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"A high-octane thrill ride that kept me on the edge of my seat and up far too late at night!"
When a teenage girl dies in a suspicious fire, Detective Olivia Sutherland is assigned to track down the arsonist. Then she discovers something more sinister: a vicious blackmailer who preys on young people and murders without hesitation. Making her work even harder is sexy firefighter David Hunter. He's not only sharing the case but sparking memories of their long-ago night of passion, when feelings were ...
"A high-octane thrill ride that kept me on the edge of my seat and up far too late at night!"
When a teenage girl dies in a suspicious fire, Detective Olivia Sutherland is assigned to track down the arsonist. Then she discovers something more sinister: a vicious blackmailer who preys on young people and murders without hesitation. Making her work even harder is sexy firefighter David Hunter. He's not only sharing the case but sparking memories of their long-ago night of passion, when feelings were left unspoken and hearts were broken.
David has his own ghosts, and a million regrets. But while he and Olivia try to face the wall of pain between them, a diabolical puppet master is pulling strings to make a group of twentysomethings do his bidding. Soon Olivia and David are scouring the city for a calculating criminal who seems tantalizingly close—and is moving in for the kill.
2011 RITA Winner for Romantic Suspense
Minneapolis, Minnesota, Monday, September 20, 12:00 a.m.
They’d shown up. He had to admit he was surprised. He didn’t think they’d had the cojones, especially the girl. Of all of them, he hadn’t thought she’d follow through.
Four college kids, all dressed in black. Four college kids with way too much time. Two of them with way too much of their daddy’s money. If all went according to plan, a great deal of their daddy’s money would soon belong to him.
It was rule number one of his world—if people didn’t want to be blackmailed, they shouldn’t do bad things. Rule number two—if they did bad things, they should be smart enough not to get caught. The four college kids weren’t very smart.
From the cover of the trees the condo developer had taken such pains to preserve, he watched the four approach, while he filmed every step they took. Their faces were plainly visible in the moonlight, and although he’d bet their daddy’s money they believed they were being stealthy, they moved with enough noise to wake the dead.
“Wait.” One of the four stopped. His name was Joel, and of the three young men, he had been the most enthusiastic proponent of their plan. “Let’s think this through.”
Interesting. Conflict always added a little excitement. Unseen, he kept filming.
“No waiting,” the girl said. Her name was Mary, and she was a bitch. “We agreed. All of us, Joel. This condo has got to go. We have to send a message.”
“She’s right.” This from Eric, the so-called brains of the group. As if. “This is our one chance to make a difference to these wetlands. If we do nothing, this whole lake will be nothing but condos.” He turned to the large brute standing behind him. “The guard will be doing his outside sweep in two minutes. He’ll exit the building from the service door in the back. You know what to do. Come on, people. Let’s roll.”
The brute was Albert, pronounced without the t. French Canadian, he was at the university on a hockey scholarship. Right wing. Hell of a checker. Albert set off around the building, obediently. His research had revealed that Albert had been quite the juvenile delinquent, back in the day. He was quite certain Albert would know exactly what to do.
The show was about to begin. Hurry, he told himself, taking his second camera from his pack. This was his stationary camera and was attached to a small tripod which he stuck into the soft ground, positioning the lens just in time to capture Mary, Eric, and Joel entering a stairwell door on the east side of the condo.
The door had been propped open with a rock, probably by a construction worker who’d wanted to save a little time and effort. The best security system in the world could be neutralized by lazy workers. Apparently the College Four had done their homework and knew exactly which door would be open. Kudos to them.
Leaving his stationary camera running, he moved the way Albert had gone, arriving just as the guard exited, right on schedule. Five seconds later the guard lay unconscious on the ground. A satisfied Albert slid a small club back into his pocket.
All caught on my tape. Albert’s family was dirt poor, so there was no money now, but there was a good chance that Albert would someday have an NHL salary ending in lots of zeroes. I can wait. Eric and Joel both had daddies rich enough to fill his bank accounts for now. As for Mary’s daddy… some paybacks didn’t require a dollar sign.
Some paybacks are personal.
Within another minute, Mary emerged from the side entrance and joined Albert. Both stared up at the windows, waiting.
He waited with them, from a safe distance away. He saw the first wisps of smoke rise in the upper floors. Mary threw her fist in the air with a whispered, “Yes.”
Minutes later there was lots of smoke, on every floor. But the side door had not opened again. Mary took a step forward, the triumph on her face turned to concern, but Albert stopped her, his beefy hand closing around her arm.
“They’re still inside,” she said, yanking at her arm. “Let me go.”
Albert shook his head. “Give them another minute.”
And then the door burst open, both Eric and Joel gasping for breath. Mary and Albert ran to the wheezing boys, pulling them away from the building.
“Goddamn idiot,” Eric snarled, jerking in huge breaths. “You nearly got us killed.”
Joel fell to his knees, spasms of coughing shaking his body. He looked up, his eyes terrified, desperate. “She’ll die.”
Mary and Albert shared shocked looks. “Who will die?” Albert asked carefully.
Joel scrambled to his feet. “A girl. She’s trapped. We have to get her out.” He started to run. “Dammit,” he cried when Eric and Albert dragged him back. “Let me go.”
Mary grabbed Joel’s face. “There’s somebody in there?” She flashed a panicked glare at Eric. “You said nobody would be in there. You said it was safe.”
