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The wind whipping through the paper-thin walls of Leah Holden's North Carolina mountain cabin whistled, shrill and violent, jarring her from a deep sleep. Or had the sound been a scream?
A child's scream
Leah vaulted from her bed and raced to her seven-year-old sister's room, praying she'd been wrong. Through the half-open door, Christmas lights from the tiny tree inside sparkled red and gold and silver.
But when she rushed inside, Ruby's bed was empty.
"Ruby!" Her heart pounded as she scanned the interior, the dark shadows, the rumpled bedding, the closet where her sister had made a playhouse for her dolls.
The curtains flapped wildly, the chill in the room sending icy fear through her.
The window was open. It had been shut when Leah had gone to bed.
Frantic, she flipped on the overhead light, her gaze landing on the teddy bear that had been slashed to pieces on Ruby's bed. A note lay in the midst of the cotton stuffing, and nausea lurched in her stomach.
CALL THE POLICE AND THE CHILD DIES.
She screamed in terror, panic clenching her chest as a dozen horrific scenarios assaulted her. Ruby, kidnapped. Being tortured. Abused. Molested. Murdered.
The room swirled in a blinding sea of white and she gripped the edge of the brass bed, struggling not to pass out. This couldn't be happening.
Sanctuary was supposed to be a safe little town. A haven for familiesa close-knit community.
But a cold emptiness filled Ruby's room. The sight of her Pippi Longstocking doll brought tears to Leah's eyes. Ruby loved her Pippi doll just as Leah had loved the colorful character when she was a child. After her mother had died, Leah had moved back home to take care of Ruby, and they'd started reading the Pippi books together.
Leah's hand trembled as she ran to the den for the phone. The message on the note echoed in her head and she hesitated. Every horrific TV-show scenario flashed through her mind.
Maybe she shouldn't call the police.
But time was important. And how could she handle this alone?
She needed the police to issue an AMBER Alert, start searching, set up road blocks, put Ruby's picture on the news, call the FBI She needed them to find Ruby.
Terrified, she punched in the number. Ruby was all the family she had left. She had to find her.
The image of the dead boy's face would haunt Detective Gage McDermont for the rest of his life.
Thirteen years old and he'd been murdered on the sidewalk by a man who should have still been in jail.
All because the kid had tried to do what was right: testify against a lowlife scumbag for beating his mother to a bloody pulp.
In the end, she had died. And Rodney Kemple had walked on a damn technicality and shot the kid in the chest.
Guilt pressed against Gage's lungs, making it impossible to breathe. He had promised Tommy Beringer that he'd protect him.
And he had failed.
So had the system Gage had sworn to uphold.
He balled his hands into fists as he waited in the chief's office, wanting to pound something again, just like he'd pounded Kemple's face when he'd finally caught up with him. He'd have finished the guy off if his partner hadn't interceded and dragged him away.
The chief walked in, his granitelike face showing a mixture of anger and disdain. Gage had worked for the Raleigh Police Department for eight years, and he and Drew Hardy had almost come to blows before, but the past year things had grown even more strained. The chief seemed to be more interested in politics than catching perps, and Gage had told him so more than once.
Hadn't gone over well with the chief.
"What in the hell were you thinking, McDermont?" A vein bulged in Hardy's wide throat. "You nearly beat Kemple to death."
"He deserved far worse than he got, and you know it, Chief." Gage pushed to his feet, anger rolling off him. "He put a bullet in that kid's chest."
"You had him under arrest," the chief barked. "Now we have police brutality charges to deal with and IA on our butts. Are you trying to make this department look bad?"
"You're worried about the damn department?" Fury turned Gage's voice to ice. "What about that poor kid? The one we promised to protect?" He struggled with the hate churning in his gut. "What about justice? When did our jobs stop being about that?"
The chief leveled him with a lethal stare. "I'm trying to see that justice is done," he growled. "Within the law. And your actions may just enable this guy to walk."
"He won't walk," Gage snapped. "We've got the gun with his prints on it, and Beringer's shirt."
Chief Hardy slammed his hand on the desk. "You've been walking the line for months, McDermont. But this time you went too far."
Gage crossed his arms. "If you want an apology from me, you're wasting your time."
The chief's furious stare met his. "In that case, I'm ordering you to take a voluntary leave of absence. Take some time off, get your head back on straight," he hissed. "Hell, if you need to see a counselor, the department can set you up."
"And if I don't?"
His voice dropped and he leaned forward. "Then I'll be forced to suspend you."
Rage, frustration and disbelief rallied inside Gage like a storm ready to unfold.
His job was his life.
But he was fed up with gangs, street thugs and having to adhere to the bureaucratic BS that protected criminals' rights and left the victims vulnerable and without justice.
And if he had it to do over again, he'd beat Kemple even worse.
"What's it going to be, McDermont?"
Gage removed his badge from inside his leather jacket, ripped off his shoulder holster, put them both on the desk and then walked out.
All he'd ever wanted to do was be a cop.
But there were other ways to get justice. Maybe it was time he went out on his own.
Ruby had been missing for seven days now. Seven days of pure torture.
