The Nashville woods hold a killer’s deadly secrets in this cold case thriller by the New York Times bestselling author of You’re Not Safe.Years ago, three Nashville teenagers went into the woods for a hike—and only one came out. While her two friends disappeared without a trace, Amber Ryder was discovered at the bottom of a ravine with a broken arm, head trauma, and zero memory of the horror that put her there. With no leads, the investigation hit a dead end.
Now another woman’s body is found it the woods. When the trail leads to the missing teens’ remains, the cold case becomes a fresh hell for forensic technician Georgia Morgan. But while Georgia works with Amber to try and reawaken her memories, her gut tells her the worst is yet to come.
Homicide Detective Jake Bishop can’t be sure whether Amber is an expert manipulator or the killer’s next target. Either way, he’s determined to protect Georgia. Because the more she digs into the past, the more deadly secrets emerge. And a nightmare years in the making is about to come to a bloody, terrifying end.
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By MARY BURTON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Mary Burton
All rights reserved.
Monday, October 2, 1:05 A.M.
Wrapping her hand around the microphone, the musical notes moved inside of Georgia Morgan's head and heart as she closed her eyes. Her voice caressed the melody of "Blue Velvet" and a hush fell over the thinning crowd in Rudy's, a honky-tonk on South Broadway. She transfixed them all with the smooth melodic words infused with layers of feelings few saw when she wasn't on the stage.
In these moments, Georgia wasn't simply singing but reaching out to her birth mother, Annie, whose single legacy to her only child was her golden voice. There were a few photographs, but no memories of the blond songstress who vanished thirty-two years ago, leaving behind an estranged husband, a secret lover, and a wailing infant.
Georgia gripped the microphone, angling her mouth close as moody emotions entwined the words, sculpting fresh angles and adding layers of dimensions. In her mind, the music became vibrant shades of reds, blues, and greens exploding like fireworks.
Georgia's salute to Annie in no way diminished her love for the Morgans, the clan she joined when she was five days old when her late father, homicide detective Buddy Morgan, carried her away from Annie's bloody cinderblock home. Buddy and his wife, Adele, threaded her easily into their family already bustling with three active boys. They never hid her past. Georgia knew about Annie, understood her roots. She and her family considered her a Morgan. Period.
But when she sang, the music so rooted in her soul took hold, and for a few minutes, Annie came alive, not only for her daughter, but for all those who still remembered her.
The song slowly wound down and the guitarist played the last delicate chords. The room was silent, still gripped by the music. Georgia waited a few more beats and then she opened her eyes. Her vision focused. And she was back.
Georgia settled the microphone in its cradle, and rolled her shoulders, breaking the tension. She shouldn't have stayed so late tonight for the extra set. But the allure of the music had been strong.
As she stepped back from the microphone, the crowd clapped, whooped, and hollered. A few rose to their feet and applauded. She swept her hand toward the grizzled guitarist behind her and smiled as she said into the microphone, "Y' all give a big thanks to Freddie for letting me sit in on his set."
The audience cheered and both Georgia and Freddie stood side by side as the applause settled.
"Nice set, Georgia," Freddie said, as he stuck his pick into the guitar strings. He wore torn jeans, scuffed boots with a hole in the sole, and a faded black T-shirt he'd worn for years. To look at the guy, few would realize he played with some of the best country music artists in Nashville.
She brushed a long thick lock of red hair away from her forehead and tugged at the edges of a black silk top that hugged full breasts and caressed designer jeans that molded her figure. "Thanks, Freddie."
"It's always fun when you sing. Like having Annie back," he rasped. "You should stop by more often."
"You're a charmer, Freddie." She slid her hands into pockets trimmed in rhinestones as she glanced at the metal tip of her red ankle-high cowboy boots. "I could hear the lack of practice in my voice tonight. I was all over the place."
He shook his head, the single gold earring in his left ear catching the light. "A few times I closed my eyes and I could hear your mama. Like she was standing right here."
