Bestselling author Kay Hooper returns with a relentless thriller that brings her readers face-to-face with fear itself. In this terrifying novel, a psychic special agent finds herself caught up in a tangled web of secrets, lies . . . and evil.
Riley Crane woke up fully dressed, a gun under her pillow, and covered in blood. Even more frightening, she didn’t remember what happened the night before. In fact, she barely remembered the previous three weeks.
An ex-army officer, now a federal agent assigned to the Special Crimes Unit, Riley was a chameleon–a clairvoyant who could blend in with her surroundings, be anyone or anything she chose to be. The SCU’s expert on the occult, she’d been sent to the beachfront cottage on Opal Island by her enigmatic chief, Noah Bishop, to investigate reports of dangerous occult activity.
But that was three weeks ago. Now she’s awoken to discover that she’s got a sexy new man in her life and an unreliable memory, and that the clairvoyant abilities she’s always depended on to protect her are MIA. Worse yet, with SCU resources stretched thinner than ever before, Riley is alone and without backup, feeling her way through a deadly game of blindman’s buff, where no one around her is quite who or what they seem. And a bizarre murder is only the first jarring reminder of how high the stakes really are.
Bishop wants Riley off the case. So does powerful local D.A. Ash Prescott. Both her old retired army buddy Gordon Skinner and Sheriff Jake Ballard believe she can catch a vicious killer. But one of these four men knows exactly what’s going on in this coastal community, and that’s knowledge Riley desperately needs. For what Riley can’t remember is more than enough to cost her her life. This time evil isn’t just closer than she thinks–it’s already there.
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Even before she opened her eyes, Riley Crane was aware of two things. Her pounding head, and the smell of blood.
Neither was all that unusual.
Instinct and training made her lie perfectly still, eyes closed, until she was reasonably sure she was fully awake. She was on her stomach and probably on a bed, she thought. Possibly her own bed. On top of the covers, or at least not covered up.
She opened her eyes a slit, just enough to see. Rumpled covers, pillows. Her rumpled covers and pillows, she decided. Her bed. The nightstand, holding the usual nightstand accessories of lamp, an untidy stack of books, and an alarm clock.
The red numbers announced that it was 2:00 p.m.
Okay, that was unusual. She never slept late, and she never took naps. Plus, while either a headache or the smell of blood was not uncommon in her life, the two together were setting off alarm bells in her mind.
Riley concentrated on listening, her unease growing when she realized that she could hear only on the "normal" level. The faint hum of the air-conditioning. The muffled rumble and crash of the surf out on the beach. A gull screaming as it flew past the house. The sort of stuff the usual everyday sense of hearing could glean automatically without any added concentration or focus.
But nothing else. Try as she might, she couldn't hear the underlying pulse of the house that was made up of things like the water in the plumbing and electricity humming in the lines and the all-but-imperceptible shifting and creaking of seemingly solid wood and stone as wind blew off the ocean and pressed against the building.
She couldn't hear any of it. And that was bad.
Taking the chance, Riley pushed herself up on her elbows and then slid her right hand underneath the pillows. Ahhh . . . at least it was there, right where it was supposed to be. Her hand closed over the reassuring grip of her weapon, and she pulled it out, giving it a quick visual scan.
Clip in, safety on, no round in the chamber. She automatically ejected the clip, checked that it was full, and slid it back into place, then chambered a round, the action quick and smooth after so many years of practice. The gun in her hand felt comfortable. That was right.
But something else was very wrong.
She could see the blood now as well as smell it. It was on her.
Riley rolled and sat up in a single motion, her gaze darting around the bedroom warily. Her bedroom, something she recognized with a sense of familiarity, the reassurance of being where she should be. And it was empty except for her.
Her head was pounding even harder from the quick movements, but she ignored it as she looked down at herself. The hand holding the gun was smeared with dried blood, and when she shifted the weapon to her other hand, she saw that it was as well. On her palms, on the backs of her hands, her forearms, even, she saw, underneath her fingernails.
As far as she could tell, there was no blood on the covers, the pillows. Which meant all the blood on her had dried before she had apparently fallen across the bed fully dressed and gone to sleep. Or passed out. Either way . . .
Blood on her hands. Blood on her light-colored T-shirt. Blood on her faded jeans.
A lot of blood.
Was she hurt? She didn't feel any pain, apart from the throbbing headache. But she did feel a cold, growing fear, because waking up covered with blood could not, by any stretch of the imagination, possibly be a good thing.
She got herself off the bed, a little stiff and more than a little shaky, and moved on bare feet out of the bedroom. Quickly but cautiously, she checked her surroundings to reassure herself that she was alone, that no immediate threat existed here. The second bedroom was neat as a pin and looked as though it hadn't been used recently, which was probably the case; Riley seldom had the sort of guests that required an extra bedroom.
Checking out the remainder of the house was quick work, since most of it consisted of a large open area that was kitchen, dining area, and living room. Clean, but slightly untidy, with books, magazines, newspapers, CDs, and DVDs stacked here and there. The usual clutter of everyday life.
