When a scream wakes Will Novak in the middle of the night, at first he puts it down to the nightmares. He's alone on a sailboat in the Caribbean, miles from land. And his demons never leave him.
Say Your Prayers
The screams are real, though, coming from another boat just a rifle's night scope away. It only takes seconds for Novak to witness one murder and stop another. But with the killer on the run and a beautiful stranger dripping on his deck, Novak has gotten himself into a new kind of deep water.
But Don't Say Your Name
The young woman he saved says she doesn't know who she is. But someone does, and they're burning fuel and cash to chase Novak and his new acquaintance from one island to the next, across dangerous seas and right into the wilds of the Yucatan jungle. If either of them is going to live, Novak is going to need answers, fast-and he's guessing he won't like what he finds out . . .
Praise For Linda Ladd's Claire Morgan Thrillers
"One of the most creepy, crawly, and compelling psychological thrillers ever." -Fresh Fiction
"Chilling, compelling suspense...be prepared to lose sleep!" -Eileen Dryer on Head to Head
"Exciting, thrill-a-minute!" -Midwest Book Review on Dark Places
"Plenty of suspense and surprises." -Publishers Weekly on Dark Places
Read an Excerpt
Say Your Goodbyes
By Linda Ladd
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Linda Ladd
All rights reserved.
"No, no! Please! Help me!"
Will Novak opened his eyes and stared into utter darkness. He had been drinking earlier that evening before he passed out. He wasn't drunk anymore, maybe hungover some, but he could think straight. He knew who had been calling for help. The same dream had come to him every night. It was Mariah Murray's voice, his beautiful sister-in-law who called to him from the dark corners of his troubled mind. She had died on his doorstep, not a fortnight ago. He had promised to protect her. But he had failed, and now she haunted him, just like his dead wife and his dead children haunted him. All those voices that he loved so much and missed so desperately called out to him, distant and tinny, like static on an old Motorola radio. But he couldn't help any of them. They were gone forever. Sarah and Kelly and Katie had perished when the south tower came down on 9/11. He had watched it happen, unable to help them in that terrible moment, and unable to help them now. He couldn't help Mariah, either. She was dead. Everybody he loved was dead. Those voices calling to him were why he drank himself to oblivion, hoping to stifle the pain and forget his guilt and regret. But it never worked.
Eyes bleary and bloodshot, he sat up and looked around. He was out in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. His sailboat, his prized forty-foot custom-built Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 379, rocked beneath him. The waves were gentle, but the wind was picking up and buffeting the masts and riggings. A gale was probably developing somewhere far away. Maybe it would hit him eventually, but so what? He laid his head on the back of the seat and stared up at the stars above him.
Novak squeezed his eyes shut and felt his heart begin to constrict in upon itself. He dropped his head into his hands. Deep inside his mind, he remembered the day his family died, trapped up so high in the south tower. He had been working the streets of Manhattan in his NYPD cruiser. He'd seen the first plane hit and tried to get to them but couldn't make it through the snarled traffic. He had gotten out of his car and watched the tower, with his family inside, as it began to buckle. He had heard the grinding and snapping of steel beams and breaking glass, the people screaming all around him. And then it had come down, far ahead of him, in clouds of gray dust and fluttering papers and black smoke, with a roar of finality and death.
Will Novak forced that image away. Time to shake it off. Come to terms once again. Pull himself together. But his skin felt clammy in the cool night air, and his hands trembled. The darkness closed in around him, thick and impenetrable, but softly, as if the breeze that touched his face was made of smooth black velvet. It was very quiet, floating out there in the dark ocean. He felt utterly alone, anchored where he was at the edge of a coral reef. He figured he was somewhere off the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The boat's running lights were off. All the lights were off. Around him was nothing but a silent, watery, swaying world.
Novak stretched back out on the padded bench under the dark blue awning. Behind his boat, a billion stars spread out in a spangled canopy, vast and glittering, but also cold and distant and unfathomable. He stared up at the heavens, always awestruck by the clear, impossibly vivid spectacle of the universe when so far out at sea. In the west, a falling star streaked for several seconds and burned itself out. Sometimes Novak felt like that meteorite, like he was burning out. Sometimes he just wanted to burn out, end his mental suffering, end the memories of a life that had been so good, so perfect, but was now dead and gone forever ...
Novak cursed his maudlin thoughts and stood up. He leaned down and pulled a cold beer out of the ice. He'd been sailing due south, away from his home deep inside the bayous of Louisiana. Wanting solitude. Wanting to mourn for all he'd lost. He thrust one hand into the cooler and brought up ice to rub over his sunburned face. Then he just froze, with the ice still held against his skin. A woman had just screamed. He'd heard her clearly — far away from the boat, but resonating in the silence around him. Frowning, he put down the beer and peered out over the water. Then she cried out again. A long, hysterical scream.