“Nobody’s supposed to be in there,” Eric gritted through clenched teeth. “Joel didn’t see anything. Let’s go before somebody sees the smoke and calls 911.”
“She’s in there,” Joel insisted, hysterical now. “I saw her. Look!”
As a group they looked up and he followed suit, pointing his lens upward as a collective gasp rose from the group. In that moment, he saw her, too. A girl, her fists banging on the window that had been designed to provide a view of the lake, not an escape. She was young, a teenager maybe, her mouth opened on a terrified cry they could not hear. Her fists pounded weakly now, her face pressed to the glass. Then her hands flattened against the window as she slid from their sight.
Joel gave a final, desperate yank. “She’s going to die. Don’t you care? Nobody was supposed to get hurt. Let me go. I’ve got to get her out.”
Mary grabbed his hair. “Stop it. You go back in there and you’ll both be dead.”
Joel was sobbing now. “Then call 911. Please. Dammit, please.”
“Listen to me,” Mary said, her voice low and urgent. “If we call 911, we all go to prison. Prison, Joel. That’s not going to happen. Stop this, right now.”
But Joel wasn’t listening. He thrashed, trying to escape their grip like a man possessed. Behind his head, Eric gave Albert a grim nod. Albert pulled the club from his pocket and a second later Joel collapsed, just as the guard had done.
“Let’s go,” Eric said tersely and he and Albert picked Joel up and carried him through the woods to where their car was parked.
Mary gave a final look back, up at the now-empty window. “Shit,” she hissed, then turned and ran, passing the struggling boys to pull at the chain-link fence they’d cut on their way in. “Hurry. Shove him through.”
Well. He lowered his camera, watching as the taillights from their car disappeared. That had been a lot more exciting than he’d thought it would be. A simple arson would have been good for years of blackmailing fun. But murder trumped arson and just about anything else. He had several clients who would agree to that.
He quickly packed his two cameras and the tripod. Smoke was billowing into the sky and he heard the pop of glass as windows began to burst. The authorities would soon be here. And I will be long gone. Hefting his backpack, he jogged around the building to the lake side where he’d left his boat tied to the dock.
“You there. Stop.” It was a thin, ragged cry, but he heard it. Spinning around, he found himself face-to-face with the security guard, who staggered forward, dazed. Blood oozed from the open wound on his head. Albert hadn’t hit him hard enough. The man held his radio in one bloody hand, a gun in the other. “Stop or I’ll shoot. I will.”
Not today, Pops. Calmly he drew his own gun and fired. The guard’s mouth fell open in shock. He dropped to his knees, then collapsed for the second time that night.
“Shoulda stayed down, Pops,” he muttered. He ran to his boat and dropped his pack inside. With a quiet roar, the motor engaged. Quickly he pulled off the ski mask he wore. If anyone saw him now he could claim he’d seen the smoke and was coming to help, versus trying to flee. But nobody saw him. Nobody ever did.
Which made listening to their whispered secrets so much easier. He patted the cameras in his pack. Which made taking their money so much easier still. I love my job.
Oh my God oh my God oh my God. From behind the tree where he’d hidden, Austin Dent watched the small boat speed away, his hands pressed to his mouth. The guard was dead. That man had shot him. Dead.
They’ll say I did it. Run. I have to run. He took a few unsteady steps backward, lifting his eyes to the burning building once again.
Tracey. She’d been behind him as they’d run from the building. But when he got out, she wasn’t behind him anymore. And when he’d turned back… All he could see was smoke. A sob of anguish rose up in his chest. Tracey.
In the distance he could see the lights flashing. They were coming. The cops were coming. They’ll take me away. Put me in a cage. No. Not again. I can’t do that again. He stumbled back a few more steps, then turned and started to run.
Minneapolis, Minnesota, Monday, September 20, 12:40 a.m.
Higher, Zell,” David Hunter said into his radio, his voice muffled by the mask covering his face. He turned his shoulder into the wind that blew the acrid smoke into the night sky. Suspended four stories up, the bucket in which he stood held firm. The belt anchored him to the apparatus, but his legs still clenched as he held his position.
“Going up.” Jeff Zoellner, his partner, operated the lift from the base of the ladder.
David adjusted the angle of the nozzle mounted on the bucket as he rose, aiming at the flames that had consumed the lower two floors of the structure before they’d arrived. None of them had gone in. Too dangerous. Their only hope was to control this fire so that it didn’t spread to the trees surrounding what had been a six-story luxury condo.
Thank God this place isn’t finished. In a few weeks there would have been people inside. There may be one. The guard was missing. If he’d been on one of the lower floors, he was dead. If he’d made it a little higher, there was still a chance of saving him.
Arson. David’s jaw clenched as the platform rose. Had to be. He’d seen it before, up close and way too personally. The wind shifted again and he flinched when the flames lurched his way. For a split second he lost his footing. Focus, boy. Stay alive.
“David?” Jeff’s voice was urgent amid the crackling. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” The platform rose a few more feet, lifting him alongside a large picture window. Every condo on the upper floors had them. He saw no flames, but smoke billowed from the smaller windows which had already burst from the heat.
But all the picture windows were intact. Made of impact-resistant glass, they didn’t burst. They also didn’t open. They were for the view of the lake. Not for escape.
