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by Gayle Wilson

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She has nothing left to lose

Like all clichés, this one is true at its core. Racked with grief over her son Danny's brutal death, Sarah Patterson steels herself to take revenge on his murderer. When detective Mac Donovan stops her from shooting Samuel Tate on the courthouse steps, he risks his career—and the case against Tate—to protect her.

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She has nothing left to lose

Like all clichés, this one is true at its core. Racked with grief over her son Danny's brutal death, Sarah Patterson steels herself to take revenge on his murderer. When detective Mac Donovan stops her from shooting Samuel Tate on the courthouse steps, he risks his career—and the case against Tate—to protect her.

With a serial child-killer walking free, New Orleans is taut with anticipation of his next savage crime and the police and FBI are helpless. But Tate has developed a sick fascination with Sarah Patterson—and he'll kill to keep her attention. With Mac's help, Sarah positions herself at the center of a dangerous operation designed to stop Tate for good.

Nothing can bring Danny back...but Sarah is hell-bent on ensuring no mother suffers as she has at the hands of Samuel Tate.

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"Unfortunately for the state, Mr. Evans, the product of an illegal search cannot later be used as justification for having made it. Nor do I find compelling Officer Gateau's observation that the defendant seemed overly concerned about the damage to the back of his van. That would be a common enough reaction to a traffic mishap, however minor. I cannot see how, in that situation, it can possibly be construed to constitute probable cause to search Mr. Tate's vehicle."

Each word of the ruling was pronounced in the precise, almost pedantic accent Judge Marlene Wexler had adopted long ago to hide her rural Mississippi up-bringing. The only black female on the Orleans Parish criminal bench, Wexler's assignment to this case had been, from the beginning, the district attorney's worst nightmare.

Her rulings were carefully grounded in the law, but courthouse scuttlebutt had long ago put her down on the side of defendants' rights versus the police. She had never been overturned. It was obvious she didn't intend to be on this.

"Ms. Siddons has testified that she clearly heard Mr. Tate deny permission for the officer to open the rear doors of the van. And deny permission for him to search the suitcase discovered inside. In both instances, Officer Gateau chose to do so, despite the defendant's objections."

"Your Honor—"

"Leaving me no option," Wexler went on, speaking above the prosecutor's attempt to protest what they all knew was coming. "No option," she repeated for emphasis, "but to grant the motion to suppress all evidence found during the course of those searches. As well as," she continued inexorably, her tone daring the district attorney to interrupt again, "all evidencerecovered during the subsequent search of Mr. Tate's home."

Because of the political ramifications of this case, if not for other, more humanitarian concerns, District Attorney Carl Evans was forced to take up that challenge, no matter how much he might dislike the position it was going to put him with the judge. "The warrant for that search, Your Honor—"

"Was obtained from Judge Fischer based on evidence found during the illegal search of the van. Fruit of the poisonous tree, Mr. Evans, as you are very well aware. It is not going to come in. None of it is."

The last phrase was very soft, each word distinctly enunciated. And only after the sibilance of the last syllable had died away, the pause lengthening unbearably, seeming to echo throughout the courtroom, did Judge Wexler speak again.

"Do you have any other evidence that would justify holding this defendant, Mr. Evans?"

The prosecutor's mouth had flattened. Now it pursed, as if he were reluctant to open it. There was, however, only so long he could delay the inevitable.

"No, Your Honor," he said finally.

Wexler's dark eyes settled briefly on the rookie cop who had performed the search that was about to put a serial killer back on the streets. The media had already had a field day with this case. Given the events of this morning's hearing, that would only get worse.

"Then, Mr. Tate," Judge Marlene Wexler said, "you are free to go."

"He's gonna walk," the voice in his headset warned.

"Son of a bitch," Mac Donovan said.

The utterance wasn't forceful. Mac had learned long ago that he could do nothing about the vagaries of the system he served. He was sworn to uphold it, even when it was wrong. As it had been today.