It looked like she'd been using the small dining table as a work surface, since place mats were pushed aside and her laptop carrying case was on one of the chairs. The computer wasn't out, which told her only that she probably hadn't been working on it recently.
The doors were closed and locked. The windows were also closed--it was hot in summer along the South Carolina coast--and locked.
She was alone.
Nevertheless, Riley took her weapon along when she went into her bathroom and checked behind the shower curtain before she locked herself in the relatively small room. Then she suffered another shock when she looked into the mirror above the vanity.
More dried blood was on her face, smeared across her cheek, and some appeared to be matted in her pale hair. Thickly matted.
Her stomach churned, and she stood there for a moment, eyes closed, until the nausea passed. Then she laid her weapon on the vanity and stripped to the skin.
She checked every inch of herself and found nothing. No injury, not even a scratch. It wasn't her blood.
That should have been reassuring. It wasn't. She was covered with blood, and it wasn't hers. Which left her with a hell of a lot of unsettling, potentially terrifying, questions.
What--or who--had bled all over her? What had happened? And why couldn't she remember?
Riley looked down at the crumpled clothing on the floor, then at herself, pale gold with her summer tan, her skin unmarked except for the dried blood on her hands and forearms.
Forearms. Somehow or other, she'd literally been up to her elbows in blood. Jesus.
Ignoring all the training that insisted she call the local authorities before doing another thing, Riley got into the shower. She made the water as hot as she could stand and used plenty of soap, scrubbing away the dried blood. She used a nailbrush to reach the dark slivers of dried blood underneath her fingernails and shampooed her short hair at least twice. Even after it was clean, after she was clean, she stood under the hot water, letting it beat against her shoulders, her neck, her still-sickly pounding head.
What had happened?
She didn't have the faintest clue, that was the hell of it. She had absolutely no memory of how she'd gotten herself covered with blood.
She remembered lots of other things. Almost all the important stuff, really. "Your name is Riley Crane," she muttered aloud, trying to reassure herself that something wasn't terribly wrong. "You're thirty-two years old, single, and a federal agent assigned, these last three years, to the Special Crimes Unit."
Name, rank, serial number--more or less. Knowledge she was certain of.
No amnesia there. She knew who she was. An army brat with four older brothers, she'd grown up all over the world, had a rich and varied education, a wide range of training of a kind few women could claim, and had been able to take care of herself from a very young age. And she knew where she belonged, in the FBI, in the SCU. All that she remembered.
As for her recent life . . .
Christ, what was the last thing she remembered? She vaguely remembered renting the cottage, sort of remembered settling in. Carrying boxes and bags from the car. Putting things away. Walking on the beach. Sitting out on the deck in the darkness at night, feeling the warm ocean breeze on her face and--
Not alone. Somebody out there with her. The vague, fuzzy memory of quiet voices. Hushed laughter. A touch she felt, for a fleeting second, so strongly that she looked down at her hand in bemusement.
And then it was gone.
Try as she might, Riley couldn't remember anything else clearly. It became a confusing jumble in her head. Just flashes, most of which made no sense to her. Faces that were unfamiliar, places she didn't remember being, random snatches of conversations she didn't understand.
Flashes punctuated by jabs of pain in her head.
Blaming the headache for the huge blank space that was her recent past, Riley got out of the shower and dried off. It was just the headache, of course. She'd swallow a few aspirin and get some food into her system, some caffeine into her veins, and then she'd remember. Surely. She wrapped a towel around her and, picking up her weapon again, returned to the bedroom to find fresh clothing.
It struck her, as she opened drawers and checked the closet, that she had been here awhile. She really was settled in, far more so than was her habit. This wasn't her usual living-out-of-a-suitcase jumble. Her clothing was fairly neat in the drawers, hanging in the closet. And it was more than beach vacation clothing.
Casual stuff, yes, but several dressy things as well, from nice slacks and silk blouses to dresses. Even heels and hose.
So, okay. She was here to work, that had to be it. The problem was, she couldn't seem to remember what the job was.
Riley opened one drawer and pulled out an extremely pretty, lacy, sexy bra-and-panty set, and felt her eyebrows rising. Not her usual stuff at all, obviously new, and there was more in the drawer. What the hell kind of job was she here to do, anyway?
That question echoed even stronger in her mind when she also discovered a garter belt.
A garter belt, for crying out loud.
"Jesus, Bishop, what've you got me doing this time?"
3 Years Previously
"I need somebody like you on my team." Noah Bishop, Chief of the FBI Special Crimes Unit, could be persuasive when he wanted to. And he definitely wanted to.
Riley Crane eyed him, her doubt and her wariness obvious. Knowing her background, he understood and had expected both.
She was interesting, he thought. Physically not at all what he'd expected: A bit below average height and petite, almost fragile in appearance, she didn't look as if she could throw a man more than twice her size over her shoulder with little apparent effort. Large gray eyes that were deceptively childlike, gazing innocently out of an elfin face that was quirky and intriguing and infinitely memorable without being in any way beautiful.
