Prologue

Simmons County, Ohio

Thanksgiving Day

 

The Holden brothers’ three-mile run came to a full stop near the old one-room schoolhouse on County Road 571. There, alongside the two-lane road, stood a deer with her two fawns. The trio leaned their graceful necks forward to chew on the long brown grasses and season-dead wildflowers at the pavement’s edge. There was a distinct chill in the air, more than usual for late November, and the gray clouds lay low. Despite the cold, Logan Holden’s Ohio State University hoodie was soaked with sweat and the heavy humidity.

Logan couldn’t remember when he’d last been so close to a fawn without it racing off into the forest. Reaching into his empty pocket, he was reminded that he’d left the phone on the kitchen table. His mother had shooed him and John, his brother, from the kitchen while she rushed about tending to what she looked forward to most every year: cooking a Thanksgiving meal. She liked to remind her family that timing was key to a hot and perfect holiday dinner, and that timing did not involve her boys hanging around the kitchen. This dinner isn’t going to cook itself, and that run isn’t going to run itself, his mother had said as they made their way out the door. In their haste, Logan had forgotten his phone. But John, who hardly ever parted with his, now let his earbuds hang around his sweaty neck by their white wires. A backbeat spilled from those tiny speakers as he held up the phone and pressed record.

A mist rose from the blacktop, curling between Logan’s ankles and smoking around the deer’s spindly legs. Soon the chilly fog would thicken and cover the Ohio farmland. Slowly, Logan moved closer. The mother deer looked up, her dewy brown eyes meeting his. For a frozen moment, they examined one another—he with his feet planted firmly on the misty road, and she with the stray ends of grass hanging from her lips. Then, suddenly, she leapt into the high grasses and darted into the surrounding woods leaving behind her fawns who had already lost their white spots. They watched their mother go with alarm but soon resumed chewing away at the winter-yellow grasses.

John’s phone gave a shrill bark with the message of a failed text. Cell towers were scattered few and far between among the country hills and deep forest; devices burned up their batteries with the constant search for a clear signal. One fawn stood alert at the noise and then bolted in the same direction its mother had gone only moments before. The remaining fawn froze, staring at Logan and John.

“Why doesn’t she follow them?” Logan asked.

John shrugged. “Too trusting, I guess. What’s that saying—a tame deer is a dead deer?”

Logan moved closer until he stood only inches from the fawn, her big brown eyes watching him as she tried to balance her weight on stick-thin legs. Ever so slowly, he reached out his gloved hand to her.

The relentless drone of an older engine wound its way along the two-lane road. The smoky fog made it nearly impossible to see the vehicle until it was almost upon them. As the muffler rumbled closer, Logan saw faint headlights over his shoulder.

“Go!” Logan shouted at the fawn, waving his arms. He turned to his brother. “If it’s a hunter, he’ll tag this area.”

Overenthusiastic hunters were known to enter the game areas a few days early in order to track places with a high density of deer population. Then, on opening day of gun season, these hunters returned to make their easy kills.

John shoved the phone into his pocket and then raced toward the fawn. “Get out of here. Go, you fool!”

The vehicle crested the hill behind them, and the fawn finally darted into the wood. The muffler, rumbling like a speedboat, rolled to a near stop beside the brothers as if the driver might recognize one of them. John nodded at the window and gave a tentative wave. Then, without warning, the driver hit the gas and the rumbling truck soon disappeared over the next hill.

“Who was that?”

“Not sure.” John shrugged. “Lost hunter, I guess.” He play-punched Logan’s arm. “Dinner is waiting on us, and this run isn’t getting any shorter.” John plugged his ears once again, and with the blast of music, he took off, leaving Logan standing on the side of the road.

Ten minutes later, Logan finally settled into a long stride. He had just found the rhythmic movements of his body and breath when the rumble of the same vehicle’s engine cut through the fog, this time headed directly toward them. It drove down the center of the unmarked road, edging closer and closer toward the brothers. The driver came upon John first, a good twenty yards in front of Logan, slowing…slowing…until the truck finally stopped beside John.

John gave a friendly wave at the dark shadow of the driver in the cab of the truck and stepped closer to the open window. Logan heard his brother say, “Need some help?”

A sharp, quick crackfilled the air, scattering a flock of crows from a nearby tree. Logan watched as his brother’s body simply dropped to the ground. John tumbled over the berm of the road and fell hard on his back, crushing a thicket of brown shrubs that bloomed wild in the summer. Everything around him fell into slow motion as if Logan were trapped inside a movie. He watched as the casing tumbled to the ground near his brother, and a spot of bright red spread along the blacktop.

Panic stole Logan’s breath. A strange sensation filled him, as though his physical body separated from his mind and he floated above the entire scene. But this was no dream: the blood thumped louder and louder inside his ears until he could hear nothing else. Logan tried to run to his brother’s side, but Logan’s body remained frozen, as if struck still by the beam of the truck’s headlights and the sound of its rumbling engine. Although Logan couldn’t see through the tinted windshield, he feltthe driver’s eyes narrow in on him. His hackles rose and a quick chill scattered up his spine. The image of John’s spreading pool of blood brought Logan back into his reality—he needed to get help. He reached again for his phone that wasn’t there.

And then the truck rolled forward.

Logan didn’t hesitate—he tore into the wooded area not far from the road, taking the same route the deer had only minutes before. Logan churned one leg over the other, willing his strides wider and wider, and didn’t dare look back to see if the driver had the rifle leveled at him. A bullet shot past his ear before Logan made a hard right, a curve in his path meant to throw off the shooter. Seconds later, a shot sank into his left shoulder and felt as though it might have taken his entire left arm off with it.

