Edgar Award finalist and international bestselling author Brian Freeman brings the long-awaited return of Lieutenant Jonathan Stride to the bitter cold of Duluth, Minnesota.
Sixteen-year-old Catalina Mateo shows up unannounced one night in Detective Jonathan Stride’s home, dripping wet from a desperate plunge into the icy waters of Lake Superior. Her sodden clothes stained with blood, Cat spins a tale of a narrow escape from a shadowy pursuer.
Stride decides to trust this girl, but his judgment may be clouded by memories of Cat’s mother. Ten years earlier, Cat hid under the porch of her family home while her mother was brutally butchered by her ex-con father. Stride still blames himself for not preventing the slaughter.
But is Cat telling the truth? Stride’s police partner, Maggie Bei, doubts the homeless girl, who has been living rough on the streets of Duluth since her mother’s death—and now sleeps with a knife hidden under her pillow.
As Stride investigates Cat’s story, more violence trails in the teenager’s wake—and Maggie’s suspicions about her deepen. Now a single question haunts the void between them: Should Stride be afraid for—or of—this terribly damaged girl?
About the Author
A native of Chicago and longtime resident of the Twin Cities, Brian Freeman is an international bestselling author of psychological suspense novels. His books have been sold in 46 countries and 20 languages and have appeared as Main Selections in the Literary Guild and the Book of the Month Club. He is the author of The Cold Nowhere, and Spilled Blood—which was the recipient of the Best Hardcover Novel in the annual Thriller Awards presented by the International Thriller Writers organization. The Burying Place was a finalist for the same award. The Bone House was a finalist for Best Audiobook of the Year in Thriller/Suspense. Brian’s debut thriller, Immoral, won the Macavity Award and was a nominee for the Edgar®, Dagger, Anthony, and Barry awards for best first novel.
Read an Excerpt
Jonathan Stride knew he wasn’t alone.
He arrived at his cottage on Park Point at two in the morning and realized that something was wrong. It was instinct; nothing looked out of place on the street. There were no cars in the neighborhood that he didn’t recognize. His eyes flicked across the trees and shadows around the house, but he saw nothing to alarm him. When he listened, he heard only the intermittent roar of Lake Superior beyond the crest of the dunes. Even so, as he locked his Ford Expedition and headed for his front porch, he went so far as to slide his gun into his hand.
Nearing the house, he spotted footprints in the snow. The prints were small, maybe size seven, and whoever made them was in a hurry, not trying to hide their approach. He tracked the running prints across his lawn and along the dirt driveway that led to the back of the house. He examined the cottage windows from the yard but saw no lights. If anyone was inside, they were waiting for him in the dark.
Stride headed for the rear door of his house, near the grassy trail that led to the beach. He let himself inside onto the screened porch. He eased his leather jacket off his shoulders and draped it over the garage sale sofa he kept out back. He shook snow out of his wavy hair. Leading with his gun, he opened the inner door that led to his kitchen.
The house was colder than usual. He heard a whistle of wind. He left the lights off and walked quietly, but the floor timbers in the 1880s cottage were never silent. They groaned with each step, announcing his arrival. It didn’t matter.
"I know you’re here," he called. No one replied.
He followed the kitchen into the dining room and eased around the corner into the living room. The cold fireplace and his red leather armchair were on his right. Sofas and throw rugs took up the middle of the room, near steps that led to the unfinished attic. The open space was empty. The room was dark. He heard the wind again, loud and agitated, blowing curtains in a spare bedroom immediately across from him. He rarely used that room; it was filled with dusty bookshelves and notes on cold cases. He crossed through the threshold into the bedroom, where the old floor slanted downward, like a corridor in a fun house. He spied a broken window, with glass littering the floor and lacy fabric billowing in and out of the night air like a ghost.
The bedroom was deserted. Using a penlight on his keychain he studied the glass and saw a spatter of blood on the shards.
"You’re hurt," he said aloud.
He went back to the living room and eyed the doorway to his own bedroom on the opposite wall. She was hiding there. He’d already decided it was a woman, based on the footprints. There were other rooms in the house – another small bedroom in the corner facing the street, the attic, the tiny bathroom – but he could make out damp tracks on the carpet leading toward his room. Halfway across the floor, he saw beige cowboy boots that matched the tracks in the snow.
"I’m coming in, okay?" he said. Still nothing.
He examined his bedroom. The comforter had been yanked off his bed. The space on either side of the bed was empty, but his closet door was closed and latched. It usually swung shut by itself because of the slight tilt of the house, but he never actually pushed it all the way closed. He turned the antique metal door knob and pulled hard. The closet door opened with a shriek.
