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Thadius Winston left the muggy, late-February air and stepped into the Raleigh, North Carolina, police department. Bright fluorescent lights shone over the reception area, closed off to the rest of the station. Gladys saw him from her post behind the desk straight ahead and gave him her customary once-over. She'd been after him for a couple of months now. And though he never encouraged her, she hadn't gotten the hint he wasn't interested, and he wouldn't hurt her by telling her.
"Mornin', Thad," she greeted, flirting again. Maybe it was her nature. Maybe she flirted with all the cops.
She wore a lot of makeup. Blue eye shadow, heavy mascara, caked-on foundation that embedded in the wrinkles forming around her eyes and mouth. She dyed her hair blond and used too much hairspray. Hurricane force wind wouldn't ruin her style for the day.
He'd heard her husband had left her for someone younger. She was about twenty years older than Thad. If it made her feel good to flirt with younger men, what harm did that do? It sometimes made his stomach turn, but he could tolerate a few moments of discomfort every now and then.
"Good morning, Gladys. Is Darcy Jenkins in yet?" He always kept their interaction to business.
"Yes, he is, handsome. He's waiting for you in the first conference room."
Slipping the lanyard holding his badge over his neck, he nodded his thanks and strode to the double glass doors. Entering through those, he followed a sterile white hall to the conference room at the end. The door was open.
Darcy's five-eleven frame leaned over some photos. He always wore a dress shirt and tie with slacks. Never a jacket. He looked up when Thad entered, his thick black hair cut short and dark eyes intuitive and a little haunted, but not from all he'd seen as a special victims unit detective.
Straightening, he moved around the table. "Hey." He gave Thad's back a firm pat.
"Does Gladys flirt with you?" Thad asked.
"She flirts with everybody. Don't let it go to your head."
Thad grunted a laugh, not offended by his friend's sarcasm. They'd met at the police academy and had been friends ever since. There wasn't anyone Thad trusted more than Darcy. Thad had trained for crime scene investigation. Darcy had grown up aspiring to become a detective. Thad wasn't sure if it was catching killers that had drawn him as a kid, more likely it was the heroism. Reality had overruled. Darcy did the most good in Homicide, the closest to a superhero he'd ever get. Thad was more interested in the science behind solving crimes. Superheroes had never enchanted him. Maybe that was due to the fact that there had never been anyone in his childhood who'd fooled him into believing in them. As with Darcy, reality had overruled.
He looked down at the photos Darcy had studied more than once and picked up the images of the conference room where Thad's mother had been shot.
"How's your mom?" Darcy asked.
As one of his closest friends, Darcy knew how much these photos bothered him. "Out of ICU." Finally. Things had been touch and go for a week. "Doctors are going to keep her a few more days."
"That's good news."
There was nothing good about his mother being shot. Thad should have seen it coming. He should have been able to protect her. There had been a lot of hype about the possibility that she'd run for president. A well-liked former vice president, she was a viable candidate. That also made her an open target for anyone against her views, anyone who wasn't sane. He should have been more vigilant, should have been aware of the danger. Had his lukewarm sentiments toward politics made him too lax?
Thad didn't relate to his mother's thirst for politics. It consumed too much of her time and energy for one thing, and made her skirt direct answers. His mother was a good politician. While he wasn't fond of her chosen profession, he knew her in a way the public never would. She was his mother. He loved her with all his heart. If she'd have died, the grief would have crushed him. And he'd have never been able to get over the feeling that he hadn't done enough to save her.
He dropped the photos onto the table and turned to Darcy. "Anything new?"
"The SAC passed along some preliminary results from the forensics lab," Darcy answered. "Still waiting on some cytology reports they promised, but thought you'd want to see this."
The SAC was the special agent in charge of the Washington field office of the U.S. Secret Service. In a conversation Thad had had with him, he'd indicated the government was being secretive with their investigation. They claimed to be working with the USSS and local police, but as far as Thad could see, they were only putting up a good impression. And Thad wouldn't put it past the SAC to know more than he admitted.
Thad took a report Darcy handed him.
"The bullet is a .308 caliber from an LWRC manufactured SABR," Darcy narrated while Thad read. "Sniper assault battle rifle. Popular for its versatility and grain. A shooter gets accuracy along with a little weight. Not overly expensive. Portable."
"Yeah, and if a guy wanted to find one, he wouldn't have a tough time," Thad said.
"He gets distance, too."