Logan face-planted into the cool wet ground. The earth, not yet completely hardened by the winter months, held him. The edges of his sight blackened, and Logan bit his lip until he tasted blood. Relief washed through him when he saw that his arm and hand were still attached to his body. He did his best not to move even though every muscle in his body spasmed and the warmth of his own blood spread across his belly and thigh. The hole in his body felt so small, but he remembered what his father always said about gunshot wounds—stay conscious or you slip into death. Logan had to stay awake—it didn’t matter that his body was screaming with exhaustion. But he also needed to play dead. Logan understood the shooter needed to see both him and his brother down for good.

The truck thundered in its place for a few more excruciating minutes until the driver pushed open the squeaky door. Logan lifted his head ever so slightly to get a peek through the underbrush. A few yards away, Logan caught a glimpse of the shooter dressed in full camouflage with an enormous rifle hanging from his right hand. A black skullcap covered the shooter’s hair and ears. He kicked John’s ribcage with a heavy black boot once, waited for a response that didn’t come, and then kicked John again. Logan watched as the shooter knelt down next to his brother but couldn’t make out exactly what was happening.

When the shooter stood and walked toward Logan, he shoved his face into the earth until his breath became shallow and strained. Wetness seeped through his running shorts and along his thighs. Prayers had been a constant in his family, and he started a continual loop of Biblical passages in his mind as he braced himself for the next shot into his body. It wasn’t a bullet that hit him, but a heavy boot to his ribs. Logan cried out in pain, and a stream of blood ran from his open mouth. The shooter knelt down beside Logan; he knew the killerknew he was still alive. Fading in and out of consciousness, Logan felt his upper body rise from the ground and the pressure as his hoodie was yanked over his head. Bare chested, he slumped back to the cold ground as the shooter slowly walked away.

The rumble of the truck’s engine felt like it stayed in one place forever. Logan remained as still as possible until the old vehicle finally lurched forward, rolling away from the brothers on the side of the road.

Eventually, the length of silence became the certainty Logan was looking for. His breath hitched, and each inhalation sounded like a phlegmy whistle. He pushed through the agonizing pain until he balanced upon his knees. He tried not to hold his breath as he inched toward his brother, a stretch of space that seemed to take hours to close. Once he finally dropped at John’s side, he felt the unusual stiffness of his brother’s arm. Tears spilled from Logan’s eyes as he searched the area for John’s phone. He found it at his brother’s side, just out of reach, the screen shattered. The phone, though, was still recording—John hadn’t turned it off after he recorded the deer. The server icon spun helplessly for any kind of a connection, and Logan knew he didn’t have much time. He spoke directly into the camera because someone needed to know the truth.

“Mom?” Logan coughed on his words, blood splattering the small phone screen. “Love you. I couldn’t stop h—”

Logan collapsed beside John’s body, and the brothers’ dark blood congealed together.

 

Chapter One

Near Charleston, South Carolina

Thanksgiving Day

 

The South Carolina sun blazed down, a welcome change from Ohio’s dreary and wet November. A wooded trail opened up, and I ran a few feet behind Bennett as the high tree boughs encased us in shade. Spanish moss draped from the branches giving everything around us the look of another world. The temperature hovered near eighty, a summery-warm temperature my body wasn’t ready for, and I was drenched in sweat. I wiped away the rivulets from my brow and thought for probably the hundredth time about how much better I liked swimming than running. In the water, at least, you don’t have to deal with your own sweat.

Bennett turned, and her lean body, runner built, effortlessly floated along the trail. “You slowing down there, Special Agent?” She ran backward to face me, her grin full of play.

“Show-off.”

“Nothing shows athletic prowess like a six-mile run,” she ribbed me. Bennett tossed out a laugh, and I savored the way her laughter moved her whole body with its genuine happiness. Her laugh, so rich and deep, was one of my favorite sounds in the whole world.

“We’ll go for an easy jog, she said.” I mimicked Bennett. “No pressure, she said.” I groaned. “Last time I listen to you about running.”

“Aw, darlin’.” Bennett faked concern. “Is the southern heat getting to you?”

“I’m hanging in there, Doctor, which is more than can be said for you in the swimming pool.”

Bennett gave me a wink, turned back toward the trail, and took off. I watched her long legs move with a gait and form as graceful and quick as a gazelle.

We’d taken the week of Thanksgiving off work to be together, to kayak through the Francis Marion National Forest and explore the town of Charleston. That was the plan, anyway. Instead, the two of us had hardly left the resort except to kayak the waterways or run the trails. And then there was our room—small and cozy and perfect for us to catch up on all the nights we’d spent apart for our jobs. Without the constant tension of our work hovering over us, Bennett seemed happier than I’d seen her in some time. Although we hadn’t seen a wink of Charleston except in the ride from the airport, the national forest area was shaping up to be one of my favorite places I’d ever visited.

Even on vacation, though, we couldn’t get away from our workouts—let alone our pact for clean living. It had been Bennett’s idea, this agreement that left me hiding empty crumpled Cheetos bags and sticky honey bun wrappers underneath my truck’s seat. Everything that I considered to be tasty, including alcohol, had been sworn off in this new life of clean living. While Bennett regularly railed on me for my sugar and carb intake whenever she got the chance, her real worry was about when I might take that first drink and break my four-month run with sobriety.