"Taking him out the back?" he asked.

"That's what they say."

"Everybody in place?"

"He may not cooperate. He's like that, you know," Sonny Cochran said, the last phrase sarcastic.

"Good," Donovan responded, the single syllable sharp, abruptly cut off. "Maybe somebody'll shoot the bastard."

There was soft laughter in his ear. "We should be so lucky."

They had all known how this would play out. The uniform who'd responded to a fender bender had screwed up. As a result, the evidence he'd discovered in the back of Samuel Tate's van, the so-called murder kit that would link him to the deaths of more than a dozen adolescent boys, wasn't going to come in.

This morning's hearing had been little more than a formality. There might have been some wiggle room if it had been the cop's word against Tate's, but Phillip Gateau had managed to conduct his search in front of the woman who'd bumped into the back of the killer's van. Once she'd been subpoenaed by Tate's very expensive lawyer, everybody within reach of a newspaper headline had known he was going to walk.

"Okay," Mac said. "Let's assume he won't cooperate. We have to cover all our bases on this one."

Given the nature of Tate's crimes, the department would keep him under surveillance. In light of the ruling that had just come down, they couldn't legally justify that tail, so it wouldn't be acknowledged publicly. Nor could it be obtrusive enough to allow Tate to scream harassment to the judge.

But the bastard wouldn't be able to take a piss without somebody analyzing its color and the smell. Every move, every breath he took, somebody would be watching Samuel Tate.

Damn little satisfaction, Mac Donovan acknowledged, but right now, it was all he had. * * *

Long shot, Sarah Patterson thought, crossing her arms over her breasts. She put her gloved fingers in her armpits to keep them warm.

She had known that waiting out here might be wasted effort, but then, she had nothing to lose. Her lips tightened at the unintended melodrama of the phrase. She had tried very hard during the last three years to avoid that kind of self-pity.

She turned her head, her gaze sweeping the portico at the front of the courthouse. There were people moving up and down the steps, as there had been all morning. Heads down, briefcases dangling as they climbed, going about their normal business.

All the excitement was inside and out back. The media was waiting in force at the rear of the courthouse, along with a few of the other parents. And the cops.

Which meant that's where they intended to take him out, just as the television news this morning had speculated. The media had better sources within the justice system than she did. They always seemed to know what was going on.

All she knew was Tate. She had made it her mission to know.

Once he'd been arrested, she had pored over every scrap of information available. Every article. Every psychological assessment. Every speculation. And there had been a lot of those.

She knew as much as there was to know about Samuel A. Tate. Which was why she was waiting here instead of at the back with the others.

Tate wasn't going to do what the cops wanted him to. He had beat the system, and he was going to glory in it. He was going to publicly thumb his nose at the fools who couldn't even get arresting him right.

Even if the evidence they'd uncovered had been allowed in, he would still have found some way, Sarah thought, her bitterness building. Some sleazebag lawyer. Another idiot judge.

The internal tirade dissipated in an explosion of adrenaline as her eyes focused on the slight figure emerging through the double doors. She blinked to clear her vision, needing to be absolutely sure.

When she was, her chest tightened, squeezing the air from her lungs. She didn't notice, since she had already forgotten to breathe. She watched Tate instead, tracking his movement across the porch toward the top of the granite steps.

A couple of flashbulbs went off. Apparently she wasn't the only one who had suspected Tate might come out here rather than at the back. A microphone was thrust into his face, but he pushed it away with one hand. He said something to the reporter who held it, but she was too far away to hear the words.

Or maybe she hadn't heard them because after her identification of her son's murderer, a cone of silence seemed to have settled over her, blocking any distractions. Her entire consciousness was focused on the man at the top of the steps.

She didn't move until he reached the first of them. Then, unconcerned that someone might be watching, she slipped her right hand into the opening of her purse, its long strap still over her left shoulder.

