The moment detective Reed Novak steps onto the crime scene, he knows the case is going to rock his world. A beautiful young woman murdered at home. No sign of forced entry. No motive. She’s obviously not the killer’s first victim, and Reed’s instincts tell him she won’t be his last. Reed’s first clue comes via a mysterious text that links to a dating profile, but even more intriguing than the clue is the person who sent it.
As a white-hat hacker in the Delphi Center’s cyber investigation unit, Laney Knox sneaks into some of the deepest, darkest corners of the Internet looking for predators. Laney would prefer to stay away from Austin PD’s most recent murder case, but she can’t ignore the chilling similarities between that crime and her own brutal attack years ago. Laney offers to help the sexy lead detective, but he wants more from her than just a promising tip—Reed wants her trust. Laney resists, but as their relationship deepens she’s tempted to reveal the closely guarded secrets that could make her a key witness…or the killer’s next victim.
“The chemistry between them is intensely heated in the midst of a well-crafted, edgy plot. Well-defined characters and high-stakes tension make this a thrill of a read.”
— RT Book Reviews, Top Pick!
“The perfect combination of mystery, terrifying suspense and hotter than hot romance.”
— Fresh Fiction
“This fabulous tenth installment in Griffin's Tracers series sizzles with edge-of-your-seat suspense, top-notch forensics, and tons of heat.... I read it, I loved it, and I give it five be-still-my-heart stars. If you're looking for your next great romantic suspense read, you won't want to miss this one.”
— New York Times bestselling author Karen Robards
“Reading a Tracers novel is like coming home after a long day at work. There is just something so comforting knowing I am reading a book written by Laura Griffin. Always smart, always better than the last.”
— KT Book Reviews
“Page-turning and addicting.”
— A Tasty Read
Laney Knox blinked into the darkness and listened. Something... no.
She closed her eyes and slid deeper into the warm sheets, dismissing the sound. Probably her neighbor’s cat on the patio again.
Her eyes flew open. It wasn’t the sound but the light that had her attention now. Or lack of light. She gazed at the bedroom window, but didn’t see a band of white seeping through the gap between the shade and the wall.
She stared into the void, trying to shake off the grogginess. The outdoor lightbulb was new--her landlord had changed it yesterday. Had he botched the job? She should have done it herself, but her shoestring budget didn’t cover LED lights. It barely covered ramen noodles and Red Bull.
Laney looked around the pitch-black room. She wasn’t afraid of the dark, never had been. Roaches terrified her. And block parties. But darkness had always been no big deal.
Except this darkness was all wrong.
How many software developers does it take to change a lightbulb? None, it’s a hardware problem.
She strained her ears and listened for whatever sound had awakened her, but she heard nothing. She saw nothing. All her senses could discern was a slight chill against her skin and the lingering scent of the kung pao chicken she’d had for dinner. But something seemed off. As the seconds ticked by, a feeling of dread settled over her.
She bolted upright. The noise was soft but unmistakable. Someone was inside her house.
Her heart skittered. Her thoughts zinged in a thousand directions. She lived in an old bungalow, more dilapidated than charming, and her bedroom was at the back, a virtual dead end. She glanced at her windows. She’d reinforced the original latches with screw locks to deter burglars--which had seemed like a good idea at the time. But now she felt trapped. She reached over and groped around on the nightstand for her phone.
Crap crap crap. It was charging in the kitchen.
Her blood turned icy as stark reality sank in. She had no phone, no weapon, no exit route. And someone was inside.
Should she hide in the closet? Or try to slip past him somehow, maybe if he stepped into her room? It would never work, but—
A burst of panic made the decision for her and she was across the room in a flash. She scurried behind the door and flattened herself against the wall. Her breath came in shallow gasps. Her heart pounded wildly as she felt more than heard him creeping closer.
That’s what he was doing. Creeping. He was easing down the hallway with quiet, deliberate steps while she cowered behind the door, quivering and naked except for her oversized Florence and the Machine T-shirt. Sweat sprang up on the back of her neck and her chest tightened.
Who the hell was he? What did he want? She had no cash, no jewelry, just a few thousand dollars’ worth of hardware sitting on her desk. Maybe she could slip out while he stole it.
Yeah, right. Her ancient hatchback in the driveway was a neon sign announcing that whoever lived here was not only dead broke, but obviously home. This intruder was no burglar--he was here for her.
Laney’s pulse sprinted. Her hands formed useless little fists at her sides, and she was overwhelmed with the absurd notion that she should have followed through on that kickboxing class.
She forced a breath into her lungs and tried to think.
She had to think her way out of this because she was five-three, one-hundred-ten pounds, and weaponless. She didn’t stand much chance against even an average-size man and if he was armed, forget it.
The air moved. Laney’s throat went dry. She stayed perfectly still and felt a faint shifting of molecules on the other side of the door. Then a soft sound, barely a whisper, as the door drifted open.