Bennett and I were training for a half marathon in early January. Running wasn’t really my thing, particularly long distance, although I’d done my fair share of it while training for the Bureau’s required physicals. When Bennett first asked me to run with her at Walt Disney World, I wasn’t sold on the idea, but when she added that I could dress up as my favorite Disney character, I couldn’t say no.

“I’m assuming you’ll race as anything Star Wars,” she’d teased me. “Han Solo in black boots and a row of bullets across your chest?”

“Is there really any question?” I asked, thinking of all the times I’d imitated Han Solo when we’d had our Star Wars marathon nights. “I’m assuming you will go as the one and only Princess Leia?”

Bennett shook her head at me and played coy. “You’ll have to run with me to find out.”

It had been a guessing game of which Disney character she planned to be ever since. The mystery of it kept me running, although I wasn’t always sure the payoff would be worth it.

“Snow White. Belle. Wait, I know—The Beast!”

Bennett rolled her eyes at me. “Some runners are there for the sport, you know. Not everyone dresses up.”

“What’s the fun in that?” I teased her. “Why put yourself through the run?”

Water had always been my true love. Give me a pool, lake, or ocean, and I’d swim for miles. Nothing soothed me more than the submersion into water and the silence that came with it. Distance swimming, however, wasn’t a favorite of Bennett’s, who claimed her arms felt like wet noodles after only half a mile. Jogging along the wooded trail, though, mylegsfelt like noodles. As we neared the five-mile marker, I cursed this woman who ran a few yards in front of me as if her feet weren’t even touching the trail.

“One more mile, Special Agent!” Bennett hollered to me over her shoulder.

My sweaty body celebrated the news. Only one mile—I could finish.

I met Dr. Harper Bennett, forensic pathologist extraordinaire, while I assisted with a serial murder case in Wallace Lake, Ohio. More specifically, I saw Bennett for the first time as we stood together over two dead bodies that were lodged against land bars in the middle of Ohio’s Powell River. I loved that we first met surrounded by water. As a person who believed in signs and gut feelings and karma, I took the presence of water as a promise—or at the very least, a smack to the back of the head to wake me up and pay attention to the beautiful being there with me.

Bennett, though, liked to remind me that it wasn’t all burbling river water and the sweet singing of nature that surrounded us that day, but two very dead bodies. “And the ripe stench of decomp, Hansen. Let’s not forget that.” She would throw me a wink. “So, I ask you, what kind of a sign is that?”

“A message from the universe,” I said. “I heard it, in the water around us.”

Bennett rolled her eyes, a practice she’d become quite good at in our relationship. Unlike me, Bennett gave little credence to signs and karma and any sort of messages from beyond. Her job required her to think logically and avoid jumping to conclusions. Evidence, in Bennett’s world of steel gurneys and autopsies, ruled. While she understood my beliefs about gut reactions and instinct, Bennett saw things very differently. Water, she liked to say, had the power to give life and take it away; the toss of that coin could shift any day.

The Wallace Lake case had been difficult—four women found murdered along the Powell River, all sharing a matching wrist tattoo. The tattoo wasn’t the only thing the women shared; they had all been drug addicts at some point in their adult lives, which led the early investigators to believe the deaths were tied to the opioid crisis raging wild in Wallace Lake County. From its start, I’d been in a bad place. I drank too much, ate too little, and drowned in a murky depression that nearly sank the rat hole of an apartment I’d been renting in Columbus. In the wake of a bad breakup, I felt lost. There was also the frustration I felt with my placement at the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. I’d thought my work in my first serial case at Willow’s Ridge would have put me in line for a shot at the FBI—I was wrong.

Bennett had her own share of frustration and baggage. She’d been overworked and underpaid for years, her services stretched thin in the tri-county area that needed at least two of her to get the job done, maybe three. Bennett was simply exhausted and had been dealing with her own heartache—a woman, she said, who gutted her whole.

After the Wallace Lake case ended, though, things brightened for both of us. I’d been promoted to the codirector spot at the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation to work alongside my mentor and good friend Colby Sanders. Bennett had been hired on as a forensic pathologist. She was able to leave her county work behind, and offered her an office in one location. It also gave her some much needed free time to pursue the activities she loved like running, writing poetry, and kayaking. Over the past few months, the trauma of my past slowly faded, and I’d fallen for Bennett—something I swore I’d never again do after Rowan. For once, though, it wasn’t only me who had a past to contend with; I found myself navigating the new terrain of a relationship where each of us lived our own lives, sometimes together and sometimes apart.

Colby Sanders, however, hadn’t been a fan of the decision to hire Bennett. The Bureau had strict rules about romantic partners working together. I argued that Bennett and I technically wouldn’t be working together, given that she managed everything medical in the morgue and I would be out in the field. Even I understood the laughability of that argument—as a forensic pathologist, Bennett would need to be in the field in order to determine the time and cause of death. She’d be an important member of the team no matter how I played with the words.

“Bennett’s one of the most competent and gifted pathologists the BCI has worked with,” Sanders admitted when I pressed him. “She’s a real asset to our team. I just worry about the two of you working together—the strain it will put on your relationship.”

I understood his cautious subtext: Sanders worried about what would happen if Bennett and I broke up. He wasn’t only worried about the possible disruption to the team and the dynamics of the office. He also worried about the emotional damage I might suffer if fallout ensued. I appreciated Sanders and the way he looked after me. My father had unexpectedly passed a few years back, and I’d been left without much of a family to call my own.