Novak held on to the gunwale and steadied himself. Those screams were not figments of his imagination. No way. Another scream came. Novak strained his eyes, searching the inky black night. He still saw nothing, just endless, restless water. He rubbed his eyes and scanned every direction. He wished he hadn't drunk so much. He felt a little sick. A full moon was climbing up the sky, easing through the myriad of bright stars and out from a thick cloud bank. Moments later, a glittering trail of white moonlight stretched across the sea. That pale lunar gleam was all he could see. The sky and ocean melded into black nothingness on the horizon. Then he caught sight of a light. Maybe a hundred yards off his port bow. Just a momentary flash. A boat's spotlight, maybe.
Novak grabbed a rifle out of the rack beside the helm, the Colt AR 7.62 NATO. He'd had the gun for years. It felt good when he wrapped his fingers around it. He brought the high-powered scope up to his eye, blinked away some of his grogginess, and adjusted the knob. The dull green night vision screen reacted and slowly pulled the distant lights in close. A large motor yacht was out there. It wasn't running, just floating in the darkness. Predominantly white. One stripe down the side. Sleek, modern, expensive. A honey of a boat, all right, and big, probably sixty, seventy feet, at least. Dim lights glowed softly along the main deck, probably from the staterooms and lounge, illuminating the waterline and the silhouette of the vessel. It looked as if it was anchored, maybe, the captain taking advantage of the coral reef. No screams now. Just quiet.
Novak moved his crosshairs slowly up the length of the boat, up to the bow, where he spotted another light shining in a large plate-glass window. He twisted an adjustment and picked up a couple of dark figures moving around in the bow. One was small; looked like a woman or child. Probably a woman. She was hightailing it back toward the stern, moving at a full run. He could pick up shouting now. This time it sounded like male voices. Loud. Angry. Sounded like they were speaking in Spanish. Novak was fluent in Spanish, but he was still too far away to hear what they were yelling. Then Novak saw a man chasing the woman. He was small, too, didn't look much taller than she did, but he had a gun in his hand and he was almost on her. She screamed shrilly when he grabbed her from the back. She was in big trouble.
Another guy darted out of nowhere, taller, bigger, and thrust the struggling woman behind him, trying to shield her from the little guy. They were all arguing and shouting at each other. Then the little guy raised his arm and fired the handgun at the tall man. Shot him right in the face. Point-blank. That's when the woman went crazy, screaming her head off, her shrieks echoing out over the water to Novak. After that, she put up one hell of a fight with the killer, kicking and scratching and trying to wrestle his gun away. While Novak watched, she twisted loose and made another mad dash down the gangway toward the stern.
Novak shifted his scope down to the waterline and picked up a small Zodiac inflatable boat bobbing at starboard stern. All he could see was the end of it, the rest hidden behind the boat. That's where she was heading, all right, but she only made it a couple of yards. The little guy grabbed the back of her shirt, swung her bodily around to face him, and then slammed his pistol butt hard against her forehead. She went down like a felled tree. Her assailant went down after her.
To Novak, cowards like that guy on that boat were the scum of the earth. Misogynists and bullies and abusers irked the hell out of him. He did not like men who shot unarmed victims in the face for trying to shield a woman, either. Both things he had just witnessed were big triggers for Novak. To him, that kind of behavior labeled them as black hats destined to be put down, and without a doubt. He liked to take them down hard and make it as final as he could. End them. So he calmly and methodically lined up the crosshairs on the little man who was having fun bludgeoning the scared lady. The bully had already jerked the woman back up to her feet. He hit her again, with his fist this time, so hard in the right temple that she went back hard, slammed up against the port rail, and went backwards over the side. The guy followed her movements, leaning against the gunwale above where she was floundering in the choppy swells. When he started taking potshots down at her, Novak shifted his finger to the trigger. Enough's enough, tough guy.
Slowly building anger was coursing through Novak's bloodstream and had been since the first time that guy had hit the woman. Maybe her attacker was a hijacker and was forcibly commandeering the luxury yacht, most likely to sell it on the marine black market. Bulletin alerts from the Coast Guard had been coming in daily about modern-day pirate bands operating in the Gulf and off the Mexican coast. They targeted small and undefended pleasure vessels. He had been on the lookout for them himself. Almost wished they would attack so he could put them down. He was heavily armed and knew how to use weapons. He was going to use one now.
He sat down, held his rifle nice and steady, the barrel propped atop the canopy rigging, gauged the rocking of his hull and the force of the breeze, and set his aim. Slowly, carefully, no hurry, he sighted on the killer and squeezed the trigger. The bullet burst out into the darkness, followed seconds later by a deafening retort that echoed thunderously out across the water. If the killer had not chosen that exact moment to move left, he would have died where he stood, a bullet in his head. But he had moved, bending forward to take another shot down at the girl in the water. The slug might have nicked him; Novak wasn't sure. The guy had disappeared behind the rail and stayed down. So Novak waited for him to stand up again, his finger on the trigger, ready to fire — his version of whack-a-mole.
Novak expected the guy to return fire, be it haphazardly out into the blackness around him, shooting aimlessly at an unspecified target in an unspecified area. No way could he see Novak. No way could he know who was firing at him, or why. Patiently, left eye shut, right eye fastened on the scope, Novak waited for him to pop up again. But nothing happened. Maybe the guy was smarter than Novak thought.
