It’s been four months since forensic psychologist Claire Britten last crossed paths with danger. Finally feeling she can catch her breath, together with her partner, criminal lawyer Nick Markwood, Claire has settled into a new role, volunteering with a support group for children stressed by domestic violence. But a leisurely field trip to a wildlife sanctuary turns deadly, leaving Claire to question whether the death was an accident, suicide—or something far more sinister.
Nick gets the South Shores team on the case, hunting down anyone with a potential grudge against the sanctuary. But their investigation turns wild when other attacks come too close to home. With a hostile predator on the loose, Nick and Claire will have to race to unbury the truth before a killer wipes them from the endangered-species list for good.
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Claire had never been more content.
"I'm glad we don't have to be scared anymore," her daughter, Lexi, said on their usual night walk around their neighborhood. "'Specially now that I'm almost five. Even in the dark 'cause it's October now."
She was holding hands between Claire and her stepfather, Nick, skipping along on the cul-de-sac circled by their large, new house and four others. It was just after 6:30 in the evening. Nick carried a flashlight but hadn't turned it on since the houses and pole lights, as well as the sharp slice of moon in the sky, made it light enough to see.
Nick, a criminal lawyer and senior partner of a big law firm, had told Claire he'd been at his desk and conference table all day and needed to clear his head before a late dinner for adults only. Claire had fed Lexi already.
She thought the night was so lovely with its soft air and welcome low humidity when they'd been living in air-conditioning for months. She was glad for a walk, because she was almost five months pregnant with their first child, and mild exercise also helped with her narcolepsy. She was fighting to keep the disease under control with the addition of herbal remedies instead of relying only on hard-hitting meds. Although her ob-gyn had assured her the prescriptions would do no harm, she was worried about having a healthy baby.
All they'd been through over the past number of months had made her anxious about things somehow going wrong. Still, she had no intention of putting up walls around herself or her family. As ever, she'd found reaching out to help others helped her. To that end, she was still tending her website Clear Path, using her forensic psychology training as a consultant for companies hiring staff or even consumer fraud issues — all by laptop or phone, since she was planning to stay home for the foreseeable future. Her only in-person outreach was with her sister to help a group of at-risk youngsters.
"Nope, nothing is scary anymore," Claire assured her daughter. "But remember what we were saying about looking carefully both ways before crossing any street, even a quiet one like this? You said your teacher talked about that, so it's important."
The child nodded, but the skipping stopped. Claire had to admit she'd gone easy on her lately, especially since their archenemy had died and they'd felt safe to come home again.
Even before she married Nick, it had been a dangerous roller coaster ride with him. At least they and Lexi's father, Jace, had come to an understanding about sharing the child. Lexi had even adapted well to calling Jace "Daddy" and Nick "Dad." Claire did worry, though, that since Jace had a serious female friend — whom she and Lexi both liked — that she'd someday have to share Lexi for longer periods.
"You okay with this walk, sweetheart?" Nick asked Claire. "Not too tired?"
"I feel fine," she insisted, and smiled at him in the glow of a neighbor's post light. She wished he'd turn on his flashlight, but she didn't want him or Lexi to know she suddenly felt jumpy.
No streetlights illuminated this newly developed area south of Naples off Collier Boulevard, not far from the fringe of the wilderness and the Everglades. It was sad, she thought, that developments like theirs were pressing against the Glades, because that meant wild animals sometimes encroached on the neighborhood. Or, the truth was, humans were encroaching on them. That reminded her that they were going to a petting zoo tomorrow.
She and her sister, Darcy, were overseeing a trip there for the children in their charity, Comfort Zone, an organization for kids who had endured violence in their homes. Nick was going along this time, so she was pleased about that. They would visit the Backwoods Animal Adventure, which locals called the BAA. Its logo was a sheep, but there were plenty of more exotic animals, including birds such as parrots and flamingos, not to mention an abused tiger the BAA owners had taken in.
Claire gasped as Nick jerked her and Lexi behind him. He clicked on his flashlight. The beam sliced through sharp shadows to palmetto and dwarf palms, which seemed to leap at them.
Before anyone said a word, he slanted the beam to the side. It shone on a bright yellow sign the Save Our Wildlife group had put in. The sign had bold print and a drawing of a Florida panther — an endangered species that inhabited South Florida and was quite secretive and stealthy, moving mostly at night.
"The sign?" Claire whispered. "What?"
She glimpsed a sleek shadow slink across the street toward the thicket on the other side. A blur of beige fur, gleaming gold eyes, a rustle of leaves, and it was gone. Neighbors had claimed to see the big cats crossing nearby, but they were elusive.
"Wow! It ran fast, but I saw its eyes!" Lexi cried, clinging to Claire as if it would attack. Nick put his arms around Claire with Lexi pressed between them.
