The Last Close Call
A talented genetic analyst and a detective who’s haunted by an elusive cold case team up in the new standalone romantic suspense from New York Times bestselling author Laura Griffin.
Forensic genealogist Rowan Healy has made a name for herself by helping investigators trace the family trees of violent criminals who have eluded justice for years. But the pressure of police cases left her burned out, and she’s shifted her focus to helping adoptees find their biological parents.
Austin detective Jack Bruner has spent his career successfully tracking down vicious criminals—with the notable exception of the West Campus Rapist, a meticulous offender in Texas who has never been identified. When the latest two victims come to light, Jack sees his target is escalating his violent behavior–and only with Rowan’s help does he stand a chance of cracking this case.
Moved by Jack’s dedication and the brutal details of the attacks he lays out, Rowan agrees to help. When her ground-breaking DNA research sheds new light on the criminal’s background and helps them zero in on a search radius, Rowan and Jack must race against the clock to find a ruthless killer who’s growing bolder the longer he evades the law.
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The Last Close Call
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Evie waited until the third ringtone to pick up.
“Are you bailing?” Hannah asked.
“Evie, you promised.”
“I’m not up for it tonight.” She stripped off the sexy black tank top that she’d ridiculously put on earlier—because Drew liked it—and grabbed her terrycloth robe off the chair.
“What happened?” Hannah asked over the din of conversation, and Evie pictured her sister in the crowded sports bar where they had planned to meet.
“Not nothing. Spill it.”
Evie tied the belt and sighed. “I saw him tonight.”
“Drew. He came by to get Bella after work.”
Or at least, he’d claimed he had come from work. Given the beer on his breath, he had probably been to a happy hour with “the team” first.
“Oh, Eves. I’m sorry.”
She padded barefoot across the hardwood floors that she and Drew had carefully picked out together. After checking the lock on the patio door, she peered out at the dim yard. Her daughter’s swing swayed in the breeze and her Big Wheel sat abandoned on a carpet of crunchy brown leaves.
“I know that sucks,” Hannah said. “Why don’t you come out with us? You’ll feel better.”
“I’m already in bed.”
“You are not. It’s barely nine o’clock.”
Evie returned to the bottle of merlot by the fridge and topped off her glass.
“Come on,” Hannah persisted. “We’re playing darts. Blake says he’ll even let you win.”
Evie smiled. Her sister’s boyfriend was a gem, a genuine nice guy. But she didn’t want to be a third wheel again.
“Really, I’m not up for it.”
“Well.” She heard the resignation in Hannah’s voice. “You’re still coming Thursday, right?”
“Absolutely.” She took a hearty swig at the thought of her sister’s Thanksgiving potluck, which was sure to be an awkward mix of friends and co-workers. Evie had offered to bring a pie, but Hannah had assigned her mashed potatoes in a transparent attempt to make sure she didn’t cancel.
“What time are we eating again?” Evie asked.
“Um… I don’t know. Four, probably?”
So eight, then. Which was fine. Evie would be there all evening, which would cut into the ice cream binge that would inevitably accompany her first holiday in six years without Drew.
And Bella’s first holiday ever without her mother.
Tears burned Evie’s eyes, and she took another gulp.
“So get this,” she told Hannah. “He took my silver locket.” Fury tightened her chest as soon as the words were out. “You know the one he gave me for Mother’s Day? He stole it right out of my jewelry box.”
“Oh, come on,” Hannah said. “You probably misplaced it.”
“No. I did not.”
“Evie, the man drives a Porsche. What would he want with a silver locket?”
“He knew it would needle me.” She headed down the hall and paused at Bella’s room to switch off the light, ignoring the lingering scent of baby shampoo as she closed the door.
“Do you want me to come over?”
“No, I’m fine. I’m just being, I don’t know, emotional.”
“Hey, you’re allowed to be emotional. Your ex is a prick. How about we walk the lake tomorrow? We can catch up.”
Evie stepped into the bathroom and confronted her reflection in the mirror above the sink. Messy hair, sallow skin, dingy bathrobe. She opened the medicine cabinet and eyed the contents. The prescription sleeping pills called out to her. But she had more willpower than that. She closed the cabinet.
“What time?” she asked Hannah.
“Let’s do nine. I’ll meet you at the bridge.”
“Are you sure? Nine sounds early.”
Evie was fine with it, but Hannah’s body clock didn’t work that way. She hadn’t had kids.
“All right, let’s make it ten,” Hannah said.
“Ten at the bridge.”
“It’s a date. Love you, Eves.”
