“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
“You already heard, right?”
David Willis glanced up at the man casting a long shadow over his cluttered desk. Detective “Tiny” Wyman, his best friend on the force and a damn good cop, was even larger than he was. With skin like burnished copper, a ready smile that always seemed at odds with the depth of sadness in his brown eyes–eyes that had seen too much even before he became a cop–and more muscle mass than two average men combined, he took crime fighting seriously. He also wasted few words. When he talked, most people listened. Even David.
“Heard what? That I’m behind on my paperwork again?” he joked.
Tiny shoved giant hands into the pockets of his khaki pants, but the casual pose didn’t make him look any more comfortable in his clothes. Tiny just wasn’t the kind of man who was meant to wear slacks and a sports jacket, let alone a tie. A Superman costume would stand out less. “You’re always behind on your paperwork,” he grumbled with a crooked grin. “You think I’d waste my valuable time pointin’ that out?”
When his smile didn’t linger, David knew he hadn’t stopped to spar with him. “No,” he said. “What’s up?”
Tiny yanked at his tie as if it were choking him. “’Member that guy we put away for attackin’ that little blonde woman in the middle of the night?”
David had handled enough cases over his thirteen years with the Sacramento PD that, with such a sketchy description, he might not have instantly recalled this particular assault. But Tiny’s mention of “that little blonde woman” brought the details immediately to mind. Probably because those details hadn’t been that deeply buried to begin with. He hadn’t talked to Skye in a few months, but she was never far from his mind. “Yeah, I remember. Burke got eight to ten.”
“Turns out it’ll be closer to three.”
Rocking back in his chair, David tossed his pen on top of the stack of paperwork he’d been forcing himself to complete. “I knew he was coming up for his first parole hearing. But last I heard there wasn’t as snowball’s chance in hell he was going to get it.”
“He shouldn’t have gotten it,” Tiny responded. “Burke is dangerous. But…” He gave up fiddling with his tie, his attitude one of surrender to another day at the office. “…I guess he ratted out a fellow inmate, which enabled San Francisco PD to close two previously unsolved homicides. They recommended him to the parole board.”
David shot to his feet. “Didn’t anyone read my damn letter? Why didn’t they call us first? Check this guy out?”
“Apparently, they contacted Chief Jordan several weeks ago.”
“Did he tell them the body count along the river stopped once our friendly dentist went to prison?”
“Of course. And they said it could easily be a coincidence.” Tiny finally cracked his usual broad smile. “I say they can bank on our intuition. But they want more.”
More. That was why the chief had questioned him about the unsolved cases, wanting to know if he was any closer to developing a solid connection to Oliver Burke. Jordan had been looking for something tangible with which to contest these other opinions. And David hadn’t been able to give it to him. But their meeting hadn’t concerned him too much. He hadn’t realized what was on the line. He’d thought he’d have at least two more years to find the missing link.
“This is bullshit.” David stormed around Tiny, intent on seeking Jordan. But Tiny grabbed his arm.
“Save your breath, man. There’s nothing he can do. The decision’s been made. Dr. Burke walks next week.”
“Next week? Doesn’t anyone care what he might do?” The other detectives in the violent crime unit, who’d already been casting David surreptitious glances ever since he started raising his voice, looked up. But he used a pointed stare to encourage them to mind their own business and shifted his attention back to Tiny.
“Evidently, San Francisco cares more about closing old cases,” Tiny said. “By rewarding Burke, they give others incentive to step forward. There’re some gang bangers in there who know a lot of shit. I think they would’ve fought this all the way to the governor, hoping to get a pardon, if need be.”
Apparently, it hadn’t been necessary to go that far. Burke’s early release had been far easier to accomplish than David would’ve thought possible. “But if he attacks again…” He shook his head. “He’s already had one victim testify against him!”
“That was Chief Jordan’s argument.”
“He was told that we can’t take every ‘might’ into account or we’d never be able to do our jobs.”
David shoved his paperwork aside. “Skye Kellerman is a ‘might’ that should matter!”
Tiny ran a hand over his bald head. “She matters to you, right?”
As usual, Tiny’s voice was a low, unruffled rumble, but David couldn’t help marking the subtle inflection. He ignored it, as well as the memory of Tiny warning him that he was getting too emotionally involved with Skye. Then, as now, he’d been trying to reconcile with his ex-wife.
“I wouldn’t put it past Burke to seek her out–to take what she denied him, along with an extra measure of revenge,” he ground out. The image created by his own words made him sicker than if he’d been talking about anyone else.
Tiny’s gaze remained steady. “Neither would I.”
“We have to do something.”
