cover

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Karin Slaughter

Title Page

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Acknowledgments

Copyright

image

ALSO BY KARIN SLAUGHTER

Blindsighted

Kisscut

A Faint Cold Fear

Indelible

Faithless

Triptych

Skin Priviledge

Fractured

Martin Misunderstood

Genesis

Broken

Fallen

Criminal

Like a Charm (Editor)

eBook original

Snatched

Busted

For Angela, Diane, and Victoria—
my champions

1.

WEDNESDAY

MACON, GEORGIA

DETECTIVE LENA ADAMS winced as she pulled off her T-shirt. She took her police badge out of her pocket, along with her flashlight and an extra clip for her Glock, and tossed them all onto the dresser. The time on her phone showed it was almost midnight. Lena had rolled out of bed eighteen hours ago and now all she wanted to do was fall back in. Not that she’d done that much lately. For the past four days, just about every waking hour had been wasted sitting at a conference room table answering questions she’d answered the day before and the day before that—navigating the usual bullshit that came from having to justify your actions to Internal Affairs.

“Who led the raid into the house?”

“What intelligence were you acting on?”

“What did you expect to find?”

The internal investigator for the Macon Police Department had the dour, lifeless personality of a career pencil pusher. Every day, the woman showed up dressed in the same style black skirt and white blouse, an outfit that seemed more appropriate for greeting diners at an Olive Garden. She nodded a lot, frowned even more as she took notes. When Lena didn’t answer quickly, she’d check the tape recorder to make sure it was picking up the silences.

Lena was certain the questions were designed to provoke an outburst. The first day, she had been so numb that she’d just answered truthfully in the hope that it would soon be over. The second and third days, she’d been less forthcoming, her level of irritation rising with each passing minute. Today, she had finally exploded, which seemed exactly what the woman had been waiting for.

“What do you think I expected to find, you miserable bitch?”

If only Lena hadn’t found it. If only she could take a razor and slice the images out of her brain. They haunted her. They flickered into her vision like an old movie every time she blinked. They filled her with a constant, unrelenting sorrow.

Lena started to rub her eyes, then thought better of it. Six days had passed since she’d led her team on the raid, but her body was still a walking reminder of what had happened. The bruise fingering its way across her nose and underneath her left eye had turned a urine-yellow. The three stitches holding together the cut in her scalp itched like a rash.

Then there were the things that no one could see—Lena’s bruised tailbone. Her aching back and knees. The roil in her stomach every time she thought about what she’d discovered in that desolate house in the woods.

Four dead bodies. One man still in the hospital. Another who would never wear the badge again. Not to mention the terrible memory she would probably end up taking to her grave.

Tears came into Lena’s eyes. She bit her lip, fighting the urge to let the grief have its way. She was exhausted. The week had been hard. Hell, the last three weeks had been hard. But it was over now. All of it was over. Lena was safe. She would keep her job. The rat squad investigator had scurried back to her hole. Lena was finally home where no one could stare at her, question her, probe and prod her. It wasn’t just Internal Affairs. Everyone wanted to know what the raid had been like, what Lena had found in that dark, dank basement.

And Lena wanted nothing more than to forget all about it.

Her cell phone chirped. Lena exhaled until her lungs were completely empty. The phone chirped a second time. She picked it up. There was a new text message.

VICKERY: u ok?

Lena stared at the letters on the screen. Paul Vickery, her partner.

She tapped reply. Her thumb hovered over the keyboard.

The distant rumble of a motorcycle shook the air.

Instead of typing out a response, Lena held down the power button until the phone turned off. She placed it on the dresser beside her badge.

The roar of the Harley-D’s twin-cam engine vibrated in her ears as Jared gunned the bike so he could make it to the top of their steep driveway. Lena waited, following the familiar sounds: the engine cutting, the metallic groan of the kickstand, the heavy tread of boots as her husband made his way into the house, tossed his helmet and keys onto the kitchen table even though she’d asked him a million times not to. He paused for a moment, probably to check the mail, then continued toward their bedroom.

Lena kept her back to the door as she counted off Jared’s footsteps down the long hallway. His stride sounded tentative, reluctant. He’d probably been hoping Lena would be asleep.

Jared stopped at the doorway. He was obviously waiting for Lena to turn around. When she didn’t, he asked, “You just get in?”

“I stayed late to finish.” It wasn’t a complete lie. She’d hoped Jared would be asleep, too. “I was about to take a shower.”

“All right.”

Lena didn’t go into the bathroom. Instead, she turned to face him.

Jared’s gaze flickered down to her bra, then quickly back up again. He was dressed in his uniform, his hair twisted into a peak from the helmet. He was a cop with the Macon PD, too—a motorman, one rank below Lena and twelve years younger. Neither one of these things used to bother her, but lately, every inch of their lives was a provocation.

He leaned against the doorjamb, asking, “How’d it go?”

“They cleared me to go back to work.”

“That’s good, right?”

She replayed his words in her head, trying to decipher the tone. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

Jared didn’t respond. There was a long, uncomfortable silence before he asked, “You want a drink?”

Lena couldn’t hide her surprise.