And then he saw them. His heart began to race faster.
“Stop.” He leaned over the edge of the bucket in which he stood, so he could get closer to the window. It couldn’t be. Nobody’s supposed to be inside. But it was.
“What is it?” The platform lurched as Jeff hit the brakes.
Handprints. The faint outline of small handprints that somehow… shimmered in the light from his spotlight. What the hell? “Handprints.” And streaks, made from fingers clawing at the window, trying to escape. “Somebody’s in there. We have to go in.”
“Hunter?” Captain Tyson Casey’s voice cut through the static. “Do you see a body?”
Using the controls mounted in the bucket, David edged closer until the platform bumped the wall. Straining to see through the smoke, his racing heart sank. “I see arms.” Thin, bare arms and a slim back. Long blond hair. Not the missing guard, a man in his fifties. “It’s a woman. Appears unconscious. Window is impact-resistant.”
“Hold your position,” Casey told him. “Sheridan, cut the nozzle. Zell’s on his way up with the saw.”
David felt the pressure in the line lessen as firefighter Gabe Sheridan closed off the valve from the ground. He looked down to see Jeff steadily climbing the ladder. Hurry, he wanted to hiss, but knew Jeff was doing it right. Doing it safe. For a moment he considered taking his own ax to the window, but knew the power saw would do the job on the impact-resistant glass a lot faster than he could, so he conserved his energy.
He glanced back through the window at the woman inside. She hadn’t moved.
She was probably dead. Don’t be dead. He peered through the glass, wondering if anyone else was in the room. Wondering if she could have set the fire.
Jeff climbed into the bucket, power saw in hand. David pointed to the far edge of the glass, away from the victim and her handprints, blocking out the mental picture of how terrified she must have been as she pounded and clawed, trying to escape. She might have set this fire. They needed to preserve her prints on the glass for the cops.
His air can was almost empty so he switched it while Jeff forced the saw through the nearly impenetrable glass until the hole was big enough for David to push through.
Jeff grabbed his shoulder. “She could have done this,” he shouted. “Be careful.”
“I will,” he shouted back. He climbed through, landing as close to the wall as possible in case the floor was weak. He crouched low and searched the room for anyone else.
But there was no one. Go. Get her out and go. She was light, her weight barely registering when he hefted her over his shoulder. He handed her to Jeff, then climbed back through the window and radioed Gabe Sheridan to take them down.
The platform backed away from the building, away from the flames that were still licking at the second floor. The paramedic was waiting on the ground to take the victim.
David pulled off his mask the moment his feet hit the dirt, Jeff doing the same. For a moment David closed his eyes, letting the air cool his face. The night air that would have been otherwise brisk was still hot all around them, but compared to wearing that damn mask it was like stepping into A/C. Medic Scotty Schooner looked up, grim.
David knew. “She’s dead?”
Scotty nodded. “Yeah.”
Jeff’s hand clasped his shoulder. “Sorry, buddy.”
“Me too.” David remembered the handprints on the window. “Check her hands.”
Scotty knelt next to the gurney holding the body of a girl David could now see was no more than a teenager wearing ratty jeans and a thin T-shirt. What a waste.
Scotty was frowning at the girl’s hands. “They’re covered in some kind of gel.”
David’s captain and two uniformed cops joined them, the three of them bending over the gurney to see her hands.
“What is this shit on her hands?” one of the cops asked.
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, it reflects light. I saw her handprints on the window,” David told him. “My light hit the glass and the prints shone. Fire investigator’s going to want to sample it. If she set this fire, she got stuck up there and panicked. There were lots of fist-sized prints, like she pounded, trying to get out.”
“If she didn’t do this fire, it’s murder,” the other cop said. “I’ll make the call.”
“Tell them it’s a double,” a female voice said behind them. Carrie Jackson stood behind them. Her engine team had been spraying the west side of the structure, next to the lake. “I was laying line and nearly tripped over the guard. He was shot in the chest.”
Scotty stood up. “I’ll go check him out.”
Carrie shrugged. “Go ahead. But he’s definitely dead. Has been for a while.”
“I believe you,” Scotty said. “But it’s regs. Show me where he is.” Together, Scotty and Carrie set off around the building with the first cop.
The second cop straightened with a sigh. “I’ll get Homicide, the ME, and CSU out here. They’ll want to talk to all of you. Especially Hunter, since he brought her out.”
Homicide. David’s throat closed as the word left the cop’s mouth and for a moment another thought scrambled to the top of his mind. There were lots of detectives in Homicide. Odds were it wouldn’t be her. And if it was? I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. He cleared his throat harshly and nodded. “Of course. Whatever they need.”
“As soon as we’re done,” Captain Casey added. “We’ve got to get the second floor under control. Hunter, you and Zell go back in. Search the upper floors. Find out if anyone else was where they shouldn’t have been, and make sure we got no fire in the walls.”
“Will do,” Jeff said.
David pushed homicide detectives from his mind and took a last look at the girl on the gurney. What the hell was she doing in there? Why wasn’t someone taking care of you? But he knew all too well that life wasn’t nearly that idyllic. “I’ll check where I found her, see if I can find some ID. She’s just a kid. She’s got to belong to somebody.”
“Don’t touch anything,” the cop said and David fought the urge to roll his eyes. Cops treated them like damn kindergartners sometimes. “Got it?”