His mother had been holding a fund-raiser at a historic hotel. The twelfth-floor ballroom had two walls of windows, and there was an office building across the street. Darcy had to wait for search warrants to get into the vacant unit that Thad was pretty sure the shooter had used. Thad didn't have to hear Darcy tell him the government had beaten them to it. "Anything on the location?"
"Yeah, and you aren't going to like this part. I'm getting pushback from Chief Thomas," Darcy answered. "He knows we're doing some looking around. Said the government is taking over the investigation. I think this is the last we'll see from them."
"The SAC may know more than he's letting on." Thad verbalized his earlier thought.
"Why would they cut us out of the investigation?"
That's what Thad would like to find out. As a crime scene investigator, he had been involved in gathering all the evidence. Federal agents from the USSS and FBI had been there, of course, and hadn't put up too much resistance. Now they were clamping down, no longer sharing what they found. Why? The assassination attempt of the former vice president of the United States and possible presidential candidate did warrant taking care and being discreet, but Thad was Kate Winston's son. He was also a good investigator. So was Darcy. They could help.
"I suppose I shouldn't be surprised," he said. "It all comes down to politics." Politics drove how the government would reveal progress of the investigation to the public. Local police made for too many hands in the fingerprint powder.
"I'm not keen on politics, either." Darcy gathered the photos and put them in a neat stack. "But the fact is our hands are tied. We can't work on your mother's case anymore not overtly."
Thad caught Darcy's unspoken reassurance. He'd continue to help him. Thad would carry on without him if he had to, but between the two of them, they'd make a solid team. Darcy had connections Thad didn't, and Thad had the mind to unravel details from evidence.
His mother's gunman was still running free, free to take another shot at her. Thad hadn't been able to protect her. The Secret Service hadn't been able to protect her. The gunman had shot Kate and tried to shoot her again when the first bullet didn't kill her. Agent Dan Henderson had put himself in the line of fire and saved her life. After getting off a couple more misses, the killer had gotten away. Thad vowed to find that person.
Why had someone tried to kill Kate Winston? And who? What reason did they have? Was it just some crazy person with extreme political views or was there another reason? The clampdown on information relating to the case made Thad suspicious.
"I can understand the need for secrecy, but." Darcy left the sentence unfinished.
"Something about this isn't right," Thad said for him.
"Yeah. Why is it so important to keep it quiet? The chief isn't happy, either. He got into an argument with the SAC of the USSS."
At least he'd fought for them. Thad put the report down on top of the stack of photos.
"He's probably going to talk to you, too," Darcy added. "He's been talking to everyone who was involved in the investigation."
"Always runs downhill, doesn't it?" The chief had received his beating and would make sure he wasn't alone in the suffering.
Darcy answered with a dry grin and then asked, "What do you want to do next? Anything you need me to do?"
"What you do best." Thad gave his friend a pat on the back of his shoulder.
"I'll let you know if anything comes up."
"Thanks, Darcy." Thad turned for the door.
"Hey, you still coming over to watch the hockey game tonight?" Darcy asked as Thad reached the door.
"Wouldn't miss it." His friend was having a hard time dealing with the finalization of his divorce. Darcy was too much of a man to admit he needed a friend right now, but he did need one, and Thad would do what he could to support him.
Thad was halfway to the exit when Chief Thomas appeared ahead of him.
"Winston," Wade Thomas said. "In my office."
Boy, when Darcy was right, he was right. Thad followed the average-height man of a considerable girth. Fifty-three years old, he had thick, gray hair and wore glasses.
The chief walked around his cluttered desk and sat his heavy frame down. The lighting in here was dim. Everyone joked about how Chief Thomas was a vampire. He claimed his eyes were sensitive to light and that was why he only had one floor lamp on in his office and kept the blinds shut over windows that faced the sea of cubicles where all the detectives worked.
"How's your mother doing?" he asked.
"She's going to recover. Thanks for asking."
He dropped a newspaper on top of a stack of folders, the headline reading something about the attempt on the former vice president.
"Kate Winston may be your mother, but she's also a prominent political figure. The media is going to stay on this story until the shooter is captured."
"I'm good at avoiding the media," Thad said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his tone. But then he said, "Darcy told me you're getting some pressure from the feds." Wade didn't take orders from outside his jurisdiction well.
"They're going to handle the case," Wade said, his voice dripping with resentment.
"I know." He took pity on the man. His hands were tied just like Thad's and Darcy's.
"I'm concerned that you'll try and solve it on your own," Wade said.
The pressure must be heavy for him to push this so hard. "Why so much security?"
"The shooter isn't caught. That's embarrassing for the Secret Service. They told me hands off or else, and I believe them.as should you."
