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Special Agent Seth Calder slipped his gun from his shoulder holster and stepped from his truck. He eased the door shut so the sound wouldn't alert anyone.
If there was anyone around to alert, that was.
The criminal informant who'd called him an hour earlier had said there was talk about some kind of evidence here. The CI didn't know exactly what the evidence was, but it was in an abandoned warehouse on Miller Road just outside the ranching town of Sweetwater Springs. Seth was already familiar with the warehouse, since the FBI had had it under surveillance a few months back.
Because it'd been a holding facility for a black market baby ring.
Just the thought of it put a knot in Seth's gut. The FBI and local cops had shut down the black market ring, had made plenty of arrests, too, but maybe something inside would lead to yet more arrests.
Or, God forbid, even more missing babies.
That was why Seth had gotten out here as fast as he could.
The gray metal building showed no signs of life, though. No trees within a hundred yards. And no other buildings were nearby. Just a huge concrete parking lot with weeds poking up through the cracks.
Using slow, cautious steps, Seth started toward the building but came to a quick stop when he heard an engine. The road wasn't exactly on the beaten path, so he waited and watched as the dark blue car came around the curve.
The driver hit the brakes.
Seth took a closer look. Then he cursed. What the devil was she doing here? He intended to find out.
No one had ever accused him of having a friendly face when he was on the job, and Seth put on his best scowl when he walked toward Shelby Braddock's car. She didn't wait for him to reach her. She stepped out, her movements jerky and hurried, and she matched him scowl for scowl.
To say they were enemies would be like saying the ocean had a bit of water in it.
Shelby started toward him, the May breeze flying through her dark brown hair. "Why are you here?" she snapped.
"Why are you here?" Seth snapped right back.
And they stood there, both glaring and waiting for the other to answer first. To remind her that he was the one in charge here, Seth tapped his badge clipped to his belt.
Her eyes narrowed. "You're pulling the FBI card on me? Well, it won't work. I'm not leaving here until I have some answers."
Seth didn't normally have it in for investigative reporters. On occasion a few actually had helped the FBI with active cases. But he had it in for this particular one. Shelby was a thorn in his thorn-riddled side.
"Exactly what kind of answers are you hoping to get here?" he asked. And yeah, it sounded like an interrogation question that he would aim at a hostile suspect.
"Obviously the same answers you're hoping to get."
Seth's scowl got worse. They had another staring match before Shelby huffed.
"I got an anonymous call, all right?" she grumbled finally. "The person said there was evidence here connected to your stepmother's trial, and I wanted to find out if that was true."
Well, hell. Seth hadn't expected that answer. But it was true that his stepmother, Jewell, was just three days away from standing trial. For murder.
That didn't help his churning stomach, either.
Jewell had been charged with killing her alleged lover twenty-three years ago. It'd taken all these years for the arrest to happen, and one of the main reasons for Jewell's arrest was standing right in front of him.
She'd written dozens of scathing articles about what she called a police cover-up, and the articles had caught the eye of the new prosecutor, who'd reopened the case. The evidence had been retested, new evidence found.
And the new evidence all had pointed to his mother being a killer.
Seth was 1000 percent sure Jewell was innocent, but so far he'd had zero luck proving it.
Until now, that was. Maybe this was the break he needed if there was indeed something in the building.
"What kind of evidence?" Seth demanded.
Shelby lifted her hands, palms up. "That's what I'm here to find out. Now, why are you here?"
Seth debated whether he should tell her, but there was no logical reason why she shouldn't know, though he could think of a few petty ones. He decided to put the pettiness aside. For now. "I got a call from a CI who said there was possibly some evidence inside. I thought it might be connected to the black market baby ring."
Her eyes widened. And Seth knew why. Both of them had received calls. His CI was as trustworthy as a criminal informant could be. Which meant the guy could be swayed by a buck or two. And Shelby's contact had been anonymous. Yet the calls had brought them here together with the lure of something they both wantedevidence.
That couldn't be good.
"You should leave now," Seth told her, and he turned to head back to the warehouse.
Of course, she didn't leave. Shelby trailed right along behind him. "But what if there really is something inside connected to the murder investigation?" she asked.
"Then, I'll find it and turn it over to the authorities."
She huffed. Again, he knew why. Shelby likely thought he wouldn't want to add any more nails to his stepmother's coffin. But if he did indeed find something, he wouldn't suppress it. Because if Jewell was truly innocentand Seth had to believe she wasthen the total package of evidence would exonerate her.
