Private investigator Alexandra Lovell uses computer skills and cunning to help clients drop off the radar and begin new lives in safety. Melanie Bess, desperate to escape her abusive cop husband, was one of those clients. But when Melanie vanishes for real, Alex fears the worst, and sets out to discover what happened. Using every resource she can get her hands on—including an elite team of forensic scientists known as the Tracers, and a jaded, sexy Austin PD detective—Alex embarks on a mission to uncover the truth.
As far as homicide cop Nathan Deveraux is concerned, no body means no case. But as much as he wants to believe that Alex’s hunch about Melanie’s murder is wrong, his instincts—and their visceral attraction—won't let him walk away. As a grim picture of what really happened begins to emerge, Nathan realizes this investigation runs deeper than they could ever have guessed. And each step nearer the truth puts Alex in danger of being the next to disappear.
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Melanie bumped along the pitted road, almost certain she wasn't lost. She peered through the darkness and drizzle, searching for nonexistent landmarks. Had she missed it again? No way. First left after the low-water bridge --
She spotted the yellow porch light and sighed. Finally. Sex and Mexican food. She'd been craving both all day -- in that order -- since Joe had called to tell her he was off tonight.
The Blazer pitched down, then up again, its worn shocks responding to every rut as she neared the house. She pulled in behind Joe's Honda and noticed the house's darkened windows. Maybe the game had ended. With a giddy rush, she gathered up the carryout bag and pushed open the door. The smell of warm tortilla chips mingled with the cool dampness of the spring night. She glanced at the house again --
The back of her neck tingled. She heard a voice from her past, a faint echo at first, then a whisper. She gazed at the house through the raindrops as the whisper grew louder.
Go, go, go!
And she did, numbly dropping the takeout food and yanking the door shut. Turning the key and shoving the Blazer into gear. Shooting backward down the driveway, then retracing her course, only the gentle bumps were bone-jarring now as she sped toward the highway with a hammering heart.
He was there.
How did she know? She just knew. Something about the house told her, something she could figure out later. She tried to keep the Blazer centered on the road as she rummaged for her phone. Her trembling fingers dialed Joe.
Tears burned her eyes. She reached the paved highway and slammed on the brakes just as a sports car zipped past.
Think, damn it. What would Alex do? The tires shrieked as Melanie pulled onto the highway and groped for a plan. She had one. She had a plan.
What was it?
She took a deep breath. Her emergency kit was in the back. She could leave this instant, no stops. She could go to her safe spot.
But what about Joe? She slowed again. She had to go back.
A pair of headlights winked into her rearview mirror. The objective part of her brain registered the height, the shape, the spacing. The rest panicked.
She floored the gas pedal. Her pulse skittered as the car behind her sped up, too. The speedometer inched past sixty, but still the lights behind her refused to fade. Her hands clenched the steering wheel. Her heart pumped furiously. He couldn't have found her. Not now.
Why hadn't she listened to Alex?
A curve in the road. She jerked the wheel, then struggled for control. She felt the spin coming, felt her stomach drop out as the tires glided across the asphalt. Brakes squealed -- or maybe it was her scream -- and a wall of bushes rushed at her. Metal crunched. Her nose hit the wheel.
Then nothing. Just the rasp of her breathing and the tip-tap of rain over her head. No air bag. She clutched her abdomen and tried to take stock. Blood, warm and coppery, seeped into her mouth.
The thought spurred her body into action. She pushed at the door, heavy because of the angle. She was in a ditch. She threw her shoulder against the door and muscled it open. Branches snapped at her cheeks as she heaved herself out of the car.
The only light nearby was a head lamp, now buried in leaves. Rain pelted her face. She blinked at the surrounding gloom and tried to orient herself.
She heard a low rumble -- like thunder, but not. It was a pickup, diesel engine, somewhere behind her. She listened, paralyzed with terror, as the rumble ceased and a door slammed shut. He was here. The nightmare she'd imagined so many times, in vivid detail, was happening.
She clawed wildly at the vines and branches. Panting now, she crashed like an animal through the woods. No car. No phone. No emergency kit.
A distant whir growing nearer. Tires on pavement. She scrambled toward the sound. She broke through the foliage just as the car whizzed by.
"Help!" she screamed, waving her arms at the shrinking taillights.
Her mistake hit her. She ducked back into the bushes, but it was too late. He was right behind her, closer now, so close she could hear his grunts and breaths.
Move! she willed her rubbery legs. She choked back a sob as he came closer, closer. Then smack! she was on the ground, her legs pinned. No air, no breath. She scratched and elbowed and kicked, her heel hitting something soft. A moan. She jerked herself free and lunged for the road. Another car -- she heard it, saw its lights beckoning her to safety. Just a few more feet...She reached for the light, the pavement. She clawed at the gravel.
A hand clamped around her ankle and dragged her back.
Two days later
Alex Lovell downed her last sip of tepid coffee, slung her camera around her neck, and checked her watch. Late again.
