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Zach Jones ran his hand down his face until his fingers covered a yawn. Letting out a muted sigh, he stared through the windshield of his parked car, seeing nothing but the lights lining the Minneapolis street. After a long day of chasing down dead ends, he was ready for a couple days off.
A quick glance at the clock on his dashboard revealed that his shift was almost over. Time to head back to the station before turning in for the night. He'd just put the unmarked sedan into gear when the police radio in his car squawked, and he leaned over to turn it up.
"Possible dead body at the corner of Thomas Road and Gavel Drive at Webster Park." His stomach lurched, his pulse flying. That was just a few blocks away.
Tossing the radio handset into the empty passenger seat, he flipped on the sirens and pulled onto the nearly deserted road. Usually he was the last one to the scene. Homicide was always called in after a dozen patrol officers had swarmed the area.
This close to the scene, he'd probably even beat the uniforms there.
"This is Jones. I'm en route."
The dispatcher replied with a quick, "Ten-four." Then after a short pause she added, "Two boys cutting through the park found the body."
"Are they still at the scene?"
"Good. Tell them to stay away from the body but not to move. I'll have questions for them later."
Trees just beginning to sprout their spring leaves sailed by as he maneuvered around a car pulled over to the side of the road to get out of his way. The lights of the restaurants and stores of the commercial district to his left faded, his mind focused on the scene he was about to reach.
Pulling off the road, he parked at the entrance of a walking path, turned off the sirens but left the red-and-blue lights flashing. He was the first on the scene. He slipped his phone into his pocket, tucked his flashlight into his belt and pulled on rubber gloves as he followed the beam of his headlights.
Two boys, probably no more than twelve, sat next to each other on a wooden bench, hugging their hockey skates as though he was going to demand they give them up. He pushed back his jacket to show them the badge hanging around his neck, a late winter wind seeping through the fabric of his shirt. "You boys call the cops?"
The bigger boy nodded a mop of dark brown hair and let go of his skates long enough to point behind him into the shadows.
Zach squinted but couldn't make out a form between the tree trunks. "Did you go near the body?"
"No, sir." Again from the bigger boy. The little one with the blond crew cut hadn't blinked since Zach arrived. He was probably in shock from what he'd seen.
How bad was it over there?
His skin crawled, the hair on his arms standing up. It wasn't from the cold. Or even from this case. This wasn't his first day in the department.
It was something in the air. Something that, after ten years with the Minneapolis P.D., he could almost smell. Something that, after all this time, he still couldn't name.
"You boys stay here. Okay? Other officers are on their way. And I'll be right back."
Swinging his flashlight across the grass at his feet to make sure he didn't inadvertently step on a vital piece of evidence, he picked his way in the direction the kid had first indicated. After thirty yards, the light from his car was almost no help. A curtain of rich gray clouds had fallen in front of the moon, so he slowed to a near crawl.
And then he saw it.
A crimson pool coated a patch of lawn the size of a dinner plate.
Shivers ran down his spine and he sucked in a quick breath as he flicked his light up to illuminate the body. It was a woman with long dark hair, which was matted across half of her face with her own blood. She lay on her side, one arm stretched out under her head and the other curled under her chin. Her full lips were nearly white.
His stomach clenched.
This part never got easier.
Without a doubt this was going to be the worst night of someone's life. That person was going to get a call that would change everything, that would shatter a heart.
But Zach would do everything he could to make sure that the person responsible never had the opportunity to do this again, to destroy a family again.
Stepping around the stain of evidence, he reached her side and squatted next to her. The part of her face that he could still make out was covered with scratches and already turning purple. A gash above her left eye disappeared into her hairline and looked to be the source of the bloodstain he'd dodged. Someone had beaten the tar out of her.
A drop slipped down her forehead, and he paused.
Dead bodies in a position like this didn't usually keep bleeding.
He snapped his gloves at the wrists to make sure they were on tight and pressed two fingers against the spot where her left palm met her forearm. Holding his breath, he waited.
There, beneath the skin and barely palpable, was a pulse. His heartbeat jackhammered just below his throat. "Ma'am. Ma'am, can you hear me?" No response.
He grabbed his phone and punched in the number for the dispatcher. He didn't even wait for an answer. As soon as the line was picked up, he said, "This is Detective Jones." He spit out his badge number, standing and searching the streets for any sign of the ambulance that wasn't going to be in enough of a hurry to get there. "I'm at Webster Park, and the possible homicide victim is not DOA. Repeat, the victim is alive. I need an ambulance and backup here ASAP."
His voice shook a little on the last word, and he took a steadying breath. He didn't have live victims. He'd only seen one other in the three years since making detective and joining Homicide.
This one was about as close to death, but still breathing, as he'd ever seen.
"Ten-four. Paramedics are en route."
He dropped back by her side, keeping his finger pressed against her wrist. The steady thumps under his touch kept his hope alive, but only just.
Lord, please let this one live.
He didn't have an explanation for the intensity of the longing in his heart, but he knew she didn't deserve to die like this, alone and abandoned in a city park that hadn't seen much traffic since the city started massive construction on a walking bridge.
Someone didn't want her quickly found or able to tell her tale.
Sirens carried through the trees, ringing between buildings as they drew nearer. The band around his heart loosened.
"Don't worry. Help is on its way."
Her only response was the steady beat at his fingertips.
"Hang in there. You just have to hang in there a little while longer. Then we'll find whoever did this, and he'll pay. I promise."
Everything before that moment was blank.
It took considerable effort, but she pried her right eye open far enough to cringe at the glaring light wedged between white ceiling tiles. Pain like a knife sliced at her temple. She tried to lift her hand to press it to her skull. Maybe that would keep it from shattering. But her arm had tripled in size and weighed more than the rest of her body. She could only lift it an inch from where it lay at her side.