“Relax,” I told him. “I’ve got a good feeling about this.”

Sanders shook his head in a way that said he didn’t believe me, but would negotiate. “That famous gut of yours,” he half teased.

We finally settled on an agreement: Bennett and I would stagger our time, shifting schedules so that we rarely worked together in the field. So, for the past months, Bennett and I had been at crime scenes and different stages of investigations without one another. At work, we were those proverbial ships passing in the night; her office was in the basement and mine on the second floor. When our schedules allowed for it, we met for meals and shared an occasional day off for hiking and floating on the Powell River. We continued to live separately in the small community of Spring Rock. I bought a small bungalow and gutted it, rebuilding it from the floor up during my time off work. I loved my new home that stood so close to the river I could hear it burble and churn after a hard rain like it was a living breathing thing.

“The first sign of trouble,” Sanders warned me, “Bennett’s gone. Understood?”

I’d been so excited, I almost hugged Sanders, something he never would have forgiven or forgotten.

Bennett waited for me at the six-mile marker at our resort with her hands on her strong hips and a look that said Could you be any slower?I’d never been so happy to slap the side of an ancient oak tree with its branches dripping in Spanish moss. Bennett stood in a sweat-drenched tank top with damp dark curls about her face. God, how could she run six miles in humidity as thick as mud and still look so good?

“Glad to see you made it. I was worried I might have to call the EMTs for you.”

I shrugged and used the edge of my T-shirt to wipe the sweat from around my brow. “Who needs EMTs when I have a doctor running with me?” I leaned in for a quick kiss, our sweaty limbs intertwining.

“Your times are getting better,” she told me as we headed back to the room. “In another few months, you might be able to keep pace with me.”

I threw my head back, laughed, and felt the frazzled ends of my braid against my low back. “It sure would be fun,” I told Bennett, “to beat you across that finish line one of these days.”

 

v

 

The sun sat low on the South Carolina horizon. I leaned back in my seat, let the paddle rest across my lap, and welcomed that familiar bump of Bennett’s kayak against mine. The ocean had been too difficult to manage in the kayaks out beyond the break of the waves. The resort directed us to a small inlet where the water shimmered with the evening calm and views of the sunset burned an array of oranges, yellows, and purples. Bennett and I settled into a silence as the movement of the water gently rocked us. This, I thought, was the true measure of trust with another person—how long that comfortable silence could hold between the two of you.

“Sure beats the office, doesn’t it?” Bennett turned to me, the sunset reflected in the lenses of her sunglasses. She wore a full-body suit because she couldn’t stand to be in water below seventy degrees, as if she might suddenly be submerged while kayaking. A film of sweat lined her upper lip.

“Not to mention the unforgiving weather in Ohio this time of year,” I added. “Let’s stay another week.”

Bennett laughed. “Amen to that.”

A large two-tiered boat idled through the inlet, the upper balcony full of visitors out for an evening cruise. Some shouted and waved, and I arced my paddle through the air. Thanksgiving was one of the resort’s busiest times of the year—the 400-room hotel had been full all week with people doing everything but eating a traditional turkey and dressing meal with their family.

When the sun finally sank to only a burning orange sliver, Bennett interrupted our silence once again. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”

“Uh-oh.”

Bennett laughed. “No, it’s nothing. I just wanted to check in with you. With us.”

I held my breath. Despite the fact there was no indication that Bennett wanted to end our relationship, my mind always went there first—a negative thinking loop that rarely left my mind quiet.

“Are you happy, Hansen?”

If Bennett could have seen beneath my oversized sunglasses, she would have noticed the furrow in my brow and the tension lines beginning to crease around my eyes. I tried not to let my paranoid thinking take over, but still, my mind churned with questions. Had I done something wrong? Where was this coming from?

“I am happy, Bennett,” I said cautiously, “but the bigger question here might be, are you?”

Bennett nodded. “It’s been about a year since we met.”

So much in my life had quieted over the last twelve months. Work hummed along, a little too fast-paced at times, but it kept my mind busy and my sense of justice in play. Bennett and I had settled into a rhythm in Spring Rock, a rhythm I’d gladly fallen into. I didn’t want anything to change.

Along the shoreline, a seagull screamed and cawed for its mates. “Almost a year,” I joked, “and we still call each other by our last names.”

Bennett grinned. “We aren’t exactly the conventional lesbian couple, are we?”

“If by conventional you mean U-Haul trailers and month-long camping trips filled with crowded ride festivals, then no. But it’s okay—we do our own thing.”

Bennett nodded. “Sometimes I wonder if our unconventional way is the right way.”

“Bennett, where is this coming from?”

“It’s nothing.” She waved her hand as if she could swat the conversation away. “Really.”

“It’s obviously something or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” I nudged the edge of her kayak with my paddle. “Come on. Tell me what’s up.”

Bennett shrugged as if the entire conversation didn’t matter. “I saw Harvey a few weeks ago.” She avoided my eyes. “I didn’t want to tell you.”

My back bristled with the mention of Detective Alison Harvey—the woman who, at one point, stood between Bennett and me. Harvey was one of Bennett’s past lovers who also worked the Wallace Lake case and had been my mistake after a night of too much drinking and not enough clear thinking.

“And? What did Harvey say?”

“She’s surprised we’re still taking things so slow.”

