Read an Excerpt
Julian Cavenaugh closed the folder and pushed his chair back from his desk. He and his partner, Rick Barnett, had finally cracked the case after four months of tracking leads, many of which had gone nowhere, leaving everyone frustrated. Even as a veteran detective in one of Atlanta's grittiest precincts, he felt good about putting another alleged murderer behind bars. His chief had suggested he take a vacation now before plunging into his next case. Rick had already taken his family to Florida for sun and fun. But Julian hadn't decided yet. Too much downtime could make him lose his edge.
He was, however, toying with the idea of going fishing with his dad for a couple of days. Even though his family lived just thirty miles outside Atlanta, Julian hadn't seen them since Christmas. His crazy schedule hadn't allowed it.
His phone rang, jerking him back to attention. "Cavenaugh," he snapped.
"Julian, it's Mom."
He gripped the receiver tighter, thinking maybe he'd conjured up this call. "What's wrong?" Neglectful or not, Julian couldn't remember his family ever phoning him at the office. They left messages at his apartment or on his cell because no one wanted to bother him at work.
"It's your dad." Beth Cavenaugh's voice sounded odd.
"Is it his heart? How bad? Damn, we all warned him at Christmas to lay off the rich desserts." Julian glanced at the wall clock. "If I leave now, I can be in Mosswood in under an hour."
"I'm sorry, I don't mean to frighten you. Your father is well enough." Beth lowered her voice. "He's done it again, Julian. Sam is positive he's recognized one of the kids on his route from a card. Oh, I shouldn't bother you. I did try Taggert and Joshfirst, but they refuse to talk to him.And he's not listening to me. I've reminded him he's only got six months until he can retire and the department will drop the earlier reprimand so he goes out with a clean record, but Sam claims this isn't about him. And Julian what if he's right this time?"
Shutting his eyes, Julian rubbed the back of his neck. "Listen, I just closed a big casethe west-end serial murders. You've probably seen it on the news. Chief MacHale wants me to take some time off. Let me tie up some loose ends here, then I'll come down to see you tomorrow. Maybe I can reason with Pop."
"Oh, would you? I didn't want to ask, but this is so much like the last time. He's a stubborn old coot when he gets it in his head that he's right. It's not like he's even seen this little girl up close. They're a fairly new family on his mail route. I just want him to be careful and not make wild accusations again."
Julian tried to reassure his mother. "Don't worry. I have avenues to check that we didn't have before."
Beth seemed relieved and before hanging up they arranged that he'd arrive around one the next day.
Julian sat quietly for a moment, letting his thoughts drift back to the disaster that had his mother concerned even now. He'd been a high-school sophomore. Tag and Josh were in junior high and Celeste still in grade school. Tag had invited a new friend home for supper. After the boy left the Cavenaughs, Sam had pulled out a card sent by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Sam delivered one or two of the cards along his route every week, and he kept copies for himself. The whole family had agreed the new boy was a dead ringer for a kid listed as missing from a nearby state.
But within hours of Sam calling the hotline all hell broke loose in sleepy Mosswood. An FBI team swept in and the scandal that followed their investigation was huge. Bigger than huge. Tag's friend wasn't the missing boy. And rather than praising Sam Cavenaugh for doing his civic duty, the boy's dad, rich as Warren Buffett, did his best to get Sam fired. Mr. Miller was so angry over the scrutiny and suspicion he and his family were forced to endure, he closed a factory he'd recently opened in town. A hundred residents lost their jobs.
For a while, the Cavenaughs were pariahs. If the NCMEC hadn't supported Samuel, he would've been fired. The agency spokesman released a statement asking where lost and stolen kids would be if people like Sam Cavenaugh never stuck their necks out? All the same, an official reprimand went on Sam's record. It took years for the town to forgive and forget.
Julian knew that his father had done the right thing. All cops relied on citizen tips in their cases. Still, Julian understood why his mom was worried.
Julian quickly exited his shared office and left his file on the murder case in the clerk's out-basket where Rick Barnett had already left his. Down the hall, he knocked on Chief MacHale's door.
"I don't want to see you for at least two weeks," Conrad MacHale said, signing and dating the vacation request Julian handed him. "No two or three days and you're back." MacHale paused to examine him more closely. "Man, you look like helllike you haven't slept since this case started. Go relax. Get on that motorcycle you're so fond of, find a hot date and have a good time. Just don't come back for two weeks. A month would be better, but we can't spare you that long."
"In a month a guy could forget how to do the job."
"I doubt that." MacHale's laugh was dry as he passed Julian a copy of the form. "Your record's one of the best in the precinct, if not the whole town."
Julian left the chief's office smiling, but without responding to the rare compliment. Mac didn't give them often and he wouldn't appreciate gushy thanks. All the same, his comment went a long way toward relieving Julian's fatigue. And he was tired. This last case had taken a long four months.
