The Texas Murder Files Series · Book one
A riveting new thriller featuring an ambitious female investigative reporter in Austin, Texas by New York Times bestselling author Laura Griffin.
When a woman is found brutally murdered on Austin’s lakeside hike-and-bike trail, investigative reporter Bailey Rhoads turns up on the scene demanding access and answers. She tries to pry information out of the lead detective, Jacob Merritt. But this case is unlike any he’s ever seen, and nothing adds up.
Bailey has a hunch the victim wasn’t who she claimed to be and believes this mugging-turned-murder could have been a targeted hit. When she digs deeper, the trail leads her to a high-tech fortress on the outskirts of Austin where researchers are pushing the boundaries of a cutting-edge technology that could be deadly in the wrong hands.
As a ruthless hit man’s mission becomes clear, Bailey and Jacob must embark on a desperate search to locate the next target before the clock ticks down on this lethal game of hide and seek.
Good news! Hidden has a book club kit!
"HIDDEN launches the Texas Murder Files with a bang, proving that Laura Griffin is the master of the romantic thriller. Intense, suspenseful, sexy, with an intriguing mystery and characters to root for. Griffin is at the top of her game."
— New York Times bestselling author Allison Brennan
“There are some VERY satisfying twists and turns in this book. If you are in the mood for competent heroines and you’d like to immerse yourself in a different life for a bit, then this is the book for you.”
— Smart Bitches Trashy Books
"HIDDEN is a powerful start to a new series. I can't wait to read the rest!"
— Kendra Elliot, bestselling author of A MERCIFUL DEATH
“Hidden reminded me why Laura Griffin is an auto-buy author for me. The first book in her new Texas Murder Files series, Hidden is a stunning page-turner with the perfect balance of romance and suspense and a relentless pace that will keep you glued to its pages long into the night. You won’t be able to put this book down!”
— Melinda Leigh, bestselling author of CROSS HER HEART
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Dana was in love with a complete stranger. She could admit it. Or she could have admitted it, if she’d had anyone to admit it to.
She eyed him in the parking lot as she leaned against the lamppost and stretched her quads. Tall, wide shoulders, strong runner’s legs. He had shaggy brown hair that Dana would have once considered sloppy, but now seemed sexy beyond belief. She imagined combing her fingers through it, imaged it would feel thick and silky.
The main attraction wasn’t his looks, though. It was his commitment. He was here every day at six a.m. sharp. You could set a watch by it.
He closed the door of his dusty black Jeep—one of the old ones that clearly had lots of miles on it. Not a fancy car, and he probably didn’t have a fancy job, either, but Dana didn’t care about that. She’d dated men with money before. They’d burned her life beyond recognition, and she’d made a vow to herself: never again.
It was one of the many vows she’d made over the last year.
He set off on the hike-and-bike trail, and Dana waited a moment to give him a head start. She zipped her phone into the pouch clipped around her waist and then stepped onto the path, taking a deep breath as the soles of her shoes hit gravel. Setting a brisk pace, she felt her muscles start to loosen and warm.
She looked ahead at Blue. That was the name she’d given him the day he glanced up from the drinking fountain and his turquoise eyes hit her like a sucker punch. She’d been so mesmerized she’d hardly noticed the water’s rusty taste as she gulped down a sip and watched him walk away.
Blue was way ahead of her now, and he would stay way ahead of her for the entire six-mile loop. If she was lucky, she’d pass him beside the fountains, and they’d trade nods before she set off on the rest of her morning.
Or maybe not. Maybe this would be the day she summoned the courage to strike up a conversation.
The morning air was already thick with humidity as the sky went from indigo to lavender over the treetops. The trail was almost empty, which was how she liked it. Just the die-hard runners and some power walkers. Dana settled into her rhythm as she passed the boat docks where long red kayaks still were racked and chained. She smelled fresh dew on the reeds by the lake, along with the faint scent of rotting vegetation, which would grow more pungent as the sun climbed higher in the sky. It would hit triple digits today. Again. Dana still wasn’t accustomed to the Texas heat or the way the weather here could turn on a dime.
“On your left,” a voice growled.