Even though Harvey had only been a rebound relationship for Bennett, it still made my jealousy boil. I wondered if more happened in the surprise meeting between Harvey and Bennett. Harvey wouldn’t commit to a long-term relationship, which had made her the perfect rebound for Bennett and a one-night stand for me, but I sensed Bennett still thought of Harvey. Would she tell me? Did Bennett wantto fall back into the way things had been between them? There was also the question of what Harvey wanted; she’d proven she wasn’t the type to settle down, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t play around and create chaos in other people’s relationships.

“It’s not like we’re twenty anymore, Bennett. We both have our pasts to contend with. I’d rather take things slow and do what’s right for us,” I said. “Besides, what does Harvey know? It’s not like she’s the romance know-it-all. God, if we had Alice’s L Wordchart for the Midwest, Harvey would be the central hub for all heartland lesbians.”

Bennett chuckled—she was a huge L Wordfan and could quote whole passages, particularly from Shane McCutcheon, the grand player of the series. Bennett’s fascination with the character gave me all the more pause given her recent encounter with Harvey who in some ways resembled Shane.

“Why were you talking to her about us?” I didn’t mean for it to come out as defensive as it did.

“It was nothing, okay? Nothing. We do work together sometimes, you know.”

“Our relationship isn’t work, Bennett.”

Bennett shook her head. “This is why I don’t tell you things. Right here! It always starts an argument about your work.”

I groaned and leaned back into my kayak. If Detective Harvey had been out on the water with us, I would have punched her big smug nose. “I’m just trying to figure out what you want, Ben.”

“I want a relationship that’s stable. I need someone I can count on. I need to know that you are safe at work and will return home at the end of your day. I want to grow old with you, Hansen.”

“There is nothing that says we can’t do exactly that,” I said. “There are no rules, you know.”

The sun was nearly below the horizon, and somewhere outside the mouth of the inlet, the cruiser’s horn blasted and cheers erupted from its passengers. Bennett sat silent a moment, her hands fisted over the oar that rested across the kayak.

Lack of commitment, I knew, was a serious issue with Bennett, who claimed she could find a wayward woman anywhere. Ten years before I met Bennett, she had been in a long-term relationship with a woman she planned to marry. Bennett caught her partner cheating, and it caused the end of the relationship. Bennett retained ownership of the house the two of them bought and still lived in that home.

“There is only one thing I am certain of, Hansen,” Bennett said. “I will not be that woman who stands by her partner’s grave after she has been murdered by some senseless idiot while on the job. I will not be that sobbing widow they hand the folded flag to, the one who nearly faints while the blank shots fire from the gun salute.”

“Come on, Ben. That’s not going to happen.” I reached across our kayaks for her hand.

“You cannot promise that.”

“No,” I said. “But I also can’t promise I won’t die of a heart attack in two years or a car wreck or cancer, either.” I squeezed her hand. “Love is a gamble, but we are worth it.”

Bennett didn’t answer, but she squeezed my hand back and wound her fingers through mine.

The sun had completely dipped below the horizon, and the running board lights of boats flipped on around us. Just as we began to paddle toward shore, my air-raid siren ringtone screamed out. I’d assigned that vicious sound to all work-related calls.

For a few seconds, both of us froze. Then Bennett threw her head back and groaned. “You brought your cell phone on the water? What about our rule!”

I hated the rule, and little did Bennett know, I regularly defied it. Floating time, according to Bennett, was unplugging time—no phones, no music, no texting or email checking. The world can wait, she always told me, at least until we come in from the water.

“It’s not a safe rule, Bennett,” I said, reaching for the phone. “What if something happened?”

“You’re a special agent, and I’m a doctor. Who else could we possibly need in an emergency?”

The phone’s siren screamed again in my hand. I didn’t want the argument that had been brewing between us to suddenly land.

But this mattered, and I couldn’t let it go. It mattered a lot because of Marci Tucker. I’d struggled long and hard with the effects of PTSD since I found my first love murdered. I’d only missed her murder by minutes when I found her body, still warm, bludgeoned inside a cave where we regularly met. It was the moment on which everything in my life hinged, the moment that defined me.

I gestured to the trees and water surrounding us. “I know the terrible kind of mayhem that can go down in nature without access to phones. Death won’t wait for a 9-1-1 call.”

Bennett looked away from me as the story of my past washed over us. We didn’t talk much about Marci, yet she was frequently around us, lingering in some of my words and actions like a ghost I couldn’t shake. It had taken years for me to come to terms with the fact that the murder might not have happened if I had been on time to meet Marci, if I hadn’t gotten caught in a traffic jam on the highway, if I had taken a different route to the caverns.

If, if, if. This tiny word endlessly needled me, particularly when it came to the death of Marci Tucker.

I reached up, my fingertips landing on the cool pendant with Marci’s Celtic cross that I still wore around my neck. It was one of the ways she was always with me.

“Hansen here.”

“It’s Sanders.”

For a few seconds, neither of us spoke. Then he added, “Gobble, gobble.”

I laughed at Colby Sanders’s sad attempt at a joke and suddenly missed him. His voice was one I never wanted to hear on vacation, but if I had to, at least he always made me smile. “What’s up, Sanders?”

“I hope you’re having a good Thanksgiving down there,” he started, “but we have a situation. A prison break at Hartford Correctional.”

My mind turned over everything I knew about the Ohio prison: high security, older prison, with some disturbing reports of officer violence toward inmates. Then it hit me. “No, Sanders. Please tell me this has nothing to do with Deadeye.”

His silence on the other end of the line told me it did.

I looked over at Bennett who mouthed and gestured What?to me. “He’s a high risk inmate. How could this even happen?”

