The broken body hanging from a tree in Texas Hill Country . . . the frozen figure huddled in a meat locker…only at second glance does the truth become apparent. What seems like suicide is far more sinister, and the terror is only beginning . . .
One devastating moment changed Greer Templeton’s life and ended two others. Now, with a body found on her property and Texas Ranger Tec Bragg on her doorstep, Greer’s nightmare has returned. With each new victim, her link to Tec’s case grows, and soon it will be too late to run.
AND NEVER LET THEM LIVE . . .
Greer hoped the past was behind her, but an obsessed killer has never forgotten the bond that unites them. One by one, he will track down his victims, finish what was started—and make Greer’s dying wish come true . . .
“Burton once again demonstrates her romantic suspense chops with this taut novel. Burton plays cat-and-mouse with the reader through a tight plot, with credible suspects and romantic spice keeping it real.” —Publishers Weekly
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YOU'RE NOT SAFE
By MARY BURTON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Mary Burton
All rights reserved.
Monday, June 2, 8 A.M.
Fatigue fueled impatience burrowing under Ranger Tec Bragg's skin as he pressed his booted foot against the accelerator of his black SUV barreling along the rocky rural route cutting into the Texas Hill Country. Scrubby trees and low-lying shrubs bordered the road brushed with bone-dry dirt. A handful of plump clouds floated in a blue sky and teased a good soaking rain to ease the yearlong drought.
Bragg could hope and wish the rains didn't destroy his crime scene, but he didn't bother. Life had taught him his wants and needs didn't mean shit to the universe. Whether the rains came or not, he'd deal.
Flashing blue lights of half a dozen police cars and media vans told him he'd found his crime scene. He drove past them all until he reached the Texas Department of Public Safety officer manning the entrance to the crime scene.
He slowed, unrolled his window as the uniformed officer approached, and touched the brim of his white hat.
"Morning. Ranger Tec Bragg. Heard I'm needed."
The officer touched the brim of his trooper's hat. "Yes, sir, Sergeant Bragg. Follow this dirt road a half a mile, and you'll see the crime scene. No missing it. Sheriff is waiting for you."
"Glad to have you back, Sergeant Bragg," the grinning officer said. "Heard about what you did on the border."
Bragg's mood soured. Fame didn't fit him well. "Right."
The road led him toward a new cluster of cars from the local sheriff's department. He'd received a call just after dawn from the local sheriff requesting a visit on an apparent suicide. The dead man, the sheriff drawled, had an older brother richer than Midas who claimed the governor as a friend. Sheriff wanted a Ranger on site for possible damage control.
Shit. His recent promotion, touted as a reward for his work on the border, required deeds he hated more than the cartels or the coyotes. Hand-holding. Meetings. Press briefings. He'd landed smack in the middle of a politicking world he'd carefully avoided for years.
Since he was sixteen, Bragg had gone his own way and learned it was best kept to himself. He didn't rely on anyone and was careful to make sure no one relied on him.
His leather boots crunched against the dry earth as he took long impatient strides toward the scene. He wore a starched white shirt that itched, string tie, and creased khakis. His SIG Sauer gun hung on his right hip and on his left side rested his cell and cuffs. He sported a newly polished, albeit well-worn, Texas Ranger star on his chest.
Despite the heat, he resisted the urge to roll up his shirtsleeves as he nodded to more deputies, all curious about the suicide garnering a Texas Ranger the likes of Tec Bragg. He made his way toward the yellow crime-scene tape. Ahead he spotted county sheriff Jake Wheeler.
Tall and broad-shouldered, Wheeler wore his brown uniform, cowboy boots, and a wide-brimmed hat that covered a thick shock of white hair. The sun had etched deep lines in his tanned face. A belly rounded over the edge of a nonregulation thick silver belt buckle engraved with his initials. In his late fifties, Wheeler had been sheriff for twenty years but now faced a tough re-election next year. Though he didn't fit the image of a politician, Wheeler was well practiced at avoiding controversy. Wheeler wanted to pawn off an explosive case.
