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Something pulled Cassie Danvers from the half sleep she'd fallen into and yanked her back into the world of foster children and fevers, of long nights with sick kids. She eased away from little David's bed, standing on legs that ached from too many hours sitting in one position. Five days and six nights of dealing with the eight-year-old's illness had taken its toll. She was exhausted.
A soft thump sounded from somewhere below, and she cocked her head to the side, listening for whatever would come next. Something would. She was sure of that. She'd been house mom at All Our Kids foster home for enough years to know that kids didn't always stay in bed. When it came to the kind of kids she dealt with, they often didn't.
Someone was up. Probably Destiny. The thirteen-year-old had been neglected for ten years before she'd arrived at the home. As a result, she had food issues. As in, she liked to take food, hide it, hoard it. If she was up raiding the kitchen, she'd have to be dealt with. Too bad, because Cassie was just tired enough to want to ignore the issue.
She touched David's forehead. Cool as a cucumber. Finally.
That was good news and might mean they both got a good night's sleep. After Cassie got Destiny back into bed.
She hurried into the hall, tiptoeing past the boys' room. The stairs creaked as she crept to the lower level of the house. A large foyer opened out into a living room area on one side and a formal dining room on the other. Unless they had special guests, the eat-in kitchen was always a better choice for meals. More relaxed and comfortable, it offered Cassie's charges a chance to sit down and get a feel for what it meant to be part of a family. Or, in some cases, to remember what it felt like.
A wide hall stretched from the foyer to the back of the house. The family room and kitchen were there. The two most tempting areas for Cassie's foster kids. TV and video games in the family room. Food in the kitchen. Not to mention the back door. That had tempted a few too many kids to wander outside unattended. She'd put a bolt at the top, but that couldn't keep the more clever and persistent kids from escaping.
Fortunately, Destiny wasn't one to wander. She'd been through way too much in her thirteen years, and she preferred to stay as close to All Our Kids as possible. Food, though, that was her weakness.
Cassie made her way down the hall, passing photos of dozens of children who'd spent time in the home. Some were kids who'd come and gone before she'd become housemother. Most were her kids. Hers for a while, anyway. She tried not to get melancholy about loving and saying goodbye to so many. Sometimes, though, she wanted to be more than someone's foster mom. Sometimes, she wanted to be Mommy, Mom, Mother.
The hallway emptied out into the family room and kitchen area. The rooms were dark, and she didn't turn on the light. If Destiny was hanging around somewhere, it was best to catch her in the act. Otherwise, Cassie would have to spend the rest of the night trying to get the kid to own up to her mistakes.
She glanced around the kitchen. No sign of Destiny. No telltale candy wrappers on the counter. She looked in the trash can. No chip bags. That didn't mean much. Destiny had been known to take her contraband food out onto the back porch, sit in the hanging swing and munch to her heart's content. Cassie might have been tempted to allow her to do it, but Destiny was a kid who needed clear rules and firm boundaries. Snacks were fine if the kids were hungry. They weren't fine in the middle of the night and in massive quantities.
Cassie crept to the door. The bolt wasn't locked, and she really hoped Destiny had been the one to slide it open. Some of the other kids weren't as likely to stay close to the house. She grabbed the doorknob, careful to make as little noise as possible. She'd learned the hard way that Destiny was great at hiding evidence, making up stories and pretending that she was as innocent as a newborn baby. Right at that moment, Cassie wasn't in the mood for it.
The doorknob barely turned. Locked. Had Destiny locked herself outside?
Cassie turned the lock and swung the door open, expecting to see Destiny sitting on the swing, a bag of chips in her hands and a guilty look on her face. Instead, she looked into a stranger's cold blue eyes, his hard face.
She screamed, the sound bursting out of her as she jumped backward and tried to slam the door shut. He grabbed it, grabbed her, yanking her out onto the porch.
She pulled against his hold, and screamed again, the acrid scent of gasoline filling her nose.
She fought, because it was what she'd grown up doing, scraping an existence in the meanest neighborhood DC had to offer. She punched the stranger in the stomach, swung again. He backhanded her so hard she fell onto the swing, that horrible gasoline scent making her dizzy.
"Cool it!" the guy growled as he hefted an oversize duffle with one hand and reached under his jacket with the other.
She didn't know what he was reaching for, didn't care.