“I guess it’s okay now, right?” He tilted his head to the side, forced his lips into a tight smile. He was a few inches taller than Lena, but his muscular frame and athletic grace made him seem larger.

Usually.

Jared cleared his throat to let her know that he was waiting.

She nodded. “’Kay.”

Jared left the room, but his need lingered—surrounding her, almost suffocating her. He needed for Lena to break down. He needed for her to lean on him. He needed her to show him that what happened had affected her, had altered her in some tangible way.

He couldn’t see that not giving in was the only thing that kept her from falling completely apart.

Lena took her pajamas out of the dresser. She heard Jared moving around the kitchen. He opened the freezer door, rummaged around for a handful of ice. Lena closed her eyes. Her body swayed. She waited for the cubes to hit glass. Her mouth watered in anticipation.

She clenched her jaw. Forced open her eyes.

She wanted the drink too badly. When Jared came back, she would put the glass down, wait a few minutes, prove to herself that she could do without it.

Prove to him that she didn’t need it.

Her hands ached as she unbuttoned her jeans. The day of the raid, she’d gripped her shotgun so hard that her fingers had felt like they were permanently curled. She wasn’t sure why everything still ached. She should be better now, but her body was holding on to the hurt. Holding on to the poison that was eating her up inside.

“So.” Jared was back. This time, he came into the room. He poured a large vodka as he walked toward her, the bottle gurgling as the liquid splashed into the glass. “You’re back on duty tomorrow?”

“First thing.”

He handed her the glass. “No time off?”

Lena took the drink and downed half of it in one gulp.

“I guess that’s the same as when …” Jared’s voice trailed off. He didn’t have to say when. Instead, he looked out the back window. The dark panes showed his reflection. “I bet you get your sergeant’s stripes off this.”

She shook her head, but said, “Maybe.”

He stared at her—waiting. Needing.

She asked, “What are they saying at the station?”

Jared walked to the closet. “That you’ve got balls of steel.” He dialed the combination on the gun safe. Lena watched the back of his neck. There was a pink line of sunburn where his helmet didn’t protect the skin. He must’ve known she was watching, but he just took his holster off his belt and stored his gun beside hers. Near hers. He didn’t even let their guns touch.

She asked, “Does it bother you?”

He shut the safe door, spun the combination. “Why would it bother me?”

Lena didn’t say the words, but they were screaming in her head: Because they think I’m tougher than you. Because your wife was taking down some very bad guys while you were toodling around on your bike giving tickets to soccer moms.

Jared said, “I’m proud of you.” He used his reasonable voice, the one that made Lena want to punch him in the face. “They should give you a medal for what you did.”

He had no idea what she’d done. Jared only knew the highlights, the details Lena was allowed to share outside closed doors.

She repeated the question. “Does it bother you?”

He paused for a second too long. “It bothers me that you could’ve been killed.”

He still hadn’t answered the question. Lena studied his face. The skin was unlined, fresh. She’d met Jared when he was twenty-one, and in the five and a half years since, he’d somehow started looking younger, like he was aging in reverse. Or maybe Lena was getting older more quickly. So much had changed since those early days. In the beginning, she could always tell what he was thinking. Of course, since then, she’d given him plenty of mortar to build up a wall around himself.

He started unbuttoning his shirt. “I think I’m gonna go put those cabinets together.”

She gave a startled laugh. “Really?” The kitchen had been torn apart for three months, mostly because Jared found a new reason every weekend to not work on it.

He let his shirt drop to the floor. “At least Ikea will know I’m still the man of the house.”

Now that it was out there, Lena didn’t know how to respond. “You know it’s not like that.” Even to her own ears, the excuse sounded weak. “It’s just not.”

“Really?”

Lena didn’t answer.

“Right.” Jared’s cell phone started to ring. He pulled it out of his pocket, checked the number, and declined the call.

“That your girlfriend?” Lena didn’t like the thinness in her tone. The joke wasn’t funny. They both knew that.

He rummaged through the dirty-clothes basket and found his jeans, one of his T-shirts.

“It’s almost midnight.” Lena looked at the bedside clock. “Past midnight.”

“I’m not sleepy.” He dressed quickly, tucking his phone into his back pocket. “I’ll keep the noise down.”

“You need your phone to put the cabinets together?”

“The charge is low.”

“Jared—”

“It won’t take long to finish.” He smiled that fake smile again. “Least I can do, right?”

Lena smiled back, holding up her glass in a toast.

He didn’t leave. “You should get in the shower before you fall down.”

She nodded, but couldn’t stop her eyes taking in the way the T-shirt clung to his chest, followed the definition of his abs. The vodka had given her a nice buzz. Her body was finally starting to relax. There was something about the way Jared was standing that brought old memories rushing back. Lena let her mind wander to a place she usually kept blocked off—the town where she’d lived before she moved with Jared to Macon, the city where she’d first learned how to be a cop.

Back in Grant County, Jared’s father had taught Lena everything she knew about being a police officer. Well, almost everything. Lena had a feeling the tricks she’d learned after Chief Jeffrey Tolliver’s death would’ve pissed him the hell off. For all the times he crossed the line, Jeffrey sure came down hard on Lena whenever he caught her skipping near it.