“What? Unless we find the proof we’re missing on those old murders, or he commits another crime, there’s nothin’ we can do.” He let go of a long, laborious sigh. “You want me to call her?”
David wished he could let Tiny deliver the news. Or someone else. This was the last thing he wanted to tell Skye. But he refused to take the easy way out. It had to be him. “No, I’ll do it.”
“I’m sure.” With a curse, he slammed his fist down on his desk, which made a resounding boom as Tiny ducked to get out the door. Tiny didn’t bother to look back. He knew David too well, shared his frustration. But every other head in the office jerked up.
“What are you staring at?” David growled.
Everyone turned away, but intimidating his co-workers didn’t make him feel any better. How was he going to tell Skye that there was good reason for the fear she faced daily—after surviving such an attack—to get a lot worse?
The muscles between Skye Kellerman’s shoulder blades tensed as she heard the tires of a car in her gravel drive. It was a cold morning in early January, not dark, but a thick blanket of fog made her feel completely isolated. Cut-off from the rest of the world.
Hurrying to the antique secretary she’d inherited, along with the house, when her mother passed away a year earlier, she selected her Kel-Tec P3AT semi-automatic handgun over her Sig P232—because it was lighter, thinner and easier to conceal—and carried it with her as she ran to get a T-shirt from her bedroom. She wanted to cover the swath of cleavage and stomach revealed by the jog bra and Lycra shorts she wore while working out.
A car door slammed and footsteps approached the house. Heavy footsteps. The footsteps of a man.
Pulling on a baggy T-shirt that said, “The Last Stand: Where Victims Fight Back,” she went to peek through the wooden shutters of her front windows, then the peephole she’d drilled in the door. But the fog was too thick, the morning shadows too murky to make out more than a large, dark shape coming toward her.
The metallic taste of fear rose in her throat, soured her stomach. This was probably just someone who was lost and in need of directions. Sherman Island had only 175 residents and sat in the heart of the Sacramento River Delta. Few outsiders were familiar with the sloughs, natural waterways, drawbridges and levees that made the wetlands so unique. But she would no longer assume that strangers were safe. Not since she’d been startled awake in the middle of the night by a man wearing a hood and wielding a knife.
Burke was now in prison—thank God—but because of The Last Stand, the victim’s support organization she’d started with good friends Sheridan Cole and Jasmine Stratford two years ago, she’d made a lot of enemies. This could easily be Tamara Lind’s husband, a wife-beater who blamed Skye for Tamara’s recent desertion. Last week, he’d threatened to bomb The Last Stand. Or it could be Kevin Sheppard. Kevin had appeared at their offices after a flurry of newspaper articles praising TLS for financially backing an investigator who uncovered new evidence on a high-profile murder. Kevin had wanted to help out as a volunteer, but Skye turned him away when a background check revealed accusations of stalking, at which point he’d grown unreasonably angry and stormed out. No one had seen him since.
The doorbell sounded, followed almost immediately by a sharp rap.
She imagined turning off the alarm and opening the door the amount allowed by the chain only to have it kicked wide–and felt her palm begin to sweat on the butt of her gun. Calm down.
She was a damn good aim. But nerves could wreak havoc on the best marksman in the world. So she wouldn’t open the door. She’d pretend to be gone and hope he’d go on his way.
Holding her breath, she pressed her spine more firmly to the wall, wondering what the students from her various shooting classes would think if they could see her now—sweating and shaking over a little fog and an unexpected visitor. Most viewed her as indestructible when she had a gun in her hand. They acted like their own guns made them invincible, too. But they didn’t understand what it was really like in a desperate stand-off, didn’t fully grasp the fact that a woman could own a million firearms and still be vulnerable—unless she was prepared to pull the trigger.
Was she willing to kill Kevin Sheppard? Or Tamara’s estranged husband?
If she had to…
She hadn’t made a move or a sound, but her visitor didn’t seem to be buying that she wasn’t at home. He rang the doorbell again. Knocked. Then his body blocked the window as he tried to see in.
“Skye? Skye, are you in there? It’s me, Detective Willis.”
Slowly exhaling, she consciously released the pressure of her fingers on the gun. David… She wasn’t in mortal danger. But knowing he was standing on her front step certainly didn’t slow her heart rate.
“Your car’s in the drive,” he yelled. “You gonna answer?”
Taking another steadying breath, she flipped the safety on her gun, dropped it into the pocket of her coat, which hung on the hall tree by the door, and dashed a hand across her moist upper lip.
“Skye?” he called again.
“Coming.” After unarming the alarm system, she slid the chain aside, turned the deadbolt, and opened the door.