"No one will believe we actually saw one," Claire whispered. "Some call them ghost cats. The newspaper says that claims to see them usually turn out to be something else."
"We did see one," Nick said, "but let's head back."
But for a moment, the three of them still stood tight together, staring at the sign that read Crossing Danger above the outline of the beautiful beast.
Before Nick and Claire had supper that night, they let Lexi stay up so Nick could help her research Florida panthers and tigers on the family laptop while Claire called her sister. Lexi had already taken the phone from Claire to tell her cousin Jilly, who was going to the BAA with them tomorrow, that they had seen a Florida panther — a real big one with big eyes.
Now Nick could hear Claire back on her cell phone, talking about a kid nicknamed Duck, one of the Comfort Zone children she worried about because his father had committed a murder and was still on the run. Ex-con Irv Glover had come home drunk to find a male social worker talking with his wife Marta. She was asking him how to get a restraining order. He'd beaten both of them in a rage, while Duck hid under a bed, and the social worker had died from his injuries. Irv had not been seen since.
Marta and Duck had moved, but money for them was being mailed to their old address with postmarks from Tennessee, where Irv had lived once, so the authorities were looking for him there. Still, Marta Glover was barely making ends meet. More than once Claire and Darcy had taken a food basket to them. Nick knew details of the boy's life because he'd helped to prosecute his father years before for aggravated vehicular assault stemming from a road rage incident, for which he'd served time.
"I'm going to call Duck by his real name Duncan from now on," Claire was telling Darcy. "He needs to have his self-image and confidence built up. The other kids still snicker over 'Duck,' and that doesn't help anyone recover from an abusive situation."
He watched Claire pace as she talked to Darcy, her only original family member left. Darcy and Steve lived closer to town with their two kids, a boy, Drew, who had just turned seven and Jilly, who was Lexi's age. The two girls were as tight as Darcy and Claire.
While Lexi looked at pictures on the screen of Siberian tigers like the one they would see tomorrow — man, he didn't know tigers were endangered from hunters, poachers and loss of environment — he looked away to watch his beautiful wife.
Unlike most native Floridians, Claire had light skin, red hair and green eyes that could haunt a man — and had him from the first. She was tall at five-ten, slender but sturdy looking, even carrying the baby, his baby. Like an idiot, his eyes filled with tears he blinked away. When he'd first met Claire, he'd hired her because he'd seen how good she was in court, testifying as a forensic psychologist expert witness. Thank God they had both lived through three harrowing murder investigations since then, and he had vowed never to put her on the stand or in danger again.
Life was good. He was thrilled with Claire, loved his stepdaughter and hoped for a son, though he'd be happy with another girl. Lexi was all in for a sister, though Claire tried to explain that she'd be a "big" sister to the new baby since she'd be five years older. When they'd had the ultrasound recently, they had told the doctor they didn't want to know the child's sex ahead of time. Lexi had been furious over that, but Claire had wanted it that way — "the old-fashioned way." Yeah, if that meant family values and Claire just pursuing her career online, at least until the baby was here and a bit grown, that was fine with him. Besides, she had a big house to oversee now, even with a nanny's occasional help. He smiled at Claire as she ended the phone call and came over to sit beside him on the couch.
He put his arm around her, and she leaned against him. Lexi was listening to a narrated piece about tigers in Thailand, and she'd turned the sound way up, but they still whispered.
"Everything set for tomorrow?" he asked as he gave her a squeeze. "I suppose Jace's girlfriend, Brittany, is going to be there, the 'tiger talker.'"
"Darcy and I like her, thank heavens. You know, it's nice that Jace likes her family too — her father, at least. A navy flyboy and a marine, they get along great. I don't think I ever told you that Jace feels his own father loved his marine recruits more than he did him, so I'm thinking Brittany's dad, Ben, is more or less a father figure to him."
Nick said, "That's my favorite psychologist, always probing and assessing."
"Anyhow," she went on, "Brit, as Jace calls her, is going to give us the tour and a little lecture about their new tiger they've named Tiberia. Clever, huh, the t in tiger mixed with 'Siberia'?"
"I can see her allure for Jace. He's passionate about flying — now about her too."
"True," she said, frowning. Sometimes Nick worried Claire still cared too much for Jace and vice versa. Just then a single-engine plane roared overhead. "If that was him saying good-night," Nick said, "glad he missed the roof."
"I hope it wasn't Daddy after dark," Lexi put in, turning down the laptop volume. "His plane has lights, but sometimes he flies over water, and I told him to remember what happened before."
Nick just shook his head. Sometimes Lexi sounded so much like Claire.