Seth had to hope that.
"This could be dangerous," he reminded her.
He hadn't figured that would get her running, and he was right. It didn't. He'd read some of the articles she'd done, and Shelby wasn't a runner. She did all sorts of risky, stupid things to get a story.
Except this wasn't just about a story.
Because Jewell had been accused of murdering Shelby's father, Whitt.
That made this personal for both of them, and even though it wouldn't stop him from looking inside the warehouse, Seth knew it was never a good idea to mix personal stuff with business.
"I'm not leaving," Shelby insisted.
Seth wanted to roll his eyes. "Then, at least stay behind me in case something goes wrong."
Of course, she didn't do that, either. Shelby got in step along beside him. So close that he caught her scent.
Or maybe womanly was the right word.
It was some kind of shampoo mixed with something natural. Something that reminded him that Shelby was a woman and not merely a neck he'd sometimes like to wring.
Seth decided to ignore her and her scent so he could get on with his job. The sooner he did that, the sooner he could figure out if there was something to find and then get the heck out of there.
The front door to the warehouse was wide-open, but Seth didn't go there. Instead, he went to one of the windows that dotted the exterior. The glass was filmy and cracked, but he looked inside. Then he cursed under his breath.
It was too dark to see anything.
That meant going inside without the benefit of knowing if someone was lurking there, ready to attack.
"If someone shoots at us," Seth snarled, "at least show some common sense and get down so you don't get your head blown off."
He hadn't meant that to scare her. Okay, he had. But as with his other attempts, she didn't scare this time. Shelby was right on his heels when he stepped into the doorway. Seth braced himself for whatever might happen, but nothing did.
He stood there a moment so his eyes could adjust to the darkness, and then he had a look around. It was basically just one giant room with what appeared to be an office on his left and an exit straight ahead. There was another room with its door closed on the right side of the building.
Boxes and other debris were scattered around, and the place smelled like a giant dust ball. Roaches skittered across the floor. It'd been more than six months since it'd been used to house the black market babies, and it was obvious no one had cleaned it since then.
He stepped inside the building. Bracketing his shooting wrist with his other hand, he pivoted in all directions.
And no sounds to indicate anyone else was inside.
Seth didn't let down his guard, though. He kept his gun ready and went to the office door. What was left of it anyway. It was hanging on just one hinge, and it squeaked and swayed a little when he moved past it.
Creepy, but no one was in the office.
Behind him he heard Shelby fumbling around, and she pulled a penlight from her back jeans' pocket. Seth took out his as well, and they clicked them on at the same time.
"If you find anything, don't touch it," Seth warned her.
She made a "duh" sound and fanned the light over the ceiling, then the floor. Seth didn't see anything suspicious, but the dozen or so boxes could have something in them. He went in the direction of the nearest one, aiming his flashlight on the floor in front of him.
And he came to a dead stop.
Oh, no. Not that.
He stooped down, garnering Shelby's attention because she hurried over to him. Seth moved the light closer so he could get a better look.
There was a plate-size area of shiny liquid on the concrete floor.
"Is that blood?" Shelby asked.
Seth didn't touch it, but it sure looked like blood to him. And it was fresh at that, with no dry spots even around the edges. He wasn't sure exactly how long it took a pool of blood that big to start drying in a hot building, but he didn't think it was hours.
More likely, minutes.
He stood, practically snapping to attention, and had another look around. Seth still didn't see anyone. Especially not someone with an injury serious enough to cause that kind of blood loss. However, a few of those boxes were large enough for someone to hide behind.
Seth kept watch around them, and he took out his phone so he could hand it to Shelby. "Call 9-1-1 and request officers on the scene."
Thankfully, she did it without hesitation or arguing. The dispatcher would direct the call to the Sweetwater Springs sheriff's office. To Seth's stepbrother, Sheriff Cooper McKinnon. And while Seth and he weren't exactly on friendly terms, he knew Cooper would do his job and get out here fast. This was likely a crime scene, and it needed to be processed.
And maybe more.
Maybe someone here needed medical attention. First, though, Seth had to find out where that someone was.
He fanned the light over the floor again. More blood. Big drops that looked as if they'd splattered from at least a few feet of distance. The drops didn't lead to the first box, but he checked it out anyway.
So he moved on, following the blood trail. Past all the boxes and the trash. The trail stopped right outside the room with the closed door. Of course it did.