“A transport situation and help from the outside. David Johnson, aka Deadeye, slit both wrists pretty good. No medics on campus today due to the holiday, so he was rushed to the local hospital. Turns out his latest fiancée is a nurse at the hospital and helped plan it all.”

I pressed the heel of one hand against my forehead, the place where a headache teased me. Holidays, I knew, tended to be a time on prison campuses when officials let their guard down, when fewer eyes focused on the inmates. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who knew that secret. “How long has he been gone?”

“The last documented sighting was over four hours ago. Search teams are out, but nothing yet.” I heard the flickof a lighter, and I imagined him igniting the end of his cigarette. “This is big, Hansen. We need to catch him before the media gets ahold of this one. We need to get out to that prison as soon as possible.”

Sanders went on about the flight details out of Charleston, and I thought about Deadeye. I knew his case well. The serial predator had been hunting humans long before I joined the BCI and was finally apprehended in Southeast Ohio after murdering at least six victims, hunter style, in the rural hunting areas of Simmons County. Deadeye was better than a good shot—generally the victims were taken with a single bullet through the head. And he always removed and took with him the victim’s bloodstained shirt, his trophy of death. Deadeye loose and on the streets was more than dangerous—he was explosive.

“Hansen? You with me?”

“Yeah.” I blinked myself back to focus. “I’ll see you in a few hours.”

I hung up and looked out over the glass-calm water. The evening breeze felt good against my face.

“Hansen?” Bennett maneuvered her kayak even closer to mine. “What’s going on?”

“Deadeye,” I said without looking at her.

Her eyes widened at his name. “What do you mean?”

“He’s on the lam.”

I handed her my paddle and then rolled away from her, the weight of my body spinning the kayak upside down. Cool, salty water enveloped me. I slipped out of the kayak underwater and let my body sink into the cool darkness. My T-shirt floated toward my chin and I let the heaviness of the ocean water hold and rock me at its will. Finally, when my lungs began to burn for fresh oxygen, I scissored my legs and reached up, letting my fingertips break the surface of the water.

Bennett held on to the end of my kayak with the edge of a paddle and looked down at me. “Have you lost your mind?” she asked. “The water is freezing.”

I shrugged; trying to convince her to join me in the water would be next to impossible. Instead, I reached up to guide my own kayak.

Bennett kept pace with me while I swam in to shore. I explained what little I knew about the escape and that my flight would leave in about five hours’ time.

“I should go with you,” she said, her voice filled with disappointment.

“No, Ben. Stay if you want to. We have the room until Sunday, and your flight is already booked.”

“You’re okay with that?”

I shrugged. “I’d rather be here with you, and this sucks, but it’s your vacation week, too. If you want to stay, stay. Get in a few more floats and runs and sunsets—more inspiration for your poetry.”

I gave her a quick smile before dipping lower into the evening-dark water. I tasted the salt on my lips and frog-legged a little faster. When Bennett mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out, I let my head slip beneath the water’s skin and kicked toward shore.

Once we reached the landing area, I gave my kayak a strong push and then swam back out into the depths of the water. Bennett stood on the shore watching me with her hands on her hips. Her mouth moved, but I couldn’t make out her words as I sank beneath the surface. My body ached for the feel of water against my skin, the pressure and silence of its weight that helped me to do my very best thinking. My feet eventually found the sandy bottom, and I butterflied my arms as I raced to the water’s surface. It wasn’t just the swim that had my heart rate up, but that all-too-familiar pull of a strong case. My work always had a way of digging its hooks into me, of gripping tight my mind, body, and soul in a way that made my breath quicker, my heartbeat stronger. Nothing, absolutely nothing else had ever made me feel more alive than the hunt for a killer and the need for justice.

I hoped Bennett would wait on me before heading back to the hotel, but I already knew she wouldn’t. By the time I would come in from the dark water to shower, she would have already organized my things for the flight and headed into bed.

 

Chapter Two

Hartford Correctional Institution

Friday, 4:30 a.m.

Day 1 of the investigation

 

The county sheriff and prison officials held Debbie Turner, RN, in an isolated conference room at Hartford Correctional Institution. Ironic, really, given that she had just assisted her fiancé’s escape from that very place. The sheriff reasoned that the setting would persuade her to talk. Such an explanation fell short with me—clearly they’d decided to use the nurse as some sort of bait for Deadeye. The sheriff was not only sending Deadeye a blatant message, but also all his prison colleagues: We have your woman. It’s you or her—decide wisely.It was only a matter of time before one of Deadeye’s brothers on the inside got word to him on the outside. As Sanders and I made our way through the first security gate and emptied our pockets into plastic bins for the detectors, though, I knew such a ploy would never work. In order for Deadeye to respond, he would have to care about Debbie Turner. Deadeye was a classic sociopath—he didn’t care about anyone except himself.

Hartford was one of the largest prisons in Ohio and had once been the administration site of the state’s death penalty. When that distinction had moved on to a newer and shinier prison, some of Ohio’s most dangerous criminals were left behind inside its walls. The large campus spread over twenty-five acres along a rural route that was mainly used by farmers and prison employees. Fields surrounded the prison grounds, and for many years the inmates worked the land that was at one time filled with cattle and tall stalks of corn. Since the state deemed that kind of work too physical for inmates, the fields grew wild. There was no question that escaping from the campus would leave someone with very limited options without some kind of transportation out of the vastness of rural Ohio. Deadeye, as usual, had planned well.

