FATE was one twisted bitch, and for some reason, on the night of October fifth, Christian James found himself at the tip-top of her shitlist. Fall was just getting underway in earnest on the night she reached down from on high, gathered up everything she had ever given to him that mattered, and took it all away.
Thick, sodden clouds, heavy with the promise of rain, were rolling in off the ocean like an army marching home from war. Their arrival heralded an early start to the long months of damp and gloomy Seattle winter that lay ahead, and Chris was in a hurry to get home.
Because of the dense blanket obscuring the setting sun, night had come a little earlier than usual, and he hated driving in the dark. It made him edgy. He still saw halos around light sources from the LASIK surgery Michael had insisted he have six months before. Glasses, it seemed, were bookish and outmoded. It was time to get with the present. Forget the fact that he had never really needed to impress anyone—Michael did, and that was good enough.
As the speedometer needle climbed past thirty, Chris sent an anxious glance in the direction of the rearview mirror. The road was clear, so he kept on speeding. He didn’t need to look at the dashboard clock to know that he was going to be late again.
An offensive speck of lint on the pristine leatherette disappeared with a flick of his finger. How had he missed that this morning? It was a good thing he’d noticed it before Michael did.
The lint reminded him of their earlier phone conversation, and he bristled with defiance.
“Look, I have important work to do,” Michael had said.
“I know, but Jack made a last-minute edit to my copy, and I have to rewrite a couple of paragraphs. The proofs have to be to the printer by tomorrow morning.”
“You make it sound like you’re writing constitutional amendments. For crying out loud, Chris, it’s a fucking restaurant review.”
No matter how many times he heard it, it always stung. He brushed it off as he always had, telling himself Michael was probably just tired. He’d often been tired lately. Besides, in comparison to the work Michael did, his column did seem less important.
Michael’s brusque tone announced that he had been wrangling with an unruly two-year-old, and as was often the case, he was quick to remind Chris that Brianna wasn’t his responsibility. They had an agreement. It was Chris’s obligation to take care of everything where she was concerned. He was the one who had signed the adoption papers; therefore, he was the one who bore the burden of her care. Chris didn’t view it as a burden the way Michael did. To him, every moment spent in the company of that precious little girl, with her beautiful smiles and mop of curly red hair, was a blissful joy unlike any he had ever known.
“I’ll only be an hour late, two hours tops. How is she doing?”
“She’s cranky. Keeps asking for you.”
“Give her some grape juice. There’s a bottle—”
“I’m not giving her grape juice. She’ll just make a mess.”
“She’s two, Michael. Toddlers make messes.” He sighed. “Why don’t you run next door and see if Harvey will keep an eye on her? She loves him.”
“I’m not taking her to Harvey. He’ll feed her sugar and she’ll be up screaming all night. I have court tomorrow, and I need my rest.”
“I’ll be home by five at the latest.”
“I liked you better when you didn’t have a kid.”
That was a new low, even for Michael. It even had the faint undertone of a veiled threat, like maybe five years had been enough and he was thinking of unburdening himself.
“I’m sorry.” He hadn’t known what else to say.
“Just be home by five. I mean it.”
Chris’s fingers dug into the steering wheel as he replayed the conversation in his mind.
Maybe he was late sometimes. Maybe he didn’t always remember to straighten the towels or pick up Brianna’s toys. Maybe he wasn’t the best at keeping up with the thousands of rules Michael kept making up as they went along. Maybe it was time for a change.
The defiance returned. He checked his short chestnut hair in the rearview mirror and messed it up. Sure, messy hair was a petty barb, but Michael was certain to have a remark about it, and maybe, just maybe, this time it would finally push him enough to fight back.
He stopped at an intersection and counted to three, careful to check both directions, though he could clearly see there was no opposing traffic.
“One one-thousand, two one-thousand….”
Messy hair was one thing, but a traffic violation was something else entirely. If he’d learned anything about living with an attorney, it was that you always, always followed the rules—especially those that had the justice system behind them. Deviation from a standard or statute was worse than unacceptable; it was blasphemy of the highest order.
He checked the clock again. No doubt about it. He was definitely going to be late. Michael was going to kill him.
Flashing lights rose over the hill behind him. Oh, great. Lovely. He was going to get a speeding ticket. At least he didn’t have to worry about the messy hair sparking a tirade. Michael would absolutely have a mouthful to say about a moving violation.
Cautiously, yet with due haste, he crossed the intersection and pulled over to the side of the road, waiting impatiently for the cruiser to slide in behind him.
He was surprised when the police vehicle approached the stop sign at full speed and blew past him in a fury of pulsing red and screaming sirens. A second raced by right on the tail of the first. Now that was something you didn’t see every day—especially in this neighborhood.
Because of the police activity, he curbed his urge to speed when he got back underway and kept the needle just under twenty-five.
