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Excerpt - Behind the Badge by Susan Sleeman


Behind the Badge
by Susan Sleeman


A killer is threatening the life of rookie cop Sydney Tucker's sister—unless Sydney turns over evidence from a drug bust. But she doesn't have the evidence. Not that the thug believes her. Now she and the sibling in her care are under the watchful eye of Logan Lake police chief Russ Morgan…but will his protection be enough? The killer is closing in, picking off the people and places that mean the most to Sydney. A list that now includes Russ. To protect her loved ones, will she pay the ultimate price—her life?

Excerpt of chapter one:

Gunshots split the inky darkness.

Deputy Sydney Tucker hit the cold ground, a jagged rock slashing into her forehead on the way down. She reached for her service weapon. Came up empty-handed. She'd stopped after work to check on the construction of her town house and left her gun and cell phone in the car.

Dumb, Sydney. Really dumb. Now what're you gonna do?

Inching her head above knee-high grass, she listened. The keening whistle of the wind died, leaving the air damp and heavy with tension. Silence reigned.

Had she overreacted? Could be nighttime target practice. Hunters did crazy things sometimes.

Footfalls pounded from below. It sounded like two people charging through the brush. Maybe a chase. Then she heard a loud crash and branches snapping.

"What're you doin', man?" A panicked male voice traveled through the night. "No! Don't shoot! We can work this out."

Three more gunshots rang out. A moan drifted up the hill.

Not target practice. Someone had been shot. Sydney lurched to her feet, dizziness swirling through her. Blood dripped into her eyes. She wiped it away, blinked hard and steadied herself on a large rock while peering into the wall of darkness for the best escape route.

Heavy footfalls crunched up the gravel path.

"I know you're here, Deputy Tucker," a male voice, disguised with a high, nasal pitch, called out. "We need to talk about this. C'mon out."

Yeah, right. Come out and die. Not hardly.

Praying, pleading for safety, she scrambled deeper into the scrub. Over rocks. Through grass tangling her feet. Her heart pounded in her head, drowning the prayers with fear.

"I'm losing patience, Deputy," he called again in that strange voice. "You're not like Dixon. He had it coming. You don't."

Dixon? Did he mean the man she'd arrested for providing alcohol to her teenage sister and for selling drugs? Was that what this was about?

Rocks skittered down the incline. The shooter was on the move again. No time to think. She had to go. Now!

Blindly she felt her way past shrubs, over uneven ground. Dried leaves crunched underfoot. Branches slapped her face and clawed at her arms, but she stifled her cries of pain.

"I hear you, Deputy."

She wrenched around to determine his location. A protruding rock caught her foot, catapulting her forward. She somersaulted through the air. Her knee slammed into the packed earth and she crashed down the hill. Wrapping her arms around her head for protection, she tumbled and then came to a stop, breath knocked out of her, lying flat on her back in a thick stand of weeds.

"So you want to play it that way, do you, Deputy? Fine. Just remember, you can run, but you can't hide. I will find you. This will be resolved, one way or another." His disembodied laugh swirled into the night.

The darkness pressed closer. Blinding. Overwhelming. Terrifying.

She rose to her knees, but pain knifed into her knee, keeping her anchored to the ground.

Lord, please don't let me die like this. Give me the strength to move. I need to live for Nikki. She's only seventeen. She has no one.

Sydney uncurled and came to a standing position. Taking a few halting steps, she tested the pain. Nearly unbearable. But she had to do this for her sister.

Thinking of Nikki, she gritted her teeth and set off, moving slowly, taking care not to make a sound.

Out of the darkness, a hand shot out. Clamped over her mouth.

Screams tore from her throat, but died behind fingers pressed hard against her lips.

A muscled arm jerked her against a solid chest and dragged her deep into the brush.

God, please, no.

She twisted, arched her back, pushing against arms that held her like iron bands.

She dug her heels into the ground, but he was too strong. He kept going deeper into the brush before settling them both on the ground behind a large boulder.

"Relax, Sydney, it's Russ Morgan," her assailant whispered, his lips close to her ear.

Russ Morgan? What was Logan Lake's police chief doing here?

"Sorry to grab you." His tone said she was nothing more than a stranger instead of someone he'd known for years. "I didn't want you to alert the shooter with a scream. I'm gonna remove my hand now. Nod if you understand me."

