SOMEONE IS FOLLOWING ME.
I hear the footsteps coming closer, quiet on the thick, wet leaves of the forest floor. I duck behind a white pine tree, then realize it’s big enough to hold my weight and scramble upward, hands pulling me into the branches, where I cling to the trunk like a monkey, praying they haven’t seen me. The steps stop, but the forest isn’t tricked; the birds are silent as the grave, the squirrels frozen in their perches. They know evil has come to their world.
My breath is too loud; sweat is prickling on my brow. I see the blood then, on my hands—his blood—and swallow hard against the sudden spike of nausea.
He is gone. He is gone, and now I am alone.
Tears drip down my face, fall off my chin. I swipe my jaw against my shoulder so they don’t splatter onto the leaves below and draw attention to my hiding place.
A starling bursts from the brush fifteen feet to my left, and startles me. I nearly fall out of the tree but hang on. Even my fingers know the danger of letting go.
This dance, inextricably tying us together, is entering its final moments.
They have come for me. I will not let them take me alive.
Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, D.C.
Dr. Samantha Owens stared out the window of her office, admiring the view she’d be enjoying for the next several years. Trees. Lots and lots of trees. The Georgetown University campus was landscaped to perfection, bringing the joys of wildlife and green space to their urban oasis. Maples and willow oaks, zelkovas and ginkgo, viburnum and holly, and more she had no names for. In truth, this deep into the warm, wet D.C. summer, everything was so green it made her eyes hurt. It was all so bloody alive.
And so different from her anonymous, stainless-steel office in Nashville. A welcome change. A change she’d openly pursued, sure to the core she no longer wanted to work in law enforcement. The idea of keeping herself separate from the hurt and fear and messiness of the real world appealed to her.
Her new reality: she was the head of the bourgeoning forensic pathology department at Georgetown University Medical School. Her first classes would start the following week, though students were already on campus doing their orientations. And now that she was here, the sense of adventure and excitement were gone.
Looking out at the tree-lined campus, she couldn’t help wondering, yet again, if she’d made a mistake. The freedom she’d hoped for, planned on, felt like a noose around her neck. Even though she was calling the shots, she was increasingly feeling trapped. So many people were counting on her. She’d developed the forensic program, made a commitment to the university, even signed a contract. She was stuck.
No longer a medical examiner, no longer a part of organized law enforcement. She was a teacher, with two class sections of doctors who wanted to help solve crimes. Students who seemed so young, teenagers, almost, though many were in their twenties, and even thirties. Untouched by tragedy; unknowing of the world’s painful embrace.
They’d learn soon enough, especially with her at the helm. She’d seen more than most in her career, especially during her tenure as the Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Tennessee. Her job was to teach them everything she knew so they could stride out into the world in pursuit of justice.
The way she used to do.
Sam turned from the window to her desk, a thick slab of oak polished to a high gleam, and casually straightened the stack of papers in her out-box. Her OCD was under strict rein, especially in front of all these new people, but there was no need for things to be messy.
She should be eager for this new life to begin. She honestly had been, until a few weeks ago, when her friend John Baldwin, from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, sat her down and threw a bomb into her world. Sent her spinning, unsure of all the choices she’d made over the past few months.
He’d come to town for a case two weeks earlier, taken her out for lunch and, before the food arrived, got straight to business.
“I wish you’d talked to me before you made this drastic change.”
“It’s the best thing for me. I don’t want to be out there anymore, Baldwin. I paid my dues, with more than I care to remember.”
“Which is why I’m here. We want you to join the FBI.”
She choked on the water the server had set down. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. We need your mind.”
She laughed. “I’m a medical examiner, Baldwin, or I was. Not a field agent. For starters, I hate guns.”
“I know. That’s not a problem. You’d be an official consultant, mostly with me and my team, but with other parts of the Bureau, too, depending on the cases. You’d need to go through some training at the Academy in Quantico, to make it all official, but you’ll be able to work on cases again. Sam, you can’t tell me you don’t miss it.”
“I don’t. Not at all.”
“You’re lying to yourself.”
Watching the students wander the campus, Sam wondered if he was right. Did she belong here? Innocent faces glued to smartphones, earbuds firmly embedded in ears, an insouciant walk; these kids didn’t seem to have a care in the world. What if she wasn’t cool enough for them?
“Right. There’s the thing to worry about. Being cool.”
She settled at the desk and opened her laptop. Debated putting in her own earbuds; decided she was being silly. She knew her lesson plan cold, but giving it one more look wouldn’t hurt; she hated using notes. Regardless of the doubt she was feeling, she was here to engage these young doctors, intrigue them, but also allow them a glimpse into the real world of forensic pathology. Not the exciting, tumultuous world they saw on television, but the bloody, messy, heart-wrenching process of dissection, both of bodies and of lives. To show them the hardest truth of all: the dead have no secrets.