As her fingers closed around the butt of the pistol it contained, she began to climb the steps, going up them on the diagonal as Tate began to descend. He came straight down, head high, pushing arrogantly through the few members of the media who'd been waiting for him.

They followed, mouths moving, throwing questions at him. Tate continued to ignore them, heading purposefully down the steps.

Sensing that purpose, for the first time Sarah's concentration shifted, tracing the trajectory of his descent. At the foot of the stairs a taxi waited. If she didn't hurry, she realized with a jolt of panic, he would be inside it before she could get close enough—

She began to run, no longer climbing the steps, but going straight across them. She was aware subliminally of other people, all of whom seemed to be converging on the spot where she was headed. Their presence had no impact on her determination.

There was still no sound. The action played out in front of her like a silent film. And now the only other actor—the only one who mattered—was less than a dozen feet away, slightly above her and to her side.

Sarah stopped, holding the pistol in her outstretched right hand. Her left settled under it, steadying the weapon. Just as she had been taught, she pointed the muzzle like an accusing finger at the man coming down the steps. Infinitely calm, now that the moment was finally here, she locked on her target, leading it slightly.

Don't talk. Just shoot.

The words careened through her brain, as her hands and her eyes continued to track her prey. Dan must have said them in a hundred darkened movie theaters through the years. Transfixed by what was occurring on the screen, he would whisper those words, offering his warning to countless heroines tremblingly holding a gun on the bad guy.

Shoot him. Don't talk to him. Just shoot him, you stupid bitch.

That was exactly what Sarah had planned to do. She had even uttered Dan's words over and over, preparing for this moment.

Now, despite what her intellect was telling her—had told her from the moment she had thought of this—she knew that she needed him to know. She needed Tate to understand for which of them he was dying. In some sense, perhaps, what she was doing would be for all of them, but the only way it would ever make any difference to her was if Tate knew her son's name.

"Daniel," she shouted.

The dark, well-groomed head turned, everything happening in slow motion. She had time to watch his eyes meet hers before they fell to the gun. When they lifted again, they were slightly widened, but there was no panic in them. Fastened on hers, they were exactly the same pale, clear blue her son's had been.

"His name was Daniel Patterson," she said, no longer shouting because he was near enough she knew he could hear her. And because she had his full and undivided attention.

His head moved up and down. In agreement? Did that mean he had known Danny's name? Or did it simply mean he understood for which of them he was about to die?

Tate's descent had begun to slow, his gaze still locked on her face. Shoot, don't talk. Now she could. Now she could kill him because she had told Tate Danny's name.

Her finger closed over the trigger, beginning the slow deliberate squeeze. Concentrating fiercely on the man in front of her, she was totally unaware of the one rushing at her from the side.

He reached her before her finger could complete the move it had begun. He wrapped his arms around her, the momentum of his dive carrying them both down the steps.

The gun was jarred out of her hand as they landed. She fell on her left shoulder and hip, hitting the granite with incredible force. They slid down the last few steps, their bodies locked together.

Stunned by the impact of her fall, Sarah wasn't sure at first what had happened. One second she'd been standing on the courthouse steps, pointing Dan's pistol at the man who had murdered their son. The next she was lying on the sidewalk, unable to breathe. Unable to escape the crushing weight of the man who had brought her down.

She turned her head to the side in time to watch Samuel Tate duck into his waiting cab. She was near enough that she could smell the fumes of the exhaust as it pulled away from the curb and disappeared into traffic.

Only when it was gone did she become aware that pandemonium had broken out around her. Someone was screaming. Someone else—and the sound of this was very close—cursed, the words low and intense.

The noises rushed through her head like water over the stones of a brook. Meaningless babble.

She looked up at the sky, the thick winter clouds over her head mottled and gray until they blurred with her tears. Despite the growing cacophony of noise around her, it was Dan's voice that echoed again and again in her head.

Shoot, don't talk. Just shoot him, you stupid bitch.

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