Dana’s heart lurched as a cyclist whisked past her. She muttered a curse at him. The guy swerved, barely missing a jogging stroller coming around the bend, pushed by a flushed-cheeked woman in yoga pants.
Of everyone on the trail, the manic stroller moms bugged Dana the most, especially at this hour. She couldn’t imagine rousting a child from sleep and driving to the lakefront, then shoving a sippy cup into pudgy little hands to serve as a distraction while Mom squeezed in a workout. Passing the stroller, Dana caught a glimpse of a cherubic toddler with brown curls, not much older than Jillian.
Just thinking of Jillian made Dana’s heart swell. It was something she’d never expected when she’d first taken the nanny job. How could you truly love someone else’s kid? But it turned out, you could. Dana would have jumped in front of a bus for that child. Maybe it was human instinct. Protect the innocent. Or maybe it was something else, some deep-rooted impulse that hinted at future motherhood. When Dana had first identified the feeling, she’d felt relieved. It told her she was okay. Mostly. It told her that despite the ugly things she’d seen and done, her moral compass was still intact.
The trail narrowed and wended through the cypress trees. Most people hung a left onto the pedestrian bridge at this point, but not Blue. He did the full loop and crossed the lake at the dam, predictable as clockwork. At first when Dana began shadowing him it had been a struggle, and she’d ended each workout feeling dizzy and depleted. But now she was stronger. Her thighs still ached, and her lungs still burned, but she pushed through, and the heady rush at the end of each run was her reward.
The trail narrowed again, and the woods became thicker. Dana heard the faint crunch of gravel. Her senses perked up, and she glanced over her shoulder.
Her blood chilled.
A man jogged behind her, maybe twenty yards back, and she’d seen him before. Dana focused on the path ahead, listening to the rhythm of his footsteps. Her pulse started to thrum. Where had she seen him? Her brain kicked into gear, retracing her steps over the past twenty-four hours. She’d been to work, the grocery store, home. She tried to recall the faces in the checkout line, or anyone she’d passed in the lobby of her apartment building. She pictured the man without looking back: tall, buzz cut, heavy eyebrows. Where had she seen him before?
You’re being paranoid.
You’re being paranoid.
You’re being paranoid.
The words echoed through her mind as she pounded down the trail. She peered ahead, searching for Blue on the path, but she couldn’t see him anymore, couldn’t see anyone. This section was practically deserted.
The footfalls came faster, and panic spurted through her. Why had he changed his pace?
Dana changed hers, too, trying to catch up to Blue—or anyone, at this point. The slap of shoes behind her sounded closer now.
Sweat streamed down her back. She visualized where she was on the trail. About a quarter mile ahead was a nature center. To her right, through a patch of trees and bushes, was a parking lot. Would someone be there now? It wasn’t even six thirty.
Dana’s breath grew ragged. Her skin prickled, and her blood turned icy. With every footfall she knew that the years and the miles and the lies had finally caught up to her. There would be no more running.
And there would be no mercy.
With a trembling hand, she unzipped her pouch and took out her phone. She thumbed in the passcode. Should she really do this? Maybe she was overreacting.
But no. She wasn’t.
She darted another glance over her shoulder.
Eye contact. And Dana knew.
She bolted into the woods, plowing through bushes and darting around trees. Behind her, she heard the distant but unmistakable swish-swish of her pursuer moving through the brush. Dana’s heart thundered as she pressed the contact number. Every swish-swish ratcheted up her terror. Finally, the call connected.
“Tabby, it’s me. It’s happening!” Just saying the words made her stomach clench. “It’s happening!”
Dana hurled the phone into the bushes and cast a frantic glance behind her. She couldn’t see him anymore, but she knew he was back there, felt it in her core. Every nerve ending burned with the certainty of being chased.
Where was the damn parking lot? Through the trees, she glimpsed a patch of asphalt and the red hood of a car. She ran faster, swiping at the branches. Thorns snagged her clothes and sliced her arms, but she clawed through the bushes as fast as she could, sprinting for the red.
A tall figure stepped into her path. Dana gave a squeak and stopped short.
The man moved closer. His eyes bored into hers, and she knew she’d been right. Not paranoid at all, but right.