“Lee?” Jared asked. He had Jeffrey’s eyes, the same way of tilting his head to the side while he waited for her to answer him.

Lena finished the drink, though her head was swimming. “I love you.”

It was Jared’s turn to give a startled laugh.

She asked, “Aren’t you going to say you love me back?”

“Do you want me to?”

Lena didn’t answer.

He gave a resigned sigh as he walked over to her. She was dressed in nothing but her bra and underwear, but he kissed her on the forehead the same way he did with his sister. “Don’t fall asleep in the shower.”

Lena watched him go. He’d been wearing the same dirty T-shirt a lot lately. There were spots of yellow paint on the back and shoulders from where he’d started remodeling the spare bedroom three weeks ago.

Lena had told him not to paint the walls, to wait another few weeks—not because he had at least ten other projects in the house that needed to be finished first, but because it was bad luck.

Jared never listened to her.

Of course, she never listened to him, either.

Lena took the vodka bottle with her into the bathroom. She put the empty glass on the back of the toilet and drank straight from the bottle, her head tilting back. Probably not wise considering the pain pills she’d taken as soon as she walked through the front door, but Lena wasn’t feeling particularly smart at the moment. She wanted the amnesia to come. She wanted the pills and the alcohol to erase everything from her mind—what had happened before the raid, during the raid, after. She wanted it all blanked out so that she could lie down and see darkness instead of that silent flickering movie that had haunted her for the last six days.

She put the bottle down on the back of the toilet. Her fingers felt thick as she pinned up her hair. Lena stared at her reflection in the mirror. There were dark circles under her eyes, and not just from the bruise. She pressed her fingers to the glass. Her face was starting to show the things she’d lost.

The number of bodies she’d left in her wake.

Lena looked down. Without realizing, she had pressed her palm to her flat stomach. As recently as nine days ago, there had been the beginning of a swell. Her pants had been tight. Her breasts had been sore. Jared hadn’t been able to stop himself from touching her. Sometimes, Lena would wake up and find his hand resting on her belly, as if he was laying claim to what he’d created. The life he’d put inside of her.

But of course the life didn’t stay there. His hand couldn’t stop the wrenching pain that had ripped Lena from a deep sleep. His words couldn’t comfort her as the blood flowed. In the bathroom. At the hospital. On the drive home. It was a red tide that left nothing but death in its wake.

And every time she walked by that fucking spare bedroom with its bright yellow walls, she was gripped by such a cold hate for him that she shivered with rage.

Lena stared up at the ceiling. She held her breath for a moment before letting it whisper out like a dark secret. Everything was getting to her today. The loss, the grief. The vodka and pills weren’t helping. Would never help enough.

She searched for the cap to the bottle, but couldn’t find it. Lena pulled open the door. The bedroom was empty. Jared’s clothes were on the floor, exactly where they’d dropped when he took them off. Lena picked up his shirt. She smelled exhaust from the road, sweat and grease from riding all day. His pants still had his wallet in the back pocket. She took it out and put it on the bedside table. His front pockets were full. A handful of change. A small tin of Burt’s beeswax to keep his lips from getting windburned. A couple of twenties, his driver’s license, and three credit cards, all held together by a green rubber band. A small black velvet pouch that he kept his wedding ring in.

Lena dug her finger inside the pouch and pulled out the gold ring. Jared had stopped wearing it to work after one of his buddies had wiped out on his bike. The man’s wedding ring had caught on his knuckle and ripped the skin off like a sock. After that, Lena had made Jared promise not to wear his ring while he was riding. The black pouch was a compromise. She’d told him to leave the ring at home, but her husband was romantic—much more so than any woman Lena had ever met—and he didn’t like the idea of being without it.

She assumed now that he carried it around out of habit.

Lena returned the ring to the pouch and opened Jared’s wallet. She’d given it to him their first year together, and he still carried it despite the fact that he’d never used a wallet before. It was really nothing more than a portable photo album. Lena thumbed past the many candid shots Jared had taken over the last five years: Lena in front of their house on the day they moved in, Lena on his bike, Jared and Lena at Disney World, a Braves game, the SEC play-offs, the national championship in Arizona.

She stopped on the photo from their wedding, which had taken place in a judge’s chambers inside the Atlanta courthouse. Lena’s uncle Hank stood on one side of her, Jared on the other. Beside Jared were his mother, stepfather, sister, grandmother, grandfather, two cousins, and an elementary school teacher who’d always kept in touch.

Everyone was dressed up but Lena, who was in a navy pantsuit she normally wore to work. Her hair was down, the brown curls hanging past her shoulders. She’d had her makeup done at the Lenox Macy’s counter by a transexual who’d gone on and on about her skin tone. At least one woman had appreciated Lena that day. The sour look on Jared’s mother’s face explained why the groom hadn’t insisted on a more formal affair. Somewhere right now in Alabama, Darnell Long was praying that her son would come to his senses and divorce the bitch he’d married.

Sometimes Lena wondered if she held on to Jared solely to spite the woman.

She flipped to the next picture, and her knees felt shaky.

Lena sat down on the bed.