The morning heat had already darkened Wheeler's shirt with sweat. "Ranger Bragg."
Bragg extended his hand to Sheriff Wheeler. "Morning, Sheriff."
"Thanks for coming, Bragg. I think we might have an issue."
Bragg glanced beyond Wheeler and the ring of officers surrounding the yellow tape to the crime scene. It wasn't hard to miss the body. It hung from a tree.
A couple of hours, let alone a couple of days, in the Texas sun played havoc with the dead. The intense temperature triggered bloating and skin slippage within hours and the decomposition process drew black flies, which already buzzed. "By the looks he's not been out here long."
"I'm guessing not more than six hours. This time tomorrow he'll be one hell of a mess."
"I hear you found his wallet."
"We surely did. It was at the base of the tree. If there'd been no wallet, I'm not sure how easy it would have been to identify him."
Bragg glanced toward the tree and saw the forensic technician's yellow numbered marker by the wallet. "Left it out so there'd be no missing it."
Wheeler hooked his thumbs in his belt buckle. "Someone wanted it found."
Bragg rested his hands on his hips. "I didn't catch the victim's name."
"Didn't want to say it over the radio until we were absolutely sure. Never know. Wallet might not belong to the dead guy."
"Whose name on the wallet?"
"Edwards? The oil family." David Edwards was indeed a heavy hitter in Texas politics and explained Bragg's summons.
"One and the same. Rory listed his brother's fancy West Austin address on his driver's license."
"Old man was a wildcatter who struck it rich. Family has more money than God. Father died years back as I recall."
"He did. Mother died last year but older brother still owns the family home. Controls the family business and has his eye on the governor's office."
As Bragg moved closer the buzz of black flies mingled with the growing stench of death and decay. "You think this is Rory?"
"Not one hundred percent sure. This guy doesn't look like his picture so much."
"Hell of a way to start the week."
A faint smile lifted the edge of Wheeler's mouth. "Yeah."
"You wouldn't just call me in for a suicide, Jake. I know you've an election coming next spring but a suicide is fairly straightforward."
Wheeler's brow knitted. "Look at the crime scene."
Bragg let his gaze roam the site. First off he noticed there was no discarded chair, stepstool, or ladder near the body. Shifting his focus to the tree, he noted the rope snaked up from the dead man's body, up and over a branch and to the base of the tree where it was securely tied. It wouldn't have been an easy climb up the tree and out onto the branch dragging a rope but a motivated man could do it. Still, if Edwards had jumped from that height, he'd not only have broken his neck but the velocity of the fall combined with the body's weight would have left a deep gash in the neck or, worse, decapitated it.
This wasn't a suicide.
"Who found the body?"
"Surveyors. A vineyard owner recently purchased the land and plans to clear it and plant more vines. The surveyors were out here early just after dawn to beat the heat. They smelled him before they saw him. The buzzing of the flies drew their gazes up. They called it in."
"Surveyors check out?"
"They did. Work for a local firm. I know both of them. They were pretty rattled so I let them go on. If you need them later I'll get you their numbers."
"What vineyard hired them?"
Wheeler cleared his throat. "Didn't catch the name."
"Find out." Bragg rested his hands on his hips, studying the dead man's boots, which were custom-made and would have set him back several thousand dollars. Fancy boots jived with the fancy address on the license.
"Want a closer look?" Wheeler said, offering plastic gloves.
"Sure do." Bragg accepted the gloves and ducked under the crime-scene tape and waited for the tech to log him into the site. He nodded to the forensics technicians as he glanced around the area surrounding the body. Didn't take more than a second to see the tire tracks. He knelt and studied the imprint. Judging by the depth of the tracks, the truck had backed up to the site under the body and then driven straight back out.
Bragg's gaze trailed the tracks down the dirt road cutting through the brush and leading back to the rural route. "Rory might have driven a truck in here, but he didn't drive it out."
