“YOU’RE LEAVING already?” Briggs asked with a wry grin.

“Just got back from a transport to jail. Why—you need something?” Clay Brown asked, stopping as he climbed the steps of the sheriff’s station. He checked his watch. It had been a long shift and he was tired already. “I don’t have anything else this afternoon, unless Hunter has something special he wants me for.”

Briggs—a seasoned officer with years on the job that seemed to have etched a low-relief map in his face—shook his head. “I need another man for a transport team.”

“Tell me when,” Clay said without thinking too much about it. He understood they did what was needed to keep the public safe. That was the job, and Clay loved it, even if it meant long hours.

“Ten minutes. I have to get the paperwork finished, and we need to go over the procedures for this guy.” Briggs hurried down the steps toward the parking lot.

Clay went inside and headed to his desk to check his voicemail. He returned his work calls to keep things current. It would be nice if his family would call occasionally, but other than that….

“You about ready?” Briggs asked as he passed. Everyone called him by his last name, and Clay had wondered why until he found out his first name was Wilton. Then he understood. Briggs it was.

Clay headed to the conference room and took a seat. Briggs sat across from him as two other deputies, Smith and Jared, came in as well. That was quite a team for a simple transport.

“What’s the deal?”

“We are transferring Harper Grange to the courthouse today,” Briggs said.

Clay sat up straighter. “Should I be on this team?” he asked with a sigh. “We’re related.”

Briggs leaned across the table. “I’m aware of that. Is it going to be a problem?”

Clay shrugged. Harper was his cousin, the son of his father’s weird brother, Uncle Fester—Fredrick—and sister-in-law, Aunt Marlene. His family rarely had anything to do with that side of the family. Clay’s dad hated Marlene with a deep-seated passion, and he wasn’t too fond of Fredrick either, so even as kids, Clay and Harper hadn’t had much interaction. Other than being his cousin in name, Clay barely knew Harper, but he wanted to be aboveboard.

“I’m not going to have a problem. I probably only know him as well as any other prisoner we’d transport. I just wanted to be up front about it.”

“Good. Now, Grange is high risk and dangerous and he’s unpredictable. If he’s docile, don’t assume anything. Like any prisoner, he can become violent at any second. We’re using one of the SUVs for this transport.”

“Shackles?” Jared asked.

“Yes. Handcuff joined to leg irons. We aren’t taking any chances whatsoever. He’s a huge flight risk, and he’s threated both Judge Phillips and Judge Fortier just in the past week. You probably saw the uproar in the papers about it.”

Clay had. A reporter had arranged to visit under the guise of being a family member, and all hell had broken loose. Clay had to give the reporter credit—he’d used the fact that they had the same last name as an angle. After that debacle, which Clay was glad he’d been far away from, procedures at the jail had been changed and severely tightened.

“There will be no repeat of anything like that if I can help it,” Clay said.

Briggs nodded, relaxing a little. “Good. We’ve done transports every day. Stick to the book, don’t rush, but keep him moving. The biggest exposure is from the jail to the car and the car into the courthouse. I will be staying with him at the courthouse and providing security in the courtroom, along with the bailiff and the courthouse team. Be methodical and don’t take any chances with this guy. Any questions?”

There were none. All of them had done transports like this before and knew the drill. They stood when Briggs did and got busy. Clay was assigned to the second car, which would travel behind the one carrying Harper. That was probably best, as he wasn’t particularly keen to have any interaction with his cousin.

They all supervised and provided a show of strength while Harper was shackled and then walked slowly out to the loading area. Clay hadn’t seen his cousin in person in a few years, but he was menacing as hell. He was huge, broad-shouldered, and had his hair shaved and his head covered with demonic-looking tattoos. Everything about him, from the way he carried himself to his aloof, almost imperious demeanor, was designed to intimidate everyone around him. It wasn’t working on the deputies, who spoke very little as they guided him to the car. Clay breathed a sigh of relief when the SUV door closed with Harper safely inside the inner security cage.

The deputies got in, and Clay and Jared climbed into the second car. They pulled out of the Cumberland County jail complex and onto the road, heading toward town and the courthouse. Clay drove, with Jared manning communications.