She had seen the photo many times, just not in Jared’s wallet. It was from the shoebox Lena kept in the closet. The picture was of her twin sister, Sibyl. Lena was struck by a painful ache of jealousy, and then she felt herself start to laugh. Jared obviously thought the picture was of Lena. He’d never met Sibyl. She’d been dead ten years when Jared came into Lena’s life.

She put her hand to her mouth as the laugh turned into a sob. When Lena had found out she was pregnant, the first person she’d thought of was Sibyl. There was a brief spark of happiness as Lena had picked up the phone to call her sister.

And then the loss had sucker punched her in the chest.

Lena carefully wiped underneath her eyes as she stared at the photo. She could see why Jared had chosen it. Sibyl was sitting on a blanket in the park. Her mouth was open, head tilted back. She was laughing with full abandon—the kind of happiness Lena seldom showed. Their Mexican American grandmother’s genes were on full display. Sibyl’s skin was bronze from the sun. Her curly brown hair was down, the way Lena wore her hair today. Though Sibyl didn’t have the highlights Lena had, and she certainly didn’t have the few strands of gray.

What would Sibyl look like now? It was a question Lena had asked a lot over the years. She assumed it was something all twins wondered when one passed away. Sibyl had never had Lena’s hard lines and sharp edges. There was always a softness to Sibyl’s face, an openness that invited people in instead of pushing them away. Only a fool would mistake one twin for the other.

“Lee?”

She looked up at Jared as if it was perfectly normal for her to be sitting in her underwear crying over his wallet. He was standing in the doorway again, feet just shy of entering.

She asked, “Who was that call from? On your cell phone?”

“The number was blocked.” He looped his thumbs through his tool belt as he leaned against the doorjamb. “You all right?”

“I’m … uh …” Her voice caught. “Tired.”

Lena looked at Sibyl one last time before she closed the wallet. She felt tears streaming down her face. Her jaw tightened as she tried to force her emotions back down. No matter what she did, they kept bubbling up again, tightening her throat, squeezing like a band around her chest.

“Lee?” He still didn’t come into the room.

Lena shook her head, willing him to go. She couldn’t look at him, couldn’t let Jared see her like this. She knew that breaking down was exactly what he’d been waiting for. Expecting.

Wanting.

But then something snapped inside of her. Another sob came out—deep, mournful. Lena couldn’t fight it anymore, couldn’t keep pushing him away. She didn’t make Jared come to her. She crossed the room quickly, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, pressing her face to his chest.

“Lena—”

She kissed him. Her hands went to his face, touched his neck.

Jared resisted at first, but he was a twenty-six-year-old man who’d spent the last week sleeping on the couch. It didn’t take much for Lena to get a response. His calloused hands rubbed along her bare back. He pulled her closer, kissed her harder.

And then his whole body jerked away.

Blood sprayed into her mouth.

Lena heard the gunshot seconds later.

After Jared had been hit. After he collapsed against her.

He was too heavy. Lena stumbled, falling back onto the floor, Jared sprawled on top of her, pinning her down. She couldn’t move. She tried to push him up, but another shot rang out. His body spasmed, lifting a few inches, then falling against her again.

Lena heard a high-pitched keening. It was coming from her own mouth. She scrambled out from under Jared, then grabbed him by his shirt to pull him out of the line of fire. She managed to move him a few feet before his tool belt got twisted up in the rug.

“No-no-no,” Lena stuttered before she clamped her hands over her mouth to stop the noise. She pressed her back to the wall, fighting a wave of hysteria. The vodka and pills caught up with her. Vomit roiled into the back of her throat. She wanted to scream. Needed to scream.

But she couldn’t.

Jared wasn’t moving. The noise from the gun still rang in her ears. Shotgun blast. The pellets had scattered, penetrating his back, his head. Bright red circles of blood spread into the dried yellow paint on his T-shirt. A screwdriver from his tool belt was jammed into his side. More blood was pooling underneath his body. She put her hand on his leg, felt the lean muscle of his calf.

“Jared?” she whispered. “Jared?”

His eyes stayed closed. Blood bubbled from his lips. His fingers quivered against the floor. She could see the tan line where he’d been wearing his wedding ring even though he promised her he wouldn’t.

Lena reached for his hand, then pulled back.

Footsteps.

The shooter was walking down the hallway. Slowly. Methodically. He was wearing boots. She could hear the echo of the wooden heel hitting the bare floorboards, then the softer scrape of the toe.

One step.

Another.

Silence.

The shooter raked back the shower curtain in the hall bathroom.

Lena’s eyes scanned the bedroom: The guns were locked in the safe. Her cell phone was on the other side of the room. They didn’t have a landline. The window was too out in the open. The bathroom was a deathtrap.

Jared’s cell phone.

She ran her hand up his leg, checked his pockets. Empty. Empty. They were all empty.

The footsteps resumed, echoing down the hallway, the sound like twigs snapping.

And then—nothing.

He’d stopped outside the first bedroom. Two desks. Boxes of old case files. Jared always left the closet door open. The shooter could see it from the hallway.

He cleared his throat and spat on the floor.

He wanted Lena to know that he was coming.

She pressed her back against the wall, forced herself to stand up. She wasn’t going to be sitting down when she died. She was going to be on her feet, fighting for her life, her husband’s life.