Claire's ex and Lexi's father was supposedly flying a citrus orchard crop-dusting plane, and/or a Zika virus mosquito–spraying plane. But Claire and Nick knew that regardless of whatever logo was painted on the fuselage, he was actually working for the FBI in its Stingray program, which could track persons of interest and criminals by their cell phones. Stingray wasn't top secret anymore, but it was still in use by the government. Jace was glad to be flying again but longed to return to international jets, so good luck to the "tiger talker" Brittany Hoffman if she wanted to tame Jace.
"Time for bed, sweetheart," Claire told Lexi. "Your dad and I are going to have a late dinner, and then we'll be going to sleep too."
"'Cause you are eating and sleeping for two," Lexi said, and gently patted her mother's stomach when she got up from behind the laptop.
Nick put his hands behind his head and stretched as he watched Claire rise — still somewhat gracefully — from the leather sofa. He loved their new house, especially this spacious great room with its calming neutral colors and touches of light blue and green. The high, domed ceiling fan still turned lazily, though it was finally cooler outside. Their swimming pool, just beyond the patio, glimmered from its lights below the surface. After all they'd been through, Nick would have worried about the expanse of glass and the darkness outside where someone could be watching and lurking, but surely not anymore. Yet sometimes he had to work hard to convince himself they were safe now.
"Night, Dad," Lexi said, and went over to give him a kiss on the cheek. He hugged her. "Sleep tight, and tomorrow is tiger day — and all those animals you like to pet."
"But I still love my pony Scout the best," the child told him, her pert face so serious as she referred to the horse she met during their adventures on Mackinac Island. "Remember, you promised that no snake's gonna hurt him, even if he's staying at a place on Rattlesnake Road. Glad it's not in the Glades where those real big snakes get caught."
"Everything will be okay," he promised. "Claire, I'll heat that lasagna in the microwave. It wouldn't hurt me to turn in early too, after the day I've had."
"And the life you've had," she said. "But things, like Lexi's said more than once, are going to be 'all better' now."
For one moment she thought she glimpsed a figure outside in the shadows behind the patio, but surely that was just her own reflection in the glass. She would not worry Nick with her fears and certainly didn't want to upset Lexi. After all, their enemies were dead.
"I've decided I'm going to call you Duncan, your real name," Claire told the thin, quiet nine-year-old boy the next day as the group walked from the BAA parking lot to the zoo's entrance. "It's a good and strong name."
"I don't know," he said, tugging on the brim of his too-large, beat-up Miami Dolphins hat. It hid his eyes and made his brown, shaggy hair spike out the back. He always walked with his head slightly down, and she'd love to change that too. "My dad might not like it. Duck's his name for me," he added so low she almost couldn't hear him.
"But he's not home now. What will your mother think?"
"She'd be okay, I guess, 'cause she used to call me that — Duncan. Till he said no. But why's it a strong name? 'Cause I'm kind of skinny."
"You will fill out and get stronger as you get older. It's a strong name because it's a name from a great country called Scotland, and there was even a King Duncan of Scotland. It's a somewhat unusual name for a young person, so it's very special. If you don't want me to call you Duncan, I won't, but Lexi, Jilly, Darcy and I would like to call you by your real name — also because you are a friend and good person to us."
He shrugged his skinny shoulders under a stained shirt that was not quite warm enough for the day. "Then okay," he muttered. "Just for now, but if my dad comes back, don't say it in front of him — and hide from him, 'cause I will too."
Claire's eyes filled with tears. To have seen all this child had ... to be so afraid. Her own child had been through terrible times, but she could have stood right there and sobbed for this little boy and the others along with them today.
Claire and Darcy had discussed more than once whether the motto for their Comfort Zone program for children affected by domestic violence should be Children Need Both Roots and Wings or There Is No Rainbow without Rain, so they used both. So far, through social services and contacts from Darcy's church, they had nine children they met with weekly to take to some sort of experience where they could learn, have fun, and feel safe and appreciated. Darcy's elementary education background and Claire's psychology degree gave them the skills to cope with deeply damaged and sometimes endangered children — at least they hoped so.
Darcy's husband, Steve, who oversaw a construction team in South Florida, couldn't come today, but it was a rare treat to have Nick along for this visit to the Backwoods Animal Adventure. Nick and Claire had picked up three of the children; Darcy and Jilly had arrived in the small parking lot with three; and Nick's employee Bronco Gates and his girlfriend, Nita, had picked up the other three. Nita had been Lexi's nanny and was now their babysitter. She was going to work for them part-time when the baby was born.
The ages of the Comfort Zone kids ranged from eight to eleven. Claire and Darcy had gone through the parental permission routine or interviews with their guardians, which gave them a chance to better understand their difficult, sometimes dangerous home situations. Two of the kids were in foster care.
Excerpted from "Shallow Grave"
Copyright © 2018 Karen Harper.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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