She held her breath. Her heart hammered. Everything was black, but gradually there was a hole in the blackness--a tall, man-shaped hole--and she stood paralyzed with disbelief as the shape eased into her bedroom and crept toward her bed. She watched it, rooted in place, waiting... waiting... waiting.
Her feet slapped against the wood floor as she raced down the hallway. Air swooshed behind her. A scream tore from her throat, then became a shrill yelp as he grabbed her hair and slammed her against the wall.
A stunning blow knocked her to the floor. Stars burst behind her eyes as her cheek hit wood. She scrambled to her feet. She made a frantic dash and tripped over the coffee table, sending glasses and dishes flying as she crashed to her knees.
He flipped her onto her back and then he was on her, pinning her with his massive weight as something sharp cut into her shoulder blade.
She clawed at his face, his eyes. He wore a ski mask, and all she could see were three round holes and a sinister flash of teeth amid the blackness. She shrieked, but an elbow against her throat cut off all sound, all breath, as she fought and bucked beneath him.
He was strong, immovable. And terrifyingly calm as he pinned her arms one by one under his knees and reached for something in the pocket of his jacket. She expected a weapon--a knife or a gun--and she tried to heave him off. Panic seized her as his shadow shifted in the dimness. Above her frantic grunts she heard the tear of duct tape. And suddenly the idea of being silenced that way was more horrifying than even a blade.
With a fresh burst of adrenaline she wriggled her arm out from under his knee and flailed for any kind of weapon. She groped around the floor until her fingers closed around something smooth and slender—a pen, a chopstick, she didn’t know. She gripped it in her hand and jabbed at his face with all her might. He reared back with a howl.
Laney bucked hard and rolled out from under him as he clutched his face.
A scream erupted from deep inside her. She tripped to her feet and rocketed for the door.
This case was going to throw him. Reed Novak knew it the second he saw the volleyball court.
Taut net, sugary white sand. Beside the court was a swimming pool that sparkled like a sapphire under the blazing August sun.
“Hell, if I had a pool like that, I’d use it.”
Reed looked at his partner in the passenger seat. Jay Wallace had his window rolled down and his hefty arm resting on the door.
“Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Reed didn’t answer. The point was probably to slap a photo on a web site to justify the astronomical rent Bellaterra charged for one- and two-bedroom units five minutes from downtown.
Reed pulled in beside the white ME’s van and climbed out, glancing around. Even with a few emergency vehicles, the parking lot was quiet. Bellaterra’s young and athletically inclined tenants were either at jobs or classes, or maybe home with their parents for the summer, letting their luxury apartments sit empty.
Reed stood for a moment, getting a feel. Heat radiated up from the blacktop and the drone of cicadas drowned out the traffic noise on Lake Austin Boulevard. He glanced across the parking lot to the ground-floor unit where a female patrol officer stood guard.
“First responder, Lena Gutierrez.” Reed said, looking at Jay. “You know her?”
“Think she’s new.”
They crossed the lot and exchanged introductions. Gutierrez looked nervous in her wilted uniform. Her gaze darted to the detective shield clipped to Reed’s belt.
“I secured the perimeter, sir.”
“Good. Tell us what you got.”
She cleared her throat. “Apartment’s rented to April Abrams, twenty-five. Didn’t show up for work today, didn’t answer her phone. One of her co-workers dropped by. The door was reportedly unlocked, so she went inside to check...”
Her voice trailed off as though they should fill in the blank.
Reed stepped around her and examined the door, which stood ajar. No visible scratches on the locking mechanism. No gouges on the doorframe.
Jay was already covering his black wingtips with paper booties. Reed did the same. Austin was casual, but they always wore business attire--suit pants and button-down shirts--because of days like today. Reed never wanted to do a death knock dressed like he was on his way to a keg party.
He stepped into the cool foyer and let his eyes adjust. To his right was a living area. White sectional sofa, bleached wood coffee table, white shag rug over beige carpet. The pristine room was a contrast to the hallway, where yellow evidence markers littered the tile floor. A picture on the wall had been knocked askew and a pair of ME’s assistants bent over a body.
A bare foot jutted out from the huddle. Pale skin, red toenail polish.
Reed walked into the hall, sidestepping numbered pieces of plastic that flagged evidence he couldn’t see. A slender guy with premature gray hair glanced up. Reed knew the man, and his expression was even grimmer than usual.
April Abrams was young.
Reed knelt down for a closer look. She lay on her side, her head resting in a pool of coagulated blood. Long auburn hair partially obscured her face, and her arm was bent behind her at an impossible angle. A strip of silver duct tape covered her mouth.
“Jesus,” Jay muttered behind him.
Her bare legs scissored out to the side. A pink T-shirt was bunched up under her armpits, and Reed noted extensive scratches on both breasts.
“What do you have?” Reed asked.