He took another step forward, and Dana’s gaze landed on the knife in his hand. A silent weapon. Of course.
Terror pierced her heart as he stepped nearer. Tears stung her eyes.
“Please,” she rasped. “I’ll do anything.”
Another step, and she could smell the sweat on his skin now. He was that close. Her heart jackhammered and she knew this was it. Fight-or-flight time.
She let the tears leak out. Let him think he’d won.
The man smiled slightly.
Dana turned and ran.
Bailey Rhoads watched the parking lot through the veil of rain. It poured off the overhang, splashing the sidewalk in front of her and soaking the cuffs of her jeans. She pressed her phone to her ear as a police car pulled into the lot and slid into the handicapped space beside the door.
“Hey, it’s me,” Bailey said as the officer got out. Skip Shepherd. That figured. He pretended not to see her as he ducked through the sheet of water and jerked open the door to the convenience store, letting out a waft of cold air.
“Tell me something good, Rhoads.”
“Sorry, can’t do it.”
“This is a bust,” she said. “A couple teens boosted some beer from the stock room, ran out the back. Clerk chased them and a patrol car pulled up.”
Her editor muttered something either to himself or someone else in the newsroom.
“I’ll write up a brief, but I’d give it two grafs, max,” she said.
“Then don’t bother. Listen, where are you?”
“In my car,” Bailey said, pulling the hood of her sweatshirt over her head before ducking through the water. She jogged across the lot to her white Toyota that had been in desperate need of a bath until this afternoon. “Why? What’s up?”
“I don’t know.”
But something in Max’s voice made her pulse quicken. She slid into her car, dripping water all over the seats as she kicked off her flip flops.
“Some chatter on the scanner,” Max said. “Lance heard something about a code thirty-seven.”
“What’s Lance doing in on a Saturday?”
“Some drama with one of the councilmen. Long story. Listen, you know what a thirty-seven is?”
“A shooting,” she said, starting up her car. “Where is this?”
“The lake, I think.”
“Lady Bird Lake?”
“Yeah. But this could be nothing. Scanner’s been quiet since.”
“I’ll check it out.”
“Text me if it’s anything,” Max said. “And do it soon. I’m trying to get out of here.”
She dropped her phone onto the seat beside her, along with the damp spiral notebook where she’d jotted the details of the convenience store holdup that wasn’t. Would this be another dud? Probably, given her pattern lately. For the last three weeks she’d been chasing down court filings and scanner chatter and only netted a few short briefs.
Saturday traffic was light, but the afternoon downpour had thrown everyone for a loop, and she passed two fender-benders before reaching Barton Springs Road, which took her straight into Austin’s biggest park. On a typical sunny weekend, the place was busy. Several weeks a year it wasn’t just busy, but packed, with traffic choking the streets and the soccer fields crammed with festivalgoers. Today, the fields were empty except for a few clusters of people sheltering from the drizzle under sprawling oak trees. Bailey parked in the lot near the pedestrian bridge, noting the conspicuous lack of police vehicles. This was probably another non-event.
It was time for Bailey to get creative. It had been a slow month, and rumor had it the newsroom was in for another round of layoffs. She should spend her Sunday brainstorming feature ideas. Something about local law enforcement that wouldn’t be interchangeable with a story pulled off the wire. Maybe an innovative new forensic technique. Or budget overruns. Or official corruption. She had to dig up something. For months she’d been hanging onto this job by her fingernails. Her industry was shrinking, and she was in a constant battle to prove her worth relative to more seasoned reporters who fed at a bottomless trough of news tips.
Bailey shed her wet hoodie and grabbed a blue zip-up jacket from the back seat. She stuffed her notebook into the pocket and looked around. It was unusually empty for a Saturday evening—just a few wet dog-walkers and a guy strapping a paddleboard to the roof of his Volkswagen. She zipped her jacket and ran her fingers through her wet brown curls. With this weather, she probably looked like Medusa, but it was pointless to fight her hair. It did what it wanted.
Bailey hurried across the parking lot, hopscotching around potholes as she made her way to the pedestrian bridge. The six-lane highway overhead provided cover, along with a roar of traffic noise as she crossed the lake, which was narrow here.
