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Detective Melody Zachary halted abruptly at the sight of her office door cracked open. Unease slithered down her spine. She'd locked the door last night when she left the Sagebrush Youth Center. She always did.
Pushing back her suit jacket, she unlatched her weapon from the holster at her hip and withdrew the Sig Sauer. She pushed the door wide with the toe of her heeled boot. Stepping inside the darkened room, she reached with her free hand for the overhead light switch and froze.
A shadow moved.
Not a shadow. A man.
Dressed from head to toe in black. Black gloves, black ski mask Black eyes.
Not just the irises, but the white part of his eyes, as well.
Her heart stalled.
Palming her piece in both hands, she aimed her weapon. "Halt! Police!"
The intruder dove straight at her. She didn't have time to react, to pull the trigger, before he slammed into her chest, knocking her backward against the wall. Her head smacked hard, sending pain slicing through her brain. The air rushed out of her lungs.
The man bolted through the open doorway and disappeared, leaving only the echo of his black, rubber-soled tennis shoes squishing against the linoleum and bouncing off the walls of the hallway.
Ignoring the pain pounding in her head, Melody pushed away from the wall. For a moment, her off-balance equilibrium sent the world spinning.
The exit door at the end of the hall banged shut. She grimaced. He was escaping.
Forcing herself to move, Melody chased after the intruder. As founder and co-director of the youth center, she'd come in this morning expecting to get a little work done before heading to the police station to start her shift. She hadn't been prepared for a smackdown and footrace.
The blood surging through her brought the world into a sharp focus she didn't experience anywhere else in her life except on the job. It had been a while since she'd had to chase a perp. And never from the youth center.
This place was supposed to be safe, for the kids who sought help and for the volunteers who ran the center.
Out on the sidewalk, she searched for the trespasser. Sagebrush Boulevard was empty. There was no sign of a person dressed in black. At seven in the morning on a Tuesday, Sagebrush, Texas, was barely coming to life.
At the end of town, the spire of the white community church gleamed in the early morning May sunlight, like a beacon of hope. A stark contrast to the dark figure who'd assaulted her. She sent up a silent prayer of protection, for herself, for the youth center and for the citizens of Sagebrush.
A cynical voice in her head taunted, Would God listen?
As much as she hated to admit it, she didn't know. He certainly hadn't listened to her pleas when her marriage fell apart and her ex-husband abandoned her to go "find himself."
Holstering her weapon and pulling her tailored jacket closed, she retraced her steps and entered Sagebrush Youth Center's single-story brick building.
She stopped in her office doorway surveying the scene. Irritation raced through her. The place had been ransacked. The filing cabinet had been emptied, the files strewn all over. The pictures of her family had been knocked off the desk.
Her heart squeezed tight at the sight of her sister's face smiling up at her from one of the images. Her arm was slung over her then twelve-year-old son's shoulders. A time when they'd been happy. Alive.
Forcing back the sadness, she continued her perusal. Books ranging from popular fiction to nonfiction teenage psychology had been pulled down from the shelves and lay haphazardly on the floor. The open desk drawers appeared to have been rifled through.
A cardboard box lay toppled upside down, the contents spilling out. Her nephew's name was written across the side in big bold letters. She didn't need a paper inventory of the box. She had the contents memorized. The files full of witness testimonies, and Daniel's effects at the time of his death had been in that box. All that was left of a life cut too short.
A sense of violation cramped her chest. She was used to investigating this sort of vandalism, not being the victim herself.
She was no one's victim. Her fist clenched.
She would find the person who broke in, and discover what they'd wanted. She tapped her foot, impatient to get in there and see what had been taken.
But protocol had to be followed.
Yanking her cell phone out of the backpack-style purse she always carried, she dialed the Sagebrush police dispatch non-emergency number.
"Sagebrush Police Department." Cathy Rodriquez, the day dispatch operator answered in her no-nonsense tone.
"Cathy, it's Detective Zachary. I need a crime-scene unit at the youth center. My office has been broken into."
"Were you hurt, Melody?"
"I'm fine." She wouldn't mention the throbbing headache. The last thing she needed was to be coddled. She'd find some pain reliever in the nurse's station once things settled down. "I surprised the intruder, but he got away."