This couldn't be easy. That closed door could conceal the very person responsible for that blood loss. Or someone who was dying. Either way, Seth had to check it out.
He looked back at Shelby. "This would be a good time for you to go back to your car and wait for Cooper."
Her chin came up, and even with just the dim light, he saw the resolve in her eyes.
Seth could have arrested her and gotten her butt out of there. But that would take time and it'd mean a trip back to town. He really just wanted to see if anything was behind the door. Anything to do with the black market baby ring. Or his stepmother.
"Okay," Seth told Shelby when she didn't budge. "But don't say I didn't warn you."
Seth put his flashlight away to free up his hand, and he opened the door. It was pitch-black because the light from the windows didn't reach back there. Shelby did something about that. She turned her flashlight into the room.
And she gasped.
"Hell," Seth cursed.
They'd found the source of the blood, all right.
There was a mattress, the sheets stark white except for the dark red stains. And there in the center was a body. A male wearing only a pair of boxer shorts. The guy wasn't moving, and his skin was as white as the sheets.
Shelby was still holding up her flashlight, and Seth took her wrist to turn the light into the four corners of the room. No one was lurking there. So he aimed the light on the mattress. It was flat on the floor, so no one was beneath it, but he checked around all sides. As far as he could tell, no one was there.
"Don't go in the room," Seth ordered when Shelby started to move. "It's a crime scene."
And this time Shelby actually listened to him. A miracle. But she did keep her flashlight aimed at the body.
"What's that on his face?" she asked.
Since there were no indications that anyone was about to jump out at him, Seth took out his own flashlight again and leaned in closer, putting himself between Shelby and the body. He soon saw the probable cause of death.
Multiple stab wounds to the chest.
It was hard to count how many because of the blood, but there were plenty of them. Seth aimed the light on the dead guy's head, and his heart slammed against his chest.
"What's that on his face?" Shelby repeated, moving to the side so she could no doubt see better. "A paper mask," Seth answered.
It looked as if someone had enlarged a photo and then cut it out to create an image to cover the dead man's face.
"A mask?" Shelby leaned in. And she gasped again. "That's a picture of my father."
Yeah, it was. Whitt Braddock. The very man Seth's mother was accused of murdering.
"Oh, God," Shelby mumbled, and she just kept saying it. "Who'd do such a sick thing?"
Seth had to shake his head. He had no idea.
He wanted to take off the mask to see who was behind it, but he couldn't compromise any evidence that might be there. Shelby and he had perhaps compromised enough just by going inside the building. However, when he'd gotten that call from the CI, the last thing he'd expected was to find a dead body.
Seth backed up, trying to follow the same path that he'd used to get into the room so he would disturb as little of the area as possible. He bumped into Shelby, who wasn't moving. She seemed frozen. Her gaze was fixed on the body, and her mouth was trembling. She'd only been seven or eight years old when her dad had died, but this had to bring back what bad memories she had.
"They never did find my father's body," she said. More trembling and this time, it wasn't just her mouth. She sagged against him. "But the cops think he was stabbed multiple times because there was blood everywhere."
Seth was very familiar with the details. Heck, he'd memorized them.
"Come on," he told her. "We need to get out of here."
The last thing he wanted was to get into a shouting match with Cooper because Seth hadn't followed this search to the T.
When Shelby didn't budge, Seth took her by the arm to get her moving. But they only made it a few steps when he heard the plinking sound. Like something metallic falling onto the concrete. That barely had time to register in his mind when the smoke started to billow right toward them.
But it wasn't ordinary smoke.
It was tear gas.
Both Shelby and he started to cough immediately. The tear gas burned his throat and eyes. Seth tried to get them out of there, but it was hard to see anything. Hard to think, too.
Each step was an effort, but he headed straight for the door. He also kept his gun ready because someone had thrown that tear gas grenade, and that someone no doubt was lurking outside waiting to do heaven knew what to them.
Shelby and he were still several feet from the door when he heard a sound to his right. A footstep. But it was the only warning that Seth got before someone wearing a gas mask reached out and touched him with something.
The jolt went through Seth, all pain and static, and he had no choice but to drop to the floor.
Someone had used a Taser on him.
A split second later, Shelby made a sharp groaning noise and fell right next to him. Their eyes were open, gazes fixed on each other.
But neither could move.
Seth could only lie there as the footsteps came right toward them.