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San Antonio, Texas
Sgt. Egan Caldwell already had four dead bodies on his hands. He sure as hell didn't want a fifth.
"I need a guard in place by the entrance gate. Now!" he ordered into the thumb-size communicator clipped to his collar. And by God, the two rent-a-cops had better be listening and reacting. "Secure the area and await orders. Do not fire. Repeat. Do not fire. If this is our killer, he might have a hostage."
And in this case the hostage would be none other than Caroline Stallings, the Cantara Hills socialite who'd made a frantic call to Egan six minutes earlier. He'd been a Texas Ranger for over four years, and that was more than enough time on the job to have learned that six minutes could be five minutes and fifty-nine seconds too late to save someone from a killer.
With his Sig Sauer Blackwater pistol gripped in his right hand, Egan blinked away the sticky summer rain that was spitting at him, and he zigzagged through the manicured shrubs and trees that lined the eighth of a mile-long cobblestone driveway. He'd parked on the street so the sound of his car engine wouldn't alert anyone that he was there. He tried not to make too much noise, listening for anything to indicate the killer was inside the two-story Victorian house. Or worse.
Egan couldn't let this guy get away again.
Things had sure gone to hell in a handbasket tonight. Less than ten minutes ago, Egan had been eating a jalapeño burger, chili fries and going over forensic reports in his makeshift office at the country club. Less than ten minutes ago, the two-hundred-and-eighty-six residents of Cantara Hills had been safe with a Texas Ranger and two civilian guards they'd hired to stop anyone suspicious from getting into the exclusive community.
And then that phone call had come.
"This is Caroline Stallings," she'd said, her voice more breath than sound. Egan had felt her fear from the other end of the line. "There's an intruder in my home."
Everything had gone dead.
Well, everything except Egan's concerns. They were sky-high because two of the three previous murders in Cantara Hills and an attempted murder had been preceded by break-ins.
Just like this one.
And even though the person responsible, Vincent Montoya, had been murdered as well, there was obviously someone else. Montoya's boss, maybe. Or someone with a different agenda. Maybe that someone was now right there in Caroline Stallings's house.
Egan slapped aside some soggy weeping willow branches and raced toward the back of the house. He didn't stop. Running, he checked the windows for any sign of the killer or Caroline Stallings. Enough lights were on to illuminate the place, but no one was in sight in the large solarium that he passed.
"I'm at the entry gate," one of the guards said through the communicator. "My partner's by the west fence. That covers both of the most likely exit routes, and San Antonio PD backup should be here soon to cover the others."
Soon wasn't soon enough. He needed backup now.
"I'm going in the house," he told the guard. Egan had to make sure Caroline Stallings was alive and that she stayed that way. "If the intruder comes running out of there alone, try to make an arrest. If he doesn't cooperate, if you have to shoot, then aim low for the knees. I want this SOB alive."
Because this particular SOB might be able to answer some hard questions about the four deaths that'd happened in or around Cantara Hills in the past nine months.
Egan glanced around to make sure the intruder hadn't escaped into the back or east yards. If he had, then it was a long drop down since the house was literally perched on the lip of a jagged limestone bluff. An escape over that particular wrought-iron fence could be suicide. But Egan did spot someone.
The brunette with a butcher knife.
She was standing just a few feet away on the porch near double stained-glass doors, and she had a white-knuckled grip on the gleaming ten-inch blade. Her blue-green eyes were wide, her chest pumping with jolts of breath that strained her sleeveless turquoise top.
It was Caroline Stallings.
Alive, thank God. And she seemed unharmed.
Egan had seen her around Cantara Hills a couple of times in the past week since the Texas Rangers had been called in to solve three cold-case murders and then a hot one that'd happened only forty-eight hours earlier. During those other sightings, Ms. Stallings had always appeared so cool, rich and collected. She wasn't so cool or collected now with her shaky composure and windswept dark brown hair.
But the rich part still applied.
Despite the fear and that god-awful big knife, she looked high priced, high rent and high maintenance.
She jumped when she saw him. And gasped. That caused her chest to pump even harder.
"Where's the intruder?" Egan mouthed.
She used the knife blade to point in the direction of the left side of the house. The opposite location from where he'd come. "My bedroom," she mouthed back. "I ran out here when I heard the noise."
Wise move. From her vantage point, she could see a lot through that beveled glass, including an intruder if he was about to come after her.
She reached over, eased open the door, and Egan slipped inside through the kitchen. The floor was gray slate. Potentially noisy. So he lightened his steps.
There were yards of slick black granite countertops, stainless appliances that reflected like mirrors, and in the open front cabinets, precise rows of crystal glasses, all shimmering and cool. He lifted an eyebrow at the half-empty bag of Oreo cookies on the kitchen island.
The A/C spilled over him, chilling the rain that snaked down his face and back. "Has the intruder come out of your bedroom or moved past you to get to another part of the house?" he asked.
"No one's come out of that room," she insisted.
So Egan turned his ear in that direction and listened.
Well, that's what he tried to do, anyway, but he couldn't hear much, other than Caroline Stallings's frantic breathing and her silk clothes rustling against her skin. She was obviously trembling from head to toe.
"When I came home from work, I noticed my security system wasn't working. Then I heard someone moving around in my bedroom," she muttered. "I dialed 9-1-1, they dispatched my call to you, and something or someone cut the line."
Yes. The line had indeed gone dead. Egan had hoped it was because of the rain, but his gut told him otherwise. It wasn't difficult to cut a phone line or disarm a security system, and perps usually did that when they wanted to sever their victim's means of communication. Murder or something equally nasty usually followed. Hopefully, he'd prevented the "equally nasty" part from happening.
