As a medical examiner, Samantha Owens knows her job is to make a certain sense of death with crisp methodology and precision instruments.
But the day the Tennessee floods took her husband and children, the light vanished from Sam's life. She has been pulled into a suffocating grief no amount of workaholic ardor can penetrateuntil she receives a peculiar call from Washington, D.C.
On the other end of the line is an old boyfriend's mother, asking Sam to do a second autopsy on her son. Eddie Donovan is officially the victim of a vicious carjacking, but under Sam's sharp eye the forensics tell a darker story. The ex-Ranger was murdered, though not for his car.
Forced to confront the burning memories and feelings about yet another loved one killed brutally, Sam loses herself in the mystery contained within Donovan's old notes. It leads her to the untouchable Xander, a soldier off-grid since his return from Afghanistan, and then to a series of brutal crimes stretching from that harsh mountainous war zone to this nation's capital. The tale told between the lines makes it clear that nobody's hands are clean, and that making sense of murder sometimes means putting yourself in the crosshairs of death.
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Eddie Donovan didn't like crowds. Crowds were unpredictable, dangerous. Crowds held a multitude of malcontents, any one of which could be the death of him, in the most literal way. He was surrounded by people, and sweating. Despite the aviator-style Ray-Bans perched on his nose, the sun shone brightly in his eyes, making it even harder to see. Even in his car he felt unsafe.
Donovan, formerly Major Edward Donovan, 75th Ranger Regiment, couldn't help himself. He scanned the pedestrians incessantly as he looked for a place to park. Susan said she'd meet him at the carousel behind the Smithsonian and they'd walk the girls over to the Tidal Basin together. He'd thought it better for her to get off at the Smithsonian Metro stop and cut through the back streets, where there would be fewer people, but she'd insisted. The day was fine, spring sun yellow and sharp, and she wanted the exercise. The girls needed it toothe more they got during the day, the easier it was to put them down at night.
He was running late. He finally found a spot on Seventh. He pulled in, dropped a handful of quarters into the meter, and took off at a jog, down the Mall, away from the Capitol.
They weren't alone in their planned endeavor. It seemed every family in the Washington metro area, plus oodles of tourists, had decided to meet on the Mall and walk down to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms together. There were hundreds ofjolly people milling about.
Police ringed Independence Avenue, wary and watchful. Despite the beautiful day, terror threats were always paramount in law enforcement's mind, especially when it came to large gatherings. Just plain common sense was needed. But for a former Ranger, the authorities' lack of common sense was teeth-grindingly aggravating. As he moved swiftly through the crowds, Donovan spotted at least five points of ingress, holes in the watch. Of course, this was his world now, his job. He was a civilian in clothing onlyhis mandate was to protect. Only his paychecks were printed and signed by multinational corporations instead of the U.S. government.
The Gothic spires of the Smithsonian appeared to his left, and the music of the carousel floated to his ears. He spotted Susan, her blond hair up in a ponytail under a Redskins baseball cap, matching aviator Ray-Bans on her face. She looked like an incognito movie star, daintily lean and trim, and for the hundredth time he congratulated himself on landing her. She was the daughter of his former mentor, the man who'd shown him how to be a soldier. A good man now rotting under a white stone at Arlington, lost not to battle, but cancer, like too many others who'd served in Vietnam and Korea. The last thing Stewart had asked was for Donovan to take care of his little girl, a mission Donovan was only too happy to undertake.
Susan spied him and a smile spread across her face. Alina and VictoriaAlly and Vickywere attached to either end of Susan's arms like limpets, dragging her forward. He smiled in return and crossed the remaining few feet to them, grabbing the baby, Vicky, by the waist and swinging her up onto his shoulders. The five-year-old squealed in frightened pleasure, and Ally smiled indulgently at her little sister. In a perfect imitation of Susan, she crossed her little arms and said, "You know she just ate, right Dad? You do that and she might throw up."
Eight, going on thirty.
"I've been barfed on before by lesser women." He swung Vicky around his shoulders, the helicopter, they called it, and she laughed and laughed. Her giggles were infectious, and soon the whole family chimed in. Donovan felt his heart constrict. Thismaking his daughters and wife laughthis was sheer perfection.
Vicky attached herself to his back like a monkey, and they started walking west.
"How are you, chickens?" he asked.
"We're fine," Susan answered. "I got the oil changed on the way to the Metroapparently we need new wiper blades."
"They always say that," he muttered, and she smiled.
"I know. The danger of sending a woman to do a man's job. I told them I'd let you know and the kid looked at me like I was an idiot. Have you eaten? I packed us some sandwiches. Vicky had half of hers already, she couldn't wait. I thought we could stop in front of the monument and have a little picnic."
It sounded like a perfect chance for a sniper to pick them all off one by one, but he wasn't about to share that with Susan. She was hardly delicate, his wife. After years of being the daughter of a soldier, then the wife of one, she was battle-hardened herself. But once the girls had come along he'd felt an overwhelming need to protect her, to keep her ignorant of all the dangers surrounding them.
It only took a few minutes to get to the grassy knoll the monument rested upon. Donovan stared at the obelisk, shaking his head. He'd lived in the District his whole life, yet had never gone up in the monument.
