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Mariah Shore paused on the ridgeline about a half mile from her isolated cabin. Standing in the lee of a sturdy pine, she scanned the woods around her with a photographer's sharp eye. She wasn't looking for a subject for her old, beloved Canon 35 mm, though. The camera was stowed safely in her backpack for the hike home.
No, she was looking for a target for the Remington double-aught shotgun she held across her body.
"There's nobody there," she told herself, willing it to be true. But the woods were quieter than she liked, and the day was rapidly dimming toward the too-early springtime dusk.
With her curvy figure swathed in lined pants, a flannel shirt, a wool sweater and a down parka, and her dark curls tucked under a thick knit cap, she'd be warm enough if she stayed put. But her hurry to get home wasn't about the warmth. It was about the cabin's thick walls and sturdy locks, the line of electric fencing near the trees, and the motion-sensitive lights and alarms that formed a protective perimeter around the clear-cut yard.
The cabin was safe. Outside was a crapshoot.
She needed to keep moving, would've been nearly home if she hadn't heard a crackle of underbrush and seen a flash of movement directly in her path. She'd tried to tell herself it was just an animal, but she'd spent the best weeks of her childhood following her grandfather through Colorado woods like these, and she'd lived in the cabin thirty miles north of Bear Claw City for more than a year now. She'd hiked out nearly every day since arriving, first for peace and more recently for some actual work, as she'd started to feel the stirrings of the creativity she'd thought was gone for good. She knew the forest, knew the rhythms and inhabitants of the ridgeline. Whatever was between her and the cabin, her sense of the woods told her it wasn't a bear or wildcat. Her gut said it was two-legged danger.
Her ex-husband. Lee Mawadi.
Or was it?
"He's not there," she told herself. "He's long gone."
She'd kept tabs on the investigation, listening to the infrequent follow-ups on her small radio, and asking careful questions during her rare trips into the city for supplies. Because of that, she knew there had been no sign of Lee in the nearly six months since he and three other men had escaped from the ARX Supermax Prison, located on the other side of the ridge. She also knewor logic dictated, anywaythat her ex-husband had no real reason to come back to the area, and every reason to stay away.
After a long moment, when nothing could be heard but the muted sounds of the sun-loving animals powering down and the nocturnal creatures revving up as dusk fell along the ridgeline, she even managed to believe her own words.
"You're talking yourself into being scared," she muttered, slinging the double-aught over her shoulder and heading for home. "There's no way he's coming back here."
Lee might be a terrorist, a murderer and a liar, but he wasn't stupid.
Still, she stayed alert as she walked, relaxing only slightly when it seemed like the forest noises got a little louder, as though whatever menace the woodland creatures had sensedif anythinghad passed through and gone.
When Mariah reached the fifty-foot perimeter around the cabin, the motion-sensitive lights snapped on. The bright illumination showed a wide swath of stumps in stark relief, mute evidence of the terror that had driven her to chainsaw every tree within a fifty-foot radius of the cabin, and install a low-lying, solar-powered electric fence to keep the animals away.
In the center of the clear-cut zone sat the cabin. It was sturdy and thick-walled, its proportions slightly off, a bit top-heavy, and if she'd thought a time or two that she and the cabin were very much alike, there was nobody around to agree or disagree with her. She lived alone, and was grateful for the solitude. She used to think she wanted the hustle and bustle of a city, and the mob of friends she'd lacked during childhood. Now she knew better. Once a loner, always a loner.
Reaching into her pocket for the small remote control she carried with her at all times, she deactivated the motion-sensitive alarms. The security system wasn't wired to call for any sort of outside response, first because she was too far off the beaten track for the police to do her any good, and second because she didn't have much use for cops. That wasn't why she'd installed the system; she'd wanted it as a warning, pure and simple. If she was in the cabin and trouble appeared, she'd know it was time to get outor dig in and defend herself. If she was somewhere in the forest, she'd have a head start on escaping.
The Bear Claw cops and the Feds had offered her protection, of course, first when Lee had been arrested for his terrorist activities, and again when he'd escaped. But those offers had all come with questions and sidelong looks, and the threat of people inher space, watching her every move, making it clear that she was as much a suspect as a victim.
Victim. Oh, how she hated the word, hated knowing she'd been one. Not as much a victim as the people Lee had killed, or the families who mourned the dead, but a victim nonetheless. Worse, she'd been selfish and blind, not looking beyond the problems in her marriage to see the larger threat. She had to live with that, would do so until the day she died. But that didn't mean she had to live with strangersworse, cops and FBI agentsreminding her of it, and hounding her and her parents. Not when there wasn't anything she could do to help them find her ex-husband.
"There's no way he's coming backhere," she repeated, shifting the shotgun farther back on her shoulder so she could fumble in her pocket for the keys to the log cabin's front door. "He'd be an idiot to even try."
She unlocked the door and pushed through into the cabin, starting to relax as she keyed the remote to bring the motion-sensitive alarms back online.
They shrieked, warning that somethingor someonehad breached the perimeter in the short moment the alarms had been off.
A split second later, a blur came at her from the side and a heavy hand clamped on her arm, bringing a sharp pricking pain. Jolting, Mariah screamed and spun, but the spin turned into a sideways lurch as her legs went watery and her muscles gave out.
Drugs, she thought, realizing that a syringe had been the source of the prick, drugs the source of the spinning disconnection that seized her, dampening her ability to fight or flee. The tranquilizer didn't blunt her panic, though, or the sick knowledge that she was in serious trouble. Her heart hammered and her soul screamed, No!
She fell, and a man grabbed her on the way down, his fingers digging into the flesh of her upper arms. His face was blurred by whatever he'd given her, but she knew it was Lee. She recognized the shape of her ex's body, the pain of his hard grasp and the way her skin crawled beneath his touch.
