By Susan Sleeman
When her client and old college friend is murdered, P.I. Kat Justice knows the killer will come for her next. Her survival depends on finding her unknown enemy first…and working with homicide detective Mitch Elliot, her onetime crush. It'll take all her professional skills to ignore the sparks between them, but Kat can't allow the handsome cop to get close. She's seen too many people she loves die, so she vows just to do her job without getting emotionally involved. Yet keeping her distance may not be the best way to protect her heart—or their lives.
Excerpt of chapter one:
Kat Justice flipped the light switch again. Once. Twice. Three times. Click, click, click.
She held her breath and listened. No hum from the refrigerator on the other side of the wall, no bubbling of the aquarium. She couldn't even hear the heater that should be running on this unusually cold Oregon day. Just silence, pulsing in the dark.
Someone had cut the power to Nancy's house. Were they still here, hiding in the murky shadows? Should she continue going forward or back out of the house?
A fresh wave of concern sent a shiver down her back.
"Easy, Kat," she whispered as she often had when she'd served on the Portland police force. But calming her nerves wasn't so easy anymore. Not since she'd left the force to work as a private investigator in the family agency. Now she rarely faced danger.
But this new case was different. A man had followed her friend Nancy home. Nancy feared it had to do with her brother Nathan's recent death. She believed he'd been murdered.
Kat had told Nancy to call 911, but the police weren't here. Had Nancy been unable to make the call? After finding the house dark, Kat phoned 911 herself, but she couldn't stand outside and wait for them to rescue Nancy. She had to protect her friend at all costs.
Gun in hand, she slowly set off, putting one foot in front of the other and hugging the dining room wall to make herself less of a target. Her heart thumped wildly as she felt her way to the kitchen doorway.
"Nancy?" she whispered.
No response. She took another step, sliding her foot along the floor. It thudded into something soft yet solid. She knelt down and felt along the floor. A leg. A jean-clad female leg.
Her breath hitched in her lungs as she moved toward the spicy scent of her friend's signature perfume.
"Nancy?" she whispered again, fear ripping open her heart.
She located her friend's neck and checked her pulse.
For a moment she could only sit in horror. Nancy was dead. Her old college friend, the woman she'd just reconnected with after seven years, was gone. Kat had failed her.
No, God, no. Not this. Not Nancy.
A sound drifted through the darkness. The barest of sounds like a whisper. Kat held her breath and listened. Soft footfalls. One then another, moving on carpet in the next room. Step after slow step. Heading her way.
He's still here.
Hands trembling, she jerked back against the wall.
Think, Kat. Think.
She couldn't help Nancy now. She needed to retreat to safety and then apprehend the killer if she could do so safely.
She searched the shadows, straining her eyes. Darkness and more darkness, split only with a slice of light from the open doorway. She heard the sound again. Slow yet stealthy. He was closer now. She had to move. If she sat here, she'd die.
She stayed low, crossed the room and followed the wall retracing her steps toward the door. She glanced around the corner.
A hulking male stood in a shadow cast from a streetlight. Dressed all in black with a ski mask covering his face, he closed the door behind his back, plunging them into complete darkness.
"So glad you could join our little party." His voice was low and gravelly, yet oddly excited.
Her mouth went dry, and her throat tightened, cutting off her air. She had to get out of there.
The back door.
She rose and backed away, tripping over Nancy. Her arms flailed in the air, searching for anything to break her fall. Her fingernails scratched down a wall, but she couldn't grab hold. She landed with anoomph next to her friend. Her gun slipped out of her hand and skittered across the wood floor.
She turned over. The moon broke free of heavy cloud cover. Silvery light filtered through the window making her assailant look otherworldly. Large, muscular, he took slow measured steps as if he had all the time in the world.
Father, please. Don't let me die. The prayer filled her mind, but panic dragged it away in a flash.
Rolling over, she scrambled toward the kitchen.
His heavy footsteps followed, faster now. Clunk, clunk, clunk. Swift and sure. She felt him near her. Heard him breathing, raspy and harsh.