Within moments, a faint whine started up in the distance. Sounded like the man was in the Zodiac. If so, he had wasted no time and crawled back there in a big hurry. Not so stupid after all. He knew when to run. Novak kept the scope focused on the part of the Zodiac that he could see, but he couldn't get off a shot before the guy pulled it back behind the stern. Then Novak heard it roar to full life, and it was retreating at full speed in the opposite direction. The guy didn't know his enemy, couldn't ascertain how many there were or what kind of weaponry they had. He had made the right decision. Under those circumstances, Novak might have retreated. But that didn't mean the little killer wouldn't come back, loaded for bear, and with equally deadly reinforcements.
Novak edged the scope back down to the waves around where the girl had gone into the drink. He couldn't see her anymore, just dark, restless water, spotted with whitecaps as the wind picked up. The guy had just left a seriously injured woman out there to drown. She might be dead already, probably too weak to stay afloat. At best, she was unconscious, or soon to be. Whoever the hell the shooter had been, he was a cold-blooded bastard. Novak wished he'd gotten him with that bullet.
Novak stood up, keeping the rifle gripped tightly in his right fist as he took the helm at stern. If she was still alive, he had to fish her out. In any case, he needed to retrieve her body and take it in to the nearest authorities. She was somebody's wife or mother or daughter. So he weighed anchor, fired up the powerful engines, and steered the Sweet Sarah directly at the abandoned yacht. He increased his speed across the deep but kept his eyes glued on the dim light thrown off by the receding Zodiac, now far away to the west. Once he was sure the guy was not circling back, he estimated where the girl had taken the plunge. Wasn't easy, not in the dark, not on choppy seas. Not out in the middle of nowhere at midnight. He didn't have much time to find her, either, before she sank to the bottom and became shark bait.
Once he got closer, the boat's name became legible, painted across the stern escutcheon in big black letters: Orion's Trident. Cancun, Mexico. He motored to the port side of the vessel where she'd gone overboard. He cut the engines. He grabbed the laser spotlight and swept it back and forth across the water's surface. The killer's boat was now just a speck of light, heading away as fast as he could make it go. He wasn't coming back. Not now, in any case. It took Novak several more minutes to find the girl — way too long, he feared, but then a big wave crested over her, and he caught sight of her head bobbing in the water. Looked like she might still be alive. Yes, weak as hell, but now she was flailing her arms, trying to keep her face above water. Maybe twenty yards out from him. He focused the spotlight on her. Blood was all over her face. The head injuries were bad — he could tell that from where he stood. She wasn't going to last much longer. He brought the Sweet Sarah up as close to her as he safely could, cut the engines, and then tossed out a roped life buoy. She just bobbed up and down and seemed oblivious to it.
"Pull it down over your head!" he shouted to her, his voice reverberating out over the water. He was pretty sure he was going to have to go in and get her. He kicked off his canvas boat shoes, but then, somehow, she seemed to come out of her stupor enough to grab the life ring. She clung to it with both arms for dear life. Relieved, Novak slowly started towing her in, hand over hand on the rope, careful not to jerk it out of her grasp. She was too weak to hold on much longer. When he got her up against the hull, he dropped to his stomach and reached down as far as he could. He managed to grab her shirt, then got up on his knees and hauled her bodily up out of the water and onto his deck. She was conscious, but barely. She was groaning and strangling and coughing and choking. Novak laid her out flat on her back and knelt down beside her. She was bleeding heavily. He found two deep gouges, one at the top of her forehead, the other on her right temple. Her nose was bleeding, too, and the blood kept running down into her mouth and causing her to choke. She kept gasping for air and groaning, but that lasted only seconds before her eyes rolled back into her head, and she was out for the count.
Novak quickly turned her onto her side so she could breathe better. He put his mouth down close to her ear. "I'm not gonna hurt you. I'm trying to help you. Can you hear me? You're safe now. He's gone."
She must have heard his voice because her eyelids fluttered slightly in response. Then they closed again, and she didn't move. Out like a light. Novak stood up and scanned the surrounding water for the killer. He didn't want the guy turning around and flanking him. The guy who beat her up had shown a modicum of smarts. But as far as Novak could tell, the boat was gone for good, completely out of sight now. Her assailant had left her to drown, all right. His plan had been to kill her and the man who had been with her, and dump their bodies out in the middle of the ocean, with nowhere to go but down. No witnesses. Then sail away on a nice new hijacked yacht. But this time, the killer had hit a snag he hadn't expected. He didn't get the yacht he'd boarded or whatever booty was inside. But he probably wasn't acting alone. He probably had cohorts somewhere in the area. Armed men he was calling together right now.
Once Novak was sure the woman's airways were open, he positioned her head so that the blood was draining onto the deck and not down her throat. She was a small girl, looked pretty young, didn't weigh much — really skinny, in fact. Probably not much over a hundred pounds, if that. A buck ten at most. She was bruised up pretty bad, too, and not just from the blows he'd seen her take. There were other bruises, some old, some new, some black and blue and pretty damn awful. She had been beaten, no doubt about that.
Excerpted from Say Your Goodbyes by Linda Ladd. Copyright © 2017 Linda Ladd. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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