“I really hate this guy,” Jared said as they rode.

“He gets to you, huh?” Clay said. “Imagine that”—he pointed forward—“showing up at your family reunion. It’s a real joy, I can tell you that.”

Clay drove at a safe speed, approaching the first intersection, but the lead SUV slowed and pulled to a stop. The road was blocked by an accident.

“I’m calling it in.”

“There are people on the road, and they look injured,” Clay said, though he had no intention of getting out. This was too dangerous for them to…. “Holy shit!”

One of the injured people raced up to the door of the SUV and collapsed against it.

“We need more vehicles out here.”

“I’m already on it.” Jared relayed the situation over the radio and then got out of the car. The others weren’t going to help, not with a prisoner in the car.

“Step away from the vehicle,” Clay said through the car speaker. “We have called for help. Please step away.”

The person continued leaning on the car, and Clay could see what appeared to be blood on the white SUV. Jared raced up, and Clay opened his door. As soon as he did, the bloodied black-haired woman leaning against the car straightened up, brandishing a gun, and shot Jared in the leg. He went down near the side of the road, and the woman turned to the SUV, shooting at the windows.

Clay grabbed the radio, his heart racing. This whole thing had gone to shit faster than he could take a breath. “We need assistance on Claremont Road near Army Heritage Drive. All available units, officer down… I repeat, officer down.” Years of training took over. He grabbed his weapon and crouched low, using the car door as cover in an effort to get a better and safer view of the scene. “Stand down!” Clay yelled, not knowing if the deputies in the other vehicle were alive or not. Smoke poured out of the broken window, and Clay wondered what had been shot into the vehicle.

The woman reached inside and opened the back door. Harper got out of the car as two men approached. They grabbed him, and Clay shot at the fleeing group. He hit one, who whirled but kept going. They climbed into one of the cars involved in the “accident” and sped off.

Clay raced up to where Jared lay on the ground.

“The son of a bitch,” Jared swore when Clay reached him. “I’ll be fine. They got me in the leg and it isn’t too bad. Check on the others.”

The tear gas inside the SUV had dissipated, but Clay’s eyes watered anyway as he got the doors open. Briggs lay on the steering wheel, groaning. Smith was shot in the head, leaning back in the seat, with blood running down his face.

“What the hell happened?” Sheriff Hunter asked as he raced up. Who knew a man that big could move that fast?

“It was an ambush. They were made up like accident victims. One shot Jared and then Smith.” Clay kept his wits even though he wanted to chase after the bastards. “They took off in a light blue Corolla, I’d say 2010 or so, heading south. License PAC376.”

“I’ve already alerted the Carlisle PD. They’re assisting.” Sheriff Hunter called in the information on the car as ambulances arrived.

Clay stayed out of the way of the other officers and emergency personnel, answering questions from every angle, it seemed. He turned to the sheriff as his head caught up to the rest of him. “Have you alerted the state police? He’s most likely heading for the freeway.”

“Already done,” Sheriff Hunter said.

Clay felt like shit. Three of the men with him were injured, and Smith looked like he was in really bad shape as they got him out of the car. Briggs was awake and pissed as hell, jawing away as they loaded him in the ambulance. Briggs, who was in charge of the motor pool, among other things, was probably angrier that they’d messed up his cars than about his own injuries. Jared seemed like he was going to be okay. It was Smith who worried him most. He wasn’t moving as they loaded him in the ambulance, and his was the first to race away.

“I should have wrung that bastard’s neck when we were kids,” Clay swore as Sheriff Hunter approached again. “He was always an asshole.”

He nodded and let the remark go. “Carlisle PD has the car. They found it in the Giant parking lot. It seems they ditched it and stole another,” Sheriff Hunter said. “These guys had this planned, and they were sophisticated.”

“You think they’ll leave the state and keep going?” Clay asked.

“I don’t know.” Hunter turned to him, his expression drawn in a way Clay had never seen before, though he understood and felt the same way. The guys he worked with were like brothers. They had one another’s backs. Clay wondered what else he could have done as guilt started taking root.