She winked at the guitarist whom she suspected had been half in love with Annie. When Annie's murder case was reopened two years ago, the media had elevated the singer to the likes of James Dean or Patsy Cline. Beautiful, talented, and stolen from the world before her star could fully rise. Dozens still approached her to share their stories of Annie, who was loved by so many. Georgia always smiled and thanked them.
Freddie patted his flat palm over the inlaid wood of his guitar. "Don't be a stranger. Everyone likes having you here."
Laughter rumbled in her chest as she reached behind an amplifier and grabbed her purse. "Flattery wins my heart every time. But I'm not a singer. Catching bad guys is what charges my batteries. See you, sugar."
Georgia was a forensic technician with the Nashville Police Department. She had been on the job nearly a decade and had proven herself to be detailed and driven. The consummate professional in the courtroom whom defense attorneys could not rattle.
She cut through the crowd, pausing to accept a couple of good wishes. She was never good with receiving compliments or attention, so she smiled, thanked everyone like her parents taught her and kept moving with no real need to strike up a conversation.
She moved up to the bar where KC Kelly, a tall, bald, broad-shouldered man wearing a Hawaiian shirt, polished a set of whiskey glasses fresh from the dishwasher. KC had been her late father's partner in homicide for over twenty-five years. When he retired, he bought Rudy's from the previous owner who had created a place where tourists and locals flocked to hear the up-and-coming talent. When KC took over the honky-tonk, cops initially came to show support for one of their own. Many discovered they liked Rudy's and that KC could really run a bar. And so the tourists, locals, and cops kept returning to the safest South Broadway bar in Nashville.
"Did good tonight, kid," he said. "The crowd loved you." He pushed a fresh glass with ice and diet soda toward her.
She took a long sip. "Thanks for letting me share the stage. The day job has been crazy lately, and I haven't had much time. It was fun."
"So I hear big brother gave you a cold case," KC said.
Big brother was Deke Morgan, who now ran the Nashville Police Homicide Department. He was joined by her other brother, Rick Morgan, who also worked in the same unit. Third brother, Alex, was the outlier. He worked for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, or TBI.
"I should be more careful when I ask for extra work." She scooped up a handful of nuts from a bowl on the bar and popped them in her mouth. "It's taken me weeks to read through the files."
"Deke tells me Dalton Marlowe is putting the squeeze on everyone," KC said.
Dalton Marlowe was a very rich man whose son was one of three teens who went into Percy Warner Park five years ago. The students, from an exclusive high school called St. Vincent, went hiking in the southwest Nashville park that covered twenty-six hundred acres of wooded land crisscrossed by a dozen backroad trails, bike paths, and dead end roads. Their plan was to collect data for a science project and return home by dark.
When the teens had not reported in that night, search crews had been dispatched. At the end of the second day, volunteers found one of the kids, Amber Ryder, at the bottom of a ravine. Her arm was badly broken and she suffered a head injury. When she woke up in the hospital the next day, she swore she had no memory of what had happened in the woods. Search crews continued to look for weeks but the two other students, Bethany Reed and Mike Marlowe, were never found.
Mr. Marlowe has been pressing the Missing Persons Unit relentlessly for answers. This year, he again made a sizable donation to the police foundation, a kind of gesture that expects a return. Marlowe was clear that he didn't want to hear any more bullshit theories about his son Mike and Bethany running off like a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.
"So Deke's balls are in a vise with the mayor?" KC asked.
She shrugged. "He's getting a hell of a lot of pressure from City Hall, but it doesn't look like it's fazed him. He hopes to kill two birds with one stone. Give me a cold case that I've been clamoring for and pacify the powers that be. It's a win all the way around."
"I was still on the job then. But because the case was considered a missing persons investigation, homicide never got a crack at it. I think they pulled Buddy in once."
"Well, it's now being investigated as a homicide."