As he rounded a curve and started to ascend another rise, he spied the flashing lights on the next block—his block. What were the police doing on his street?
He turned right onto Crestmont, dutifully signaling his intent one hundred feet before the intersection. The pulsing lights drew closer, and he could just make out the thin wail of a siren. Pedestrians clogged the sidewalk and spilled over into the road. He stopped and waited for them to cross.
Couldn’t these people see that it was going to rain? They shouldn’t be out. Yet out they were, and in force.
Mrs. Johnson passed in front of him, her forlorn-looking poodle Mitzy cradled under one arm. Mr. Jacobs, in his robe and slippers, followed close behind.
At the sight of them, Chris felt the first faint stirrings of alarm. It was the way they looked at him as he passed. Something was definitely not right.
Once the road was clear, he accelerated to ten miles per hour and crawled past Mrs. Abernathy. For a brief moment, their eyes met. Hers widened, and a trembling hand rose to her throat. Her face was geisha-girl white. If he had been alarmed before, it was nothing compared to the icy shaft of fear he felt now. From the look on the old woman’s face, he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that whatever horror had happened, he owned it.
In the next instant, a scene out of his worst nightmare rose up before him. His heart dropped sickeningly as he came around the final turn. There was his house, awash in alternating flashes of amber, blue, and red, tied up in yellow crime scene tape and surrounded by a throng of curious onlookers.
He jammed the shifting lever into park, heedless of the fact that the car was still in the middle of the thoroughfare. He leapt out and dashed across the road. Ignoring the yellow boundary, he hurried across the damp lawn toward the house, nearly losing his footing in his haste.
He didn’t even make it halfway.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” A brick wall in a Seattle Police Department uniform barred his way forward.
He tried to shove around the man who stood between him and the house. He had to get to his daughter. “Get out of my way.”
Beefy hands clamped down on his shoulders and held him fast. He tried to jerk away, but he might as well have been attempting to defy gravity. The strong grip held him firmly in place. “This is a crime scene.”
“My daughter is in there, damn you.”
The restraints relaxed just enough for him to escape. He got no more than two steps before his legs were swept from beneath him.
His head hit the ground and he saw stars. Since when had a concrete pad been poured under the lawn? Senselessly, he groped his way forward, spitting dirt. He was getting to that house. He had to get to Brianna. What if she was scared or hurt?
No. Oh, please, no. Please let her be okay.
“I told you, this is a crime scene. You're not going in there.”
”Let me go,” he shouted.
”If you don’t calm down, I’ll be forced to restrain you,” the officer said, struggling to maintain his grip on Chris. The warning fell on deaf ears.
Suddenly, he became a lot more familiar with the grass. He struggled to draw breath as a heavy weight constricted his chest. One arm was wrenched behind him, his hand shoved painfully into the small of his back. The cold kiss of a steel cuff latching onto his wrist was sharp everywhere except the scar—he hadn’t had any feeling there since the run-in with the razor blade seven years ago.
His free hand whipped out and clawed at the wet turf. He couldn’t breathe.
“Are you deaf or something?”
The weight lifted.
He could not form a coherent thought, so consumed was he with the need to get to Brianna. He struggled to his knees, pulling for all he was worth against the handcuff that kept him from his destination.
The front door was open. A burst of light from a camera flash illuminated a grisly scene within the foyer. Blood was everywhere.
He might have screamed. Later, he wouldn’t remember for sure.
The world went white as the full horror of the scene overcame him.
His last conscious thought as he fell into oblivion was of Brianna’s smiling face the last time he’d seen her.
THE two men walking into the ugly brick police station in downtown Seattle made an odd pair. One was the picture of virility—sixty-four years old, a shade over six feet of tennis-court litheness and shining silver hair all wrapped up in an expensive Italian suit. The other, half the age of his striking companion, seemed the older of the two. He was casually attired in blue denim, and the fraying cuffs of his black sweater were stretched out and pulled over his hands all the way to the base of his fingers.
There was still a hint of boy-next-door handsome in Christian James, but it was getting harder and harder to see. After nearly a year marked by sleepless nights and aching loneliness, the soft curves and robust glow of youthful vigor had been siphoned away and overlaid by a patina of grief. The threadbare afterimage that remained was worn and faded, not unlike a pair of jeans that had seen hard use.
He pulled up short before the glass doors, catching a glimpse of himself in the dirty panes. Remarkable green eyes, once vivid and sparkling, were dull and sunken into dark hollows. High cheekbones pressed sharply against the taut flesh of his face, and full lips that had once been given to easy smiles were turned down in the perpetual frown he had worn since that dreadful October night. He smoothed his windblown brown hair, took a deep breath, and swallowed hard, pressing trembling fists tightly against his thighs.
“I don’t know if I can do this, George,” he said. His voice was barely more than a hoarse whisper.