Other teams of officers arrived, and Clay let them work the scene and check the accident vehicle, which also turned out to be stolen. Just great. Hopefully it would be covered in prints and they could identify some of the men who had pulled this thing off. Clay leaned against his car and surrendered his weapon when asked so it could be examined. He explained the shots he fired and that he’d injured one suspect.

“He didn’t even seem to feel it,” Clay said absently. “I saw the blood and the hole in his clothes, but he kept moving like it was a mosquito bite. I’m going to guess the guy was hopped up on something, but I sure as hell have no idea what.” He lifted his gaze as a man in a Carlisle police officer’s uniform came over. “Hey, Red. What the hell are you doing here?”

“Carlisle jurisdiction, technically, and Sheriff Hunter thought it best to get some outside help,” Red explained.

“Good.” This was going to rock the sheriff’s department, so having investigators who were a little more removed was probably a good idea. Clay went over what happened so Red could get a statement. “What else can I tell you?” He turned at movement to his left. “Hey, Carter.”

“Sorry about this, Clay.”

“Me too. The bastards had this well planned,” Clay explained.

“I understand Harper Grange is a relative of yours,” Red prompted, and Clay explained how they were related.

“I don’t even think he’d recognize me now. But I certainly know him.” Clay provided all of the family contact information that he was aware of. “I doubt he’ll be stupid enough to contact anyone.”

“Why do you say that?” Carter asked while Red continued making notes.

“Whoever did this went through a lot of effort to get Harper out. There has to be a reason, and whoever they are, they aren’t going to let Harper or anyone else blow all their hard work by making a phone call to Mommy.” Clay knew that for damn sure.

The Carlisle team gathered physical evidence. Clay found he hated being on the other end of the investigation. He was usually the one asking the questions.

“Any word on any of the injuries?” Clay asked Sheriff Hunter once Red and Carter were done with him. “How is Smith?”

“Being prepped for surgery. The best they can tell us is that he’s alive. Briggs is conscious and going to be fine. Jared was damned lucky, with just a deep graze.” A lot of the wind had gone out of Sheriff Hunter’s sails. The man was usually imperturbable. Sure, he yelled and stuff, but things didn’t seem to get to him, deep down, very often. This definitely had. “They’re almost done here, and then we need to get back to the station.” He turned and strode toward his car.

Clay stayed until the wrecker arrived to haul away the second car. He also checked with all the officers to make sure there wasn’t anything they needed before he returned to the station. There would be an investigation for many reasons, one of which was the discharge of his weapon. Granted, that was pretty minor given the overall circumstances.

Once he was free to go, Clay turned the sheriff’s vehicle he’d arrived in around and drove the short distance back to the sheriff’s station next to the jail. He parked and walked inside to a very subdued atmosphere, though a few people approached him with questions.

“I don’t know much more than you do. It happened fast. Jared was trying to help the others when he was hurt.” That was all Clay was going to say at the moment. His legs had been knocked out from under him, but he wasn’t going to spread gossip. “What’s important is that the guys are getting the help they need,” he told Lawson, who had the decency to nod and go back to his desk.

“It will be all right,” Pierre Ravelle said as he came over to Clay’s desk and perched on the corner. “This wasn’t your fault.”

“I know that,” Clay answered quickly—too quickly. He felt like snapping but kept his voice under control.

“Do you?” Pierre crossed his arms over his chest, but his tone was soft and gentle, without accusation. “This is unprecedented in the department, and three of your colleagues were hurt before your eyes. You don’t need to be gruff about it. Everyone here understands.”

“I know. I keep wondering what I could have done to stop it.”

“You thought it was an accident and you were cautious,” Pierre said.

Clay nodded. “I thought the woman was bleeding out against the car. Jared had to have thought the same thing.” He sighed softly. “They were waiting for us. They knew when we were transporting Harper.”

“That probably wasn’t hard to guess. His trial has been in the papers, so they knew we would have to transport him with two cars together. But that doesn’t explain how they knew to be in the exact right spot at the exact right time, other than by the time of his trial. It’s suspect, but they could have had help from inside.”

“I hope not.” This was going to be bad enough, but turning it into a witch hunt inside the department would make things so much worse.

