with. I need names and addresses of the victims fast, because I’m not seeing robbery as the motive. We’re still in the first hour, so light a fire under everyone.”

        “Will do.”

        “Keep the traffic on channel four. As soon as Riker arrives, page me. The press is going to be a problem with this one.”

        Trying to clear the mall of all shoppers wasn’t a workable option, and sending a SWAT team searching for the shooter in a crowded mall would only end up with public panic and injuries. The shooter had come in, herded store staff to a back storage room, and shot them there. The scene presented said the shooter had left without trying to attract attention, and the timing of the shootings said he was already gone. For now they would work it outward from the shooting scene and try not to amplify the problem they faced.

        Already a crowd of shoppers was slowing, stopping, and asking questions of each other. Luke walked through them and around the corridor to the restrooms. The cleaning cart remained where he had left it. Luke stepped around it and into the ladies’ restroom.

        The chair sat in the lavatory section, empty but for his folded jacket. “Ma’am? Kelly Brown?”

        He left the lavatory and walked through the stalls. The restroom was empty. She’d left. As shaky as she had been, she’d still managed to leave.

        He walked out of the restroom and looked around the corridor. She wasn’t watching the officers at the store, propelled there by the awfulness of what she had seen. There wasn’t a need to run, Kelly. You were safe now.

        “I need an address and a vehicle make for Kelly Brown, early forties. Give me any DMV records close to the name and age registered in the city.” He started the trace and then flipped through the phone book to locate the main Bressman store. He tore out the page. Five branches. Why this one?

        Luke reentered the jewelry store and moved into the small office area; the hallway had begun to fill with forensics people.

        Connor looked up from a file. “Your witness?”

        “Skipped. And from the sound of it, she saw the shooter. I’ve got a trace running for her car now. Anything here show addresses, phone numbers of the staff?”

        “I’ve got customer information—jewelry repair and special orders—but the best I’ve done so far on the staff is an index card taped by the phone. The main store has all the personnel files. I’ve got an officer bringing them over.”

        Luke checked the index card. Just first names, but only one Kelly. He touched his radio. “I need a reverse lookup on a phone number.” He read it off and got an address back. “She’s close by; I’m heading over there. You’re good here?”

        “The photos and phone numbers give me a place to start, and forensics has a priority to tell me the weapon used. I’ll have preliminary inventory confirmed in twenty minutes. Right now you’re right; it looks like everything is here.”

        “Former staff, recent firings—this types as a workplace shooting, not a robbery. Station a patrol car and officer at the other Bressman stores; there’s no reasoning yet for why this branch. Let’s make sure it’s not simply the first.”

        “Marsh had the same thought; he’s got officers on the way to the stores now.”

        Luke stopped at the restroom to retrieve his jacket and his purchases from an hour ago. He headed toward his sedan. He could send other officers, but Kelly was spooked enough, and what she had seen was their strongest lead right now.

        The trip took seven minutes, three of them spent idling at red lights. He turned on Amber Road. He wasn’t sure he would personally like to live this close to where he worked. He slowed as the house numbers counted down to the address he sought and he stopped: an old two-story red brick with a massive front porch and a narrow lot. The oak tree in front towered above the house and shaded the yard. No vehicle was in Kelly Brown’s driveway, and a slow drive past showed the garage had a blown-over trash can rolling back and forth in front of the door, suggesting she hadn’t pulled through into the garage.

        “55-14.”

        He touched his radio. “10-2.”

        “DMV records for Kelly Brown at that address show only one vehicle registered, a Honda Odyssey, plates alpha-bravo-nine-two-five.”

        “Alpha-bravo-nine-two-five. 10-4.”

        Luke circled the block and saw no sign of her vehicle. He parked on the street. Picking up his jacket, he slipped it on. He lifted the collar closer to his face and caught the faint trace of her perfume. A lady’s scent: welcoming, a touch elegant. He walked up the sidewalk to her front porch. Mail jammed the mailbox, and potted plants lined inside the front window. Lights were off. He rang the doorbell and opened the screen door to also knock. “Ms. Brown, Kelly, please come to the door. It’s Officer Granger.”

        He didn’t get an answer.

        He walked around the property and knocked on the back door. The house appeared locked and quiet.

        He hadn’t seen her purse in that lavatory, and she hadn’t reentered the jewelry store. If she wasn’t home, then where? He touched his radio. “Connor, get the mall security guard Richards on the radio. Check if a Honda Odyssey is still in the mall parking lot. Plates are alpha-bravo-nine-two-five.”

        “Hold on.”

        Luke checked windows around the property, but what he could see of Kelly Brown’s life were plants, books, one bowl in the draining rack beside the sink, and a jacket lying over the back of a chair. He checked the mail and found it all addressed to K. Brown or Kelly Brown. She lived alone.

        “The vehicle is parked in section G, aisle five.”

        “Tell Richards to keep an eye on it. Have you found any purses in the office?”