She reached the trail marker on the opposite side and glanced around. Normally, this area was bustling with cyclists and pedestrians, but this evening it was empty except for a pair of shirtless runners in burnt-orange shorts. UT track and field, if she had to guess. They didn’t spare her a glance as they blew past her.
Looking up the trail, Bailey noticed the orange barricade positioned in the center of the path, along with a sign: CLOSED FOR MAINTENANCE. Bailey had been here three mornings this week and that sign was new. She walked up the path, skirting around the barrier. The trail curved into some leafy trees, and Bailey’s pulse picked up as she noticed the swag of yellow crime scene tape.
“Area’s closed, ma’am.”
She turned around to see a bulky young cop striding toward her. He had ruddy cheeks and acne, and Bailey didn’t recognize him.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Trail’s closed off.” He stopped beside her and wiped his brow with the back of his arm. His dark uniform was soaked from what looked like a combination of rain and sweat.
“I’m with the Herald.” She unzipped her jacket and held up the press pass on a lanyard around her neck. “We got word about a possible shooting here?”
He frowned and shook his head. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
He gestured toward the sign. “This is a restricted area. You’re going to have to step back.”
“Step back, ma’am.”
“Okay, but do you know what this is about?” She took her time moving toward the barricade.
What a liar. “Can you confirm it was a shooting?” she asked.
“You’ll need to talk to our public information officer.”
He corralled her toward the barrier. She sidestepped it and turned around, and the cop was watching her suspiciously, as though she might sprint right past him if he turned his back.
At last, he did. He proceeded up the trail, tapping the radio attached to his shoulder and murmuring something as he went. Probably giving people a heads up that the media had arrived on the scene—whatever the scene was.
The cop reached the yellow swag of tape blocking the path. He walked around a tree and darted a look of warning at her before disappearing into the woods.
Bailey dialed her editor. Max picked up on the first ring.
“I’m here at the hike-and-bike trail,” she told him. “Something’s definitely up.”
“I’ve only seen one cop, but they’ve got the trail barricaded, and there’s a scene taped off.”
“One cop?” Max sounded skeptical.
“So far, yeah.” Bailey walked away from the barrier, looking for any other sign of law enforcement. The nearest parking lot on this side of the lake would be behind the juice bar. Maybe the cops had parked there.
“What about a crime scene unit?” Max asked. “Or the ME’s van?”
“Haven’t seen either,” she said, scanning the area as she walked. She spied several cars parked along the street, but no police vehicles.
“Keep asking around,” Max said. “The scanner’s been quiet, so maybe this isn’t out yet.”
Bailey would definitely ask around, but she didn’t see anyone to ask.
“Where are you exactly?”
“The trailhead near the nature center,” she said, “but it’s pretty deserted.”
The rain started again. It streamed down her neck and into her shirt, and Bailey moved faster. Up the street that paralleled the lake was Jay’s Juice Bar. She spotted a patrol car in the parking lot. Bingo.
As she hurried closer, she saw not just one but four police cars in the lot behind the place, along with an unmarked unit with a spotlight mounted on the windshield—probably a detective’s car. How had this stayed off the scanner? Someone must be trying to keep a lid on the story.
Bailey surveyed the juice bar. Typically, Jay’s had a line of sweaty customers at the window waiting to order smoothies. But today the window was closed. A guy in a green apron stood beside the door, talking to a tall man with a badge clipped to his belt.
“Rhoads? You there?”
“I see a detective,” she told Max. “Let me go talk to him.”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know. I’ll call you back.”
“Do it soon. I need to know if this is going to blow up the front page.”
Bailey tucked her phone into her pocket and watched the detective interview the juice bar guy, who clearly was agitated. He kept wiping his brow with his hand and gesturing toward the trail. Was the man a witness? Had he heard the gunshot? The detective towered over him, watching intently as the man talked and shook his head.
Bailey started to pull out her notebook, but then thought better of it. The detective dug a business card from his pocket and handed it to the man. Perfect timing. They were wrapping up the interview.
Bailey crossed the street, and the detective glanced at her. His gaze narrowed when he spotted the press pass around her neck. Bailey felt his guard go up as she strode toward him. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.
She was about to get stonewalled.