“Don’t worry. I got it.”
Monday, September 20, 1:15 a.m.
Homicide detective Olivia Sutherland flashed her badge at the uniform guarding the condo’s construction entrance and drove through the gate, past the news vans and cameramen, acutely aware of all the flashing bulbs at her back. By the questions the press were shouting, they’d already correctly concluded it was arson.
Her churning gut tightened further. Just by being here she’d stirred up their recent collective memory. Amid their shouted arson questions were targeted references to her last big case. It was inevitable, she knew. Didn’t mean she had to like it.
“How’ve you been, Detective?” A reporter she knew and at one time hadn’t despised ran along side her car until the uniform stopped him cold. “Are you over the Body Pit yet?” the reporter shouted at her back. “Still seeing the department shrink?”
Olivia gritted her teeth. She’d been to the shrink three department-mandated times and this guy made it sound like she had a standing appointment with a couch.
With a cold glare Olivia raised her window, not slowing down until she reached the bank of parked official vehicles and rolled to a stop next to her partner’s Ford. A piece of her settled. Kane was here. He’ll know what to do.
The thought startled her. “And so do I,” she said aloud. Firmly. “Get a grip.” But she was afraid she couldn’t. Because her breathing was changing, hitching up in her lungs and her heart was racing. Because the three department-mandated visits to the shrink hadn’t helped. She still wasn’t over the body pit, the mass burial pit they’d discovered in the basement of a serial killer seven months before.
In four years on the homicide squad she’d seen a lot of bodies, but nothing could compare to the serial killer they’d chased last February. Dubbed the “Red Dress Killer” by the press for the way he’d dressed his final victims, he’d been quietly murdering for thirty years and burying his victims in a lime pit in his basement. It wasn’t until he’d stepped up his pace that he’d made mistakes and they’d caught him, discovering his grisly secret.
And it had fallen to Olivia and her partner, Kane, to process the dead. There had been blocks of days when she hadn’t slept, hadn’t eaten, hadn’t done anything but process the dead, inform their families, and return to the pit for more. Lime was not kind to human flesh. She didn’t need nightmares. The reality was plenty bad enough.
The press could call him what they wished. In her mind he was “Pit-Guy,” because it was the pit that ruled her dreams—dark, bottomless, and filled with the dead.
She kneaded her steering wheel, taking deep breaths, trying to will the panic away. Because seven months and dozens of bodies later, she froze every time she knew a new victim waited. A wee bit of a problem for a homicide detective, she thought bitterly.
“Get out of the car,” she muttered. “Do your job.” Clenching her jaw, she pushed her door open and forced her feet to move, her lungs to take one more breath. Then forced her face to look like she didn’t harbor a thought that didn’t have to do with this scene. This night. These two victims. A middle-aged guard and a teenaged girl.
Think about them. Think about justice for them. Do your damn job.
She drew another breath, grimacing at the stench of smoke. It had been a bad fire. Two companies had responded to the scene—two pumpers, an aerial tower truck, and the two rescue squads they wouldn’t be needing after all.
Only the morgue rig would be transporting tonight.
As her feet moved, she found herself searching the fire trucks for station numbers, another habit she’d picked up in the last seven months, one she found nearly as distasteful as her new fear of dead bodies. That she even knew which truck was his was completely humiliating. Like she should care if he was here or not. But of course she did. How pathetic am I? Pretty damn.
She winced when she saw the L2I painted on the side of the tower truck with its aerial platform. He was here. Or his firehouse was, at least. Don’t let him be on duty tonight. Just find Kane. Do your job.
She easily found Kane in the crowd. Her partner was a big man, even compared to the firefighters and cops, standing head and shoulders above everyone else. He was also the only one in the crowd wearing a black fedora. It was his fire fedora, she knew, the one he always wore when he knew he’d be going to an arson. It smelled like stale smoke, and his wife Jennie made him keep it in their garage.
All of his other fedoras were kept with care on Styrofoam heads in their guest room. Every man in the homicide division wore fedoras on the job, a nice tradition someone had started long before her time. It was a symbol, a connection to detectives past, and now it was part of local lore. Homicide was known around town as the “Hat Squad.”
New detectives, on solving their first homicide, were presented with their first fedora by the squad, their peers. Kane had presented Olivia’s to her, but she’d felt a little silly wearing it. Her hat sat on her desk back at the office, adorning the head of a Grecian goddess bust she’d found at a yard sale.
But Kane, he liked his hats. He must have had a dozen. Kane liked to look good.
At the moment, Kane looked perplexed. Olivia made her way up the hill to where he stood over a gurney, a uniformed cop at his side. The ME crouched next to the body, bagging the victim’s hands, and Olivia’s heart started to pound, her stomach lurching dangerously. Not again. Not again.
Look at her, she told herself harshly. She’ll be… whole. Olivia drew a steadying breath, forced her eyes down, then let the breath out as relief washed over her. The victim was indeed intact. Flesh covered her bones. All of her bones.
The worst was over. Now I can do my job. The girl looked about sixteen. Her waxen face and long blond hair were streaked with soot and grime, as was the faded, thin T-shirt she wore. Her jeans were tattered, by design versus genuine wear. Her feet were bare, her soles burned badly. Her toenails were painted bright orange.
Fighting the shakes that always seemed to follow the relief, Olivia waited until she could trust her voice not to tremble. “What do we have?”