The footsteps stopped again. The shooter was checking the next bedroom. Bright yellow walls. Closet door laid across a pair of sawhorses so Jared could paint balloons on it. From the hallway, you could see the thin pencil lines where he’d sketched them freehand. You could also see straight back inside the empty closet.

The shooter continued down the hall.

Lena’s hand shook as she reached down to Jared. The hammer on his belt was already halfway out of its metal loop. She used her fingers to push it the rest of the way. Her hand wrapped around the grip. It felt warm, almost hot, against her skin.

Jared’s eyelids fluttered open. He watched Lena as she stood up, pressed her back against the wall again. There was a glassy look to his gaze. Pain. Intense pain. It cut right through her. His mouth moved. Lena put her finger to her lips, willing him to be quiet, to play dead so that he wouldn’t get shot again.

The footsteps stopped just shy of the bedroom door, maybe five feet away. The man’s shadow preceded him into the room, casting half of Jared’s body into darkness.

Lena turned the hammer around so that the claw was facing out. She heard the pump of a shotgun. The sound had its intended effect. She had to lock her knees so she didn’t fall to the floor.

The shooter paused. His shadow wavered slightly, but didn’t encroach farther into the room.

Lena tensed, counting off the seconds. One, two, three. The man did not enter. He was just standing there.

She tried to put herself in the shooter’s head, figure out what he was thinking. Two cops. Both with guns they hadn’t used. One was on the floor. The other hadn’t moved, hadn’t shot back, hadn’t screamed or jumped out the window or charged him.

Lena’s ears strained in the silence as they both waited.

Finally, the shooter took another step forward—short, tentative. Then another. The tip of the shotgun’s barrel was the first thing Lena saw. Sawed off. The metal was rough-cut, freshly hewn. There was a pause, a slight adjustment as the shooter pivoted to the side. Lena saw that the hand supporting the barrel was tattooed. A black skull and crossbones filled the webbing between the thumb and forefinger.

One last, careful step.

Lena two-handed the hammer and swung it into the man’s face.

The claw sank into his eye socket. She heard the crunch of bone as the sharpened steel splintered a path into his skull. The shotgun went off, blasting a hole in the wall. Lena tried to pull out the hammer for another blow, but the claw was caught in his head. The man staggered, tried to brace himself against the door. His fingers wrapped around her wrist. Blood poured from his eye, ran into his mouth, down his neck.

That was when Lena saw the second man. He was running down the hallway, a Smith & Wesson five-shot in his hand. Lena yanked on the hammer, using it like a handle to jerk the shooter in front of her, to use him as a shield. Three shots popped off in rapid succession; the shooter’s body absorbed each hit. Lena gave him a hard shove backward into the second assailant. Both men stumbled. The S&W skittered across the floor.

Lena scooped up the shotgun. She pulled the trigger, but the shell was jammed. She tried the pump, worked to clear the chamber as the second guy climbed his way up to standing. He lunged for her, fingers grazing the muzzle of the gun before he fell to one knee.

Jared had grabbed his ankle. He held on tight, his arm shaking from the effort. The man reared back, started to bring down his fist on Jared’s temple.

Lena flipped the shotgun around, grabbed it by the barrel and swung it like a bat at the man’s head. Blood and teeth sprayed as his jaw snapped loose. He crashed to the floor.

“Jared!” Lena screamed, dropping down beside him. “Jared!”

He moaned. Blood dribbled from his mouth. His stare was blank, unseeing.

“It’s okay,” she told him. “It’s okay.”

He coughed. His body shuddered, then a violent seizure took hold.

“Jared!” she screamed. “Jared!” Lena’s vision blurred as tears filled her eyes. She put her hands on each side of his face. “Look at me,” she begged. “Just look at me.”

Movement. She saw it out of the corner of her eye. The second man was inching toward the bed, trying to reach the gun. Half his body was paralyzed. He dragged himself with one arm, a wounded cockroach leaving a trail of blood.

Lena felt her heart stop. Something had changed. The air had shifted. The world had stopped spinning.

She looked down at her husband.

Jared’s body had gone completely slack. His eyelids were closed to a slit. She touched his face, his mouth. Her hand shook so hard that her fingertips tapped against his skin.

Sibyl. Jeffrey. The baby.

Their baby.

Lena stood up.

She moved like a machine. The hammer was still embedded in the first man’s face. Lena braced her foot on his forehead, wrapped her hands around the handle, and wrenched the claw loose.

The cockroach was still crawling toward the bed. His progress was incremental. Lena took her time, waiting until he was inches away from the gun to drop her knee into his back. She felt his ribs snap under her full weight. Broken teeth spewed from his mouth like chunks of wet sand.

Lena raised the hammer above her head. It came down on the man’s spine with a splintering crack. He screamed, his arms shooting out, his body bucking underneath her. Lena held on, her mind focused, her body rigid with rage. She raised the hammer high above her head and aimed for the back of his skull, but then—suddenly—everything stopped.

The hammer wouldn’t move. It was stuck in the air.

Lena looked behind her. There was a third man. He was tall, with a lanky build and strong hands that kept Lena from delivering the deathblow.

She was too shocked to respond. She knew this man. Knew exactly who he was.