        “No. There’s a locker in the storeroom that may be for coats and such. I’ll check just as soon as forensics gives me access.”

        “I’m on my way back to you.”

        He had left her at the mall restroom. If she didn’t have her purse, she didn’t have car or house keys, and she would have no cash beyond what she might have slipped into her pocket. But if she’d worked at that mall branch for three years, as the photo indicated, she likely had friends on staff at other stores. Lack of keys or cash wasn’t going to slow her down. And if she was running scared—come on, honey, the last thing I want to do is go knock on the doors of your friends and leave them worried when I can’t tell them for sure you’re okay.

        She’d seen the shooter well enough to know his eye color. She hadn’t been killed. The two facts were incongruent. Someone she knew? Someone she recognized on sight? Then why hadn’t she just said his name as the person who shot her coworkers?

        Kelly Brown, I need to find you or you need to find me, and it has to be soon.

        Luke parked beside responding squad cars at the mall and walked back inside. Marsh had set up shop east of the jewelry-store entrance in a small storefront available for lease, officers streaming in and out with information and new assignments.

        Luke handed Marsh Kelly’s photo. “I need a canvas of the mall, staff at the stores, anyone who has seen her or knows her. She’s going to be wound pretty tight, so have me paged rather than approach her if someone spots her. She may have already left with a friend, so also be asking at stores for the names of who got off duty in the last hour and a half.”

        “You’ll have it.” Marsh passed the photo to the officer behind him. “Thirty duplicates, color. Tom, get me another stack of mall maps to mark store assignments. What’s the latest count on the mall security tapes?”

        “Nine scanned so far,” Tom replied. “They just brought down another six.”

        “Your witness is going to turn out to be our best lead on the shooter. The initial interviews of those around the jewelry store are coming up dry, and the security tapes from the store and mall aren’t offering much.”

        Luke suspected that too. “She saw enough to give us the shooter—I’m convinced of that. Stress that ‘do not approach’ when she’s spotted; have me paged.”

        “Will do.”

        Luke stopped beside the mall security guard Parker. “Does the mall have a regular bus stop?”

        “One by the movie theater and the other by Sears. The blue bus line stops at both every thirty minutes.”

        Luke headed over to the movie-theater entrance. The bus was on time. He stepped aboard, confirmed the driver had been on this route the last two hours, and got a negative when he described Kelly Brown.

        Luke stepped back off. It had been a long shot. He flagged down a mall-security patrol car and got in beside Roberts. “Show me the van I tagged.” As they drove the lot, Luke flipped pages in the license-plate list. They’d been recorded by section. “Three hundred cars, give or take?”

        “Yes. The lot can hold seven hundred, and we’ve been under half most of today. That’s it.” Roberts came to a stop behind the vehicle.

        Luke got out. The windows showed him two white shopping sacks on the passenger seat and an open soda in the cup holder. Nothing suggested she had been back to the vehicle; nothing suggested someone else had carpooled with her to work. “I’ll walk from here.”

        Roberts nodded and returned to recording license plates.

        Had Kelly headed out into the parking lot only to change where she was going when she realized she didn’t have her keys? Had she tried for a cab ride to a friend’s who could pay the bill for her?

        Luke rejoined his officers. “Marsh?”

        “Sorry, Boss, so far the canvas is coming up dry. Her friends working at other stores have caucused and can’t come up with a name who might have given her a ride home. She didn’t catch a bus?”

        “No.”

        Connor joined them and passed over the list of victims’ names and addresses. “She lives nearby; she could have walked home. Or she could have called someone to come get her.”

        “She could have. Or the guy who did this was waiting for her to reappear.” Luke didn’t like the time passing on him. Whatever was going through Kelly’s mind right now was going to be dominated by the image of coworkers dead, and that shock wasn’t going to pass easily. Besides the fact he needed her help to move this investigation forward, he personally needed to know she wasn’t sliding into a worse shock reaction than when he’d last seen her. He scanned the list of victims. “Have next of kin been identified for the victims?” Most would have spouses and children; some would have parents and siblings still living; all would have friends. Which one also had an enemy?

        “Next of kin have been located for two of the four,” Connor replied. “We’ve set up a secure conference room for family members who feel they need to come to the scene. Riker is five minutes out, and he’s bringing enough staff along to set up for a briefing outside the west entrance.”

        Luke nodded at the news. “Profiles on our victims?”

        “Not as far along as I would like. Give me another thirty minutes and I should have preliminary workups done. The personnel files gave us five former employees that raised concern, two of them red flags for having made recent threats. Mayfield and St. James are heading out to check them personally, and Marsh has got officers working the rest as priorities. Forensics pulled a slug from the wall and should be able to tell us within an hour if this gun has been used in other shootings.”

        “Good. Did you find Kelly’s purse?”

        “Yes. Hold on.” Connor went to get it.