She let all of her relief escape in a sharp jerk of her head. His fingers dropped away.

"Once the shooter rounded that curve, you would've been a goner," he whispered while still holding her firmly. "Good thing a neighbor reported gunshots."

Sydney started to shiver and inhaled deeply to steady her galloping pulse. Air rushed into her lungs. She was alive, but barely. No thanks to her own skills.

"You okay?" he asked, his breath stirring her hair.

"Yes." She willed her body to stop shaking and eased out a hiss of disappointment at her job performance. "How long have you been here?"

"Long enough to hear the shooter claim he's hit Dixon and is coming after you next," he whispered again, but urgency lit his voice and rekindled her fear. "This have to do with your arrest of Carl Dixon the other day?"

"I don't know," she whispered back. "I just stopped to check on the construction of my town house on my way home from work."

"Off duty, huh? Explains why you don't have your weapon drawn."

"I left my duty belt in my car." She waited for his reaction to not carrying, but he simply gave a quick nod as footfalls grated against gravel.

"Shh, he's about to pass us." Russ leaned forward and drew his gun with his free hand, but didn't release his hold on her.

Crunching steps came within a few feet of their location. Halted.

"Can you feel me breathing down your neck, Deputy? I'm inches from finding you." He didn't know the accuracy of his words.

She felt Russ pull in a deep breath, upping her concern and washing away the brief blanket of security his arms provided. Adrenaline urged her to move. To keep from panicking, she focused on Russ's unwavering weapon.

The shooter took a few steps closer. Her heart thumped, threatening to leave her chest. Russ tightened his hold as if he knew she wanted to bolt.

The shooter spun, sending gravel flying, then headed up the path.

As his footsteps receded, she tried to relax taut muscles.

The warmth from Russ's body helped chase out her fear and the chill of the night. Thank God Russ was here. Who knows what would've happened if he hadn't come….

She refused to go there. God had watched over her. Provided rescue, just not in the form she'd have chosen.

Not only was Russ the head of the city's police force—a team often in competition with the county sheriff's department, where she worked—but he was a man she'd had a crazy crush on in high school. A man whose rugged good looks still turned women's heads.

She let out a long sigh.

"I know this is awkward," he whispered, "but hang tight for a few more minutes. We need to wait for him to head back down the hill."

She wanted to protest and suggest they flee now, but Russ thought clearly. Taking off now gave the killer the advantage of higher ground, making them moving targets. They'd have to sit like this until he passed them again.

If they made it out of here, which the approaching footfalls told her wasn't at all certain.

The shooter's steps pounded closer. He moved at a quick clip this time, as if he thought she'd gotten away and he was in hot pursuit. Or maybe he was heading to her car to lie in wait for her.

As the footsteps receded again, she felt Russ's arm slacken.

"Time to roll," he whispered. "Stay here."

"But I—"

"You have a backup?" He meant a backup gun that most officers carry on the job. She shook her head.

"Then wait here." He gave her the hard stare that'd made him famous around town, and crept toward the path.

She leaned against the boulder and wrapped her arms around the warm circle on her waist where he'd held her.

Without his warmth, she couldn't quit shaking. The reality of the night froze her inner core.

She should listen to Russ. Lie low. Wait until he apprehended the killer.

That was the safe thing to do.

The easy thing to do.

The wrong thing to do.

As an officer of the law, letting a shooter escape without trying to stop him wasn't an option. Even if that shooter had her in his sights, she'd make her way to her car for her gun and help Russ stop this maniac before he hurt anyone else.

Near the ditch, Russ came to a stop and fought to catch his breath. The taillights of a mud-splattered dirt bike vanished up the trail. He'd warned the suspect to stop, but short of shooting him in the back, Russ couldn't stop him from fleeing into the dark.

At least he'd accomplished his primary objective—to protect Sydney and keep her alive. Now he needed to alert his men and the sheriff's office to the suspect's whereabouts.

He lifted his shoulder mic and ordered a unit from his office to stake out the end of the trail for the motorcycle and to send an ambulance in case Dixon survived. Then he asked dispatch to patch him through to the county sheriff's department to make sure they knew he'd taken charge of the scene so none of their hotshot deputies arrived with the hope of usurping control.

He turned on his Maglite and headed up the hill. The beam of light skipped over gravel and lush plants lining the winding path. Midway up, rustling brush stopped him cold. He'd left Sydney higher up. Nearer the lake.