All she cared about was warning the kids, warning her assistant, Virginia Johnson. She screamed again, loudly enough to wake the dead.
The guy yanked a knife out from under his jacket, the long blade making Cassie's blood run cold.
"Scream again," he said emotionlessly, his eyes cold. "I dare you."
She didn't, because she knew the look in his eyes. She'd seen it in the eyes of more people than she'd wanted to admit. It was the look of apathy, the gaze of someone who didn't care. Dead. That's how she'd describe it, and that scared her more than the knife.
A light went on inside the house, capturing the guy's attention for the split second Cassie had been waiting for. She scrambled off the swing, sprinting off the porch, nothing else in her mind except leading the guy away from the house and the kids.
Michael Jeffries was dead, and there wasn't one thing Capitol K-9 Unit Captain Gavin McCord could do about it. It seemed inconceivable, impossible, but it was true. Michael had been a good guy, a great attorney. Fairminded, reasonable and determined to always see justice done. Now he was gone, shot down in the prime of his life.
That hurt. A lot.
Gavin snapped a picture of the bloodstain on the pavement at the rear of Congressman Harland Jeffries's mansion. He'd already had the evidence team collect samples for DNA. He knew they'd find DNA matching Michael Jeffries and his father. Like Michael, Harland had been shot by a small caliber handgun.
Unlike his father, the young lawyer hadn't survived.
Sad. All the way around.
Gavin knew and liked both of the men, but he couldn't let his emotions get in the way of the investigation. He snapped another picture, glanced around the scene. The DC police had been the first responders, and several officers were huddled together discussing the case. He knew most of them. He'd worked as a DC police officer for ten years before taking the job Margaret Meyer had offered him. It had been an opportunity he couldn't pass up, one that he hadn't wanted to pass up. He'd been working as part of the Capitol K-9 Team ever since.
Glory shifted beside him. The three-year-old shepherd was too well trained to stand before she was told to, but it was obvious that the excitement of the crime scene was making her antsy.
"Be patient," he said, touching her head as he took another photo.
Harland had been conscious when the ambulance arrived, and had given some limited information to the responding officers. Gavin would go to the hospital and interview him later. For now, he needed to concentrate on making sure that evidence was collected, the scene processed. The more thorough they were at this stage of the game, the more likely a conviction would be later on down the road.
"McCord!" One of the DC officers stepped from the group and waved him over. Tall with dark eyes and short-cropped hair, Dane Winthrop had been a veteran officer the year Gavin left the DC police. They'd run into each other quite a few times in the years since then.
"What's up?" he asked, approaching Dane, his gaze jumping to the bloodstained concrete where Harland had been lying. Michael's body had been found a few feet away. Both areas were cordoned off, yellow crime-scene tape strung around trees and porch railings.
"One of my men found something near the tree line. I thought you might want to see it." Dane held up an evidence bag with a bright blue mitten in it. "Thing was clean as a whistle. Not a leaf on it. Not a stick. Not a speck of grass covering it."
"It looks like a kid's mitten," he said, taking the bag and turning it over.
"A small kid's," Dane agreed. "There was no tag on it. Looks like something someone's grandmother might have made."
It did. "Where was it found?"
"A few feet from the path that leads to that foster home next door. All Our Kids?"
Gavin knew it better than most. He'd lived in the home during his last two years of high school.
"Want to show me?" he asked, and Dane led the way to the woods that edged Harland's property. Wide and well used, the path was easy to find. A man and woman searched the area nearby, their K-9 partners sniffing the ground. Glory wanted in on the action, her lean body tense with anticipation. She'd get her chance soon.
"Here's where it was." Dane pointed to a couple of bushes that sat near the tree line. A small evidence flag poked out from the ground. Gavin stood close to it and glanced toward Harland's house. A clear view of the back patio and the area where the congressman had been found.
He crouched so that he was closer to child-size. Still a clear view. The outside lights had been on. If a child had been standing where the mitten was when the shooting occurred, he or she would have seen everything.
"What do you think?" Dane asked, his hands shoved deep in his jacket pockets, his gaze on the house. He was asking, but he knew. They had a potential witness, and the thought of that sent a wave of adrenaline coursing through Gavin.
"Did you send someone over to All Our Kids?"
"Not yet. It's your case, your call. You want to go over or do you want me to?"