        The bag was basic black, soft sided, and smaller than Luke had expected. The wallet held thirty-two in cash, her driver’s license, two credit cards, and a handful of business cards for the local bank, florist, insurance agent. The checkbook had a few checks remaining on the pad; the check registry went back three years and showed a couple thousand currently in her account. Luke opened an address book and found most pages covered in names and phone numbers with only a few addresses. A number of the entries had been marked through and updated with new phone numbers. Luke had a feeling he was holding most of Kelly Brown’s life for the last several years. “This will help.”

        A look through the first page, the last, and the tab marked B showed no other Browns listed. No family, Kelly? Or are they listed here under married names? He glanced at his watch. “This lady went to somewhere she felt safe, and we need to find it. Keep working the mall canvas: employee lounges, dressing rooms, restrooms, anywhere she might go to get out of view. I’m going to check her place again. If we don’t locate her in the next hour, I’ll want her photo going out to the public. Marsh, you’ve got enough hands to get the former employees tracked down?”

        “Yes.”

        “Call me if you hit any roadblocks.”

        “I’ll do that, Boss.”

        Luke took the purse with him and headed back to his car. He drove toward Kelly’s home again. He remembered the look in her eyes—where do you feel most safe, Kelly? If not home, where? When traffic paused, he tugged out the address book and flipped pages. If she wasn’t found soon, he’d be calling most of the people she’d listed. If he put her photo out to the public, he risked the shooter finding her first. Time was not an asset right now.

        Her driveway remained empty. This time he pulled into the drive and parked there, intentionally blocking the garage. The possibility existed that she’d acquired a rental car or borrowed a friend’s car, and if she didn’t wish to speak to him, leaving was one way to accomplish that. He walked around to her front door.

        The frog planter had moved from the top step down a riser since his first visit—a subtle change, but he noticed the brushed-away dirt on the step. A spare house key hidden underneath? She could exit on him out the side door by the kitchen, but her house had no alley and her neighbors’ yards were fenced. She’d have to come within view.

        He pressed the buzzer and then opened the screen door and knocked. “Ms. Brown. Kelly. It’s Officer Granger. Please open the door. I know you’re home.”

        He waited.

        The dead bolt finally slid away. The door opened enough for him to see her. Wary. Haunted. Stressed. But no tears showing.

        She was his age, but he had no idea how to relate to this woman. “May I speak with you?”

        She stepped back and let him enter her home.

        She’d changed from the blouse and slacks to a red sweater and faded jeans. A slender woman, the clothes hung on her. She walked back into a room off the hall. He followed, only to stop at the door to her bedroom. The bed had a rose-print spread neatly tucked under matching pillows and a large open suitcase sitting on the left side.

        She picked up a shirt from an open dresser drawer. “It was Paula Grant’s ex. I saw him leaving the store, and I saw the gun. She had a restraining order against him—what good that did her. He came out of the back office and hallway, walked past the ladies’ watches, then turned east in the mall toward RadioShack. I saw the butt of the gun as he closed his jacket.” She stopped moving. “I went to look.” She stood still as the image hit her again, then briskly resumed folding a shirt for the suitcase.

        “Why didn’t you stay?”

        “Because I’ve got a guy in my life not unlike her ex who is going to love to hear where I’m now living.” She crossed to the closet and pulled out items en masse.

        “Ms. Brown—”

        “Please, it’s miss or just Kelly.”

        “Kelly—you can’t run. You’re a material witness to a multiple murder.”

        “My name is going to be in the news soon if it isn’t already. A dead witness isn’t going to do you any good.” She reached over to the dresser and tossed him the area phone book. “You pick the town and hotel. My cab arrives in five minutes.” She shoved aside the mattress and pulled a thick envelope taped to the box spring free. “I’ll stay put for forty-eight hours while you figure something out. That’s all I’m promising. But you give me your word you’re the only one who knows that information.”

        “Who’s the guy you’re running from?”

        “I give you the name, you’re going to run it, and that curiosity is what got the last cop in my life killed.”

        He would have said she was overblowing conclusions, but watching her pack and the matter-of-fact way she’d delivered the news suggested it was merely the barest of the facts. There hadn’t been a cop killed in his city in twelve years; she’d moved here from where? He’d know before the evening was out. “The Radisson in Park Heights.”

        “I’ll check in under the name Ann Walsh.” She shoved money from the envelope into her pocket, then looked at him. “I’m sorry about what happened to them. They were friends. But I have to go.”

        “Order room service and don’t call people.”

        “I’ve been this route a few times now.” She closed her suitcase. “I’ve got to go.”

        “Why didn’t you say who it was earlier?”

        The question stopped her. “I thought I had.” She sighed. “I remember the running water, your blue eyes, and being cold. It’s blurry from when I left the storeroom.”

        “Okay.”

        “Lock up behind me please; use the key that’s on the kitchen table and put it back under the frog.”

        “I’ve got your purse in my car.”