But the living do.
Forget the notes. Maybe she’d just read for a bit, settle into her office. Adjust to the sights and sounds of her new life.
She was deep into an article on forensic ballistics when a soft knock pulled her from her review. She looked up to see Xander in her doorway, a grin on his face.
“Hey,” he said.
Her stomach flipped, as it always did when he caught her unawares. A biological response to an emotion none truly understood. An emotion she was grateful for, because she knew the depth of it had saved her from sinking into the deepest abyss.
Alexander Whitfield. Known to his parents and family as Moonbeam, or Xander Moon. A true misnomer for a tough former army ranger. And Xander was still a ranger through and through: intense, alert, always combing the background for unseen threats. Romantic, and a fatalist. Just like her.
He was a different man now than the one she’d met several months before. More open, more forgiving. Happier. They’d settled into a version of domestic bliss, splitting their time between her Georgetown town house and his cabin in the backwoods of the Savage River Forest.
He’d separated from the army the previous year after the terrible cover-up of a friendly fire incident that had killed one of his best friends. He’d run to the woods, disengaged from the world and would have stayed there, lost and alone, if it weren’t for Sam. Two broken souls, made whole by their joining.
Xander wasn’t fully ready to reenter the world, but he was coming back, a bit at a time. Though he’d done his best to hide it, she knew he was happy she had turned down Baldwin’s job offer.
“Hey,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“I thought I’d bring you lunch. I know how you can lose yourself in your work. What is it today? Blood spatter?”
“It’s eerie how you do that.” She turned the laptop around and showed him the article. “I was just starting the section on backspatter.”
He didn’t pale, but his lips tightened together in a grim line. He’d spent most of his life behind the trigger; he was more than familiar with the concept.
Sam glanced at the screen, saw the full-color image of a man at the wrong end of a shotgun and slammed the laptop closed. “Sorry. What’s this about lunch?”
Xander’s dark hair flopped onto his forehead. “You’re not one of those M.E.s who can eat a tuna sandwich standing over a corpse, are you?”
“Highly unethical behavior, tuna eating. I’d stick with cookies or crackers myself. The crumbs are easier to brush away.”
He laughed, deep from his belly, which made her smile. She loved his laugh.
“I wouldn’t kick you out of bed for eating crackers.” He glanced over his shoulder at the open office door. “Maybe we should inaugurate your office.”
He kissed her, long and lingering, and she was damn close to saying lock the door when another knock sounded, this one accompanied by a high-pitched throat clearing. They jumped apart like teenagers caught making out on a porch, and Sam smoothed her shirt down—good grief, one of her buttons was undone; how had he managed that?—before turning to see who’d so rudely interrupted them.
It was one of her new T.A.s, Stephanie Wilhelm, a slight blonde with a sharp sense of humor to match her highly unorthodox look—today a black Metallica concert T-shirt under a black men’s pin-striped jacket and dark jeans tucked into leather combat boots. Sam liked the girl. Her independence among the clones had landed her the coveted T.A. position in the first place.
“Forgive me, Dr. Owens, but this letter arrived for you. It’s marked urgent. I thought I should bring it to you right away.”
Her words were directed to Sam, but her eyes were locked on Xander, who was sitting on the edge of Sam’s desk, arms crossed on his broad chest, vibrating in amusement as he watched her fumble with her button.
“Thank you, Stephanie. I appreciate it.”
“If you need anything else…” She dropped off, winked lasciviously.
“Out,” Sam said, and Stephanie left with a grin.
“I’m hot for teacher,” Xander said, and Sam swatted him with the letter.
“Quit it. The last thing I need is a reputation for looseness among my students.” She sat on the desk next to him and opened the letter. Thick strokes of black ink, the words slanted to the right. A man’s handwriting.
She read the first line, felt the breath leave her body. “Uh-oh.”
Xander caught her tone. “What’s wrong?”
She scanned the rest of the letter. “You need to hear this.” She read it aloud, vaguely noticed her voice was shaking.
“Dear Dr. Owens,
If you are reading this letter, I am dead. I would be most grateful if you would solve my murder. I know how determined you are, and talented. If anyone can figure out this mess, it’s you.
I’ve compiled a list of suspects for you to look at, and set aside some money to cover your expenses. I fear your life may be in danger once they find I’ve contacted you, so I urge you to take every precaution.
Timothy R. Savage”
Copyright © 2014 by J.T. Ellison