The older man placed a hand on his shoulder. “We both knew this day was coming, little dove.” The nickname was one his mother had given him, and it brought a sad smile to his lips. She’d often told the tale of how a dove had perched outside her window as she labored to give birth to him. George’s use of the endearment brought him some small measure of comfort and soothed his aching heart.
He blinked rapidly to dispel the tears that welled in his eyes. He focused on the warm, reassuring weight of the hand on his shoulder.
Over the years, George had been more than his attorney—he was a dear friend. Through all of Chris’s blackest nights, he had been a faithful star, the single light that kept the void at bay. In this dark hour, when the threat of hopelessness seemed closer than ever, he clung fiercely to that bit of brightness.
“It just seems so final.”
“They’re gone. By now it’s a certainty. It’s been nearly a year, Chris. You must accept it. Perhaps now you can start trying to move forward and put this all behind you.”
“I can’t. I just can’t.”
“Have you contacted the counselor I referred you to?”
Chris shook his head and smiled wryly. He held out his wrists, exposing the old scars. “I’ve seen my share of head doctors, George.”
“I know. You’re worried I’ll have a relapse. Don’t. I’m a different person than I used to be,” he lied. He lowered his arms, tugging the sleeves of his sweater back over his hands to hide the scars.
“Even a normal person would have trouble getting through this without….” George frowned as he realized what he’d said.
Chris looked away in a vain attempt to hide the hurt in his eyes. “It’s okay. I know what you meant.”
George sighed. “Let’s get this over with. You know how much I love our visits with that pompous bastard Callahan.”
CALLAHAN’S wet lips brought to mind a pair of writhing slugs as they worked over the slimy stub of an unlit cigar. It was a feat of mouth dexterity that the ferociously ugly man’s speech was unaffected.
“Here’s where we’re at.” He splayed the papers in the manila file out as though examining them. “Ten months ago, we get a call from a concerned neighbor. He’s seen some suspicious activity and thinks someone should take a look. A patrol arrives and finds the front door wide open. Inside, it’s a slaughterhouse. There are no bodies but enough blood to virtually guarantee whoever bled it didn’t walk away. With me so far?”
Chris was white and trembling. His stomach lurched as the cloying stench of slobbered tobacco slapped him in the face for the tenth time. Callahan’s barely restrained grin indicated he was enjoying Chris’s discomfort.
Even George, the very picture of human composure, seemed unsettled by the recitation.
“Good. Now, in the intervening months, we’ve worked this thing up, down, and sideways. Forensic analysis of the blood at the crime scene positively identified it as belonging to Michael Blake. Minor spatter on the walls was ID’d as the girl’s. Seems like we’ve got a pair of homicides, but we’ve still got no bodies. We’ve got no murder weapon, no stray prints, no suspects, no motive… no nothing.”
George took a deep breath. “Get on with it. You’re suspending investigation. You're closing the case.”
“This thing is nothing but a waste of resources and taxpayer dollars. Not to mention it’s demoralizing to my guys, who’ve been busting their humps for nothing. Hell, there’s no solid proof a murder was even committed.”
George’s eyes narrowed. “By your own admission, the amount of blood at the scene is irrefutable evidence of a homicide.”
“True, but it’s hard to prove without a body.”
Chris leaned forward in his chair. “Do you really think they could still be alive?”
“I don’t think anything,” Callahan backpedaled. “All I’m trying to say is that everywhere we turn, it’s a dead end.” He eyed Chris with meaning. “Even if I could nail down a suspect, I’d have a hell of a time getting him convicted without a single corpse—”
“As my client has learned from your numerous attempts to incriminate him,” George said.
“Speaking of which, you’d think the two of you would be glad to get rid of me.” Callahan took the cigar out of his mouth, leaned on his elbows, and jabbed it in Chris’s direction. “I’m still not convinced your client is innocent, but without evidence, I don’t have a leg to stand on.”
Chris could finally take no more. “You heartless bastard. These people were my family.”
“Please.” Callahan’s voice was thick with venom. He leaned back in his chair. His lips curled in disgust. “Spare me the histrionics. I’ve seen this routine before from better actors than you.”
“Watch it,” George cautioned. “You’ve already established that you don’t have enough evidence to prove my client is guilty. This treatment is bordering on harassment. I won’t hesitate to file a formal complaint.”
The cigar returned to its former place between the livery lips and the detective purpled in rage. He leaned further into his chair and squinted his eyes several times, obviously trying to work up a smart retort. He finally said, “The decision has been made. Case closed. Effective immediately. Now get the hell out of my sight and pray to God I never lay eyes on you again.”
Chris was incoherent as they fled the office. George MacQuery was not the kind of person one casually dismissed, and he could feel the man’s resentment pouring off of him in a black wave as he trailed dumbly behind.