        “If I have it I would just use something that could inadvertently get me tracked down.” She walked out to catch her cab.

        He watched her go and wondered just what he’d walked into today. The multiple homicide might turn out to be the easier of the two problems to solve.

        Luke locked the house and restored the key to its guardian frog. From his car he placed a call to Marsh. “You can call off the search for Kelly Brown; I found her. She saw the shooter and knew him. We need an all points for Paula Grant’s ex. There’s a restraining order against him. Find the paper on it. Get the vehicle information and put it out as armed and deadly. We’ve got an arrest to make tonight.”

        “10-4.”

        He set down the radio, knowing the flurry of activity he’d just triggered. He headed back to the mall. If Paula’s ex was still in this city, odds were good they would have an arrest in twenty-four hours. And unless they got a confession and a guilty plea, this case was going to need Kelly’s testimony. In the next forty-eight hours he had to make sure he understood the trouble that she was in and how he could best neutralize it. He didn’t need her bolting on him again.

        There were problems. Kelly Brown wasn’t her name any more than Ann Walsh was. The phone book she’d tossed him now rested on the seat beside him, and a full set of fingerprints should help him with her name if he could figure out a safe way to run the check. A list of cops killed in the Midwest was a phone call away. The employment application she’d filled out and her address book would close a few more loopholes. The lady was running scared, but running smart. Piercing the secrecy of her past without also piercing her carefully constructed anonymity would take some care. Staying under everyone’s radar screen had probably been keeping her alive.

        She would be hiding out in a strange hotel room tonight, trying to sleep after walking into that storeroom to confirm her friends were dead. “They’re all dead. I checked.” She’d checked. She wouldn’t be sleeping much tonight.

        And neither would he. Arrest this guy, then he was going to drive out to Park Heights. It didn’t really matter what her name was. She had landed in his life and become his responsibility. She probably wouldn’t like it much, but it wouldn’t change things. She was running from someone, and he’d never been one to avoid trouble. To listen to his sister, he went looking for it.

        God, there are times I wish I was better at this job; this is one of them. Figuring out what I do next is going to take wisdom I don’t have right now. How do I help her without causing more trouble for her? She reminds me of Renee Lewis, and that case still bothers me. I’ll need ideas before I see her tonight. I’ve got to ask about the shooting today and then double the stress on her by asking about her own situation. That’s not exactly the way to help a lady end a traumatic day. My job is colliding with how I’d handle the situation if I were off duty—and I don’t want to be making her situation worse just to do my job. There’s got to be some options.  

        She carried herself well; under stress she had pushed past the shock to make decisions and move fast—that spoke of a lot of internal strength. He remembered faces easily because it went with his job, and he already knew her face was going to be lingering in his mind for a long time to come. Maybe it was her age or the fact she was on a course of action that meant trouble was around, but she’d already clicked as someone to worry about. It was why he’d long ago chosen to be a cop: to do some good when it needed to be done. He’d have to figure something out in the next couple hours.

        He pulled into the mall. Paul Riker waved him over to where the press had assembled. Luke pocketed his car keys and made his way toward the department’s press spokesman. The reporters’ shouted questions arrived as the microphones on long booms did, and Luke knew his face was going live across television sets throughout the city. This trouble he would gladly avoid if possible. “Just a moment, people. Riker and I talk privately first.”

        He walked through the crowd, and they parted out of habit. He’d been around this job too long; he recognized nearly every face in the crowd. A few were vultures out to exploit the story for the local and national tabloids, but most were solid reporters wanting to be first with the news. Luke walked with Riker away from the podium, saw Connor coming toward them, and he changed course, taking Riker with him to meet up with his detective.

        Connor offered a folder. “We’ve got a decent photo on the shooter, and we’ve confirmed he did not return to his residence. I vote we put it out on the air now.”

        “Riker?” Luke looked at the photo, memorizing the guy he was after.

        “Yes, let me broadcast it. We’re set up to absorb the call volume. And for what it’s worth it may keep the press busy enough to help us suppress the witness information with a cover story—we’ve got security video now and can use it as the way we made the ID.”

        Luke appreciated the suggestion, for while keeping Kelly’s name out of the paper wasn’t a concern, keeping her photo from being published was. He would prefer another hour of just officers searching for the shooter, but his name would be out on the rumor mill already as reporters talked with friends of the victims and learned Paula had a restraining order against the man. “Stress the do-not-approach warning. I don’t want another civilian crossing paths with him.”

        Riker nodded and accepted the folder. He took it with him to the podium.

        Luke tucked Kelly Brown back into the corner of his thoughts and turned his attention to the manhunt before him. One problem at a time. For now she was safe.

        

 

 

THE NEGOTIATOR

Dave waited until Kate’s brother Stephen disappeared up the stairs. “Why didn’t you tell me yesterday? Trust me?”