She set the phone down and stared at her reflection as she took another sip. A four-mile loop around the lake would do her good. Maybe she’d stop at the store afterward and get some fresh produce. She could make soup. Or maybe a pie for next week. She stepped into the bedroom.
A man in a ski mask stood in the doorway.
Her wine glass crashed to the floor as she registered everything at once—the wide shoulders, the black clothes, the heavy boots.
His hands were empty, but the latex gloves he wore turned her throat to dust.
“Don’t scream, Evelyn.”
Her heart seized. He knew her name.
She thought of her cell phone in the bathroom only a few feet away. She could lock herself inside and then—
He stepped into the bedroom and pulled the door shut with a terrifying click.
Evie’s mind raced, even as time slowed to a crawl. She had to survive this. Whatever happened, she had to survive for Bella.
What did he want? Her heart thundered as her eyes returned to those gloved hands.
God help me.
She inched toward the bathroom, stalling for time.
“How—” She cleared her throat. “—How did you get in here?”
The hole in the mask shifted—a flash of white teeth as his mouth formed a smile.
“I’ve been here.”
The Lucky Duck was half-empty, which was just how Rowan liked it.
Johnny Cash drifted from the speakers. A young couple occupied a high-top table in the corner, and several regulars sat the bar, chatting up Lila as she pulled a pint.
Rowan’s favorite booth was taken, so she grabbed one near the window beneath a neon Shiner Bock sign. Lila darted her a questioning glance, and Rowan gave her a nod as she slid into the torn vinyl seat.
She grabbed the plastic menu behind the condiment bottles and looked for something decadent. She was starving, she suddenly realized. For the past five days, she had subsisted on cereal and microwave popcorn.
As she skimmed the choices, Rowan tugged the scrunchie from her hair and combed her hand through it. She probably should have showered or at least put on a clean sweatshirt before coming here. Oh well. Too late now.
“You finally came up for air.”
She looked up as Lila slid a Tanqueray and tonic in front of her.
“Thank you,” Rowan said. “You read my mind.”
Lila sipped a ginger ale—her hydration beverage of choice when she was working.
“Busy night?” Rowan asked.
“Not really.” She shrugged. “Good tips, though.”
“Has Dara been by?”
“Yes.” Lila’s eyes sparkled, and she tossed an auburn curl over her shoulder. “She was here earlier. With a date.”
“They left after an hour, so you’ll have to get the scoop. Are you eating?”
“Yes, but I can’t decide.”
“Try the nachos,” Lila said. “We’ve got fresh guac today.”
“That sounds good.”
A couple walked into the bar and claimed a pair of stools on the corner. Lila eyed them as she nursed her drink. “I have to get back. I’ll give Sasha your order.”
Lila returned to her post, and Rowan scanned the faces around the room, trying to guess people’s stories. It was a game she played whenever she came here alone. All the singles tonight were regulars. Ditto the two guys shooting pool in the back. Her attention settled on the couple at the high-top. Based on their age, they might be students at the University of Texas, maybe seeking a night away from the crowds on Sixth Street. But they had a seasoned look about them. The woman’s makeup was perfect. And they both exuded the stiff body language that screamed first date.
Rowan watched them subtly from her booth. Head tilts. Intense eye contact. The woman arched her brows as she sipped her margarita through a straw, displaying just the right amount of interest in whatever the guy was saying. He rested a hand on his knee and looked confident—but slightly nervous—as he expounded on whichever first-date topic he’d selected for the evening.
A chime emanated from Rowan’s purse. She pulled out her phone and read a text from the Austin lawyer whose client Rowan had been working for all week.
Got your email. Omg TY!!
The words were followed by three halo emojis, and Rowan felt a swell of pride.
Anytime, she texted back. So glad I could help.
This attorney had sent her four referrals over the past six months, and now there would likely be more on the way. Rowan’s anemic bank account was finally getting a boost. It couldn’t come soon enough.
She jerked her head up as a man stepped over. Tall, broad-shouldered, dark hair. He wore a black leather jacket with droplets of rain clinging to it. Rowan darted a glance at Lila. Her friend didn’t look up, but she lifted an eyebrow in a way that told Rowan she’d sent this guy over here.
“Who’s asking?” Rowan responded, even though she had sneaking suspicion she knew based on his deep voice. Not to mention the super-direct look in his brown eyes.
“Jack Bruner, Austin PD.” He smiled slightly. “Mind if I sit?”
She sighed and nodded at the empty seat across from her.