Once we cleared security, Robert Spen, Hartford’s warden, met and walked us through Deadeye’s movements the day before. Still on mandatory lockdown, the prison halls were virtually empty except for the guards who monitored the facility. Nervous and speaking much too fast, Spen tried to explain the escape. As we walked, his eyes never left the tiled floor. Spen was wiry thin, and he struck me as a man who lived in a constant agitated state. The recent happenings had only heightened it. He knew his team had screwed up, and it was obvious he worried what an escape of such a high profile inmate would do to his career.

Spen led us to the isolation cell where Deadeye had cut his wrists. “Our best guess,” Spen said, “is the new fiancée somehow slipped him the blade before he ended up in the tank.”

“Did they have a recent visit?” Sanders asked.

“Five days ago,” Spen said. “We’ve gone over the visitation room footage, and we can’t detect that anything was exchanged between them. We do know that the nurse fills in on our campus when our regulars call in. She last worked here eleven days ago. It’s possible she slipped him the blade then. We just don’t know.”

Sanders jammed his fisted hands deep in his pockets. “Are you telling me no one caught that the nurse who is employed here was also on David Johnson’s approved and active visitation list?”

Spen hung his head and ran his fingers over his buzz cut. “Look, our campus is packed, and we’re down three guards—”

“Save it,” Sanders grumbled.

The holding cell had been recently cleaned and stank of a lethal combination of bleach and disinfectant. I stepped in and walked the tight perimeter of the room.

“Tell me about what brought him here. The fight.”

“Right, the fight.” Spen, happy for the distraction from Sanders, followed me in and hitched his fists against his waist just over his utility belt. “It happened with one of the newer guards, Trent Simon. From all accounts, the guard picked a fight with Deadeye. He insisted on searching Deadeye’s cell based on reports of possible contraband. Simon tossed everything—he took some items from the cell even though he reportedly found no contraband. Deadeye reacted by breaking Simon’s nose and jaw while pummeling his head. Simon is in a coma from multiple head injuries.”

“Has that cell been cleaned up?”

Spen nodded. “His cellie took on that task, apparently.”

I flipped over the thin plastic mattress in the isolation cell and examined the cement ledge that served as a bed for any scrawled messages.

“Deadeye was housed here just under twenty-four hours after the assault on Simon. The medical call went out at 2:25 p.m. yesterday.”

“Deadeye alerted staff of his own condition?” I asked.

“Yes. The report states he was fighting consciousness when he called for help.”

I scanned the cell one more time. Everything had been set up, and the only surprise in the whole scheme was most likely to the guard who ended up in a coma with a broken jaw and nose. Trent Simon was a lucky guy—most didn’t escape Deadeye with their life.

I turned to Warden Spen who finally had the nerve to look me in the eye. “Take us to Debbie Turner, please. I’d like to hear what the nurse has to say for herself.”

 

v

 

Colby Sanders sat beside me. His weathered hands, which had lost their summer tan from the golf course and the shooting range, wrapped around a steaming Styrofoam cup of coffee. As he considered Debbie Turner across the table from us, I considered him. Sanders’s hair had grown so silver in places it was nearly white, and his face pulled with exhaustion. He’d been working hard to close multiple cases for the Bureau before the end of the year. By the looks of Sanders slumped in the metal chair, he was the one in need of a vacation in a southern beachside resort.

The prison-issued metal table had seen better days. Secured to the floor, its dull top was dinged in multiple places and warped with years of use. Sanders leaned in, spreading his elbows wide across the table—one of his trusted tactics in interviews to make his body appear bigger. “This song and dance is wearing thin,” he barked.

Across from us, Debbie smiled. “I’ve told you all I can. My man is exactly where he is supposed to be.”

Sanders sighed. We’d been at it an hour, and both of us had had enough of her cryptic answers. “And where is that, exactly?”

Debbie giggled as her thin blond hair fell limp around her long drawn face.

Sanders rolled his eyes at me, and I couldn’t help but chuckle at the absurdity of the nurse. I hadn’t slept in hours and interviewing this woman was like trying to extract a story from a three-year-old. She was hiding something, though; both Sanders and I sensed it, and we didn’t intend to let her go until she told us something we could go on.

I took a turn with her. “He used you. You get that, right? You’ve been a pawn in Deadeye’s plan, Debbie. Nothing more.”

“You’re wrong. And his name is David. David Johnson loves me,” she said. She leaned back in her chair and folded her slim hands in her lap. “He loves me more than anyone ever has or could.”

I flipped back in my notes. According to prison records, Debbie had only been corresponding with Deadeye for about a year. Their prison romance began when she filled in for a nurse and David Johnson came to the clinic for a common prison ailment—scabies. The red fiery rash covered his hands and climbed up his arms. It crawled over his back and down into his groin. He’d waited much too long to get the parasite treated, and he’d scratched himself bloody. Debbie assisted the doctor that day, providing Deadeye with a medicated wash and oral medication. Records showed that she later made written contact with him, and a series of letters followed between them. They handwrote the letters at first, snail-mailing back and forth until they burned out on the writing. The expensive prison phone system then became their chosen method of communication. Officers on site were sifting through the routine recordings of every conversation between the two.

“I can see the allure,” I told Debbie, trying hard not to choke on my words. “David is handsome. But I bet it’s something so much more that pulls you to him. His thoughtfulness, right? He actually listened to you. He paid attention to you.”

Debbie gave us another grin. “It’s not just that he paid attention to me. He thoughtabout me. A lot.”