“Tell you what? That I might have someone in my past who may be a murderer?” Kate swung away from him into the living room. “I’ve never even met this guy. Until twenty-four hours ago, I didn’t even have a suspicion that he existed.”

“Kate, he’s targeting you.”

“Then let him find me.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“There is no reason for him to have blown up a plane just to get at me, to get at some banker. We’re never going to know the truth unless someone can grab him. And if he gets cornered by a bunch of cops, he’ll either kill himself or be killed in a shootout. It would be easier all around if he did come after me.”

“Stop thinking with your emotions and use your head.” Dave shot back. “What we need to do is to solve this case. That’s how we’ll find out the answers and ultimately find him.”

“Then you go tear through the piles of data. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. Don’t you understand that? I don’t want to be the one who puts the pieces together. Yesterday was like getting stuck in the gut with a hot poker.”

He understood it, could feel the pain flowing from her. “Fine. Stay here for a day, get your feet back under you. Then get back in the game and stop acting like you’re the only one this is hurting. Or have you forgotten all the people who died?” He saw the sharp pain flash in her eyes before they went cold and regretted his words.

“That was a low blow and you know it.”

“Kate”

“I can’t offer anything to the investigation, don’t you understand that? I don’t know anything. I don’t know him.”

“Well he knows you. And if you walk away from this now, you’re going to feel like a coward. Just what are you so afraid of?”

He could see it in her, a fear so deep it shimmered in her eyes and pooled them black, and he remembered his coworker’s comment that he probably didn’t want to read the court record. His eyes narrowed and his voice softened. “Are you sure you don’t remember this guy?”

She broke eye contact, and it felt like a blow because he knew that at this moment he was the one hurting her. “If you need to get away for twenty-four hours, do it. Just don’t run because you’re afraid. You’ll never forgive yourself.”

“Marcus wouldn’t let me go check out the data because he was afraid I would kill the guy if I found him.”

Her words rocked him back on his heels. “What?” He closed the distance between them, and for the first time since this morning began, actually felt something like relief. He rested his hands calmly on her shoulders. “No you wouldn’t. You’re too good a cop.”

She blinked.

“I almost died with you, remember?” He smiled. “I’ve seen you under pressure.” His thumb rubbed along her jaw. “Come on, Kate. Come back with me to the house, and let’s get back to work. The media wouldn’t get near you, I promise.”

Marcus and Stephen came back down the stairs, but Kate didn’t look around; she just kept studying Dave. She finally turned and looked at her brother. “Marcus, I’m going back to Dave’s.”

Dave gave in to a small surge of relief. It was a start. Tenuous. And risky. But a start, all the same.

 

 

THE GUARDIAN

It was a good night for a sniper, Marcus realized as he checked with the men securing the perimeter of the church property. They were running behind schedule and Marcus could feel the danger of that. Twilight was descending. In the dusk settling in the open areas around the church across the clusters of towering oak trees, the shadows themselves spoke of hidden dangers.

It was time to move.

Marcus raised Luke on the security net. “I’m changing the travel plans. We’re going to take the family out the back entrance. Cue us up to leave in five minutes.”

“Roger.”

He reentered the church.

Marcus had been too occupied during the last hour to really look at Shari, an unfortunate reality that went with the job. It was everyone else who was the threat. He looked now and what he saw concerned him. She was folding, he could see it in the glazed expression, the lack of color in her face, the betraying fact her brother had noticed and now had his hand under her arm.

Definitely time to leave.

Marcus moved to join them and relieve Craig.

Shari saw him coming and broke off her conversation to join him. “Marcus, could—”

The window behind her exploded.

{D}

Shari heard someone gasp in pain and the next second Marcus swept out his left arm, caught her across the front of her chest at her collarbone, and took her feet right out from under her.

She felt herself falling backward and it was a petrifying sensation. She couldn’t get her hands back in time to break her fall and she hit hard, slamming against the floor, her back and neck taking the brunt of the impact. His arm had her pinned to the ground, his hand gripping her shoulder. He wasn’t letting her move even if she could.

“Shari—”

She couldn’t respond, her head was ringing so badly.

That had been a bullet.

She wheezed at that realization; her lungs feeling like they would explode. Around her people were screaming.

Another window shattered.

Marcus forcibly pulled her across the floor with him out of the way. “South. Shooter to the south!”

She could hear him hollering on the security net, and it was like listening down a tunnel. Who was bleeding? Someone was bleeding, she could see it on his hand.

It was coming home to her now, very much home. Someone was trying to kill her . . . again.

 

 

THE TRUTH SEEKER

Lisa O’Malley was sitting on the side step of the fire engine, silent, one tennis shoe off as she’d stepped on a hot ember and burned the sole, her stockinged foot moving slowly back and forth in the soot-blackened water rushing down the street toward the nearest storm drain. Her gaze never leaving the dying fire. Her brother Stephen had wrapped a fire coat around her, and she had it gripped with both hands, pulled tight.