"I'm thinking he had a little help."
Bragg rose, stretching his limbs. Too little sleep in the last months had left him stiff. "I'd bet Mr. Edwards stood on the flatbed of the truck when it pulled out."
"And then he dropped and strangled to death." Wheeler nodded. "Forensics also bagged two cigarette butts. DNA will tell us if it belonged to the victim."
They might find Edwards's DNA on one or both butts but Bragg's gut said no. "I'm guessing it was the second person at the scene. Someone else was here and lingered to watch Mr. Edwards die."
Wheeler rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. "Edwards had a history of trouble. Drugs. Drinking. Had a car accident in my county years back, and the family paid off the guy he hit. Problem went away. Heard similar tales of other such problems. He could have pushed the wrong person too far."
"Maybe." The dead man's hands dangled at his side. Blood, no longer pumped by the heart, had settled in his fingers leaving them dark as if bruised. The nighttime heat, which had reached the low nineties, had also accelerated decomposition, causing the skin on his hands to loosen.
"I've seen murders like this before along the border. Cartels leave their victims out for all to see. Don't see hangings as much as beheadings or shootings. And you sure don't see folks from a family like the Edwardses getting strung up much." Bragg noted the red rope bracelet on Rory's right wrist. It appeared homemade. "Have you called the family?"
"Not yet. Figured I'd run it by you first. Didn't want to stir a hornet's nest if I didn't have to."
And being up for re-election, Wheeler wanted Bragg to do the stirring. "When will they be ready to cut him loose?"
"He's good to go now. We were waiting for you."
Bragg nodded, knowing his day had changed from meetings to fieldwork. He couldn't say he was sorry. "Go ahead and cut him down."
Wheeler nodded to the officer by the tree and both watched as the uniformed officer raised a saw blade to the rope. While two other deputies grabbed hold of the rope, the first officer cut. In a matter of minutes the hemp frayed and then finally gave way. The officers dug their booted feet into the ground, supporting the body's dead weight. While a forensic tech snapped pictures, the officers slowly lowered the body to the ground. Stiff with rigor mortis it stood unbending. As the rope slackened, another gloved tech took the body by the shoulders and eased it to the ground. More pictures were snapped as flies buzzed and swarmed.
Bragg walked over to the body and studied the man's half-open eyes and bloated face. He had grown accustomed to the foul smells of death. The gangs and cartels that moved in and out of the border traded in death as easily as dollars. Whereas the younger cops around him now had paled and taken a step back, he knelt and studied the victim. He'd built a reputation tackling dirty jobs.
Rope burns ringed the victim's wrists. "Why bind his hands and then cut him loose?" he said, more to himself.
"Maybe the killer thought we'd be fooled by the suicide scenario," Wheeler offered. "If the rains had come as the weather guys had said, those tire tracks would have been washed away. And a few more days out here and those wrist marks would have been gone."
"Maybe." Bragg glanced beyond the scene to the rugged brush and scrub trees around him. "What's around this immediate area?"
"Immediate area? Not much. Brush and scrub. But like I said, on the adjacent land there is a vineyard. It's small and family owned. Been around for twenty-plus years."
Bragg studied the dead man's brown and rotted teeth. He lifted the victim's jean jacket and searched for any signs of trauma, bits of paper, stains—anything to offer clues about the man. He found a receipt in the front shirt pocket for Tate's Bar. In his pants pocket he found two rumpled dollar bills, a room key, a couple of wrapped peppermints, and a half dozen sobriety chips. "Guy has nothing on him worth taking."
"He sure pissed off someone."
"That he did."
Bragg rose and glanced back at the tree. Immediately he spotted the photo flapping in the slight breeze. He moved toward the picture featuring a young teenage couple. Both kids had the look of money. She wore pearl earrings and a gold chain around her neck. And he wore a white-collared shirt flipped up. His hair was thick and blond as if he spent a lot of time in the sun. Bragg leaned in and studied the boy's smooth, hairless face. If he wasn't mistaken, the boy was his victim. "Did you see this?"