Fortunately, the subject of today's surveillance liked to sleep in. Less fortunately, he lived in his girlfriend's apartment near campus, which meant parking was going to be a bitch. As a backup plan, Alex grabbed the orange traffic cone that lived in the corner of her office and helped her get away with damn near anything.
Outside, an early morning downpour had snarled traffic. Alex cast a glance over her shoulder as she hurriedly locked the office. Cars inched along Lavaca Street, and she tried to decide which route to UT would be fastest.
A shadow fell over her.
"Scuse me, ma'am?"
She surveyed the man's reflection in the glass door before answering. Boots, jeans, western-style jacket. His six-foot frame was augmented by a cowboy hat. Was this guy for real?
"Think I might be lost," he drawled.
She turned around. "Cattle Raisers Association's two blocks over."
He smiled slightly, and the lines bracketing his mouth deepened. "I'm looking for Lovell Solutions."
She nodded at the words etched on the glass door beside her. "Looks like you found it."
"Are you Alexandra Lovell?"
"Yes," she said, certain this wasn't news.
"I have something to discuss with you. Only take a minute," he added, as she glanced at her watch.
"What's your name?"
"What do you do?"
"I'm a lawyer."
She eyed him skeptically. Tufts of white hair peeked up from his shirt collar, and a slight paunch hung over his belt buckle. She put him at fifty-five. Her gaze dropped to his boots, shiny black ostrich. She'd been in Texas long enough to recognize expensive footwear.
She thought about this month's receivables. "Five minutes," she said, glancing at her watch again.
She dropped the cone on the sidewalk and unlocked the door. "And I'll hang on to that SIG while we talk, if you don't mind."
You would have thought she'd asked him to surrender his dick. His gray eyes narrowed as he fished the pistol out from the holster beneath his jacket. He passed it to her, butt first.
She led the way into her air-conditioned reception room. It lacked a receptionist. Alex glanced at the door to her messy office, which thankfully was closed. As the visitor removed his hat, she walked behind her assistant's recently vacated desk.
"Little paranoid?" He glanced pointedly at the security camera mounted up near the ceiling.
She shrugged. "You can never be too careful." The last man she'd let in here armed had put her in the hospital.
Alex nodded at a vinyl chair. "Have a seat." She placed the pistol on top of the file cabinet behind her and settled into a swivel chair. "What can I do for you, Mr. Scoffield?"
He deposited his hat, brim up, on the mini-fridge beside him. "I'm here on behalf of a James Bess. I have it on good authority that his estranged daughter hired you a few months back."
"I don't know any Bess."
"Melanie Bess? Married name Coghan?"
"Never heard of her."
"Well, that's too bad. See, Melanie's come into some money, and it's my job to get it to her." He watched her, as if to see whether "money" was Alex's magic word. Sometimes it was. But at the moment she was more interested in determining this guy's agenda.
She tilted her chair back. "Where'd you say you were from again?"
"Midland," he said. "Drove in this morning."
"Long trip. You probably should've called first."
They stared at each other for a moment. He pulled a photograph out of his jacket pocket and slid it across the desk. "You recognize Melanie?"
The picture showed a smiling teenage girl posing for the camera in a cheerleading uniform. Curly hair, laughing brown eyes, dimple. She looked a lot like Alex had in high school, only blond and popular and with big breasts.
"She's pretty," Alex said. "I'd definitely remember her."
"Listen, Miss Lovell." He leaned forward and rested his elbow on the desk between them. "I really need to find Melanie. Her daddy just passed away. She's got a lot of money coming to her, and I bet she could use it. Last I checked, she wasn't exactly flush, if you know what I mean."
"Have you tried the Internet?" Alex tipped her head to the side. "The online White Pages can be an amazing resource these days, if you're trying to find someone."
He frowned at her across the desk. She watched neutrally as he stood and tucked the photo back into his pocket, then rested his hands on his hips and gazed down at her. "How good are you at finding people?"
"If you can afford it, I can find them."
"How much to track down Melanie Bess?"
She shrugged. "I'm pretty booked up right now. It would take me at least a few days to get to it."
"The money'd be good." He produced a business card and passed it to her.
She stood and slipped the card into the back pocket of her jeans. "I'll think about it."
He collected his hat, and she followed him to the door. When they were out on the sidewalk, she returned the pistol, and he wedged it back into his holster.
"You think about my offer, now." He tipped his hat and strolled away.
In the side mirror of her car, Alex watched him head east, toward Congress Avenue, and turn the corner. She took out her phone and keyed a three-word message. She flagged it "urgent" and pressed Send.
Alex drove a five-year-old Saturn that got great gas mileage and almost never went into the shop. A surveillance vehicle it was not.
Despite a battery-powered fan, Alex spent her morning sweltering in the Saturn's front seat and waiting for a subject who never showed. By lunchtime, she was ready to call it quits. But the guy's insurance company was her top-paying client, and they were giving her good money to tail him with her camera wherever he went.