Fire shot from her elbow to the tip of her middle finger, a sob escaping from somewhere deep in her chest and leaving a scar inside her throat as it escaped.
Julie? She turned to look in the direction of the voice to see who else was in the room, but something plastic tugged against her nose. An oxygen cannula. She didn't even try to lift her hand to adjust it, instead rolling her eye as far as she could.
A gentle hand with cold fingers pressed against her forearm, but the face was just out of reach. "Julie? How are you feeling?"
Who was Julie? There wasn't anyone else in her limited line of sight, but that didn't mean the other girl wasn't close by.
A face-round and blurry-appeared right above her. Wide-set blue eyes shone with compassion and the same brilliance as her white smile. "I'm Tammy, your ICU nurse." Cool fingers secured the tubing back into place and brushed across her forehead. "You've been here quite a while. I'm glad you decided to wake up on my shift, Julie." A low chuckle followed. "Oh dear, I've gotten so used to calling you that. I'll have to stop."
What was she doing in the ICU? On a hospital bed in the ICU? And why had the nurse been calling her Julie?
That wasn't her name.
"I know someone who's been looking forward to talking with you."
She blinked and tried to ask who, but her voice cracked. Only a croak escaped before Tammy pressed a straw to her lips. "Drink a little bit of this."
She did as the nurse instructed, the tepid water like a creek in the Sahara, soothing her throat as she swallowed it but leaving most of the area untouched. She tried for a longer sip and more water but choked on it. Tammy pulled the cup away and patted a tissue where a trickle had escaped down her chin.
She jolted at the touch, pain searing to the bone.
"I'm sorry. Your stitches are probably still a bit tender. But you're healing nicely."
Healing? How long had she been in the unit? How had she gotten there? Because she'd just been-
"If you're ready, I'm going to let Detective Jones know that he can come in and see you. He's been waiting to talk with you for three days."
She tried to shake her head. A detective? As in a police officer? Why were the police coming to see her? What had she done?
She didn't want to see anyone, let alone a detective. But Tammy disappeared before she could get her body to respond. Everything was moving slower than it should. Her muscles, her joints, her brain.
Only the low hum of Tammy's voice carried across the room. "Now remember, she hasn't even seen the doctor yet. Don't give her a hard time."
A deep voice agreed that he'd try not to.
As if to show off just how slow her mind was moving, Tammy reappeared almost the instant that the conversation ended, one hand resting on an arm that belonged to someone just outside her range of vision. "This is Detective Jones. He's with the Minneapolis P.D. I'll let you two talk while I call the doctor."
Tammy disappeared. And then a face edged with dark hair appeared right above her. Eyes like deep amber seemed to smile even though the line of his mouth never twitched, and he pressed a hand against the mattress next to her arm, never quite touching her. But she could feel his presence, his strength.
She let out a slow breath.
"De-" Her voice cracked, and he held up a hand to stop her.
"Please. It's Zach." Generous lips formed the words, but they seemed to take a long time to reach her ears. He spoke with a familiarity that she couldn't place. Was she supposed to know this man? "I've been looking forward to meeting you." Apparently not. Thank goodness. "I've been checking in on you every day. The doctor said you thumped your head pretty good, but the swelling has been going down."
How was she supposed to respond? "That's good I guess."
"It is, indeed." His lip twitched, but he didn't give her more than half a smile. With a quick glance over his shoulder, he continued, "Do you feel up to answering a few questions?"
She wanted to shake her head, but then he'd come back and interrupt her sleep again. She really just wanted to drift back into oblivion where it had been warm and quiet. Where there'd been no pain and her stuttering thoughts were neither important nor questioned.
"Do you remember how you got here?"
She thought about it for a long moment. Blinking her only mobile eye-why wouldn't her other eye respond?- she tried to peek around the curtain in her mind, to reveal the corners she couldn't quite make out. The sheet wouldn't budge, and the harder she tried to move it, the more her head throbbed.
Finally she shook her head.
He scratched at the little point of his chin, his smile dimming for a brief moment, the lines at the corners of his eyes disappearing. "That's all right. We'll come back to it. You've been through a pretty big ordeal."
Oh, really? What had she been through that left her straining to uncover her memories and answering a strange detective's questions? He'd said that it was nice to meet her, but he'd come into her room like he belonged there. Clearly he'd been waiting for her to wake up, and Tammy had gone straight to him. But she wasn't expected to know him. Why did he seem to know her?
She wanted to ask, but the words just weren't there.
Zach brushed a wayward strand of dark brown hair off his forehead with the back of his hand, plastering an easy grin in place. Really, it wasn't so much a smile as it was a visual encouragement, like if he kept looking at her like that she'd be able to get up right then and walk out of this room. "Let's try something a little easier. We've been calling you Julie Thomas because you were found in the park on Thomas Road across from Jack and Julie's Grill." So he didn't know her, and she wasn't supposed to recognize him. Relief washed over her like the bath she craved. "We didn't find your ID."
"It's in my purse." It was always in there.
He shook his head slowly. "We didn't find a purse, either."
She tried playing out all the movements she'd made before losing her bag. But she didn't even know where to start. And every possible step was blank. No context. No location. No memories.
"Maybe you can tell me your real name?"
She nodded slowly, controlling every movement to keep the pain from flaring up again. Of course she could. There were just some things a woman never forgot.
He lifted his thick eyebrows as though his anticipation grew with every tick of the clock.
Closing her eye and swallowing against the sandpaper in her throat, she opened her mouth and tried to form the word.
But it wasn't there.
The name she'd surely heard thousands of times floated just out of reach. Like the string on a balloon caught in the wind, it danced away until her lips sputtered and a tear leaked down her cheek.
Dear God, I don't even know my own name.