For a time it had been under renovation, and, of course, September 11 meant it had been closed, and the elevators didn't run except for visiting dignitaries. But it was back open now, more than a symbol of the geographical heart of Washington, D.C. It was a symbol of power. Phallic. Soaring. White marbled. Like a flawless compass pointing north, not to the magnetic pole, but to the heavens. To the only real masters of the brethren beneath.
He really needed to schedule a time and take the girls. He'd heard the view was amazing.
They found a spot on the hill and settled in, the buffalo-checked stadium blanket warm underneath them, both girls serious about eating their sandwiches but shivering in excitement, like racehorses in the gates. Donovan understood their anticipation, but for different reasons. He wanted to get down to the cherry blossoms and take their stroll, watch the festivities, and go home. Get them out of harm's way. Home was the only place he could truly relax. These milling masses of people were too much for him. He chided himselfmarking time was one of his worst faultsbut blamed it on the crowds. And the feeling that something was wrong. He'd learned the hard way never to ignore his gut.
Ally was staring at him, and, almost as if she could read his thoughts, set her half-eaten sandwich on the plastic bag and said, "Can we go, Mommy?"
"Finish your sandwich, baby."
"I'm done. Look, Daddy's done too."
"Eddie," Susan scolded. "Eat."
He glanced at her, then to Ally. With a sly grin, he shoved the rest of the sandwich into his mouth. Ally responded with giggles and tried to do the same, wedging the Wonder bread sideways, smearing peanut butter on her cheeks. Vicky, now eating cheerios from a sandwich bag, proceeded to upend the plastic into her mouth, spilling little Os down her shirt. She looked festooned for a party, and Donovan laughed out loud.
"Finished," they cried together, and Susan shook her head at them.
"I didn't think I'd ever raise such savages. Fine. Fine. We can go."
They stood, wiped the girls down, tidied their things, and Susan folded the blanket and tucked it into her backpack.
"Carry Vicky," Donovan said, lifting Ally into his arms. There was no way he was going to chance losing one of them in this crowd.
They strolled to the Tidal Basin, where the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. Some had already begun to fall, slowly dying on the ground, creating a blanket of pink and white, fairy tale snow. The girls oohed and aahed, wriggling like puppies in their parents' arms. Donovan and Susan set them down and they immediately rained themselves in the crushed petals.
Susan snapped photos, immortalizing their antics.
They were down by the paddleboats when Donovan's cell phone rang. There was only one reason for Donovan's phone to ring today, of all days, the day he'd arranged to take off in order to spend time with his family, as if they were regular people, in a regular world.
"Shit," he said.
"Daddy, you owe a quarter!" Ally said.
Fumbling in his pocket, he pulled out a quarter and handed it to her, then, ignoring Susan's basilisk glare, answered the phone.
He recognized the voice immediately. "We need to talk."
He clicked the off button on the cell and glanced at Susan. He resisted the urge to close his eyes to avoid forever being turned to stone, instead bent close, as if talking tenderly might help.
"Honey, I'm sorry. I have to go. You and the girls have fun, and I'll see you at home tonight."
"Eddie, you promised them." She flung her hand to the right, where Ally was studiously avoiding his gaze, showing her sister the intricate bark of a weeping cherry tree.
"Don't do that, Susan. Please."
"You promised me," she said, softer this time.
He heaved a breath in, his mind already five miles away. He didn't do guilt. Guilt was for the weak. Susan rarely pulled it on him, either. He couldn't help himself; his tone changed. He straightened up, the calm, cool demeanor back in place.
"I said I was sorry. I'll be home as soon as I can."
He leaned in and bussed her mouth briefly, then went to the girls.
"Daddy has to run an errand, chickens. But I'll see you at home tonight. Why don't we have pizza!"
They danced in little circles, all disappointment forgotten. "Pizza, pizza, pizza!"
If only everyone were so easily swayed.
He gave them each a quick kiss, touched Susan on the cheek in apology, and started off at a quick jog down Wallenberg toward Maryland, looking for a cab. His car was parked all the way back by the Air and Space museum, on the meters at the top of the mall. It would be quicker to get a ride.
He was in luck. Within moments he caught the eye of a turbaned man who swerved to the curb to pick him up. The cab smelled of evergreen and cumin, and something else, that indefinable scent that all D.C. cabs seemed to have. Maybe it was fear. Or power. Or greed. Or envy. Regardless, it insinuated itself into the very fabric of the city.
He slid in the back. "Corner of Seventh and Independence, please."
The cab darted from the curb, and deposited Donovan at his car five minutes later, having only been stymied by a single motorcade.
Eddie jumped in the Audi and took off toward Constitution, then swung back around and headed down toward the Navy Shipyards. The radio was tuned to 101.1, a song by one of his favorites, Nine Inch Nails, playing. He turned it up and tapped his fingers in time on the steering wheel.
The sun shone in the corridor today. Streams of people walked down to the Nationals stadium for the season opener. Baseball and apple pie coupled with naval history and pastel row houses.
But there was something Donovan had learned from hard experience.
Appearances could be deceiving.