“Me too. But sometimes information is a lot easier to get than any of us would like to think.” Pierre stood. “No brooding or getting it into your head that this is your fault. It isn’t. It’s the assholes who broke out Grange, and we’re going to nail their asses to the wall.”

Clay loved the way Pierre could give a pep talk out of nowhere. Sometimes it was just what he needed.

“Yeah, we are. But in the meantime, Grange is out there once again.” He cringed at that thought. Before he’d been apprehended, Harper had assaulted at least eight people and murdered one more. “He’s smart, and now we know he has a pretty in-depth organization if they can pull this together.” This situation was going to get ugly as hell, especially once the story hit the media.

“No kidding. I thought we had this mini-Manson off the streets.” Pierre patted him on the shoulder. “We’ll get him,” he said, then went back to his desk.

Clay tried to get his head on work, but his thoughts kept wandering to the guys in the hospital.

“Brown,” Sheriff Hunter said as he passed his desk. “Jared is being sent home. Briggs is in a regular room. They have him stitched up and are watching him for a concussion.”

“What about Smith?” Clay asked.

“He’s out of surgery and still unconscious. They say the next couple days will tell the tale, so we wait. I spoke with his wife. She’s with him now. She said all we can do is pray.”

“Thanks.” Clay hated the part where he was helpless to do anything. That really sucked.

“Go on home. Your shift is almost over and you may as well get some rest. There are reporters already gathering out front. I’ll handle them. Don’t make a comment. Just go on home.”

“You got it.” Clay was anxious enough to put this day behind him. He gathered his things, left the station, got into his car, and headed for town and home. He pulled into his small garage and went through the yard to the back door of his town house.

“Hey, Petey,” he greeted, letting the tail-wagging corgi outside. They had a routine: when Clay got home, Petey went outside right away, then ambled back in for his greeting, plenty of scratches, and a treat. “Did you keep all the burglars away?” He handed Petey a rawhide, and the pup raced off to the living room and ducked under the coffee table to devour his treat.

Clay changed his clothes and then went to his office to check his email. He was finishing up when his phone chimed.

You okay? It was from his mother.

Clay called her back. “I’m fine, Mom.” He needed to reassure her. He didn’t want his mother calling him all night because she was scared for him. She tended to be a little dramatic and took things to heart sometimes, especially when it related to her only son.

“I hear your cousin is at it again,” she said immediately. “He’s all over the news, and your aunt has called twenty times, like I had anything to do with raising that son of Satan.” That was his mom. No sympathy from her for anyone. She was a no-nonsense kind of person, and Clay liked that about her. “Of course, I had to be nice to her because her son is a wanted criminal and will probably go to prison for the rest of his life….” She took a breath, and Clay tried to get a word in, but she continued on full steam. “The escape is all over the news. They said that three deputies were hurt, so I had to check to make sure you were okay.” Finally she paused a second.

“I’m okay. I was on the team transporting him. I saw the whole thing. And I can’t go into any details. But I’m fine, and one of the deputies is already home and another is doing well. The third, we don’t know yet. And for heaven’s sake, don’t share any of this with Aunt Marlene. It’s already bad enough.” His mother and his aunt had a weird relationship. They didn’t like each other, but they called each other on a regular basis. He thought it was a “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” sort of thing. Personally, his aunt made him a little crazy, so Clay avoided her as much as possible.

“Well, it’s awful, but I’m glad nothing happened to you. Let me know if I can do anything for the families of the other deputies. Maybe I could bake something and you could take it over to them.”

Clay cringed. His mother loved to bake, but no one ever willingly ate what came out of her kitchen. Her baking could best be described as experimental. The woman believed she could hide ingredients that were supposed to be healthy in what she cooked, but Clay knew there was no way in hell that mushrooms ever belonged in an apple pie.

“Mom, your good wishes are more than enough. We may need to take up a collection for their families because, no matter what, this will be a hardship for them.” And if Smith didn’t make it…. Clay shuddered. Smith had a family and two kids. The thought of them losing their father really twisted Clay’s gut. He knew what that felt like, and no kid should have to go through it. He wiped his eyes and stopped the sniffle that threatened. “Mom, I need to go and make some dinner. I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know if anything changes.”