She risked a peek behind. He was close, standing over her. She gave one more lunge into the kitchen, the back door only a few feet away now. She clasped the cool doorknob, but a hand shot out and grabbed her by the ponytail, jerking her head back and dragging her toward Nancy.
"No!" she yelled and kicked, hair ripping from her head.
He slammed a knee in her back, forcing her facedown onto the ice-cold tile. Air rushed from her lungs and she struggled to gain a breath as he caught both of her hands behind her back.
"No," she wheezed out and freed a hand. She grabbed for anything she could touch, connecting with latex gloves, then reaching higher and clawing with her fingernails. Digging deep and hard.
He swore and yanked her hand away, wrenching her arm and pinning it next to the other one. She bucked, but he was too strong. He bound her wrists. The slash of thick tape pulling from a roll the only sound besides the thudding of her heart echoing in her ears.
Please, God! Please don't let this happen!
Hard fingers dug into her arms as he flipped her to her side then straddled her hips, holding her in place with iron muscles. "You'll pay for that scratch, Kat."
How did he know her name?
"Do I know you?" she asked, though she was certain she'd never heard his voice before.
"Nancy told me all about you and your little part in this. So glad I can clean up all of her messes in one night."
He thought she'd discovered something about Nathan's death, and he was going to kill her before she could act on it.
"I don't know anything," she said, filling her tone with as much conviction as she could, but it came out breathless and wispy.
"You think I believe that?"
"It's the truth."
He bent low. Got in her face and laughed. Rumbling. Horrible. Sadistic. His breath was stale with cigarette smoke and mixed with cloying aftershave. For some reason, that made it all abruptly real, and she realized she was about to die.
Terror took hold. Terror beyond her wildest imagination. Her heart threatened to burst from her chest.
"No." She bucked harder, upsetting him for a moment.
He had to grab the wall to steady himself. "Just like your friend. Fighting when you have no chance."
He drew back and sent his fist barreling into her face. She felt her nose give. Blood poured freely down her cheek and into her mouth, tasting metallic and thick. He laughed as he wedged a small flashlight under his arm then pulled an elastic cord from his jacket.
"Nancy had no business talking with a private investigator. Your death is on her hands, not mine." He aimed the light at her arm and secured the cord just above her elbow.
He pulled something else from his pocket and held it up. The beam from his flashlight shone through it.
A sob rose in her throat, wild and desperate.
"This is more fun that I thought it'd be," he said, thumping the vein at the bend of her elbow. "Don't worry. You won't feel a thing. You'll just slip off to Never Never Land."
She looked up at his blistering, angry eyes, and prayed. Prayed for Nancy, dear sweet Nancy, but mostly, mostly she prayed he wouldn't succeed in killing her, too.
Detective Mitch Elliot searched the hazy street of the older Portland neighborhood for the correct address. This was not what he wanted to do tonight. Not after a day of dead ends in his latest homicide investigation. He should be home tossing a thick steak on his new gas grill. He could already taste the tenderness of the aged beef that he'd enjoy while listening to cheers of the Trailblazers game. A perfect way to improve a hideous day.
Yet here he was. Chasing down Kat Justice's wild voice mail.
She didn't even want him here. She'd called his partner, Tommy. But Tommy had an appointment and they were expecting a call on a case. So he'd forwarded his phone to Mitch.
Now he had no way to reach Tommy and it was up to him to check out Kat's claim that her friend was in danger.
He located the house and killed his lights. No sense in alerting anyone to his presence. He pulled to the curb several houses down and got out to assess the situation. An SUV sat in the driveway. Kat's? Maybe. Or it could belong to the homeowner. Kat had said the front door was open when she'd arrived, but now it was closed and the house was dark. It had taken him ten minutes to get here so maybe she'd already come and gone.
Easing closer, he listened. Nothing but crickets chirping from the postage stamp of a yard. He couldn't go rogue and bust in. He wasn't a private investigator working for the family agency like Kat, but a sworn officer with protocols to follow.
He pulled out his phone and scrolled to Kat's number. Dialing, he listened at a window. The phone chimed from inside the house.
She was here. It kept ringing.
C 'mon, Kat. Pick up.