He was dressed like a biker—bandanna around his head, chain hanging from his leather belt. He put a finger to his lips, the same as she had done to Jared moments before. There was a warning in his eyes, and underneath the warning, she saw genuine fear.

Slowly, Lena came back to herself. Her hearing first—the raspy sound of her own labored breathing. Then she felt the shooting pain from her tensed muscles, the singed skin of her palms where she’d grabbed the shotgun. The acrid smell of death flooded into her nose. And just underneath that, she caught the tinge of the open road, the familiar odor of exhaust and oil and sweat that Jared brought home with him every night.

Jared.

The back of his shirt was drenched, glued to his skin. The yellow spots of dried paint had disappeared. They were black now, just like his hair—darkened by blood.

Lena’s body went limp. The fight had drained out of her. She lowered the hammer, let it fall to the floor.

Sirens pierced the air. Two, three, more than she could count.

A hoarse voice called from somewhere outside. “Dude, where you at?”

The sirens got louder. Closer.

Will Trent looked at Lena one last time, then left the room.

2.

THURSDAY

ATLANTA, GEORGIA

HOSPITAL ELEVATORS WERE notoriously unreliable, but Dr. Sara Linton felt that the ones at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial were particularly creaky. Still, like a gambling addict hitting a slot machine, she punched the button every time on the off chance that the doors would open.

“Come on,” Sara mumbled, staring at the numbers above the doors, willing them to hit seven. She waited, hands tucked into the pockets of her white lab coat as the digital display showed ten, then nine, then stayed at a solid eight.

Sara tapped her foot. She looked at her watch. And then she felt her body fill with dread as she saw Oliver Gittings trotting toward her.

As a pediatric attending in Grady Hospital’s emergency room, Sara was in charge of several students who—despite some evidence to the contrary—assumed that one day they would become doctors. Night shifts were particularly tedious. There was something about the moon that turned their little brains into mush. Sara often wondered how some of them managed to dress themselves, let alone get into medical school.

Oliver Gittings was one of the better examples. Or worse, as the case tended to be. In the last eight hours, he’d already spilled a urine sample on himself and accidentally sewn a sterile cloth onto the sleeve of his lab coat. At least she hoped it was accidental.

He called, “Dr. Linton—”

“This way,” Sara told him, giving up on the elevator and heading toward the stairs.

“I’m glad I found you.” Oliver ran after her like an eager puppy. “An interesting case came up.”

Oliver thought all of his cases were interesting. She said, “Give me the highlights.”

“Six-year-old girl,” he began, pulling on the exit door twice before realizing that it opened outward. “Mom says the girl woke her up in the middle of the night for some water. They’re going down the stairs. The girl starts to fall. Mom grabs her arm. Something pops. The girl starts screaming. Mom rushes her here.”

Sara took the lead down the stairs. She guessed, “X-ray showed a spiral fracture?”

“Yes. The girl had a bruise on her arm here—”

Sara glanced back to see where he indicated. “So, you suspect abuse. Did you order a skeletal survey?”

“Yes, but radiology is backed up. My shift is almost over. I thought I’d go ahead and call D-FACS to get things moving.”

Sara abruptly stopped her descent. The Division of Family and Children’s Services. She asked, “You want to go ahead and put the kid in the system?”

Oliver shrugged, as if this was nothing. “The girl’s too quiet. Mom’s antsy, irritated. All she wants to know is when they can leave.”

“How long have they been here?”

“I dunno. I think she was triaged around one.”

Sara looked at her watch. “It’s 5:58 in the morning. They’ve been here all night. I’d want to leave, too. What else?”

For the first time, Oliver seemed to doubt himself. “Well, the fracture—”

Sara continued down the stairs. “No specific fracture is pathognomonic to child abuse. You call D-FACS and it’s a legal matter. If this mother is an abuser, you want to make sure she doesn’t get away with it. You need corroborating evidence. Does the girl seem scared of her mother? Does she look you in the eye and answer questions? Are there other bruises? Developmental delays? Continence issues? Is there a history of ER visits? How did she present otherwise?” Oliver didn’t immediately answer. Sara prompted, “Is she healthy? Well nourished?”

“Yes, but—”

“Stop.” Sara wasn’t looking for a discussion. She checked her watch again. “Dr. Connor is taking over for me, but you’ve got all of my numbers. Order the skeletal survey to see if there are any past breaks or fractures. Notify security to keep an eye on the mom. Call the other ERs to see if the girl’s ever been admitted.” Sara moderated her tone, trying to make it clear she was teaching him something, not punishing him. “Oliver, sixty-five percent of child abuse cases are flagged in emergency rooms. If you stay in pediatrics, this is the sort of thing you’re going to be dealing with on a weekly basis. I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m just saying you need to know all the facts before you turn this girl’s life upside down. And her mother’s.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He headed down the stairs, hands tucked deep into his coat pockets.

Sara didn’t immediately follow, cognizant that Oliver’s ego was fragile enough without her snapping at his heels. Instead, she sat on the bottom stair and checked her hospital BlackBerry. Sara’s eyes threatened to roll back in her head as she scrolled through the administrative detritus littering her mailbox. Meetings, conferences, denied requisitions, and new procedures for requisitioning, attending conferences, and scheduling meetings.