"I'll let the higher ups know what's going on."
"Thanks, I appreciate it." Melody hung up and leaned against the doorjamb. Despite the doubts that at times tried to rob her of faith, she sent up a silent prayer of thanksgiving that the intruder hadn't been armed. This scene could have gone down very differently.
The sound of footsteps sent a fresh wave of adrenaline pumping through her veins. She whipped around, her hand going to her weapon.
At the sight of her volunteer co-director and fellow Sagebrush police officer coming toward her, she let out a tense breath. Jim Wheaton always wore the navy blue Sagebrush Police Department uniform, claiming the visual reminder of authority helped keep the kids in line.
Nearing fifty and single, Jim spent more time at the center, whether he was on duty or off, than any other volunteer. He claimed it was because he didn't trust the teens not to cause trouble, but Melody suspected he liked the company even if he wouldn't admit it.
"You're here early again today," he said, coming to a halt a few paces away.
She usually stopped by Arianna's Diner for a pastry and cup of coffee before heading to the station, but ever since her nephew's grave had been desecrated last month, she hadn't had much of an appetite. Keeping herself occupied gave her less time to think.
Besides, the diner was closed now that the owner, Arianna Munson, had been killed after being linked to the crime lord, known only by the police as The Boss.
For the past several years, a crime wave had terrorized the citizens of Sagebrush. The mastermind behind the crime syndicate was a faceless, nameless entity that even the thugs who worked for The Boss feared.
This man was at the top of the police department's most-wanted list. Especially after the crime syndicate kidnapped Rio, the three-year-old German shepherd partner of the K-9 unit's captain. The whole department was on high alert looking for the canine.
She could have used a dog like Rio today. Maybe she should look into getting a K-9 partner for the center. A nice big dog with sharp teeth. "Hey, Jim. I interrupted someone breaking into my office. They made a mess of things."
His gray eyes clouded with concern. "You okay?"
"Just a bruised ego." And a knock to the noggin. Nothing she couldn't handle.
"Let me see." He tried to push past her.
Her arm shot out and blocked him from entering. "I'm waiting for the CSU team."
He scowled. "It was probably a kid looking for some loose change."
Melody shook her head. "Guy was too big, too strong to be a teen."
"You get a look at his face?"
The center's front door opened. A small dog with his black nose pressed to the ground entered. Melody recognized the beagle as Sherlock, part of the K-9 unit. He wore a vest with the Sagebrush Police Department emblem over his light brown and white coat. A harness attached to a leash led to the handsome man at the other end. Melody blinked.
What were Narcotics Detective Parker Adams and his K-9 partner doing here?
The dog was adorable with his floppy ears and big round eyes.
Much like his handler.
She didn't know the narcotics detective well. She worked for the homicide division, mostly cold cases, while he was part of the Sagebrush's elite K-9 unit. Their paths hadn't crossed much, though she'd noticed him at the police station.
Hard not to take notice when he filled out his uniform nicely with broad shoulders and trim waist. She liked the way he wore his dark hair swept back from his forehead and his warm brown eyes appeared kind whenever he glanced her way.
He wasn't much taller than she, but he had a commanding presence that she found disconcerting. Though why, she wasn't sure. Growing up the daughter of a cop, there were few people who intimidated her. But something about the handsome officer made her pay attention.
Two crime-scene-unit techs filed in behind Parker carrying in their equipment. Considering the police station was at the other end of the block, Melody wasn't surprised how quickly they'd arrived. She just didn't understand why Parker had responded to her call.
The CSU team approached, each member wearing a dark blue Sagebrush Police Department windbreaker. Parker hung back, letting his dog sniff the floor, the thresholds of the closed classroom doors, the lockers.
"Hey, Melody," said Rose Bigsby, a stocky woman with short blond curls and wire-rimmed glasses perched on her short nose. "Report came in that you had a breakin."
Melody gestured to the open door of her office. "In there."
Clay Gregson nodded to Jim and then smiled shyly at Melody as he moved past her to enter her office. The tall and lean CSU technician wasn't much on small talk, something the officers of SPD were used to. Rose, on the other hand, made up for her partner's lack of conversation just fine. Rose followed him in and started the process of looking for anything that would lead them to ID the intruder.