“Caucasian female,” the uniform said. “No ID. Was found on the fourth floor. She was already dead when the firefighter got to her.”
“Cause?” she asked.
Isaac Londo, the ME tech, looked up from bagging the victim’s hands. “Probably smoke inhalation. I didn’t see any recent injuries. She’s got older ones, though.”
“Where and what?” Kane asked.
“Finger appears to be fractured, and there’s a twist burn on the right forearm.”
Olivia’s eyes narrowed. The last vestiges of her panic were receding, replaced by cold fury. Runaway, her instincts told her. She’d made working with runaways a personal mission over the last few years, since meeting her two half sisters. Mia was a decorated cop, but Kelsey was a convict, having been a runaway first. The signs were crystal clear. “Someone put their hands on her.”
“That’s my guess.” Londo sat back on his heels. “Your other guy? Different story. The guard took a blow to the head with a blunt instrument, then a slug to the chest.”
“Where is he?” Olivia asked.
“On the other side of the building, by the lake. Dale and Mick are over there now.”
Dale was Londo’s partner and Micki Ridgewell was the CSU leader. “And that guy?” She pointed to a fortyish man in a jogging suit who paced behind the crime scene tape looking very worried.
“Sammy Sothberg,” the uniform said. “He’s the construction manager. Sothberg said the guard’s name was Henry Weems, age fifty-seven. He’s local.”
“You talk to him yet?” she asked Kane.
“Yeah,” Kane said. “Briefly. He’s shaken. Has an alibi. We’ll have to check it out. He gave us Henry Weems’s personnel info. We’ll need to inform Mrs. Weems.”
And what fun that always is. Olivia looked way up and saw a large hole with jagged edges in one of the picture windows on the fourth floor. “She came from up there?”
“Yeah.” This answer came from Micah Barlow, the police department’s arson investigator, who’d walked up to join them. Immediately Olivia’s hackles rose and she had to choke back what would have been a hiss.
“Hell,” Kane muttered, loud enough for Barlow to hear. “Not him.”
“Kane,” Olivia rebuked under her breath and was rewarded by Kane’s long-suffering sigh. She and Micah Barlow had gone through the academy together. They’d been friends once. Now, not so much. Because Barlow was a meddling, arrogant bastard.
Barlow looked from Olivia to Kane, then shook his head with exaggerated patience. “Let’s just get this done, okay? The firefighters saw her handprints on the glass. It’s impact-resistant, so they had to cut their way in. The guy that brought her out made sure they cut the far side of the window. He wanted to leave her prints intact for you.”
“Forward-thinking of him,” Olivia said mildly. “We’ll want to talk to him.”
“He’s still inside. I’ll bring him to you when he comes out.”
“Fine,” Olivia said, shrugging off the annoyance she felt every time she was subjected to Barlow’s presence. “How did the arsonist set the fire?”
“From what we can see, they opened several cans of carpet-padding adhesive, spread them on the first and second floors. Sprinklers were rendered inoperable. Somebody cut the chain on the OS and Y and closed the valve.”
The OS&Y was the outside screw and yoke valve on the line that brought city water to the sprinklers, Olivia knew. “Are any bolt cutters missing from the toolshed?”
“Don’t seem to be. We’ll get a full inventory, but it looks like they brought their own.”
“They came prepared then. Incendiary devices?” Kane asked.
“Nothing yet, but we haven’t really been able to start looking. I don’t think they used a simple match. After dumping an entire can of adhesive, the fumes would have already been hanging in the air. If they’d dropped a match, they wouldn’t have made it to the door. That stuff is incredibly flammable.”
“Had the carpet been laid?” Olivia asked.
“No, the construction manager said that was going to be done tomorrow. Well, today, now. The carpet, padding, and cans of adhesive had been staged on the first three floors. Floors four through six have mostly hardwood floors and were finished.”
“Somebody knew those materials were there,” Kane mused. “Surveillance tapes?”
Barlow frowned. “Cameras were rendered inoperable five minutes before midnight. The guard would have come outside on his normal beat at five after twelve.”
“Inside job,” Olivia said. “Or at least inside information.”
Barlow nodded. “We’re getting the personnel list.”
“Where’s the control room?” Kane asked.
Barlow pointed to the closer of two construction trailers. “Up until last month, they had a man in the trailer, monitoring the camera feeds. Budget overruns cut staff. They were down to one guard per shift. The trailer was always the night guy’s first stop.”
“You’re sending the used adhesive cans to the lab for prints?” Olivia asked.
“Already gave them to CSU,” Barlow answered. “The manager seems pretty ripped up. Weems was his friend, and he was working two jobs to send his kid to college.”
Olivia sighed. “We’ll check his financials anyway. Somebody profits from the insurance. Maybe nobody was supposed to get hurt.” She looked down at the gurney, at the girl’s lifeless body. “I guess something went wrong.”
“Check out her hands, Liv,” Kane said. “Some kind of gel.”
ME tech Londo held up the victim’s left hand and Olivia could see that whatever covered the girl’s palms had already smeared the plastic bag. “Accelerant?” she asked.
“No,” Barlow said. “We ran a sniffer over her. The gel didn’t register. Nothing on her clothes either, so if she was involved in spreading the carpet-pad adhesive, she was careful enough not to splash any on herself.”