"Too bad your old man and I didn't get a real crack at it."
"I wish you had. So far, I've got eighty hours invested in reading witness statements, search crew reports, interviews, and examining the forensic data."
Dark eyes sharpened as they did when he'd been on a homicide investigation. "What about that kid that survived?"
"Amber Ryder. I tracked down her number through her mother, Tracy. The woman wasn't thrilled to see me or talk, but she gave me a phone number. I've called it a couple of times but so far no return calls."
A tall waitress with dark brown hair signaled KC she had an order. He filled three steins with beer and set them in front of her. As he moved back toward Georgia, he faced the register and punched in the order. "You working the case alone?"
Georgia swirled her drink in the glass. "No, as luck would have it, Deke has assigned Jake Bishop to the case with me."
"He's a solid cop."
He shook his head, understanding that stubborn ran as deep in Georgia as it did in her brothers and her late father. "So, what now? You don't want to share?"
"Not that. Jake irritates me."
Amusement tweaked the edges of his lips. "How so?"
She leaned forward. "Started flirting with me in the last year. Hell, I stayed off his radar just fine and then suddenly I'm right in the middle after he caught one of my shows here."
"That so bad?"
She held up a finger as if reading her lists of cons. "He's a cop and I've always made it a policy not to date cops."
"My late wife never had any issues with being married to a cop."
"Well, Deb was a saint and we both know I'm not. I watched Mom do it with Dad and I don't want any part of that."
He pulled a bar rag from his shoulder and wiped up the few peanut shells she'd dropped. "I don't think he's looking to put a ring on your finger."
"No, he's looking for a roll in the hay and I don't need a quickie with a guy that will forget me before his pants are zipped."
KC's laughter rumbled. "Jesus, Georgia, ever thought that you might not be so easy to live with."
She held up her hands in surrender. "No arguments here, KC. Not a one. Which is why I don't need any more cops in my life."
"You got him wrong, kid."
She took a long sip of soda. When she was down to ice, she crunched a few pieces between her teeth. "Don't care. My focus is the case and the case alone."
"Have you found anything the old teams missed?"
"Nothing so far. They didn't leave a stone unturned. And none of those guys gets any criticism from me. Hard to solve a case when you don't have bodies, no suspects, and a witness with no memory."
"You really think you can crack the case after all this time?"
She shrugged. "It's only been five years. Maybe someone knows something and will talk. Maybe Amber Ryder will call me back and tell me she's remembered something."
Skepticism deepened the lines of his face. "Amber always said she never could recall a single detail about what happened in the woods."
She fished through the nuts in the bowl searching for a cashew. "Her testimony was consistent throughout the police files."
"She was a suspect, but her unwavering testimony won over a lot of cops."
She tipped her glass up, drinking until she drained the last bit of liquid. "Could be as simple as she was telling the truth."
Carrie, a tall, thin waitress, wore a tight red Rudy's T-shirt and figure-hugging jeans, placed a drink order with KC. "Georgia, long time no see."
"Looking good, Carrie. How's the baby?"
"Fat and happy. Two months old now."
"Time goes fast." Georgia noticed the dark blue bruise ringing Carrie's forearm. Last she heard from KC, Carrie had broken up with the boyfriend that liked to pepper her with bruises. "You still seeing Hal?"
Carrie turned so the bruise was no longer visible. "Yeah. He loves the baby."
"So much he puts bruises on her mother."
Carrie's skin pinked with embarrassment. "It's not like that. Got this from an accident."
How many times had Georgia had this conversation with Carrie? Too tired to argue, Georgia grabbed a napkin and a pen from behind the bar and scrawled her name and cell phone number on it. "When you and the baby are ready to leave, call me. You can stay at my place."
Carrie shook her head, her eyes wide with panic. "It's not like that. Hal loves me."
"Put the napkin in your pocket. One day you might decide that love doesn't have to hurt like that."