"And I found this thing in my car," she added a moment later.
The vague thing got his attention. That wasn't good, either. Egan didn't want his attention on anything other than the intruder.
He glanced over his shoulder at Ms. Stallings and scowled at her so she'd hush. The scowl was still on his face when he heard the sound. Not breathing or rustlings on silk. It came from the direction of her bedroom, and it sounded as if someone had opened a door.
"What's the status of SAPD?" Egan whispered into the communicator.
"Not here yet," was the guard's response.
Egan silently cursed. It was decision time. He could stand there and continue to protect Ms. Stallings, or he could do something to catch a possible killer.
It didn't take him but a second to decide.
"Follow me," he instructed Caroline. "Stay low and don't make a sound."
She nodded and kept a firm grip on the butcher knife.
"And don't accidentally stab me with that thing," he snarled.
She tossed him a scowl of her own.
Egan took his first steps toward the bedroom, moving from the slate floor of the kitchen to some kind of exotic hardwood in the dining room and the foyer. He stopped. Listened. But he didn't hear any indication that the intruder was coming their way. So he took another step. Then, another. Caroline Stallings followed right behind him.
From the massive foyer, it was well over twenty feet to her bedroom. The door was open, and he paused in the entryway to get a look around. It, too, was massive. At least four hundred square feet. He wasn't surprised by all the space.
There were more dark hardwood floors and an equally dark four-poster bed frame, but nearly everything else was virginal white. The walls, the rugs, the high-end dresser and chest that were glossy white wood. It smelled like linen, starch and the rain.
No visible intruder.
However, there was movement.
Egan spun in that direction, re-aiming his weapon, but he realized the movement had come from the gauzy white curtains that were stirring in the breeze. He quickly spotted the breeze's source. Another set of French doors.
And these were wide open.
The doors shifted a little with each new brush of wind. That was obviously the sound he'd heard when he'd thought the intruder was escaping.
Mentally cursing again, Egan stepped just inside the room so he could get a better look at the floor. It didn't take any Ranger training or skill to see the wet footprints on the hardwood. The prints didn't just lead into the room. There were also some going out.
Hell. The intruder had likely left before Egan had even arrived.
"The cops are here," the guard informed Egan through the communicator.
Maybe it wasn't too late. "Have them check the grounds, but it looks as if our guy got away."
"He got away?" Caroline repeated with more than a bit of anger in her voice.
She went forward until she was right at his back and came up on her tiptoes so she could peer over his shoulder. She touched him in the process. Specifically, her silk-covered right breast swished against his back. That didn't stop her from looking and obviously seeing those tracks.
"He's gone," she mumbled, moving back slightly. She cursed, too, and it wasn't exactly mild. But it was justified. Judging from what the Rangers had learned about the murders, Caroline Stallings just might be on the killer's list.
The problem waswho was the killer?
And why exactly would he want Caroline dead?
So far, all the victims had been connected to a fatal hit-and-run that'd happened nine months earlier on the night of a high-society Christmas party at Cantara Hills. The now-dead Vincent Montoya was responsible for that incident, in which a young woman had died. In fact, everyone directly connected to the hit-and-run was dead.
Except for Caroline.
She'd been driving the vintage sports car that Vincent Montoya had slammed into.
Caroline had been injured, too, and supposedly lost her memory of not only the accident but that entire fateful night. The so-called amnesia bothered the hell out of Egan. Was she faking it to save one of her rich friends who might have caused the hit-and-run? Or was she covering for herself because she'd been negligent in some way? Egan didn't know which, but he was almost positive she was covering something.
"The police will come inside any minute," Egan told her. He moved her back into the doorway so that she'd be away from the windows. "Then, I can question you and have them check for trace and prints. We might be able to get something off those shoe impressions and the doorknobs."
He didn't want to get too engrossed in processing the crime scene just in case the cops flushed out the intruder and the SOB came running back into the house. That's the reason Egan kept his service pistol aimed and ready.
"You're sure you had your security system turned on?" he asked her.
"Of course. Since the murders, I always make sure it's set. But as I said, it wasn't working when I came home." She looked around. "At least nothing appears to have been ransacked. And besides, there wasn't much to steal since I don't keep money or expensive jewelry in the house."
"This person might not have been after stuff," Egan grumbled.
She touched the highly polished dresser, which was dotted with perfectly aligned silver-framed photos of what appeared to be family members. "Do you think the intruder could have been the person who murdered Vincent Montoya?"
"It's possible." More than possible. Likely. Especially since the ritzy neighborhood of Cantara Hills had been virtually crime-free prior to the hit-and-run. But afterward Well, that was a whole different story.
"Why isn't Lt. McQuade here?" she asked a moment later. "I figured he'd be the one to come."
Brody McQuade, the Ranger lieutenant in charge of the Cantara Hills murders. "He's in California trying to track down a person of interest."
"Oh. Then what about the other RangerSgt. Keller?" She spoke in a regular voice. Not whispers. And Egan didn't have to listen hard to that shiny accent to know that she didn't seem to care for his presence. "He was at the country club earlier. Why didn't he come?"
"Hayes is in Austin at the crime lab. And before you ask, I'm in charge of this investigation right now, and you're stuck with me."
"Stuck with the surly one," she mumbled. Her chin came up when he glared back at her. "That's what people around here call you. Brody's the intense one. Hayes is the chip-on-the-shoulder one."
Egan's glare morphed into a frown. "And I got named 'the surly one'? That's the best you people could do?"
She nodded as if his you-people insult didn't bother her in the least. "It suits you."