Quinn Diamond kept a close watch on her as he stood leaning against the driver’s door of a squad car, waiting for a callback from the dispatcher. She was alone in her grief, her emotions hidden, her eyes dry. She’d lost what she’d valued, and Quinn hated to realize how much it had to resonate with her past.

Kate sat down beside her.

Quinn watched as the two sisters sat in silence, and he prayed for Kate, that she would have the right words to say.

Instead, she remained silent.

And Lisa leaned her head against Kate’s shoulder and continued to watch the fire burn, the silence unbroken.

Friends. Deep, lifelong friends.

Quinn had to turn away from the sight. He had so much emotion inside it was going to rupture into tears or fury.

He found himself facing a grim Marcus O’Malley.

“Quinn, get her out of here.”

“Stephen has already tried; she won’t budge.”

“No. I mean out of here. Out of town,” Marcus replied grimly. “The killer goes from notes and phone calls to fire. He’s not going to stop there.”

Marcus was right. Lisa had to come first. “The ranch. She’s going to need the space.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ll keep her safe, now that it’s too late.”

“Quinn—we’ll find him.”

That wasn’t even in question. He was going to hunt the guy down and rip out his heart.

 

 

THE PROTECTOR

The house was a total loss. Firefighter Jack O’Malley shone his bright light on the dripping walls, looking for anything that would provide a source for the smoke he was still chasing. Second-floor beams above him groaned as the building settled. Fire had shattered what was once a beautiful home. It was like walking around inside a sarcophagus. The place felt like it was dying.

The kitchen smelled of something nasty, the sharp smell of burnt cleaning supplies making Jack’s eyes water. Limp bananas now hung over a bowl whose apples looked like cooked mush. Coupons fluttered from the counter to the floor, turning to a sodden mass in the standing water. Pictures on the refrigerator had bled away color in the heat, leaving behind the ghosts of people barely discernible.

He was grateful the family had not been caught in the inferno. This was so incredibly senseless. The fire looked like it had been set.

Weariness washed over him again. He’d like to find the man responsible for this and deck him.

A wisp of gray caught his attention as the house breathed. Some smoke was coming through the central air ductwork. Jack touched his radio. “Nate, check the utility room again.”

“On it.”

Jack walked through what had once been the patio door, stepping out into the night. The massive spotlights from the fire engines in front of the house cast strange shadows onto the backyard through holes in the house.

Popcorn.

Jack stopped in his tracks when he spotted the white kernels lying at the edge of the deck. The building anger surged and fury swept through him. Someone had stood and watched the house burn, had come prepared to enjoy the sight. It was a signature he’d seen before.

The kernels were scattered, dropped as though stragglers from an overflowing fistful. Jack searched the area. He had hoped this particular arsonist was going to stick to his nuisance fires of grass and trash. Instead, he’d just escalated to his first house.

He hated arsonists. Painful experience from his own past had taught him how ruthless a fire starter could become. Destruction of property. Innocent victims. Injured firefighters. They had to find this guy before someone got hurt.

He could fight a fire, but fighting a man— Jack felt like his hands were tied and he hated the feeling of being helpless. He was an O’Malley. He wasn’t one to duck trouble. He preferred to go after it. And this was clearly trouble. How was he supposed to go after a man who chose to be a coward and hide behind a match?

Around him the firefighters from Company 81 were pulling hose and shouting to be heard over the sound of a power saw. They were aggressively searching for hot spots within the house, trying to find the source of that smoke still rising like a wavering cobra into the air.

Somewhere in the ruins this fire was still alive. Jack pulled back on his gloves and looked over the house with an experienced eye. A decade of fighting fires had taught him well, for it was not a forgiving profession.

Fire was an arrogant beast. If in control, it challenged anyone who approached with ferocious disdain. If forced to retreat, it liked to lie low, patiently waiting, then exact a painful revenge.

They’d find it. Kill it. And another dragon would be slain.

“Cole.” Jack got the attention of the fire investigator.

There were few men who could dominate a fire scene just by being present; his friend was one. Cole Parker had made captain at thirty-six, a decade before most. He now led the arson group. Jack trusted the man in a way he trusted few outside his family.

“What do you have, Jack?”

With his flashlight, Jack illuminated the popcorn.

Cole, a big man with a big shadow, stilled for a moment, then walked over to the deck.

“He’s escalating,” Jack said.

Cole bent to pick up a kernel. “We knew he eventually would. Five fires in seven weeks, he’s not a patient man.”

“He’s ringing fires around the new boundaries of the fire district.” Jack knew it was at least a clue to figuring out who the arsonist was.

Cole just nodded. “A dangerous man playing a dangerous game.” He ate one of the popped kernels. “Salt. He’s bringing his own refreshments.”

“I really didn’t need to know that.”

His friend rose gracefully to his feet. “I thought this had the sound of one of his. Late at night, edge of the district.” He looked over at Jack. “Gold Shift.”