“Okay, honey. I love you.” She ended the call, and Clay set down his phone. Petey had finished his treat and sat at his feet, looking up at him.

“Do you want to help me make dinner?” Of course, Petey’s kind of help was eating anything that fell on the floor. Petey’s tail wagged, brushing back and forth like a doggie dust mop. “You’ll get yours when I have mine. That’s the deal.”

Petey whined at the injustice.

Clay went to the kitchen, got a container of pasta and sauce that he’d made up over the weekend, and popped it into the microwave. He wasn’t in the mood to cook, and an evening on the sofa in front of the television sounded like a good idea. Clay also made up a small salad and dressed it with ranch. He fed Petey and settled in front of the television, eating while watching the news, changing the channel as soon as the escape story came on.

Petey joined him on the sofa, curling up next to him, his head resting on Clay’s leg.

“I know, buddy. You’re just what I needed.” He patted Petey gently on the head and stroked down his back. Petey blinked up at him with his big brown puppy eyes, and Clay was able to let go of some of the stress of his day. Few things were as relaxing as just spending some quiet time with his dog. Petey never yelled at him and didn’t expect much from him. He just loved him without judgment. There hadn’t been many people in his life that Clay could say that about.

Clay’s phone rang, and Petey barked, then growled. He hated the phone, especially when it interrupted back-rub time. Clay checked the number and answered. “Sheriff, what can I do for you?”

“I wanted to call and tell you that Smith is awake and responding to treatment. The bullet didn’t enter his brain, but it did a lot of damage. They still have him on monitors, but I went to see him and his eyes were open and he squeezed my hand. He can’t talk because of tubes and things, but he’s improving. Briggs will go home tomorrow, and Jared’s wife said he’s resting and grumpy.”

“I suppose that’s the best we can hope for,” Clay said, breathing a sigh of relief as he continued petting Petey.

“Yes.” Sheriff Hunter hesitated. Clay figured he’d called for more than just to give him an update on his fellow deputies. He had to give him a chance to say what he wanted to say. “With the department down three deputies for a while, we need…. You know Grange is on the loose, and apparently that isn’t enough for him. Judge Phillips received a call threating his safety about an hour ago.”

Clay groaned, realizing where he was going with this. “Sheriff… I….”

Sheriff Hunter sighed. “I know you and Judge Phillips don’t get along. The man could be a royal pain in the behind to Jesus Christ himself, but he needs protection. We know Grange has threatened Phillips in the past, and he’s done it again. Now he’s on the loose, and God knows where he is right now. We have everyone trying to find this asshole, but until we do, Judge Phillips needs to be kept safe.”

“All right. When is he expecting me?” Clay asked, knowing he had little choice.

“Tomorrow morning at eight in his courtroom. I told him I couldn’t have anyone before then. He went to a hotel for the night and will go directly to court from there. He’s going to need around-the-clock protection, so you’ll need to figure out how to secure his home as well. My suggestion is to make a visible presence. Let anyone watching know that you’re there to try to discourage them from making a play for the judge.”

“All right.” He wasn’t thrilled about doing this, but it was his job, and he could get along with anyone for a few days. God, he hoped it was only that long. “I’ll protect Judge Moody-and-Superior.”

“Great. And for goodness’ sake, don’t let him hear you call him that or he’ll probably hold you in contempt.”

“We’re supposed to tell the truth in court,” Clay retorted, and Sheriff Hunter snorted.

“You’re also not supposed to piss off the judge. Just behave yourself until we catch this guy. I’d really like to not have to transport one of my deputies to jail.” He hung up, and Clay sighed loudly enough that Petey lifted his head.

“I know, boy. I’ve got an awful assignment with a picky judge who thinks he’s God’s gift to everyone. The man is a pain in the ass.”

Petey climbed onto his lap and lay over his legs. Clay petted him gently, and Petey sighed, soaking in the attention.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you while I’m gone. I can’t take you to Mother’s. She’ll keep you on her porch because you get hair on her furniture.”

Petey huffed again, as though he understood and didn’t have any answers either.