The sniffer measured the hydrocarbons in accelerants, so Barlow was most likely right. “Did the firefighters find anything with her?”
“Nothing yet. They just finished knocking the fire down a half hour ago. They’re up there now, checking for any other vics. We’ll give you and CSU the go-ahead as soon as we know it’s safe.” And he would. Obnoxious as he was on a personal level, Micah Barlow did his job. As do we. So do yours. Look at her, Liv. Really look.
“Thanks,” she said to Barlow, then crouched next to the gurney, studying the hand Londo had bagged. The polish was the same bright orange as the girl had used on her toenails. “You done with her, Londo?” When he nodded, she hesitated only a moment before taking the victim’s hand and lifting it to the light. “Look at the decals on her nails. She’s not from around here.”
“G-A-T-O-R,” Kane read, then checked the right hand. “S-R-U-L-E. Gators Rule.”
“It’s an unfortunate truth,” Londo muttered. “I lost a bundle on last week’s game.”
“University of Florida Gators,” Olivia mused. “She doesn’t look old enough to be in college. Maybe she lived in Florida.”
“Maybe she was just a fan,” Kane cautioned and Olivia shrugged.
“Gotta start someplace. We’ll run her prints. If she’s got a record, hopefully it’s not sealed. If she’s missing, somebody may have filed an Amber Alert or reported her to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”
“If she ran away, chances are good they haven’t reported her missing,” Kane said.
“I know. But her jeans are pretty new, and they’re not cheap. She hasn’t been on the run long. We’ll get her photo out there and maybe we’ll get lucky.” Olivia placed the girl’s hand carefully at her side, then rose and looked down at the girl’s face, pity stirring. So young. “Do we have any idea what she was doing up there?”
Barlow shook his head. “So far we haven’t found any evidence that there was anyone with her. As soon as the firefighters come out, I’ll send them over to you.”
“If you’re done, I’ll take her to the morgue,” Londo said, and Kane nodded.
“Liv, let’s check out the guard.” He waited until they’d broken away from the group before murmuring, “You okay, kid? You looked a little green getting out of your car.”
Olivia’s cheeks heated. “Yes,” she said curtly, embarrassed she’d let it show, even in front of Kane. “Let’s just get this done.” Except it was never done. There would always be another kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another kid with bruises. Another runaway. Another guy with a bullet whose wife they had to inform. It stuck in her throat, choking her. “Come on. We’ve got one more body to process tonight.”
Monday, September 20, 1:20 a.m.
“Anything?” Jeff asked. They’d strapped their masks on and changed air tanks. The fumes generated by building materials were often toxic, and David knew too many veteran firefighters with lung damage. He hated the mask, but he liked his lungs.
“No.” David swept the thermal camera over the central wall. Behind it was the ventilating shaft, a prime spot for hidden fire. But there was nothing. They’d come up through the stairwell, searching the top three floors. They were now back on the fourth, where he’d found the girl. So far, no fire and no more victims. Thank you.
David turned to the window they’d cut through. Now that the smoke had dissipated, he could clearly see the palm prints she’d left behind. He shone his flashlight along the floor, hoping to find a purse, a backpack, something to tell them who she was.
And then he blinked as his light was abruptly reflected back at him. “Zell, look,” he said, pointing the beam at a ball that glistened as her handprints had. It was about four inches across and lay about two feet from where he’d found her. He’d taken a few steps closer when he felt the wood floor go spongy.
He took a large step back, holding his breath until the floor felt solid again.
“David?” Zell had also frozen in place.
“I’m okay.” His heart raced from the adrenaline surge. Ignoring it, he once again shone his light on the glistening ball. “Do you see that?”
“Yeah. What is it?”
“Don’t know, but it’s covered in gel.”
“Like her hands. I say leave it for the cops.”
“Agree.” He turned to the stairwell—then all he felt was air as the floor collapsed. “Zell.” On reflex, David spread his arms wide, hooking his elbows on the edges of the floor that remained. His body wedged in the hole, his feet dangling. Below him, he saw only blackness. The third-floor fire had burned through the ceiling. If he let go, he might land on solid floor, but chances were better that he’d crash through the third floor, too.
Jeff dropped to his stomach, the handle of his ax outstretched. “On three.”
David grabbed the ax handle with his left hand, keeping his right elbow anchored for leverage. On “three,” he threw his hips up and over and a few seconds later lay on his stomach on solid floor, breathing hard, his eyes squeezed shut. More of the floor had broken away when he’d pushed against it, widening the hole. Most of the condo’s living room floor was now gone. Too close. That had been too damn close.
He rolled to his side, opening his eyes just as the slimy ball began to slide down one of the broken planks of the hardwood floor, down into the hole. Again, sheer reflex had him stretching his arm out over the hole, and the ball plopped into his glove.
“Safe,” he muttered and behind him Jeff laughed, a wheezing sound.
“That ball better be worth it, pal.”
David looked into the palm of his glove, then into the dark hole, trying not to let himself dwell on how close he’d come. “Shit. Now what do I do with it?”
“Put it back where you found it. Cops’ll shit a ring if you take evidence.”
“I can’t put it where I found it. Where I found it is nothing but air.”
“Then take it with you. But the cops’ll still shit a ring.” Jeff tapped his radio. “Fourth floor has collapsed. Hunter and I are unhurt. We’re coming back down via the stairwell.”