The implication that Jack’s shift was being targeted hadn’t escaped his attention. They worked twenty-four hours on, forty-eight hours off, yet all the fires had been fought by his shift. Jack would not easily admit he’d started to sweat when the tones sounded. It was hard to hold his trademark good humor when someone out there appeared determined to make sure he was going to face flames.

Cole brushed his hands on worn jeans. “Tell me about this fire.”

“It was in the walls.”

First on the scene, Jack had pushed his way into the front hallway, shining his light, and had watched the paint bubble from the heat inside the walls. No flames had been visible, but as soon as he poked his ax into a wall, the dragon leaped out, roaring. “We had a hard time getting water onto the face of it.”

 They slogged across the yard now turned into mud by the hours of streaming water. “Think he’s after the press attention?” Jack asked.

“Bold enough to stand around after the fire starts and flick popcorn into the flames, arrogant enough to set fires frequently. Now he’s escalating in the type of fires he sets. He wants the attention—ours, the press’s, and ultimately the public’s.”

“We’ll have a panic on our hands if we don’t stop him before the press connects the fires.”

“Not to mention copycats.”

Smoke twisted in their direction, the heavy ash particles making Jack cough. “What time is it?”

Cole sent him a sympathetic smile. “After 2 A.M.”

Two and a half hours. Jack felt like he had run a marathon. The turnout coat sat heavy on his shoulders, and it stuck and rubbed at his neck as he moved. The last hours had turned his shirt into a sweaty mass. Jack knew he could forget any idea of sleep tonight. It would be dawn before they got the fire mop-up complete.

He’d kill for a shower. The smell of smoke and sweat was a stench he didn’t mind as long as he was moving and downwind of himself.

“You did a good job of knocking it down.”

He was pleased at the praise, for Cole didn’t give it lightly. “Thanks.”

Jack scanned the few remaining spectators—neighbors hurriedly dressed, a couple kids entranced at the sight of the red engine and ladder truck, local media, a cop blocking the street from thru traffic.

Some firebugs were watchers. They acted just so the firefighters would get called out. They’d stand and watch the battle, their own personal entertainment. No one stood out among those watching.

Jack turned back to the house and watched guys turn a nozzle back on to deal with a pocket of fire found smoldering in the wall between the garage and the breezeway. “This isn’t going to be his last fire.”

“Safe wager.”

“Any ideas?”

Cole shook his head. “No ideas, no assumptions, no conclusions. You know how this job is done.”

Jack did. It took patience he didn’t have. “My men are at risk.” Cole reached over and squeezed his shoulder.

 “Lieutenant, O’Malley?” A firefighter from Truck 81 stepped to the open front door. “You’re going to want to see this.”

 

 

DANGER IN THE SHADOWS

The summer storm lit up the night sky in a jagged display of energy, lightning bouncing, streaking, fragmenting between towering thunderheads. Sara Walsh ignored the storm as best she could, determined not to let it interrupt her train of thought. The desk lamp as well as the overhead light were on in her office as she tried to prevent any shadows from forming. What she was writing was disturbing enough.

        The six-year-old boy had been found. Dead.

        Writing longhand on a yellow legal pad of paper, she shaped the twenty-ninth chapter of her mystery novel. Despite the dark specificity of the scene, the flow of words never faltered.

        The child had died within hours of his abduction. His family, the Oklahoma law enforcement community, even his kidnapper, did not realize it. Sara did not pull back from writing the scene even though she knew it would leave a bitter taste of defeat in the mind of the reader. The impact was necessary for the rest of the book.

        She frowned, crossed out the last sentence, added a new detail, then went on with her description of the farmer who had found the boy.

        Thunder cracked directly overhead. Sara flinched. Her office suite on the thirty-fourth floor put her close enough to the storm she could hear the air sizzle in the split second before the boom. She would like to be in the basement parking garage right now instead of her office.

        She had been writing since eight that morning. A glance at the clock on her desk showed it was almost eight in the evening. The push to finish a story always took over as she reached the final chapters. This tenth book was no exception.

        Twelve hours. No wonder her back muscles were stiff. She had taken a brief break for lunch while she reviewed the mail her secretary had prioritized for her. The rest of her day had been spent working on the book. She arched her back and rubbed at the knot.

        This was the most difficult chapter in the book to write. It was better to get it done in one long, sustained effort. Death always squeezed her heart.

        Had Dave been in town, he would have insisted she wrap it up and come home. Her life was restricted enough as it was. Her brother refused to let her spend all her time at the office. He would come lean against the doorjamb of her office and give her that look along with his predictable lecture telling her all she should be doing: Puttering around the house, cooking, messing with the roses, something other than sit behind that desk.

        Sara smiled. She did so enjoy taking advantage of Dave’s occasional absences.

        His flight back to Chicago from the FBI academy at Quantico had been delayed due to the storm front. When he had called her from the airport, he had cautioned her he might not be home until eleven.