"The Secret Service told you that?" Thad would try to fish for information. "I thought it was the FBI investigators who were keeping things tight."
Frustration made Chief Thomas shake his head. "The rumor mill around here is like a bad virus. I'm sure they're working together."
"But excluding us."
"Don't get any ideas," Chief Thomas said. "I just-"
"I know you, Winston." Chief Thomas cut him off. "You don't lack initiative and that sometimes gets you into trouble."
He'd taken initiative to catch the man who'd tried to kill his mother. "It's my mother."
"You can take all the time you need helping her recover. I hear it may take her a few weeks before she's 100 percent. Beyond that, leave it up to the feds."
Thad stopped himself from arguing. Chief Thomas was following orders.
"Are we clear?" Chief Thomas asked.
"We're clear." Clear that Wade Thomas could not find out what he and Darcy did to investigate the shooting.
Wade stared at him for several seconds, not believing. If Thad's poker face wasn't working, he couldn't tell.
"If that's all, I'd like to go see my mother," he said to get out of there.
"That's all for now."
Thad nodded once and turned, vowing to be extra careful not to clue Wade into anything. He'd fallen short in that duty once. He'd be damned if he'd fall short again.
Lucy Sinclair looked forward to coming to work every day. She loved being on her feet at Duke University Hospital, helping patients recover from whatever had put them there. Talking to them, getting to know a little about their lives. Except when they died, of course. No nurse she'd ever met enjoyed that part of the job. Today was a good day because nobody was going to die.
Her smartphone vibrated. Stopping on her way to Kate Winston's room, she removed the phone from her uniform pocket and leaned against the hallway wall to get out of the way of a gurney being rolled toward an operating room. Lifting one white New Balance walking shoe, she propped it up on the wall behind her and navigated to the new message on her phone, smiling when she recognized the name. Cameo Harmon. Or Cam as he called himself, the new man she'd met online who had exciting potential. She'd gone on two dates with him this week. He called and texted her every day. A man who gave a girl that much attention had to be interested. That put him on the top of her list of eligible bachelors.
A sales director for a data management company, her first impression of him was that he was a hard worker with a vibrant personality. She supposed he got that from being a salesman. Her mother had cautioned her about that. She said salesmen couldn't be trusted because they were like actors. They acted their lives out instead of living in reality. But Cam was nice and successful-and not bad-looking.
How's my new girl today? his text said.
"It must be good if it puts a smile like that on your face."
Lucy looked up to see Thad Winston standing before her in the hallway, handsome in dark slacks, black leather shoes and a black leather jacket over a lavender dress shirt. The first thing that struck her was how much better looking he was than Cam. Taller. Four inches taller than her five-nine, to be precise. His hazel eyes had a powerful certainty to them. His light brown hair was stylishly messy. And then she recovered. Why had those thoughts run through her head? Why the comparison to Cam? Especially with Thad. Her first meeting with him had been nearly intolerable. He'd barked orders and snapped at her.
"I'm glad I ran into you today," Thad said. "About when we met."
Closing the text, she tucked her phone away and pushed off the wall. "Irritability is a symptom of the snake flu, you know." She started walking down the hall.
"Snake flu?" He fell into step beside her.
"Swine, bird. Snake. It's the latest strand. Haven't you heard? It's been in the news."
"Aside from irritability, infected victims get a low-grade fever that they don't always notice, and that develops into a body rash and blisters. Vomiting. Dehydration. And then blood vessels weaken and rupture. Eventually, you bleed internally and die."
"I treated a patient who had it. The poor man was so sick. Barking orders at everyone the whole time. He was the first fatality in North Carolina."
She sent him a straight face that flattened his near-grin.
Before he could question her further, they reached his mother's room. Two Secret Service agents were posted outside the door. Not everyone was the son of a former United States vice president.
The agent closest to them gave them a nod and stepped aside so they could enter.
"I didn't know it was your father who operated on my mother," Thad said as they entered the room, the door swinging shut behind them.
Before tending to Kate, Lucy turned to Thad. "You think I'm kidding about the flu?"
"I don't know what to think about something called snake flu. I'm trying to apologize."
Seeing his humble face, with smart, sexy eyes looking right at her, a sense of humor lurking somewhere in there, she resisted the softening coming over her. "Why does it matter who my father is? Would knowing that have changed your attitude?"
His gaze traveled down her body and back up, as though he was trying to gauge her attitude. "I was worried about my mother. I'm sorry for the way I behaved."
She folded her arms, tolerating him and trying hard not to be affected by his handsomeness and the macho part of his ego that he'd tamed in order to apologize.