Tears blurred Leah's eyes as she stared at the gifts stacked beneath the glittering tree. Christmas was three days away.
Ruby had to be home by then. The house was so empty, the silence deafening.
When she got back, they'd make sugar cookies and hot chocolate, and Ruby would squeal with delight when she discovered the games and craft sets under the tree.
And Santa was supposed to bring a kitten. Not that Ruby completely believed in Santa, but she still pretended.
Leah's breath caught. Today the locals had called off the search teams that had combed the woods. Had essentially given Ruby up for dead.
Leah paced to the window and studied the empty backyard swing dangling in the wind. Ruby loved that swing.
But she might never sit in it again. Might never run across the yard or skip rope or climb the ancient oak to the tree house they had built together last summer.
Thunder rumbled across the gray sky, her mood as dark as the threatening storm. It was too cold for a child to survive out in those woods. Too dangerous.
Coyotes roamed the mountains, along with bears and mountain lions. And there were tales of mountain men who lived in the wildwho'd never been civilized. Strange things had happened along the Appalachian trail and in the deep recesses of the forests. People had gone missing and never been found.
Stories of cults and gypsy clans who performed strange rituals circulated. There were also rumors of ghosts haunting the area, the agonized souls of people who were killed in the battles between Native Americans and those who'd driven them from their homes during the Trail of Tears.
What if one of the animals had gotten Ruby? Or one of the mountain men? What would he do to her?
What had he already done?
Was Ruby lost somewhere, terrified and alone? Hurting or locked up in some scary place?
No, Leah wouldn't give up hope. She couldn't.
But the local police hadn't been able to find her. Not that she trusted them, especially with Charlie Driscill, a guy from her old high school, as the deputy and acting sheriff. He was following in his father's footsteps, preparing to take over as sheriff when his dad retired soon.
She'd considered the fact that her own secrets might have played a part in Ruby's kidnapping, that the kidnapper was someone from her pastsomeone from that terrible night eight years agobut everyone in town had been questioned and supposedly had alibis.
She'd even wondered if Ruby's father had taken her. But that was impossible. Ruby's father didn't even know she existed.
Had she made a mistake in calling the police? Would the kidnapper have contacted her if she hadn't?
A sob choked her. She'd been second-guessing herself for days now, praying for a phone call or a message that someone had seen her sister. But that phone call had never come.
Gage stared at the news broadcast of the update on Ruby Holden's kidnapping, emotions rising to the surface. He still couldn't believe there had been a kidnapping in his hometown. Not in Sanctuary.
The news clip summarized the past few days of the search and then showed the deputy sheriff, Charlie Driscill, approaching Leah Holden. He'd said, "I'm sorry, but we're calling off the search team." Then Leah collapsed in a fit of tears.
Seven days missinghe understood the reasoning behind calling off the search. By now, the kidnapper would have left the area.
Or the child was dead.
Every hour a child was missing lessened the chances that she would be found alive.
He watched as neighbors surrounded Leah, supporting her, and frowned.
There had been no ransom call. No word. No physical evidence except that shredded teddy bear and the note warning Leah not to call the police.
So what was the kidnapper's motive? Was he a pedophile? Someone who'd lost a child and wanted to replace it with another? A crazy lunatic who simply saw an opportunity?
He glanced at the screen again. Leah looked so lost, so devastated .
He had to do something.
Not that he wanted to see her again after all these years, but she needed help. And a child was in danger.
The past week he'd decided to start his own private investigative firm specializing in children's cases. In memory of Ramona Samples, the woman who'd helped him find a home with the McDermonts, he'd decided to call his agency Guardian Angel Investigations. He planned to hire other detectives to work for him, ex-cops or military men, as well as security and computer specialists. GAI would step in when the police or feds failed.
Or when a client chose not to call the police.
And he'd jump-start his agency by finding Leah's sister.
Leah had called in the locals, but after seeing her plea on the news, he sensed she was hiding something. If she'd done something to her sister, he'd nail her ass to the wall.
But memories of Leah in high school returned and he couldn't believe she'd hurt anyone. He'd harbored a crush on her in high school and had planned to meet her at a party once, but then she'd hooked up with his brother.
He'd never spoken to her after that day. And it had caused a rift between him and Jerry.
Maybe moving back home for a while would enable him to mend fences with Jerry. After all, Jerry had probably changed. He owned a construction company and had built neighborhoods all around Sanctuary.
Gage turned off the TV, tucked the newspaper photo of Ruby inside his bomber jacket, climbed in his Explorer and headed toward Sanctuary.
He'd find out what happened to this little girl and make the person who'd abducted her pay.
He watched Leah Holden's house from the top of the ridge with his telephoto lens, the frigid December air biting at his neck and hands. His skin was raw, dry and chafed, but he barely noticed. Rage heated his bloodstream, making it flow thick and hot through his system.
Leah shouldn't have called the police. He'd never expected her to, counting on her fear and cowardice to keep her quiet.
The bitch should have heeded the warning. If she had, she'd have the kid back by now, and life could go on as normal.
But no, she'd called the damn cops.
She'd be sorry she ever came back to town. Ever messed with their lives. Ever lived.
Because of her, Ruby might have to die.