Carrie crushed the napkin, but she tucked it in her jeans pocket before arranging the beers on her tray.
Nodding, Georgia flattened her palms on the bar, wanting to scream at the woman but unwilling to repeat what she had said a dozen times before.
A frowning KC filled the order. "Go on and get those served."
"Sure thing, KC." She offered them both an apologetic smile before she hurried away.
"Damn it," Georgia muttered.
"I know what you're thinking."
A wry grin twisted her lips as she turned from the waitress now smiling at two middle-aged men dressed in flannel and jeans. "And you know it's not legal to track old Hal down and run him over with a car."
"No, it's not." No doubt KC had noticed the bruises and spoken his piece to the waitress.
"Yeah. Too bad."
KC refilled Georgia's glass.
Hard not to see what was coming. "Hal is gonna kill her or that baby one day. It's a matter of time."
"I've talked to her until I'm blue." He rested his big hands gently on the bar.
"I know," she said.
KC shrugged, chasing the fresh tension knotting his shoulders. "So when do you and Bishop start on the case?"
Crunching ice, she thought about the five calls from Bishop now on her voice mail. As she raised her glass to her lips, fatigue crawled up her spine and reminded her she'd not slept in over twenty hours. "Tomorrow. We're meeting with Deke. He's wrapping up another homicide."
KC flipped a white bar towel over his shoulder. "Don't you think you better get some sleep?"
"It would be the logical thing." As Georgia slid off the bar stool, her brain hummed with nervous energy from the performance. A live gig always left her juiced and thinking she could run a marathon. Experience told her that the adrenaline crash would come in about an hour. Just enough time to get home and fall into bed.
Turning to leave, she caught sight of a tall, slim, athletic woman with shoulder-length blond hair and blue eyes. She wore an oversized sweater, jeans, and heeled brown cowboy boots. A backpack slung over her left shoulder, the woman approached Georgia.
She paused. "Can I help you?"
"You're Georgia Morgan?"
"Amber Ryder. You've called me a couple of times."
The name took her by surprise. "Wow, Amber Ryder. Sorry to looked so shocked. I wasn't expecting you out of the blue like this. Or you to be so blond."
Amber tightened her grip around the strap of her backpack. "I changed the hair a couple of years ago. New start."
After the case of the missing teens hit the airways, Amber was besieged with reporters as well as haters who did not believe her story. According to police reports filed, bricks were thrown through her mother's front window and she was harassed and chased several times. Some distrusted her. Some pitied her. But everyone, good or bad, had weighed in with an opinion about Amber Ryder. Finally, forced to drop out of high school, she homeschooled herself until a Good Samaritan offered her a scholarship to the University of Texas and she left Nashville for good.
"How did you find me?" Georgia asked.
"I called the station. They said you were singing tonight."
She wondered who had given out her location to a stranger. Wondered who would get an earful.
"You said you're reopening the case."
Georgia rose off her barstool. "That's right. We're going to be treating the case as a homicide now."
"You found the bodies?"
Amber nodded toward an empty booth. "Can we sit in one of the booths? I'm starving and could use a meal."
"Yeah, sure." Amber had done more than change her black hair to blond. Gone were the thick bangs and heavy eye makeup that made her pale skin look sallow, the multiple piercings in her left ear, and the half dozen rings on her fingers. Now, natural gold-blond hair and faint traces of mascara accentuated vivid blue eyes and a peaches-and-cream complexion as smooth as a stone.
Georgia caught KC's gaze and noted the raised eyebrow. He was curious as well. Sights set on an empty booth, she led Amber to it and stood waiting until the woman lowered into the seat.
This unexpected meeting had Georgia thumbing through all the questions she wanted to ask Amber. Instead, she raised her hand toward Carrie. "Can I get two menus? Starving."
Carrie grabbed a couple of menus and came toward the table. "Don't you want the regular?"
Excerpted from Vulnerable by MARY BURTON. Copyright © 2016 Mary Burton. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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