He turned his light to the floor and saw a huddled body wrapped tightly in the blanket from his bed. All he could see was her face. Not a woman. A girl. A teenager. She stared up at him, eyes wide with fright. Her long brown hair was soaking wet, plastered to her face. She was wracked with trembling, and her skin was blue with cold.
Stride holstered his gun. He turned on the closet light and the girl’s eyes squeezed shut.
"My name’s Stride," he told her. "It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m a lieutenant with the Duluth Police."
Without opening her eyes, she nodded. She already knew who he was. The blanket slipped, and he saw bony bare shoulders.
Stride squatted in front of her. "What’s your name?"
She opened her eyes now and he could see how brown and perfect they were. "Cat," she said.
"Hello, Cat. Can you tell me why you’re here?"
She didn’t answer right away but he could feel her reaching out to him across the dusty space. He could feel her fear and loneliness and he knew without her saying so that she had nowhere else in the world to go. Finally, she whispered to him, as if it were a secret to keep hidden.
"Someone’s trying to kill me," she said.
The flannel shirt he’d given her draped almost to her knees. She wore a pair of Stride’s white athletic socks and roomy shorts. Her hair was dry now, and her skin was pink and clean from the bath. She clutched a mug of tea with both hands as they sat at his dining room table. One of her fingers was bandaged where she’d cut it on the broken window.
"Sorry about the shirt," Stride told her, smiling. "The woman who used to live here, Serena, she’s a lot taller than you."
Cat shrugged. "It’s okay. I like it. It smells good."
The girl stared into her tea. He had a chance to study her features. Teenagers always had the prettiness of youth, and Hispanic women were particularly attractive, but Stride thought that Cat was one of the most beautiful young girls he had ever seen. Her bone structure was like a sculpture, with high cheekbones and a chin that made a sharp V. Her face was small; so was her body. Her chestnut hair tumbled in broad waves to the middle of her chest, and he could see a gold chain glinting between the buttons of the shirt. He hadn’t seen her smile, but he could tell by the way her lips turned upward that she would have a pretty smile when she used it. She had a petite, slightly rounded nose and dark eyebrows that were arched in innocent surprise.
Even so, she wasn’t innocent. He knew that. The ravages of street life were already creeping into her face. He could practically measure in months how long she’d been hanging out in the industrial areas and near the graffiti graveyard under the freeway overpass. She was malnourished; he could see that in the dark circles under her eyes and in the way she’d devoured the turkey sandwich he made for her. He’d smelled alcohol on her breath, and he assumed she used drugs. Probably synthetics, which were the street drug of choice. Her expression was melancholy, and in a few more months it would become cynical. She was still young now, but she would soon be old.
"I’d really like you to go to the hospital, Cat," he said, not for the first time. "I left a message for my partner, Maggie, to come over here right away. She and I can take you there."
The girl shook her head emphatically. "No! I told you: no way, no hospital. He’ll find me. He always knows where I am."
"I’m concerned about you. You should be checked out."
"I want to stay here. I’m safe here. I’m fine."
He didn’t push her. She was skittish, and he was afraid she would run. "Listen, a buddy of mine named Steve Garske runs a clinic in Lakeside. We go back a lot of years. He’s my own doctor. Can I have him take a look at you in the morning?"
Her eyes brightened. "Dr. Steve?"
"You know him?"
"He volunteers at the youth shelter downtown. I’ve seen him a couple times. He’s sweet."
"Good. I’ll take you to see him. Okay?"
Cat nodded. "Yeah, okay."
Stride took a swallow from a can of Coke. He was a self-acknowledged Coke addict. Capital C. "What happened to you tonight, Cat? Are you ready to tell me what’s going on?"
The girl glanced at the dining room windows, as if she expected to see the face of her stalker framed behind the glass. She was like a deer, alert and swift. "I was at a party on the big ore boat in Canal Park. Some bigwig rented it out."
"Do you know who?"
"No. It was a bunch of car dealers."
Stride frowned. It took clout and money to get a private party on the Frederick. "Why were you there?"
"They needed girls." She chewed a fingernail and looked guilty. "It was me and a few others. We were the entertainment."
"What kind of entertainment?"
She shrugged. "You know."
"How old are you, Cat?" he asked.
Her pretty lower lip bulged. "Eighteen."
Her eyes looked like a kid’s eyes again, trying to get away with a lie. "I’m not going to arrest you for anything," he said. "I want to help you, but I need you to trust me, and I need you to tell me the truth."
He knew he was asking a lot. For girls like Cat, trust was a foreign thing.