Wheeler frowned and moved toward the tree. "Yeah, looks like the victim in the picture. But the image is old."
"Who is the girl?"
"Don't recognize her. A teen crush, maybe?"
Bragg pulled out his cell phone, snapped a picture of the image, and then leaned in to study the young girl's face. She smiled but it wasn't joyful. Wherever she'd been when the picture was taken, she didn't want to be there. Rory, on the other hand, appeared happy. His posture was relaxed and his smile full and genuine.
"The picture's here for a reason." He lingered on the girl's image a beat longer, and then slid the phone back in its belt cradle. "We need to identify that girl."
"It's about a decade old judging by the victim's appearance."
"We need to find out what he was doing ten years ago. We know he didn't kill himself, so whoever strung him up put this picture here for a reason."
Wheeler nodded. "You think she killed him?"
He studied the girl's strained smile. "She'd not be the first woman to track someone from her past and kill 'em." Bragg glanced toward the ground at the wallet lying beside the evidence marker. He knelt, pulled a pen from his pocket, and opened the wallet to find a couple of dollars, no credit cards, and an expired Texas driver's license.
"Ranger Bragg." The summons came from the forensic technician. Melinda Ashburn, if he remembered correctly, was in her late twenties and wore her red hair back in a tight ponytail. Freckles sprinkled her nose.
He moved toward her. "Yes, ma'am?"
"The medical examiner can move the body anytime now. I've shot all the pictures I need, and I've made detailed sketches of the scene. Given the heat it's better if we get the victim out of the sun."
Behind her the medical examiner's technicians stood ready with a stretcher and black body bag. "Go on ahead and take him. I've seen what I need. Though I'd like a set of those photos you took sent to me."
"Sure. Will do."
Often after the confusion of the day he'd sit in his home study and go over crime-scene prints. The camera lens frequently captured what the eye missed during the chaos.
Bragg arrived at the medical examiner's office an hour after the body. He'd been delayed at the scene by the media who'd wanted a statement. While Wheeler spoke, he'd stood quietly off to the side.
Now, the building's cool air greeted him and offered welcome relief from the heat radiating from the asphalt parking lot. The temperature gauge in his car had hit 105 degrees, and he bet it would rise higher by midafternoon.
Waiting for him at the end of the hallway was a tall, long-legged Ranger who now leaned casually against the wall as he checked his phone for texts. On the way in, Bragg had called in Ranger Brody Winchester. The two had worked together years ago in Houston. Bragg had transferred from El Paso two months ago and seeing as he'd dealt with enough changes in his life recently, he liked the idea of working with someone familiar.
Winchester had recently married Dr. Jo Granger, a psychologist who worked from time to time with the Rangers. Rumor had it the two had been married in college, but it wasn't Bragg's style to poke into another man's personal business. Lord knows he had his share of personal crap he didn't discuss.
Winchester pushed away from the wall and tucked his phone in its hip cradle. "Once I heard from you, I called ahead and let the medical examiner know we were coming." He extended his hand. "Told them to clear the decks."
Bragg's iron grip matched Winchester's. "Good. I want answers before I visit with the family."
Bragg and Winchester showed their badges to the officer at the front desk and then headed to the bank of elevators.
"I pulled the victim's rap sheet, like you requested. Sheriff Wheeler was right. Rory Edwards has been in trouble since he could drive. Family's been cleaning up his messes for years."
Bragg hit the down button, thinking his own old man had never eased his trouble, but had been the source of his burdens. The old bastard had been a worthless drunk who'd used Bragg and his older sister Sue as punching bags. Sue had left home at seventeen. He'd been fourteen and figured she'd send for him when she settled. But she'd found herself a man within months and married. Sorry, Tec, I just can't take you with me. I got a chance to be happy and need to take it. You'll find your chance one day.
Excerpted from YOU'RE NOT SAFE by MARY BURTON. Copyright © 2014 Mary Burton. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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