“Twelve to eighteen hours, ballpark,” the ME’s assistant said. “The pathologist should be able to pin that down better.”
Reed studied at her face again. No visible abrasions. No ligature marks on her neck. The left side of her skull was smashed in, and her hair was matted with dried blood.
“Murder weapon?” Reed asked.
“Not that we’ve seen. You might ask the photog, though. She’s in the kitchen.”
Reed stood up, looking again at the tape covering April’s mouth. A lock of her hair was stuck under it, which for some reason pissed him off.
He moved into the kitchen and paused beside a sliding glass door that opened onto a fenced patio. Outside on the concrete sat a pair of plastic bowls, both empty.
“I haven’t seen a weapon,” the crime scene photographer said over her shoulder. “You’ll be the first to know.”
Reed glanced around her to see what had her attention. On the granite countertop was an ID badge attached to one of those plastic clips with a retractable cord. The badge showed April’s mug shot with her name and the words ChatWare Solutions printed below. April had light blue eyes, pale skin. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she smiled tentatively for the camera.
The photographer finished with the badge and shifted to get a shot of the door.
“Come across a phone?” Reed asked, looking around. No dirty dishes on the counters. Empty sink.
“Not so far.” She glanced up from her camera as Jay stepped into the kitchen and silently handed Reed a pair of latex gloves. “I haven’t done the bedroom yet, though, so don’t you guys move anything.”
Reed pulled on the gloves and opened the fridge. It took him a moment to identify the unfamiliar contents: spinach, beets, bean sprouts. Something green and frilly that might or might not be kale. The dietary train wreck continued in the pantry, where he found three boxes of Kashi, six bottles of vitamins, and a bag of flax seeds.
Opening the cabinet under the sink Reed found a bag of cat food and a plastic trash can. The can was empty, not even a plastic bag inside it despite the box of them right there in the cabinet. He’d check out Bellaterra’s Dumpsters. Reed opened several drawers and found the usual assortment of utensils.
“That’s an eight-hundred-dollar juicer.” Jay nodded at the silver appliance near the sink.
“At least. Maybe a thousand. My sister got one last Christmas.”
Gutierrez was standing in the foyer now, watching them with interest.
“Did you come across a phone?” Reed asked her. “A purse? A wallet?”
“No on all three, sir. I did a full walk-through, didn’t see anything.”
Reed exchanged a look with Jay before moving back into the hallway. The ME’s people were now taping paper bags over the victim’s hands.
Reed stepped into the bedroom. A ceiling fan moved on low speed, stirring the air. The queen-size bed was heaped with plump white pillows like a fancy hotel. The pillows were piled to the side and the bedspread was thrown back, suggesting April had gone to bed and then gotten up.
“Think she heard him?” Jay asked.
The bedside lamp was off, and the only light in the room came from sunlight streaming through vertical blinds. Reed ducked into the bathroom. Makeup was scattered across the counter. A gold watch with a diamond bezel sat beside the sink. Reed opened the medicine cabinet.
“Sleeping pills, nasal spray, laxatives, OxyContin,” he said.
Reed examined the latch on the window above the toilet. Then he moved into the bedroom. Peering under the bed he found a pair of white sandals and a folded shopping bag. On the nightstand was a stack of magazines: Entertainment Weekly, People, Wired. He opened the nightstand drawer and stared down.
Jay glanced over. “Vibrator?”
“Chocolate.” Four bars of Godiva, seventy-two percent cocoa. One of the bars had the wrapper partially removed and a hunk bitten off.
Reed was more or less numb to going through people’s stuff, but the chocolate bar struck him as both sad and infinitely personal. He closed the drawer.
“We ID’d her vehicle,” Gutierrez said, stepping into the room, “case you guys want to have a look.”
Reed and Jay followed her back through the apartment, catching annoyed looks from the ME’s people as they squeezed past again.
“So, what’s our game plan?” Jay asked as they exited the home and stripped off their shoe covers.
Reed watched the gurney being rolled across the lot. Twenty minutes into the case, and already they needed a game plan. That was how it worked now, and Reed didn’t waste his energy cursing social media.
He thought of April’s mug shot. He thought of her anxious smile as she’d stood before the camera, probably her first day on the job. She’d probably been feeling a heady mix of hope and anticipation as she embarked on something new.
He pictured the slash of duct tape over her mouth now. It would stay there until she reached the autopsy table.
“No forced entry. No purse, no phone. But he left jewelry, pain meds, and a Bose stereo.”
Jay nodded because he knew what Reed was thinking. At this point, everything pointed to someone she knew.
Jay glanced across the lot. “Damn.”
Reed turned to see an SUV easing through the gate, tailgated by a white news van. Just in time for the money shot of the body coming out. In a matter of minutes the image would be ping-ponging between satellites.
“Dirtbags,” Jay muttered.
Reed shook his head. “Right on time.”
Copyright 2016 by Laura Griffin