As they reached the lobby, Chris stumbled. The realization of what had just happened overcame him, and the shock was like a physical blow.
It was over.
There would be no more staring at the phone for hours, hoping the police would call with some news.
Brianna and Michael were dead—or if not, they were surely lost to him forever.
He’d just been officially orphaned by the justice system and, like so many other orphans, his withering hope had finally died.
Where did that leave him?
“Chris, are you okay?”
The only thing keeping him on his feet was George’s strong grip. He tried to speak but could not form words. The room was spinning. He held his breath in an attempt to keep from vomiting.
“Could someone call an ambulance?”
Activity in the lobby came to a screeching halt, and all eyes turned on them. The weight of the curious stares was too much. Chris’s universe narrowed to a pinprick of light and winked out as he lost consciousness.
JASON KINGSLEY flashed perfect white teeth at the young female desk sergeant and winked. He’d had plenty of practice putting his sexy smile and mysterious hazel eyes to good use over the years. They never failed him. This time was proving to be no exception. She looked away, trying to affect disinterest, though the pink that rose in her cheeks gave her away completely.
“The last thing I want to do is get you into trouble, but I think this guy would be happy to get his keys back. I tried to flag him down, but he didn’t see me. Just a name. That’s all I need. I’ll look it up in the phone book.”
“It’s nice of you to want to return the keys, Mr. Kingsley, but I’m really not—”
Their attention was drawn to a flurry of activity to the right. George MacQuery, a prominent attorney and an old acquaintance, was kneeling on the floor next to the inert form of a younger man. Jason vaguely recalled seeing them enter the precinct shortly after he had arrived, although he hadn’t had a good look at George’s companion. His unconscious awareness of his surroundings, his ability to remember little details was a carry-over from the good old days in the FBI. It was a habit he’d never quite been able to break. On the upside, it did serve him well in his present occupation.
The female desk sergeant stood and craned to see past the crowd that had gathered.
Jason followed her gaze. “Looks like you’ve got some action today, huh?”
“Poor guy. Such a shame.”
“What’s his story?” His interest was piqued.
“It’s Chris James,” she said, as if he should know. He shrugged in response. “Don’t you watch TV?”
He grimaced. “Never touch the stuff—kills brain cells.”
“The murders were big news, what with the two of them being so famous. He writes a column for that lifestyle magazine, The Sounder, and his partner, the one who was killed, was some big shot attorney.”
Jason cocked his head to the side, trying to recall if he’d heard anything about it. “What was his name?”
“No, the attorney.”
“Michael… something or other. I can’t remember.”
“Not Michael Blake?”
“Yeah, that was his name.”
Jason’s jaw clenched. How had he not heard about this?
Michael Blake. Jesus.
He watched in rapt attention as a team of paramedics arrived on the scene and loaded Chris onto a stretcher.
“You said Blake was murdered?”
“As far as anyone knows. They never found the bodies.”
“Bodies? Who was the other one?”
“His daughter.” There was a stricken look on the young woman’s face. “God, she was just a baby.”
“Blake had a daughter?”
She sighed. “Don’t you even read the paper? It was his daughter,” she explained, pointing toward Chris.
A niggling memory insinuated itself into his brain—a disconnected piece of a puzzle that he’d never been able to find a place for. Even though that particular case had been solved long ago, the mystery remained.
He turned and focused intent eyes upon the young woman. “You said they never found the bodies?”
“Just a lot of blood.”
“Chris James was under suspicion for a while. They couldn’t ever come up with enough evidence to pursue it, though.” She rolled her eyes. “Idiots. All you need to do is look at him to see there’s no way he could have done it. Some things you can’t fake, you know. His grief is real.”
“Any idea of a motive?”
“None. As far as anyone could tell, the attorney was squeaky clean. No enemies.”
Jason snorted. “Okay. If you say so.”
“You knew him?”
“Not really, no.” His brow furrowed. “I have to go.”
“What about your license plate trace?”
He glanced at the set of keys dangling from his finger. He’d found them in the back of his desk drawer. They were probably an old set to Bradley’s apartment. He was suddenly a lot less interested in the cheating spouse gig he was currently working. Infidelity paid the bills, true, but there was no challenge or joy to be found in the investigation of it. This new development made it seem like a petty triviality.
“Jackson Murray,” she said with a shy, hopeful smile.
“Huh?” he asked, peering through the window at the paramedics loading the young man into the ambulance.
“Your guy,” she said, pointing to the keys. “Jackson Murray.” The blush returned to her cheeks as she anticipated what kind of reward she might expect for the risk she had just taken on his behalf.
He glanced absently at the keys, then tossed them on the desk. “Here you go. Why don’t you give him a call and tell him that his girlfriend’s husband isn’t too happy about that zipper problem of his.”
He didn’t have time to see the bewildered look on her face change to fury at having been taken. He was out the door before she had time to figure it out.