        It wasn’t a problem, she had assured him, everything was fine. Code words. Spoken every day. So much a part of their language now that she spoke them instinctively. “Everything is fine”—all clear; “I’m fine”—I’ve got company; “I’m doing fine”—I’m in danger. She had lived the dance a long time. The tight security around her life was necessary. It was overpowering, obnoxious, annoying...and comforting.

        Sara turned in the black leather chair and looked at the display of lightning. The rain ran down the panes of thick glass. The skyline of downtown Chicago glimmered back at her through the rain.

With every book, another fact, another detail, another intense emotion, broke through from her own past. She could literally feel the dry dirt under her hand, feel the oppressive darkness. Reliving what had happened to her twenty-five years ago was terrifying. Necessary, but terrifying.

She sat lost in thought for several minutes, idly walking her pen through her fingers. Her adversary was out there somewhere, still alive, still hunting her. Had he made the association to Chicago yet? After all these years, she was still constantly moving, still working to stay one step ahead of the threat. Her family knew only too well his threat was real.

The man would kill her. Had long ago killed her sister. The threat didn’t get more basic than that. She had to trust others and ultimately God for her security. There were days her faith wavered under the intense weight of simply enduring that stress. She was learning, slowly, by necessity, how to roll with events, to trust God’s ultimate sovereignty.

The notepad beside her was filled with doodled sketches of faces. One of these days her mind was finally going to stop blocking the one image she longed to sketch. She knew she had seen the man. Whatever the cost, whatever the consequences of trying to remember, they were worth paying in order to try to bring justice for her and her sister.

Sara let out a frustrated sigh. She couldn’t force the image to appear no matter how much she longed to do so. She was the only one who still believed it was possible for her to remember it. The police, the FBI, the doctors, had given up hope years ago.

She fingered a worn photo of her sister Kim that sat by a white rose on her desk. She didn’t care what the others thought. Until the killer was caught, she would never give up hope.

God was just. She held on to that knowledge and the hope that the day of justice would eventually arrive. Until it did, she carried a guilt inside that remained wrapped around her heart. In losing her twin she had literally lost part of herself.

Turning her attention back to her desk, she debated for a moment if she wanted to do any more work that night. She didn’t.

As she put her folder away, the framed picture on the corner of her desk caught her attention; it evoked a smile. Her best friend was getting married. Sara was happy for her, but also envious. The need to break free of the security blanket rose and fell with time. She could feel the sense of rebellion rising again. Ellen had freedom and a life. She was getting married to a wonderful man. Sara longed to one day have that same choice. Without freedom, it wasn’t possible, and that reality hurt. A dream was being sacrificed with every passing day.

        As she stepped into the outer office, the room lights automatically turned on. Sara reached back and turned off the interior office lights.

        Her suite was in the east tower of the business complex. Rising forty-five stories, the two recently built towers added to the already impressive downtown skyline. She struggled with the elevator ride to the thirty-fourth floor each day, for she did not like closed-in spaces, but she considered the view worth the price.

        The elevator that responded tonight came from two floors below. There were two connecting walkways between the east and west towers, one on the sixth floor and another in the lobby. She chose the sixth floor concourse tonight, walking through it to the west tower with a confident but fast pace.

        She was alone in the wide corridor. Travis sometimes accompanied her, but she had waved off his company tonight and told him to go get dinner. If she needed him, she would page him.

        The click of her heels echoed off the marble floor. There was parking under each tower, but if she parked under the tower where she worked, she would be forced to pull out onto a one-way street no matter which exit she took. It was a pattern someone could observe and predict. Changing her route and time of day across one of the two corridors was a better compromise. She could hopefully see the danger coming.

Sara decided to take the elevator down to the west tower parking garage rather than walk the six flights. She would have preferred the stairs, but she could grit her teeth for a few flights to save time. She pushed the button to go down and watched the four elevators to see which would respond first. The one to her left, coming down from the tenth floor.

        When it stopped, she reached inside, pushed the garage-floor parking button, but did not step inside. Tonight she would take the second elevator.

        Sara shifted her raincoat over her arm and moved her briefcase to her other hand. The elevator stopped and the doors slid open.

        A man was in the elevator.

        She froze.

        He was leaning against the back of the elevator, looking like he had put in a long day at work, a briefcase in one hand and a sports magazine in the other, his blue eyes gazing back at her. She saw a brief look of admiration in his eyes.

        Get in and take a risk, step back and take a risk.

She knew him. Adam Black. His face was as familiar as any sports figure in the country, even if he’d been out of the game of football for three years. His commercial endorsements and charity work had continued without pause.

Adam Black worked in this building? This was a nightmare come true. She saw photographs of him constantly in magazines, local newspapers, and occasionally on television. The last thing she needed was to be near someone who attracted media attention.

She hesitated, then stepped in, her hand tightening her