I nodded for her to go on.

“Sometimes at night I would twist up in my blanket and think of him thinking of me. I tried to imagine what he noticed about me. Was it my smile? My conversation with him earlier that day on the phone? Or was it my hands?” She held up her hands for us to examine them, her fingers tapping against one another. “My healing hands—that’s what David liked to call them.”

“Because of the scabies,” I nudged her.

“That, but he also talked about my hands like they had magic. Like they could cure anything if I touched a person. A little like Jesus, I guess.”

“Seriously? You fell for Deadeye because he compared you to Jesus?” Sanders butted in. I shot him a look that said hush up.

“It was more than that,” Debbie argued. “No one had ever thought of me before, longed for me like that. No one ever thought I was beautiful. And David…he saw me, you know? I mean, not many men really seeme.”

I imagined what was going through Sanders mind—What in the hell is she talking about? Everyone can see her unless they’re blind.

On some level, I understood what Debbie meant. There were multiple ways to see a person, and I was willing to bet that most men overlooked Debbie or just plain saw right through her. In her early forties, she reminded me of a washed-out photograph, the vibrancy muted, the edges ratty and worn.

“It’s not easy to find people like that,” I said.

Debbie smiled big, almost prideful, and I noticed her chipped front tooth, a dark triangle in her smile. She was so pleased with herself that the plan had worked, that she had done everything right, and that Deadeye was out and in the world once again. She couldn’t wait to be rewarded for her loyal work.

“We’re holding your car as evidence,” Sanders said. “There are BOLOs out in the tristate area and soon we’ll go nationwide. He won’t last long out there, Debbie.”

“Surveillance footage from the hospital shows you left the car tucked in a underground parking garage. What did you leave inside the car for him?” I asked. “Besides the key?” Debbie rubbed her belly and ignored my question. “Have you told the world? That David is out? How much cash was in the car, Debbie? What kind of weapon?”

“The world needs to know that David is free,” Debbie insisted.

“He’s not free,” Sanders corrected her. “He never will be. Things will be much harder for him every minute that he is gone. If you love him, help us. And we will help you. We might be able to work something out so that you’re able to visit him.”

We’d thrown out this carrot multiple times, the chance to meet face-to-face with Deadeye, but Debbie wasn’t going for it. Over the course of the interview, we’d learned virtually nothing more than Debbie Turner was undoubtedly and wholeheartedly smitten with David Johnson, AKA Deadeye.

As Sanders prodded Debbie for more information, I watched her hands. There was something about the way she rubbed her belly, the knowing way she looked at us.

I interrupted Sanders. “How far along are you, Debbie?”

For a moment, no one moved or spoke. Sanders broke the moment when he jumped up and yelled, “Dear Lord, don’t tell me. Don’t you dare tell me it’s his.”

Debbie let out a crazed cackle-giggle. She was more than pleased with herself that I’d finally figured it out. “It’s David’s,” she confirmed. “A boy.”

“No,” Sanders argued.

“Yes,” Debbie squealed. “A real miracle child.”

Sanders turned to me. “I don’t even want to know how.”

There were many crazy stories in law enforcement about the ways in which inmates impregnated their partners despite Ohio’s ban on conjugal visits. We’d heard just about everything, from visitors swallowing small balloons full of sperm to kitchen workers sneaking out sperm on a delivery or a waste removal truck.

We didn’t have to guess with Debbie. For the first time in the interview, she offered us information. “We timed it. You know, sperm only live so long outside the warmth of a human body. Those latex clinic gloves and a battery-operated slow cooker are great for just about anything.”

I was skeptical at best—perfect timing or not, it was a far-fetched story. I questioned Debbie’s mental health once again. Was she as delusional as she sounded? “What about the person you paid to bring it out? Who was it?”

She only smiled, but I had a strong guess—the same guard who helped Deadeye into a solitary holding tank. Trent Simon who was now in a coma. The cash could be hard for guards and prison employees to turn down, especially when it was as simple as bringing sperm to someone inside a medical glove

“How well do you know Trent Simon?”

Debbie only laughed, but she’d shut down in her glee over the baby. It was clear we’d get no more from her. She wanted us to know about the baby and about their clever plan to get Daddy out of prison. In all honesty, though, I doubted Debbie Turner could really tell us much more. Deadeye wouldn’t have told her much, realizing that she might break under our questioning. Most likely he promised to contact her after he’d been out of prison for a few days.

Debbie Turner had already been arrested for aiding and abetting a prisoner’s escape, and we could now add to that arrest hustling contraband from prison. Not that it would add much time to her sentence if she was convicted, but it was the principle of it—the disgusting lengths she would go to for Deadeye.

As Sanders and I walked out of the prison, I ordered a DNA test to be certain of the baby’s father and checked my phone for any updates on the search. Nothing. It was like Deadeye slipped out of his hospital room and simply vanished.

“We have a few hours until the press conference at BCI headquarters. What do you say we grab some shut-eye back at the office?”

“Sounds good to me.” Since Sanders picked me up at the airport, I didn’t have much choice. At least at the office, I could either check out a vehicle or hitch a ride home at some point to get my truck.

The morning sun crested the horizon, and Sanders drove over the backcountry roads in silence. Both of us worried about the escape and what it meant—nothing good could come from David Johnson’s escape. He hadn’t been able to control his urges to kill before prison, and he certainly wouldn’t be able to control them now. It was only a matter of time until Deadeye claimed another victim.