Still, there was no job he'd rather have. A collar like the one he'd just made made up for all the crappy days. Their team had solid DNA evidence linking Fred Struthers to a string of rapes and murders in a normally secure section of town. With Struthers in custody, residents and cops could breathe easier.
As he left the building, heading home, Julian remembered his folks hadn't been overjoyed with his career choice. They both had safe jobs, as they pointed out. Sam had delivered mail for almost thirty years come rain, snow or blistering sun. Beth sold real estate part-time. Their combined income left them comfortably middle-class, and had made it possible for their four kids to attend university. At thirty-one, Tag managed a swankAtlanta hotel. Josh, twenty-nine, was a news anchor at the local TV station. Celeste, the baby at twenty-eight, worked as a neonatal nurse now that her twin girls had started school.
Julian's siblings were all happily married and had given his folks grandbabies to spoil. He would've thought they'd be happy with that. But any time he made it to Mosswood for family gatherings, he felt subtleif not overtpressure, to get married. One Cavenaugh or another would invite an unsuspecting single woman to dinner for the express purpose of shoving her at Julian.
Celeste, married to a doctor, had once asked if he ever met women at work. He grinned to himself, recalling her face when he'd said, "Sure, sis. Hookers." That had effectively put an end to questions for that meal. Of course, he knew Celeste was asking if he met any nice single women cops. Cops marrying cops worked for some, but Julian preferred not to talk shop 24/7. When he got home, he wanted to leave the world's troubles behind. His time off was erratic, which made regular dating difficult. It was a big reason why, at thirty-three, he was still unmarried and okay with it. Mostly. At times, he envied his siblings .
The next day, after packing the saddle bags on his custom black-and-chrome Ducati Monster, Julian cruised the back roads to Mosswood. He loved feeling the wind in his face. Spring in Georgia could be muggy or mild; today was pleasant. Sunshine filtered through a canopy of hickory and sweet-gum trees, late-blooming dogwoods still had enough waxy blossoms to entice photography buffs out of their cars.
The scent of honeysuckle permeated the air, and Julian glimpsed a pair of yellow-throated warblers flitting among the bushes. He'd forgotten how freedom felt.
He didn't bother planning how to approach his dad. Sam Cavenaugh's love for his kids wasn't complicated. Julian knew they'd be able to talk openly and honestly about what was worrying Beth.
Julian motored along his parents'tree-lined street. His family's redbrick home complemented a backdrop of well-tended flowerbeds and a manicured lawn. Julian and his siblings had grown up here, and the sight of the house always made him nostalgic. Of the four Cavenaugh kids, Julian was least likely to ever need a five-bedroom home. Still at every get-together, he said, "Remember, if you two ever want to downsize, I'd be happy to take it off your hands."
His mom must have been watching for him. Julian had barely parked his bike in the drive and removed his helmet when she burst from the house, ran to meet him and engulfed him in a hug. Like all her boys, Julian towered over Beth's petite five-two frame. Because she loved to cook, she tended to be on the plump side. The fact Julian looked gaunt didn't escape her eagle eye.
"Sakes alive, I can see there's no doughnut shop near your station. Well, no matter, I'm fixing your favorite meal tonight. No objections, now," she said when Julian opened his mouth. "And I've invited a nice young woman to join us. A new member of my gourmet cooking club. Such a sweet girl. I just know you're going to love her."
"Ma, I came because you asked me to talk to Pop. If this visit is really about you matchmaking, I'm getting right back on my bike."
His mother kept a firm hold on his arm as she steered him inside. "Honestly, I thought you prided yourself on juggling a dozen cases at once. Are you saying you can't meet a pretty girl and head your dad off at the pass?"
"I'm saying I'm not looking for a wife. If that's why you invited the gourmet cook to join us for dinner, uninvite her. Besides, the fewer people who hear about Pop's sighting another missing child, the better."
"You're right." Beth pouted a bit as they entered the house, but she picked up the phone anyway, so Julian knew he'd made his point.
He'd unpacked a few shirts and was seated at the kitchen table enjoying a cold beer, when his dad ambled in from work. Sam greeted his son with a slap on his back that morphed into a sort of hug.
"Hey, stranger. I hear you caught the guy you were looking for. Congratulations! I assume that's why Mom and I have the pleasure of your company. Good work, son."
"Thanks. It was a tough case. The chief wants me rested and ready to testify at the trial. I thought I'd see if you felt like tossing a line in the river. Why don't you grab a beer? We can go sit on the back porch and discuss the best fishing hole."
"Sorry, son. You'll have to go fishing alone. I'm involved in a bit of surveillance, myself."
"Oh?" Julian feigned surprise.
"Let me get that beer. And then we'll go out where your mom can't overhear us. She thinks I'm a meddling old fool but I know I'm right this time. Actually, I'm glad you're here. This is right up your alley."
Julian had thought he'd have to pump his dad for information. This was almost too easy, he decided, twisting the cap off a second bottle of light beer.