“Acknowledged,” came the crackled reply from their captain.
David pushed to his knees, the ball clutched in his glove. They crawled to the stairwell, not breathing easily until they stood on solid earth. He ripped off his mask with his free hand, sucking in air. His knees were weak, but he’d never let anyone see that.
MPD’s arson guy had arrived. David considered him a straight shooter. “Barlow.”
“I hear the floor collapsed. You two okay?”
“Yeah.” He held out his gloved hand, the ball still tucked in his palm. “I found this near where the girl died.”
Barlow’s brows shot up. “You disturbed the scene?”
“There is no more scene,” David said dryly. “The floor where I found her is completely gone. The ball was headed for the hole and I grabbed it. Reflex.”
“It was a hell of a save,” Jeff put in. “Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, then pow. Hunter pulls it out. Then I pulled him out,” he added wryly. “Now he owes me big-time.”
David rolled his eyes. “Barlow, you want the damn ball or not?”
Barlow shook his head. “Come with me. You can give it to Homicide yourself. She’s not going to be happy that you disturbed the scene.”
For the second time that night David had the sensation of free-fall. She. He only knew of one female homicide detective. He started walking. Thank you.
Monday, September 20, 1:25 a.m.
Eric lifted his head from his hands, looking up as Mary came into the room, toweling her hair. She frowned over at his sofa, where Joel lay motionless, eyes closed.
“He’s still out cold? Damn, Albert, you hit him too hard.”
Albert grunted from his chair. “He came to while you were using all the hot water.”
She shot Albert a hostile look. “Fuck off. My roommates would ask questions if I came home smelling like a goddamn forest fire.” Gently, she sat on the sofa, hip to hip with Joel. “Come on, baby,” she said quietly. “You gotta snap out of this.”
Joel’s swallow was audible. “We killed her.”
Mary lifted a shoulder. “Yes, we did. And we’ll have to live with that. But we’re not telling anyone. We have to act like everything’s normal, or we all go to jail.”
Joel nodded miserably. “I see her face. Pressed up against the glass.”
As did Eric. Every time he closed his eyes, all he could see was her mouth, open. Screaming. They hadn’t seen her when they were pouring out the glue. She must have been hiding somewhere. Squatting. “She was in that building illegally.”
Joel’s laugh bordered on hysterical. “You can actually use the word illegally? So it’s not our fault? Is that what you’re saying? Do you honestly believe that shit?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Eric said firmly. They had to face facts, and the fact was, he wasn’t going to prison. “We stand together, Joel.”
“But we killed her,” Joel whispered, his voice breaking. “We killed her.”
“Be a man, Fischer,” Albert snarled. “Yeah, we fucking killed her. Get over it.”
Mary’s eyes narrowed. “Leave him alone. He’s in shock and in pain. You didn’t have to hit him so hard.”
Albert’s face was darkly ominous. “I should have hit him harder. Then I wouldn’t have to listen to him whine. We killed her,” he mimicked cruelly. “So goddamn fucking what? We can’t change it, so tell your pussy boyfriend just to shut the hell up about it or I’ll shut him up myself.”
White-faced with fury, Mary opened her mouth to deliver what would surely have been a diatribe every neighbor on Eric’s floor would hear.
“Settle down,” Eric snapped. “We set out to make a statement. We wanted to send a message to the developers—keep away from our wetlands. We sent that message.”
Joel sat up, gingerly pressing his fingertips to the knot on the back of his head left by Albert’s club. “Don’t kid yourself. Nobody’s going to hear our message. All anyone will remember is that girl died. Because of us, she is no longer alive.”
“A regrettable loss,” Mary said, smoothing Joel’s hair. “You said that this is war.”
Joel closed his eyes. “I know what I said. That was before. We killed a human being, Mary. The cops aren’t going to ignore this. They’re going to hunt us down.”
“They wouldn’t have had to hunt far if we’d let you call 911,” Albert muttered.
“Albert,” Mary hissed. “Shut. Up.”
Eric felt a childish yearning for a redo button. But there were no redos here. They’d done what they’d done. Now they had to stay under the radar.
“All of you, just be quiet. We need to be calm or we’ll all end up in prison.” He turned on the TV and started changing channels. Then flinched when the fire scene filled his fifty-inch screen. “Let’s see what the press is saying. Then we’ll figure out what, if anything, we need to do next.”
Excerpted from Silent Scream by Rose, Karen Copyright © 2010 by Rose, Karen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted May 6, 2010
I Also Recommend:
Karen Rose delivers another page-turning blend of gut-churning suspense and bone-melting romance in SILENT SCREAM, which finally gives her fans the story of David Hunter, who has played a secondary role in several of her previous books. Having moved to Minneapolis in the previous book I CAN SEE YOU, the sexy firefighter's company is called to the scene of what looks to be an environmental arson case, where he is unable to rescue a young woman from the burning building. As luck would have it, the homicide detective assigned the case is Olivia Sutherland, whom David has been admiring from a distance for quite some time. Their relationship is complicated, but their chemistry is undeniable, and as they both edge closer to finding out just who is behind the string of arsons, their budding romance becomes the one thing they can rely on.
As always, Rose tells a story that is intricate but eminently readable. The mystery plot here is diabolical, and all the more chilling because it could happen anywhere. The twists and turns are deftly written and genuinely surprising enough to keep even the most jaded suspense reader guessing.