She felt around in her other pocket and traded the BlackBerry for her personal phone. This was much better. Her father had emailed a silly joke about snails that he’d heard at the Waffle House. Her mother had forwarded a recipe that was never going to happen. There was a long email from her sister with a picture of Sara’s niece attached. She marked this unread and saved it for later. The next message was a text from Sara’s boyfriend. An hour ago, he’d sent her a photo of his breakfast: six mini chocolate doughnuts, an egg and cheese biscuit, and a large Coke.

Sara didn’t know which one of them was going to have a heart attack first.

The door popped open. Dr. Felix Connor stuck his head into the stairwell. He eyed Sara suspiciously. “Why do you look so happy?”

“Because I can go home now that you’re finally here?”

“Gimme a minute to hit the can.”

Sara dropped the phone back into her pocket as she stood. Oliver wasn’t the only one who wanted to get out of here. Sara had pulled several night shifts in a row courtesy of a stomach flu that was running rampant through the hospital. She was beginning to feel punished for her own good health.

Home. Sleep. Silence. She was already making plans as she walked through the ER. Thanks to her crazy work schedule, Sara had four full days of freedom ahead of her. She could read a book. Take a run with her dogs. Remind her boyfriend why they were together.

This last bit widened her smile considerably. She got some curious looks in return. Not many people were happy to find themselves at Grady, which was the only publicly funded hospital left in Atlanta. The staff tended to take on the hardened demeanor of combat veterans. If practicing medicine was an uphill battle, working at Grady was on par with Guadalcanal. Stabbings, beatings, poisonings, rapes, shootings, murders, drug overdoses.

And that was just pediatrics.

Sara stopped at the computer by the nurses’ station. She pulled up Oliver’s patient on the monitor. The X-ray clearly showed where the child’s right humerus had been twisted. Either the mom was being truthful about what had happened on the stairs or she was savvy enough to fabricate a believable lie.

Sara looked up, scanning the open-curtain area, which was predictably filled with repeat customers. Several drunks were sleeping off benders. There was a junkie who threatened to kill himself every time he got arrested and an older homeless woman who belonged in a mental hospital but knew how to game the system so she could stay on the streets. Oliver’s little girl was curled up asleep on the last gurney. Her mother was in a chair beside her. She was sleeping, too, but her hand was laced through her daughter’s. She hadn’t yet noticed the security guard standing a few feet away.

Not for the first time, Sara wished that nature had devised a system to alert the rest of the world to people who were abusing children. A scarlet letter. A mark of the beast. Some sign that let decent people know these monsters couldn’t be trusted.

Up until a few years ago, Sara had lived in a small town four hours south of Atlanta. She’d done double duty as the county’s pediatrician and medical examiner. Her father liked to joke that between Sara’s two jobs, she got them coming and going. While this was certainly true, too many times, Sara had been put in the position of witnessing firsthand the awful things people could do to children. The X-rays that showed repeatedly broken bones. The dental records revealing teeth that had rotted from neglect. The skin that was forever marked from burns and beatings.

Now that she was living in Atlanta, Sara had the additional knowledge that came from dating a man who’d grown up in state care. Sara’s boyfriend didn’t like to talk about his childhood. When she touched her fingers to the healed cigarette burns on his chest, or kissed the jagged scar on his upper lip where the skin had been punched in two, she could only imagine the hell he’d survived.

Still, there were far worse things that could happen to a child. The system was flawed in many ways, but it was also there for a reason.

“I wish you’d stop smiling.” Felix Connor dried his hands with a paper towel as he walked toward Sara. “I gotta say, I’m still having a hard time shaking this flu.”

Sara made her voice chipper. “Better sick at work than sick at home.”

“Is that what you tell your patients?”

“Just the babies.” Before Felix could come up with an excuse to leave, Sara started running down her cases. She was wrapping up the details on Oliver’s patient when she felt a rush of heat come to the back of her neck. Sara glanced over her shoulder, feeling like she was being watched. She did a double take when she saw her boyfriend.

Will Trent was leaning against the wall. He was dressed in a charcoal three-piece suit that was nicely tailored to his lean body. His hands were in his pockets. His sandy-blond hair was damp, curving against the nape of his neck and stopping just shy of his collar.

He smiled at her.

Sara smiled back, feeling a familiar tingling in her chest. She had known Will for almost two years—met him in this very hospital—but lately their relationship had turned into something more. The depth of her feeling was an unexpected treasure. Sara had lost her husband five years ago. She had assumed she would spend the rest of her life alone.

And then she’d met Will.

Sara said, “Felix, I—” She glanced around, but he was gone.

Will pushed away from the wall and walked toward her. “You look nice.”

Sara laughed at the blatant lie. “What are you doing here? I thought you were working.”

“My briefing’s not for another hour.”

“Do you have time for second breakfast?”

Will slowly shook his head.

“Oh.” Sara realized he hadn’t just dropped by. She asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Maybe we could go somewhere?”

She led him toward the doctors’ lounge. The door was about thirty feet away, giving Sara just enough time to work up a full-on worry.