Was a second shooter hoping to ambush him?

He flipped off his light and sought protection behind a tree. His breath came in little pulses in the cold air—unusual for fall in Oregon. Adrenaline, with little time to ebb away, came roaring back, but even as the noise grew louder, he resisted the urge to take action.

Maybe it was Sydney. The girl he used to know wouldn't have listened to his directive and stayed put. She'd trounce down the hill, her chin tilted at the same insolent angle as when he told her he didn't return her crazy crush her freshman year of high school. Not that he'd wanted to send a beautiful, lively girl like her away. He could easily have dated her, but he was four years older, in college. With their age difference, it wouldn't have been right.

Bushes at the path's edge shook, then parted. Slowly, like a sleek panther, Sydney slipped out. He watched until she stood tall on those incredibly long legs he'd admired since she was sixteen before lowering his gun and aiming his flashlight at her.

She jumped and then peered up at him, an impudent look on her face. This was the Sydney he'd known as a teen and, heaven help him, in just minutes, she'd sparked his interest again.

"Care to shine that somewhere other than my face?" She shaded her eyes, warding off the glare.

He moved the light, but not before he caught a good look at a gaping wound running from her hairline to her eyebrow, covered in congealed blood. He lifted his hand to check out her injury, but stopped. He wouldn't probe a wound on one of his men's faces. As a fellow LEO—law enforcement officer—he wouldn't treat Sydney any differently.

"I told you to stay put." He infused his words with authority.

"I wanted to help." She held out blood-covered hands. "Wish I'd listened… I tripped over the body." Her eyes watered as if she might cry.

Man…don't do that. Don't fall apart. He couldn't remain detached if she started crying. He'd have to empathize, maybe give her a reassuring pat on the arm. Maybe feel her pain

and resurrect all the reasons he'd left his homicide job in Portland.

Changing his focus, he nodded at the brush. "Show me the body."

As the faint whine of sirens spiraled in the distance, she limped into tall grass, a grimace of pain marring her beautiful face. He followed, illuminating the area ahead of her. About ten feet in, she stopped suddenly.

Diffused rays slid over a young male lying on his back. Russ swung the beam to the man's face, landing on open eyes staring into the blackness above.

Sydney gasped and swung around him. She rushed toward the main path. Even though Russ knew it was a lost cause, he bent down to check for a pulse. As he suspected, this man hadn't made it and he ID'd him right away. Carl Dixon, a man every officer in the area knew from his frequent blips on the police radar, including his most recent arrest, for selling drugs.

All that ended with three gunshots to the chest at close range, from what Russ could see with his flashlight. Once they thoroughly processed the scene, he'd know more. But first, they needed to vacate the area before further contaminating the scene.

He found Sydney near the path, gaze fixed in the distance, hands clasped on her hips, exhaling long breaths as if trying to expel what she'd just seen.

Haunted eyes peered at him. "He's dead, right?"

"Yeah."

"And what about the killer?"

"Couldn't catch him. He took off on a dirt bike."

Disappointment crowded out the fear on her face. "Did you at least see him?"

"From the back. He was my height or a little taller, but lean. Wore a black stocking cap. The bike has a plate so it must be street legal. I caught the first few digits."

"That's something, then."

Russ didn't want to tell her it would do little for them in terms of searching DMV records, as three digits would return thousands of bikes, but he didn't think she could take any more bad news so he kept quiet. "Let's head down to the parking lot."

He gave her the flashlight and urged her to take the lead down the steep hill. Once on solid concrete, she handed it back to him. Holding it overhead, he watched her closely for dizziness or other impairments from her fall. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, but a head injury could mean a concussion. He'd have the EMTs check her out when they got there.

He pointed at a rough-hewn bench. "Maybe you should sit down."

"I'm fine." Her voice cracked and she seemed embarrassed about overreacting to the murder.

"It's okay to be upset, Syd. A horrible thing happened tonight."

"I'm fine, really. I'll be back to a hundred percent by morning."

"Don't expect too much too fast."

"I said I'm fine." She straightened her shoulders into a hard line. "It may be my first year on the job, but I can handle this."

"You just witnessed a homicide. If you're like other officers, you're probably feeling guilty for not preventing it."

"I deserve the blame," she said, her eyes overflowing with guilt. "I should've been carrying. Now a person is dead and a killer is running free. What if he hurts someone else?"

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