No answer. Rolling to voice mail. He dialed again. Same response.
Shoot. This was not how he'd planned to spend his night off. He lifted his gun and turned the doorknob. Unlocked. Not good.
"Help!" He heard a woman's voice. Maybe Kat's but it was so high and desperate he wasn't sure. It was enough, though. A cry of distress gave him the right to enter.
He burst inside. "Police."
The sound of a scuffle to the left took him in that direction. Gun outstretched with flashlight underneath, he turned the corner and directed the beam ahead. A masked man bolted out of the room. Kat shifted on the floor, her arms bound behind her back. Her nose was swollen and bleeding and a woman's lifeless body lay nearby.
Mitch wanted to rush ahead and check her out, but he stayed in defensive mode and eased slowly forward, noting a syringe on the floor. "Are you okay, Kat?"
"I'm fine," she said between deep breaths. "Go after him."
"Yes. He killed Nancy. Don't let him get away with it. Go!"
He didn't wait for more encouragement but leaped over both of them and charged out the back door. Adrenaline flowing, he cautiously moved to the corner of the house and saw the killer jumping into an older model van. Revving the powerful engine, he raced away.
As Mitch ran for his car, he caught a glimpse of the license plate too coated in mud to identify. Still, he noted it was a white, full-size van with a large black circle painted on the hood with red printing. Some sort of logo, but the rain and fog obscured a clear view of the words.
Hitting his lights and siren, he squealed onto the road. He radioed in his pursuit, reported the murder, then turned his full attention to avoiding an accident. They flew down tree-lined streets, houses blurring by until they careened onto a main thoroughfare, narrowly avoiding a collision. Soon the wail of other sirens on the way to help mixed with his. Good. The more officers coming to the party the less likely their suspect would get away.
They headed toward a train crossing with red lights already flashing and a thick wooden gate lowering.
"Gotcha," Mitch said as he mentally prepared to apprehend the killer.
But the van sped up and crashed through the gate, sending debris flying. He whooshed across the track inches ahead of a train.
Mitch slammed on his brakes, his car fishtailing to a stop seconds before the rumbling train thundered across the tracks. Slamming his fist on the wheel, he radioed the killer's location. He was out of the chase now. When the train cleared, the killer would be long gone. Mitch could only hope one of the officers on the other side of the tracks would catch him.
Adrenaline ebbing, he backed up and retraced his route to the house at a more sedate speed. No need to race back and risk an accident. He'd been gone long enough for paramedics and patrol officers to have freed Kat from the restraints and tended to her injuries. Now he'd have to take her statement.
If she was willing to talk to him—and that was a big if.
Seven years had passed since she'd declared her rookie crush on him. Though he'd tried to let her down easy by telling her about his policy not to date coworkers, she hadn't taken the rejection well. Well, hah! She'd taken it badly. Very badly. They'd been able to work in the same department, but man, it was tense every time they'd run into each other before she left the force.
Not knowing what to expect from her, he turned onto the street and spotted Tommy's car parked near two cruisers and an ambulance, their lights swirling into the fog. Good, this was better than Mitch had hoped. Tommy would take Kat's statement while Mitch worked the other aspects of the investigation.
Tommy jogged down the front steps as Mitch parked.
"Glad to see you're here already," he said, climbing from his car. "How'd you hear about it?"
"I'd barely gotten out of my appointment and stopped my phone from forwarding when a uniform called to tell me what had happened." Tommy looked at Mitch's empty backseat. "I see you didn't apprehend the suspect."
"A train got in my way, but uniforms are still in pursuit."
Tommy mumbled something under his breath and tipped his head at Kat who sat on the front porch with a medic ministering to her. "Kat's friend didn't make it, and she's really freaked out."
"Any idea what's going on here?"
"It has to do with a case she's working on, but I couldn't get the details out of her."
Odd. Tommy could make even the most noncompliant suspect confess, so why couldn't he get the woman who'd sat next to him in a patrol car for five years to tell him what was happening? Maybe Kat had completely collapsed—although that would be another oddity, as she was one of the strongest women he'd ever met.
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