"I'll go." His boss, Margaret Meyer, had assigned him the case. As head of the president's special in-house security team, she'd put Capitol K-9 together and was the hub of the organization. The fact that a congressman had been shot and his son killed had been enough for her to want Capitol K-9 involved. Gavin had asked to lead the case. He'd known the Jeffries for years, owed Harland a lot, was determined to make sure Michael's killer was brought to justice. He walked to the path, eyeing the dark edges of the woods. If he were a young kid running from a killer, would he go home or hide?
Probably home, but Gavin didn't want to take any chances. Glory was trained in apprehension. Part of that training was scent tracking. He opened the evidence bag, bent so that Glory could get a whiff of the mitten. Her ears perked, her eyes sharpened with interest.
"Find!" he commanded, and she lunged toward the trees, loped onto the path. He ran behind her, the lead loose in his hand.
Moonlight filtered through the thick tree canopy, casting golden-yellow light across dead leaves and winter-dry undergrowth. Spring hadn't quite made its appearance, the early March air frigid with winter's last sting. If a child was out in this, he'd be cold, tired, scared.
Glory veered off the path, plunging through undergrowth and between trees. She didn't hesitate. She had the scent, and she'd follow it to her mark.
She stopped a dozen feet off the path, nose to the ground, snuffling a pile of leaves. She circled a large oak, found her way onto the path again. Gavin had walked this way so many times when he was a teen that he could have done it blindfolded.
Glory paused again, cocked her head to the side and growled low in her throat.
Bushes rustled, twigs snapped.
Gavin grabbed his light and flashed it into the trees.
Nothing. Not even a hint of movement, but Glory growled again, her entire body tense, her muscles taut.
Criminal or kid. That was Gavin's guess.
"Police!" he called. "Come on out!"
"You come out or I'll send my dog in," he warned. Nothing.
Okay. Fine. They'd do it the hard way.
"Track!" he issued the command, and Glory lunged off the path, shoving through thick foliage, her wild bark ringing through the cold March air. He called in his location as he followed.
Up ahead, feet pounded on dead leaves. Whoever it was was heading toward the road. He wouldn't make it. Not before Glory caught up.
"Track!" he urged again, and Glory howled her response. She loved the chase almost as much as she loved the find.
Somewhere nearby, sirens screamed. Another emergency?
Not uncommon in DC's rougher areas, but in the Jeffrieses' posh neighborhood, crime was nearly nonexistent.
Glory stopped short, her ears perked, her scruff standing on end. She swiveled, turning in the direction they'd come. Gavin could still hear branches breaking in front of them, but Glory was trained in protection. She wouldn't move toward a fleeing threat if there was another threat coming up from behind.
She growled, her dark eyes focused on the trees behind them. Gavin aimed his light in that direction, saw a shadow darting through the trees.
"Stop!" he shouted. "Police!"
The shadow kept going.
"I'm releasing my dog!" he yelled.
He unclipped Glory's lead, gave her the command.
She lunged into the trees, muscle and fur and enough power to take down a grown man. She wouldn't. Not until she was given the command, but she'd be able to corner whoever it was, keep him or her from escaping.
He ran after her, sprinting into the dense foliage, heading back the way they'd come. He hit the path at a dead-out run, his light bouncing across dirt and leaves, splashing over Glory and her mark. Small. Wearing jeans and T-shirt. A woman or a kid. Long hair, so he'd say female.
The rest of the details were lost as she veered off the path, ran into the trees. She must have thought she could lose Glory that way.
Wasn't going to happen.
The woman screamed, the sound cut off by leaves rustling and Glory's wild bark.
Gavin sprinted forward, his light bouncing off Glory's brown-black coat.
"Release!" he commanded, and she moved to his side. She'd stay there until he told her differently.
"You may as well come down," he said, moving the beam of his light into the tree. It flitted over bare feet, jean-clad legs, a soft pink sweater. A face he knew well. Cassie Danvershousemother at All Our Kids for the past couple of years. He'd done his share of volunteer work at All Our Kids. He'd owed the congressman and the home that. Last year, he'd put new tile flooring in the kitchen, painted the trim of a dozen windows, helped run a field day for foster kids and their families. He'd seen Cassie there more times than he could count.
He scowled. "What are you doing up there, Cassie?"
"Climbing for my life," she responded, her dark green gaze fixed on Glory.
Glory barked, and Cassie scrambled higher into the tree.
"Glory isn't going to hurt you."