He took the remote control from her, and used it to kill the alarm. Then he leaned in close, and his features became sharp and familiar: close-cropped, white-blond hair; smooth, elegant skin; and blue eyes that could go from friendly to murderous in a snap.
Born to an upper-class Boston family, the second son of loving parents with a strong marriage, Lee Chisholm had been sent to the best schools and given all the opportunities a child could've asked for. Logic said he should have matured into the cultured, successful man he'd looked like when Mariah had met him. And on one level, he'd been that man. On another, he'd been a spoiled monster whose parents had hidden the fact that he'd had a taste for arson and violence. That nasty child had grown into a man in search of a cause, an excuse to indulge his evil appetites. He'd found that cause during his years at an exclusive, expensive college, where he'd been recruited into the anti-American crusade.
As part of a terrorist cell, under the leadership of mastermind al-Jihad, he'd gone by the name of Lee Mawadi, and had arranged to meet Mariah because of her father's connections to one of al-Jihad's targets. Lee had wooed her, courted her, pretended to love her and then he'd used her and set her up to die.
She hadn't died, but in the years since, she hadn't really lived, either. And now, seeing her own death in her ex-husband's face, she cringed from him, her heart hammering against her ribs, tears leaking from her eyes.
Lee, no. Don't! she tried to say, but the words didn't come, and the scream stayed locked in her throat because she couldn't move, couldn't struggle, couldn't do anything other than hang limply in his grasp and suck in a thin trickle of air.
Then he let go of her. She fell to the floor at the threshold of the cabin and landed hard, winding up in a tangled heap of arms and legs, lax muscles and terror.
He crouched over her, gloating as he held up the small styrette he'd used to drug her. "This is to shut you up and keep you where you belong," he said. Then he stood, drew back his foot and kicked her in the stomach. Pain sang through her, radiating from the soft place where the blow landed. She would've curled around the agony, but she couldn't do even that. She could only lie there, tears running down her face as he said, "That was for forgetting where you belong, wife. Which is by my side, no matter what."
He grabbed her by the hood of her parka and dragged her inside, kicking the door shut.
The sound of it closing was a death knell, because Mariah knew one thing for certain: the man she'd once promised to love, honor and obey didn't intend to let her leave the cabin alive.
Five days later
Michael Grayson was a man on a mission, and he didn't intend to let inconsequential details like due process or official sanction interfere. Which was why, just shy of six months after he'd nearly been booted out of the FBI for sidestepping protocol, Gray was back on the edge of the line between agent and renegade, between law officer and vigilante. Only this time he was well aware of it and knew the consequences; his superiors had put him on notice, loud and clear.
The threats didn't stop him from taking his day off to drive up through the heart of Bear Claw Canyon State Forest to the hills beyond, though, and they didn't keep him from using a pair of bolt cutters on the padlocked gate that barred entry to a narrow access road leading up the ridgeline. Up to her house.
He drove into the forest as far as he dared, just past a fire access road that marked the two-thirds point of the journey. He tucked his four-by-four into the trees, off the main track so it couldn't be seen easily from the road, pointing it downhill in the event that he needed to get out of there fast.
Then he started walking, staying off the main road and out of sight, just in case. As he did so, he tried to tell himself that it was recon, nothing more, that he just wanted to get a look at Lee Mawadi's ex-wife six months after the prison break. But he couldn't make the lie play, even inside his own skull. His gut said that Mariah Shore had secrets. There had to be a reason she'd moved into a cabin on a ridgeline that, on a clear day, provided views of both Bear Claw City and the ARX Supermax Prison.
His coworkers and superiors in the Denver field office had put zero stock in Gray's gut feelingswhich admittedly had a bit of a hit-or-miss reputation. The higher-ups had written Mariah off as nothing more than she seemed: a pretty, dark-haired woman who'd married a man in good faith, not realizing that he was using her twice over, once to create the illusion of middle-American normalcy and disguise his ties to al-Jihad's terrorist network, and a second time to gain entrée to her family.
When the newlyweds moved to a suburb north of Bear Claw City to be close to her parents, Mariah had leaned on her father to find a job for her engineering-trained husband within the American Mall Group, where her father had been an upper-level manager. It wasn't until after the attacks and subsequent arrests, when the story had started coming together, that it became clear Lee had manipulated Mariah into getting him the job, just as he'd manipulated her into serving as his alibi through the first few rounds of the investigation.
Or so she had claimed. Gray hadn't fully bought her protestations of innocence two years earlier during the original investigation, and he sure as hell hadn't believed them more recently, when her husband had escaped. There were only so many times he could hear "I don't know anything" before it started to wear thin, especially when the suspect's actions said otherwise.
Mariah Chisholm, who had gone back to using her maiden name of Shore after the divorce, knew more than she was admitting. Gray was positive of it he just couldn't convince his jackass, rules-are-God boss, Special Agent in Charge Johnson, to lean on her harder.
Then again, SAC Johnson was in this investigation to make his career and avoid stepping on any political toes. Gray was in it for justice.
The horrific terror attacks two and a half years earlier, dubbed the "Santa Bombings," had targeted the start of the holiday season, when families with young children had gathered at each of the American Malls to welcome the mall Santas. The bombs had been concealed in building stress points near the elaborate thrones where the Santas had sat for whispered consultations with hundreds of hopeful, holiday-crazed kids. The explosives had all gone off simultaneously, in six malls across the state. Hundreds had been killedfamilies destroyed in a flashduring the most joyous of seasons.
It had been an inhuman attack, directed solely at the most innocent of innocents. Terrorism in the truest sense of the word.