So Alex stayed. And sweated. Between PowerBars and a sprint to the corner gas station for a much-needed break, she made dozens of calls searching for any trace of Melanie Bess.
By evening, she'd found one.
Alex was on the move again now, still unable to believe it. The low-profile life she'd gone to great lengths to set up for Melanie was no more. Melanie had quit her job, canceled her utilities, and moved out of the Orlando apartment she'd rented under a corporate name just six months ago. And then Melanie committed the cardinal sin for women on the run.
She came back.
The news burned in Alex's chest as she navigated the ruts of the gravel road. All that effort, and her client had come right back to the place she'd tried so hard to leave behind.
Alex passed a weathered wooden sign for Shady Shores RV Park. She crossed the low-water bridge and hung a left at a gnarled oak. Another quarter mile of scrub brush, and there it was: 15 Moccasin Road, the house number stenciled right on the mailbox.
Alex gazed with apprehension at the modest wooden cabin. It was so small. And dark. The dread that had been nipping away at her for hours took another bite.
Alex scanned the nearby cabins and trailers. Some had been boarded up, others simply abandoned. Most lakefront property in Austin was expensive, but this scrap of land looked to be the exception. She glanced at the rusty spires rising over the tree line. The nearby power plant probably wasn't doing much for property values.
Alex parked in front of the house and unfolded herself from the car. She shook out her stiff legs and studied the overgrown yard. No cars, no sounds. The place seemed deserted. Maybe it was, and Melanie was merely using it as a dummy address.
And maybe Alex was giving her too much credit.
Six months. Six months and she'd come right back to Austin. What was she thinking? All that time, all that wasted effort...Alex nursed her anger. It was easier than dealing with the steadily creeping fear.
A breeze stirred the cypress limbs overhanging the house. Goose bumps sprang up on her arms, and she rubbed them away as she trekked across the weedy lawn to the front stoop. The screen squeaked as she pulled it open. No bell, so she rapped on the wooden door.
Alex let the screen slam shut and walked around back, where she found a sagging wooden porch. She mounted the back steps and tried the doorknob. Unlocked.
She listened intently, but heard only the faint buzz of motorboats in the distance. With a growing sense of foreboding, she stepped over the threshold.
The kitchen was tiny, with a 1950s fridge, a gas stove, and a Formica table in the center. Alex walked through the room. She picked up a Budweiser can from the table and shook it. Half empty. Warm. In the living room, a tired tweed sofa took up the wall beside the front door, opposite a surprisingly new flat-screen TV. Magazines littered the coffee table: People, Cosmopolitan, TV Guide. Alex put down the beer can and shuffled through them all. The issues were current, but no mailing labels.
She peeked her head into the bedroom. A queen-size bed with a plaid green bedspread dominated the space, hardly leaving room to walk. On the nightstand sat an empty water bottle. Alex stepped into the cramped bathroom and pulled back the shower curtain. Pert shampoo on the side of the tub and a pink razor. Nothing on the sink.
She returned to the kitchen and spied a bit of white plastic on the floor. An earbud. Just one. She picked it up. It looked like it belonged to an iPod.
A blinking red light on the kitchen counter caught her eye. Two messages on the answering machine. Alex tapped Play. A long beep, and then a woman's voice -- not Melanie's -- filled the room.
Hey, it's me. Gimme a call. Another long beep, and then a dial tone.
Alex went to the back door and peered out. Almost dusk. The bushes and trees formed a shadowy purple backdrop, allowing only fleeting glimpses of the lake beyond. She caught a flutter of movement by the water and stepped out onto the porch. Nothing. Just her eyes playing tricks on her in the twilight.
She pulled the door shut behind her with a thud and tugged her phone from her pocket. She dialed Melanie, yet again, as she made her way down the steps. For the fifth time today, she waited through the computergenerated greeting.
"It's me," she said. "I really need to hear from you. I -- "
Alex halted and stared at the shoe print on the step. Not mud. Was it...blood? She squatted down and illuminated the print with the light from her phone.
Blood. Dried. Old. But definitely blood. Her gaze traveled up the steps, to the door. More droplets, a smear.
She stood up suddenly and felt dizzy as her gaze followed the trail from the door out to the yard. Feet heavy with dread, Alex followed the narrow dirt path through the grass. She batted her way through the mesquite bushes until she stood on the spongy shore of the lake. She gazed out at the water, at the distant twinkle of houses on the opposite side. Guilt, thick and bitter, clogged her throat.
Alex jumped, startled, as her phone beeped. The call had ended.
She should call the police. Or 911. But she couldn't do it. She had to think of another way.
The photo flashed into her mind -- a teenage Melanie with curls and dimples. Alex gripped her phone and cursed.
Something snapped, like a twig, and she glanced over her shoulder. Behind the windows, an orange flicker.
The earsplitting blast knocked her off her feet.
Copyright © 2009 by Laura Griffin