Fascinating that such a face belonged to a chameleon.
"Why me?" she demanded, straight to the point.
Bishop appreciated the directness, and answered matter-of-factly. "Aside from the necessary skills as an investigator, you possess two unique abilities I expect will prove highly useful in our work. You can fit yourself into any situation and be anyone you choose to be at any given time, and you're clairvoyant."
Riley didn't bother to protest. She merely said, "I like playing dress-up. Playing Let's Pretend. When you live in your imagination as a kid, you get good at stuff like that. As for the other, since I haven't gone out of my way to advertise--just the opposite, in fact--how did you find out?"
"I keep my ear to the ground," Bishop replied with a shrug.
"Not good enough."
"I'm building a unit around agents with paranormal abilities, and I've spent a great deal of time these last few years . . . casting out lines. Quietly alerting people I trust, within law enforcement and outside it, as to the sort of potential agents I'm looking for."
"Not just any psychics. I need exceptionally strong people who can handle both their abilities and the emotional and psychological hardships of the work we do." He nodded to the scene just past her. "It seems fairly obvious that you can handle the sort of extreme stress I'm talking about."
Riley glanced back over her shoulder, where the rest of her team was working in the rubble of what might or might not have been a deliberate explosion. The victims had been located and carried--on stretchers or in body bags--from the scene hours ago; now the army investigators were searching for evidence.
"I haven't been doing this particular sort of thing for long," Riley said. "I tend toward investigative work, sure, but my last job dealt with base security. I go wherever I'm sent."
"So your CO told me."
"You spoke to him?"
Bishop hesitated only long enough to make it obvious, then said, "He's the one who got in touch with me."
"So he's one of those trusted people you mentioned?"
"He is. The friend of a friend, more or less. And open-minded to the possibilities of the paranormal, a trait not terribly common in the military. No offense intended, obviously."
"None taken. Obviously. What did he tell you?"
"He seems to feel that your talents are being wasted and that he can't offer you the kind of challenges he believes you need."
"He said that?"
"Words to the effect. You're on short time, I take it, with a few weeks left before you re-up. Or not."
"I'm career military," she said.
"Or not," Bishop said.
Riley shook her head slightly, and said, "Offhand, Agent Bishop, I can't think of a single reason why I'd want to exchange the military life for one with the FBI--however specialized your unit is. Besides, even if I do get an occasional hunch, it never makes a difference in the outcome of any given situation."
"We can help you learn how to channel and focus your abilities, how to use them constructively. You might be surprised at just how much of a difference that can make--in any given situation."
Without waiting for a response from her, Bishop opened the briefcase he carried and extracted a large, thick manila envelope. "Take a look at this when you get the chance," he said, handing it to her. "Tonight, tomorrow. After that, if you're interested, give me a call. My number's inside."
"And if I'm not interested?"
"Everything in there is a copy. If you're not interested, destroy it and forget about it. But I'm betting you'll be interested. So I'll stick around for a few days, Major. Just in case."
Riley stood gazing after him for a long moment, tapping the envelope against her hand thoughtfully. Then she locked it in her vehicle and got back to work.
It wasn't until much later that evening, alone in her small off-base apartment, that she discovered Bishop hadn't been entirely truthful. One thing in the envelope wasn't a copy.
She had half-consciously steeled herself before opening the envelope, partly because common sense told her the sort of thing she was likely to find and partly because her extra sense was tingling a warning as well--and had been from the moment she'd first touched it. But years of disciplined living, particularly in the military, had taught her a fair amount about concentration and focus, so that she was usually able to damp down those distracting feelings until she needed them.
Until she was ready to focus on what she saw when she upended the envelope onto her desk.
Copies, yeah. Copies of hell. Autopsy reports--and autopsy photos. Crime-scene photos. Not just one crime, but half a dozen. Murders of what appeared to be healthy young men. Brutal murders, cruel and bloody and savage.
Without looking through the autopsy reports, Riley nevertheless knew the murders had taken place in different cities and towns. She knew all the victims had known their killer. She knew only one killer was responsible.
She also knew what Bishop intended to do in order to catch that killer.
"So that's why me," she said to herself. A challenge? Oh, yes, definitely. The challenge of a lifetime. A deadly test of her skills. All of them.
She reached out slowly and picked up the single object from the envelope that was not a copy. It was a coin, a half-dollar. Nothing, apparently, unusual about it at all. Except that when she touched it, Riley knew one thing more.
She knew what would happen if she refused Bishop's invitation.
In the end, there wasn't a great deal to think about. Riley found the card with his cell number on it and placed the call. She didn't bother with pleasantries when he answered.
"You don't play fair," she said.
"I don't play," he replied.
"Something I should remember, for future reference?"
"You tell me."
Riley closed her fingers over the coin in her hand, and sighed. "Where do I sign up?"