"Okay, I’m sixteen," she said. "I tell them I’m older. Nobody asks questions. I’m pretty, that’s all they care about. The sex stuff … it’s just a way to get money, you know? The guy tonight, I didn’t even do it with him. I – I hit him. Hard."
"Did you hurt him?" Stride asked.
"He was bleeding, but he was okay."
"Why did you hit him? Did he assault you?"
"He wanted me to do things I don’t do. Not anymore. I mean, I’ll sleep with guys, fine. What’s the big deal, it’s only sex. But not other stuff. I won’t do that again."
The girl explained. Stride hid his disgust.
"The man you hit, is he the one who tried to kill you?" he asked.
"No, after I hit him, I left. I just wanted to get out of there. This man was waiting for me outside the ship and he chased me back inside. The only way I could get away from him was to jump in the harbor."
Stride leaned forward. "You jumped from the deck of the boat?"
"Yeah. It was so cold. My dress tore off. I swam to the Canal Park side, and I ran. I figured he’d try to come after me, so I just kept running."
"It’s more than three miles. You made it all this way? In the snow?"
"I stole a blanket out of a car on the street," she said. "That helped."
Stride liked the spark of life he saw in this girl, regardless of the things she’d done. Cat was young and small, but she had courage. Serena would have said he had a weakness for women who needed rescue. "This man who came after you, do you know who he is?"
"What did he look like?"
"I never saw his face."
"Why do you think he’s trying to kill you?"
"It’s not the first time. He’s been after me for a while."
"He has? Are you sure?"
"Yeah, it started about three weeks ago. I was back home for a while. I’m in and out of there, you know? I slipped out my window one night, and when I came out of the woods, somebody ran after me. That was the first time. I was lucky, because a bus came by, so I hopped on. I could see him down the block behind me."
"But you didn’t recognize him."
"No, it was too dark. I’ve been bouncing around since then. I stayed with my aunt for a few days. She rents a place at the Seaway, but you know what it’s like there. They’ll rat you out for a Snickers bar. I thought someone was watching me again, so I bolted. Then last week, I was hanging out at the shelter on First Street. I took a walk in the middle of night. I do that sometimes. It was Sunday, nobody was around, but a car took off after me. He almost ran me down as I crossed near Sammy’s."
"Did you see what kind of car it was?"
"No, all I saw was the lights. The engine sounded like a sports car. Anyway, I’ve been running since then. I thought maybe I’d lost him, because I didn’t see anybody all week. Until tonight."
Stride thought about what Cat was saying and what he saw in her face. She was scared, but he had no way of knowing if any of it was real. When you came and went on the streets, sometimes bad people found you. When you drank or did drugs, sometimes your brain took detours and got lost. It was easy to get paranoid. A string of odd incidents, even if they were all true, didn’t add up to a conspiracy.
Cat was smart. "You think I’m crazy," she said.
"No, but I do have to ask, have you been using anything? Maybe synthetics like bath salts? Those drugs can cause severe reactions, including paranoia and hallucinations."
"I’m not using," Cat insisted.
"I didn’t say never. I’ve tried things. I didn’t like what they did to me, so I quit. That’s the truth. I haven’t taken any of that stuff in months. It all happened, just like I said. This guy is trying to kill me."
"Do you have any idea why someone would want to hurt you?"
"No," she said. "Not a clue."
"Has anything out of the ordinary happened to you recently? Did you witness anything bad? Were you with someone who might not want the relationship exposed?"
"I don’t think so. I mean, I can’t think of anything like that."
He gave her a reassuring smile. "We’ll figure it out. We’re going to have to sit down and go through everything you’ve done and everyone you’ve been with recently. Are you okay with that? You’ll need to be honest. You can’t hold back."
"You may not like some of it," she said.
"Don’t worry about that. It’s pretty hard to shock a cop. Anyway, I want you to get some sleep first. You’ve had a tough night. Get some rest and then we’ll go see Steve at the clinic."
"Thank you, Mr. Stride." He saw her smile for the first time, and he was right. It was as sweet and warm as the sun coming out from the clouds.
"Can I ask you something, Cat?" he said.
"Why did you come here tonight? How did you find me?"
The girl played with the gold chain on her neck. Her eyes got misty. "I looked up your address a while ago. My mother told me that if there was ever a time in my life when I needed protection, and no one was around for me, I should go to you. Find Mr. Stride, she told me. She said you’d help me."
"She died. You were there."
Stride was confused. He looked at Cat and saw a teenager, like any other girl. A stranger. Then he looked at her again and saw a familiar child hiding in her face. He knew her. Ten years ago, she’d been a six-year-old chasing butterflies between soaring evergreens. A six-year-old with messy hands and pumpkin pie on her mouth.