"Any idea who broke in?" Parker asked as he and his dog approached. "What was he looking for?"
Melody frowned. "I have no idea who the guy was or what he was after."
"What are you doing here, Adams?" Jim asked.
"Captain McNeal thought it'd be a good idea for Sherlock here to check out the center," Parker replied evenly. "Considering."
Her defenses stirred. "Considering what?"
He met her gaze. His dark eyes intense, probing. "The rumors of drugs being dealt out of here."
Her hackles rose like the feathers of a peacock on high alert. She'd been battling that particular thread of gossip since the center opened. She routinely searched the building and kept a close eye on the kids. She was certain there were no drugs on the premises. "We have a strict no-drugs policy. Any offenders will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
Parker shrugged. "Then there's nothing to worry about. Sherlock shouldn't find anything. He's got the best nose in the state, and it's never wrong."
"I've got to go to the station," Jim said abruptly and headed for the exit.
Watching him hustle out the door, Melody frowned. He'd just arrived. She shrugged off her coworker's strange behavior. Even though she was fond of Jim, she'd long ago decided she would never figure out the male species.
Or teenagers. Starting the youth center had been her attempt to help the kids of Sagebrush so they wouldn't end up like her nephew. At sixteen, Daniel had gotten mixed up with drugs, dealing and using, by all accounts. He'd ended up dead because of it. During a standoff with the police, he'd been wounded in the leg by Captain Slade McNeal and then shot in the heart by an unknown sniper. The assassin was never caught.
Saving other teens from Daniel's fate had become her mission in life.
However, that didn't mean she understood the teens or their thought processes. Thankfully, there were tons of books on the subject. If she could prevent even one teen from ending up addicted to drugs like Daniel, she'd feel she succeeded.
Her gaze strayed back to the mess in her office. Rose knelt beside the lamp and dusted black powder over the surface. The flash of a camera momentarily brightened the room as Clay photographed the crime scene.
What had the intruder been looking for?
"Did you get a look at the perp?" Parker asked, drawing her attention.
"No, he wore a ski mask."
"With blacked-out eyes?"
Surprise washed through her. "Yes. Very freaky. How did you know?"
"We've had a run-in with a guy wearing a ski mask and some kind of eyewear that blacks out the whites of his eyes. Did he take anything?"
Absorbing that information, she turned her gaze once again to the box labeled with her nephew's name. Would she find something missing? Did the vandalism to her office have anything to do with last month's desecration of Daniel's grave? A lump of anxiety lodged in her chest.
It had been five years since Daniel's death. Five years of searching for answers and coming up empty. What had recently changed to make someone dig into the past? And Daniel's grave?
The questions intensified the headache pounding at her temples. She didn't believe in coincidence. Daniel's grave, now her office. Were the two events connected? Maybe it was time to re-question some of Daniel's old buddies. Someone had to know something useful.
Her heart squeezed. Five years wasn't nearly long enough to have healed some wounds, though.
Realizing Parker was waiting for her to respond, she said, "I only did a cursory look, but I didn't see anything obvious missing. Perp rifled through all my files, drawers and books. Seemed to be searching for something."
"Interesting." He seemed to be thinking about something. "I wonder if this was the same guy who searched the station last night."
"What?" She hadn't heard about that.
"Someone searched the station house, concentrating mostly on the K-9 unit and Captain McNeal's office."
"Do you have any idea why? What were they looking for?"
His expression turned cagey. "We think it has something to do with the crime syndicate plaguing Sagebrush. But the station house wasn't broken into per se. The culprit came from within."
Surprised, she widened her eyes. "You think a fellow officer is working for the crime syndicate?"
"That's one theory. Though I can't help but wonder if the two incidents somehow connect to Captain Mc-Neal's missing dog, Rio."
"Last month, K-9 Officer Jackson Worth spotted a masked man clad in black who was walking a dog matching Rio's description. We also have a witness who saw someone dressed like you've described kill a man in cold blood."
A shiver of dread worked its way over Melody's flesh. She was thankful the intruder had decided to just knock her down rather than kill her.
What was he searching for? And would he be back? Maybe this break-in had nothing to do with her nephew's grave. Or maybe it had everything to do with it.
She intended to find out, regardless of the danger.