He slid into the booth and rested his elbows on the table. He looked her over, and she managed not to squirm.
“You’re a hard woman to reach.”
Ha. He had no idea how true that was.
“How’d you know to find me here?” she asked
“Ric Santos told me you hang out here.”
She couldn’t hide her surprise at the mention of Ric. She hadn’t known they were friends. But she probably should have guessed. Law enforcement was a tight-knit group.
She gave him what she hoped was a confident smile. “Look, Detective, I appreciate you coming all the way out here, but I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time.”
A command, but not. When combined with that slight smile, it was more like a statement. Something she was going to do, even if she didn’t realize it yet.
Rowan felt a surge of annoyance. But, again, she gave him a nod.
Sasha appeared at the table and rested her cocktail tray on her hip. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asked the detective.
“A Coke, please.”
She nodded. “Rowan?”
“I’m good, thanks.”
She walked off, her cascade of blond hair swinging behind her.
Rowan settled her attention on the detective.
“I’m with APD’s violent crimes unit, as I mentioned on the phone,” he said.
With every call, he’d politely identified himself and given a callback number. Rowan had called the number once and—equally politely—left a message with her response. But he’d stubbornly ignored it.
“I’m working on a case,” he said, “and I could use your help.”
Rowan nodded. “Like I told you before—”
He held up his hand and gave her a sharp look. Listen.
“It’s a serial offender,” he continued. “Eight sexual assaults.” His dark brows furrowed. “This guy’s careful. We’ve only recovered one DNA profile, the second attack in the series.”
“If you’ve only got one profile, how do you know it’s the same guy?”
Sasha was back already with a flirty smile. She placed the detective’s soft drink in front of him, and he nodded his thanks.
“Because we know,” he said after she left.
Rowan looked the man over. He had an athletic build, but not the steroid-infused look she was used to seeing with young cops. Then again, he wasn’t that young. The touch of gray at his temples told her he was maybe ten years older than she was, probably late thirties. Or maybe it was the wise look in his eyes that told her that.
She sipped her drink and waited for more.
“A while ago we had the sample analyzed by a genetic genealogist,” he said. “Spent a lot of money and time on that. The results were inconclusive, they said.”
“What’s ‘a while’?”
“How long ago did you have it analyzed?”
He hesitated a beat.
Rowan’s breath caught. In terms of DNA technology, four years was like four decades. A lot had changed in that time—new techniques, new tools, new profiles in the databases.
But she tried to keep her face impassive as she folded her hands in front of her.
“I appreciate your effort to track me down,” she said. It told her a lot about what kind of detective he was—precisely the kind that had prompted her to shift careers. “But unfortunately, I don’t do police work anymore. You could say I’m retired.”
“That’s not what Ric told me.”
She gritted her teeth. Damn it, she’d known doing him a favor would come back to bite her.
“Ric said you’re selective, not retired.” He paused, watching her. “He told me you gave him an assist recently and that your help was invaluable.”
“I know what you’re doing,” Rowan said. She was immune to flattery, even from smooth-talking detectives who liked to play head games. “And I can appreciate the pressure you guys must be under with a serial case. But I’m not in that line of work anymore.”
He leaned forward, and she eased back slightly.
“Let me be straight, Rowan.” His eyes bored into hers. “I need your help right now. Not next month or next year. Not whenever get bored with what you’re doing and decide to come out of retirement. I don’t care if I sound desperate. I’m on a ticking clock here.”
Her stomach tightened at his words. And his prediction that she would backtrack on her decision irked her.
But he held her gaze across the table, and she felt that inexorable pull that had turned her life upside-down too many times to count.
She took in the detective’s sharp eyes and the determined set to his jaw. She admired that determination—she had it too—but she had to resist this time.
At this very moment, she had an inbox full of requests from prospective clients who were willing to pay top dollar for her work. Positive work. Rewarding work. The kind of work that made her get out of bed in the morning with a sense of purpose. She’d spent three years building her reputation as one of the best in her field, and the last thing she needed to do was put all those clients on hold and get sucked back into the vortex of police work.
A buzz emanated from beneath the table, and Jack Bruner took out his phone. His expression remained blank, but she caught the slight tensing of his shoulders.
A callout. Someone was dead, or bleeding, or in some emergency room somewhere.
He pulled out his wallet and tucked a twenty under his untouched Coke. Then he took out a business card and slid it across the table.
“My cell’s on the back. Call me if you change your mind.”
He scooted from the booth, and she felt small as he towered over her. He held out his hand.
Against her better judgement she shook it.