I really enjoyed the banter between Olivia and David--they are both strong characters, but they hold their own, and it's easy to see why these two would be drawn to each other. They each have some pretty compelling reasons to be shy of relationships, so watching them move past their fears and come together is emotionally satisfying. The multilayered story features some wonderfully funny and poignant moments punctuated by great dialogue. The conversations between David and his various male friends and relatives are especially entertaining. As are Olivia's with her partner, Kane, and her friends Brie and Paige.
Of course, I'm left wondering who the NEXT book will be about. There are some definite possibilities here, but it's never smart to predict where Karen Rose will go next. I just know that I for one want to be along for the ride!
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Posted October 9, 2012
Posted October 9, 2012
Luke was laying on the couch, his eyes glued to the television, watching old Star Trek reruns when her heard a key turn in the lock on the front door. He grabbed the remote and flicked the TV off and leaped off the couch and striaghtened the potted plant on the coffee table. The door creeked open and a young man and woman stepped in and glanced around. Luke stood up and walked over to the couple. "Back so soon?" He asked and the man nodded. "Yes. The movie was shorter then we expected. How was the baby?" Luke grinned, "The baby was fine. I didnt hear a peep from the little munchkin." He thought guiltily to himself, and i didnt even CHECK on the little munchkin. She woman shook her head grimly. "No. The baby was very very bad." Luke raised an eyebrow. "No he wasnt!!! He didnt cry at all!!!" The man strared at Luke with a steely ecpression. "No. The baby cried and cried. The baby had to be punished." Both the man and woman kept their eyes fixed on Luke as they raised their arms and pointed to a steak knife sitting on the counter. Luke's eyes widened in realization. He shook his head. "No...Y-you didnt really?" The man smiled evily. "Ah, but we did. But who was in the house right after we did? But who will be blamed?" Luke's mouth dropped open. "B-but I didn't anything!" He yelled. "Im completely innocent and you know it!!!" He backed toward the door slowly and jiggled the handle, but the door wouldnt budge. The woman smiled in the same cruel way as the man. "Its too late young Luke." She sneered. "The crime is already yours." And with that the walked calmly out the front door leaving Luke opening and closing his mouth mutely, like a fish. He could hear the blaring sound of sirens screaming down the street.****Thanks for reading!!! Tell me what you think!!!***Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 9, 2012
Posted October 9, 2012
Posted October 14, 2012
Since there were only five stories, there are only first and second places. Second place goes to Candace's The Babysitter. First goes toooooo...Fingers by Blackjaw! Yaaay! Sorry if this feels unfair but...most of the stories weren't really scary. I know, you only get three thousand five hundred characters, but...honestly... Whatever.
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Posted March 31, 2012
I listened to this as an audiobook, narrated by Marguerite Gavin, so my review is based on that version.
This book starts out with action and suspense right off the bat. There is a group of college kids about to start an arson fire. Little do they know, there are a more people watching the event than they realize. One of the people watching is clearly planning to use his view of the events to blackmail the group into doing some crimes for him.
There were a lot of fires in this story and it really sounded like the author had researched building fires and fire fighter techniques making the story more realistic. My techie friends will be happy to know that they also used some computer and internet sleuthing skills in this story.
There were a few things I didn’t like about the story. The romance between our two main characters, Detective Olivia Sutherland and firefighter David Hunter, seemed like a whine fest at first. I was happy when they author finally moved past all the old stuff that happened years ago between them and got them going on their current day romance.
Another thing that bugged me was the coroner not figuring out that capsules swallowed didn’t equal the amount of narcotics in the victim’s system. Then deciding that the amount in his system would have made it impossible to function and do things like walk, dance, or drive. Isn’t that a basic thing that coroners do right away? Coroners do blood work, stomach contents, looking for other mysterious injuries and marks on the victim’s body first?
I think what I liked most about the story was that you kept thinking the main bad guy or the college kids were going to mess up and get caught, but they kept slipping through the grid. It was a great game of cat and mice.
The Narration Review
This audiobook as narrated by Marguerite Gavin and she has a very unique story telling style. She does a great job using different character voices that are distinct and easily identifiable during the dialog portions of the story. During the rest of the narration she slips in her crime genre narration mode with a big change in tone, cadence, and enunciation. She sounds very crisp and clear almost like she is going for the ‘just the facts’ type speech.
Posted May 8, 2011
I have read all of Ms. Rose's books. This story kept me on the edge of my seat and kept me up all night reading! Can't wait to read the newest thriller due out in June 2011. Her characters are all fully developed and her stories are chilling. Love them!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 4, 2010
I absolutely loved this book, while its not my # 1 in the Karen Rose collections its definitely in the top category. Rose's villains are scary but she shows us a look inside their heads. On the definite plus side, romance lovers will love this book because the relationships between the main characters is touching, steamy and fantastic. If you love your romance served with a side of danger and mystery then definitely pick this one up!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 7, 2010
I started reading Karen Rose when Cosmo featured "Scream for Me." I loved it so much, I bought all her earlier romantic thrillers and I'm constantly on the lookout for more. This book keeps you on the edge of your seat. And I'd highly recommend the extra epilogue on Karen's website. It gives you a chance to see some of the characters we know and love from her previous works. Great Book! Keep them coming!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.