Will was a special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He’d been working undercover for the last ten days. He couldn’t—or wouldn’t—tell Sara the details of his assignment, but he kept calling from strange numbers and showing up at odd hours. She had no idea where he came from or where he was going, and anytime she asked, he either changed the subject or found a reason to leave. When Sara wasn’t busy feeling mildly annoyed by all this, she was consumed with fear that something bad was going to happen. Or had already happened. Sara’s late husband had been a cop. He was murdered in the line of duty, and losing him had almost killed her. The thought of the same thing happening to Will was too much to bear.

“Let me get that.” Will reached in front of Sara to open the door. Fortunately, the lounge was empty. He waited for her to sit down at the table before taking the chair across from her.

She repeated, “What’s wrong?”

Silently, he took her hand. Sara watched as Will ran his fingers along her palm, traced the inside of her wrist. Will watched, too, his deep blue eyes tracking the movement of his fingers. There was something about the way he watched himself touching her that made Sara’s skin start to tingle.

She stilled his hand. All she needed was for one of her students to walk in and find her purring like a cat. Besides, she recognized Will’s stalling tactics by now.

She leaned forward. “What is it?”

He gave a half-smile. “Diversion not working?”

“Almost,” she admitted.

Will took a deep breath and said, “My assignment got a little more complicated.”

Sara had been expecting as much, but she still needed a moment to absorb the information.

He said, “I can’t tell you why, but I’m going to be working longer hours. I won’t be able to make it back to Atlanta as much. See you as much.”

She wasn’t so sure Will couldn’t tell her about his job, but Sara didn’t want to spend what little time they had together rehashing what had proven to be a fruitless discussion.

She said, “Okay.”

“Good.” He looked down at their hands again. Sara followed his gaze. His wrists were tan, but only to the cuffs of his shirt. His hair was streaked with blond highlights. Whatever Will was doing, it required him to spend time in the sun.

“What I wanted to say,” he continued, “was that I didn’t want you to think I was disappearing on you. Or that I …” His voice trailed off. “I mean, what we’re doing.” Will stopped. “What we’ve been doing …”

Sara waited.

“I didn’t want you to take my not being here for—” He seemed to be looking for the right words. “Lack of interest?” He kept staring down at their hands. “Because I am. Interested, I mean.”

Sara studied the top of his head, the way his hair grew in a spiral from the crown. There was going to come a point in the near future when she would no longer be able to accept his evasions. He would either have to open up to her or she would have to consider her options. The more Sara thought about it, the closer she felt to the looming crossroads.

She stopped thinking about it.

Instead, she said, “Just promise me that whatever you’re doing, you’re being careful.”

He nodded, but she would’ve felt better if he’d actually said the words. Will wasn’t the only detective in the relationship. The GBI was to the state of Georgia what the FBI was to the United States. Except in cases of drug trafficking or child abduction, the agency had to be specifically asked to work a case, and the local police departments didn’t tend to ask unless they were desperate.

Any way Sara looked at it, whatever crime had caused Will to go undercover was too dicey for the locals to handle. Worse, being undercover meant that Will’s partner wasn’t there to back him up. He was completely alone, probably surrounded by men with violent histories and addictions.

Will asked, “So, we’re all right?”

Sara pressed her lips together, forcing back the words she really wanted to say. “Of course we’re all right.”

“Good.” Will slumped back in his chair, his relief almost palpable. Not for the first time, Sara wondered how a man who’d spent his entire adult life solving puzzles could be so willfully obtuse in his private life.

She asked, “How long will this take?”

“Two, maybe three weeks.”

She waited for more, but in the end, Will simply looked away. The gesture was artlessly executed, as if he was going through a checklist of casual movements. Blink. Scratch jaw. Feign interest in the notices on the wall.

Sara turned to look at the posters that suddenly held his rapt attention. They were typical to a hospital: warnings about HIV and hepatitis C alongside a rudely defaced hygiene series featuring SpongeBob SquarePants.

Sara turned back around. She’d never been good at passive-aggressive game play. “Can we at least acknowledge that there’s something else going on? Because I can feel it, Will. There’s something else to this and I think you’re keeping it from me because you don’t want me to worry.”

To his credit, he didn’t offer false protests. “Would it make you feel better?”

She nodded.

“All right.”

Sara chewed her bottom lip. She waited for more, then remembered she wanted to leave the hospital before she was old enough to retire. “That’s it?”

He shrugged.

She was too tired to keep pushing the boulder up the hill. “You are driving me absolutely crazy.”

“In a good way?”

She squeezed his hand. “Not exactly.”

He laughed, though they both knew she wasn’t kidding. He asked, “Did you hear Homeland Security arrested SpongeBob at the airport?”

“Will.”

“I’m serious. They showed it on the news this morning.”

Sara groaned. “Public indecency?”

“That goes without saying, but the big charge was they caught him trying to take too many fluids onto the plane.”

She shook her head. “That’s awful.”

“He said he was framed.” Will paused for effect. “But it’s obvious nobody hung him out to dry.”

Sara kept shaking her head. “How long did it take for you to come up with that?”

Will leaned forward and kissed her—not an apologetic brush across the lips or a quick goodbye, but something longer, more meaningful.