He was wearing a green shirt and tie and looked good–too good. His tie was a little dressy for his shirt, but his style was as unique as it was appealing. Sort of James Dean “cool” mixed with Johnny Depp “different.” Briefly, she remembered the time, nearly a year ago, that he’d brushed his lips against hers, then kissed her more deeply, pressing her up against the wall in a moment when their volatile attraction overcame reason and good sense.
“Hi.” She smiled, hoping to appear unaffected, but their relationship was too complex to take any encounter in stride. Especially an unexpected encounter. “What brings you out to the delta?”
His manner suggested this wasn’t a social call. She almost wondered if he’d forgotten the night he’d come by to help her move and they’d nearly made love. “I need to talk to you. Can I come in for a minute?”
He was being so formal, so aloof. And he hadn’t called. He’d shown up at her door. What was going on?
Stepping aside, she beckoned him past her, telling herself there was no reason for the knots in her stomach. The worst was behind her. No matter what happened from here she would never have to go through the same hell again. And that was all that mattered. “Can I get you a cup of green tea?”
“Green tea?” he echoed, arching a dark eyebrow.
“Sorry. I don’t have any coffee. I don’t drink it anymore.”
“I’ll pass on the tea. I’m afraid my body wouldn’t know what to do with something that healthy.” His light green eyes seemed to take in every detail of her face and figure, which made her far too aware of him. But he didn’t give away whether or not he liked what he saw. He kept whatever he was thinking locked behind an implacable expression. And a second later, he turned his attention to his surroundings.
For the first time in a long while Skye saw the inside of her house from someone else’s perspective. In the living room, she’d removed her mother’s dated “for company” couch, the walnut veneer side tables, the curio cabinets and vases filled with silk flowers–given them all to Brenna and JoAnna, her two stepsisters, who lived in Los Angeles near their father—and replaced them with free weights, an exercise bike, a treadmill, an aerobics step and a mat for Yoga. Only a slice of kitchen could be seen from their vantage point, but that slice showed the small in-door garden where she grew herbs and wheat grass.
“Wow, I like what you’ve done to the place,” he said.
His sardonic smile let her know he didn’t consider it an improvement. She knew it’d only serve as further proof that her past was taking control of her life, which was something they’d argued about the last time they’d talked.
“Thanks. Seemed a pity to waste so much space.”
She hadn’t been practical at all. Until the early morning hours of July 11th nearly four years ago, she’d classified breaking a freshly manicured nail as a catastrophe. “Having to stab a rapist can change a person.”
The muscle that twitched in his jaw revealed his displeasure. Evidently, she’d just reminded him of the purpose of his visit–if the scar on her cheek had ever let him forget it in the first place.
“Maybe you should sit down,” he said.
“Why would I need to do that?”
He cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable. “I have bad news.”
You and your ex-wife have reconciled for good? She cringed at her thoughts, knowing, if it were true, she should be happy. David’s eight-year-old son deserved the kind of family David was so determined to give him.
“I’m fine where I am.” When she stubbornly lifted her chin, she noticed that one corner of his mouth quirked, evidence of a subtle softening. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “Can’t you find any evidence that it was Burke who killed those other women?”
“No. Not yet.”
The grudging sound of those words told her that failure ate at him. David didn’t like losing. Somehow it had become personal with Burke, more than just a job to David. But she still couldn’t help being disappointed. She’d been praying he’d finally prove Burke every bit as evil as she claimed. She didn’t care what Burke’s lawyers argued at his trial—that it had been his first offense; that he had no history of violence; that his wife, the person who knew him best, swore he’d never even raised his voice to her; that he was a highly-functioning, church-going, productive part of the community. Skye had been there that night. She’d felt his deadly intent. “Have you changed your mind?” she asked. “Do you think it was someone else?”
He shoved his hands in his pockets. “No. It’s him. Same pattern of behavior, similar victims. The shoe imprint we found at one of the scenes fits his size feet, which were uncommonly small for a man.
“That’s not enough?”
“There were no discerning characteristics, other than size, we could point to in order to bring charges.”
“I take it no more bodies have been found.”
“Nothing similar to the other three.”
So why was he here? Worried that Willis’ determination was waning, she grabbed his arm–and felt him tense the moment she touched him. She couldn’t tell if that was because he resented the contact or welcomed it, but she couldn’t lose her only police support. Everyone else on the force resented The Last Stand because of the publicity it brought to unsolved or mishandled cases. “It’s not too late,” she told him. “We’ve got time. We have to figure out a way to keep Burke behind bars.”
Visibly wincing, he pulled away, and that was when the real terror set in. “What?” she said. “He’s not out, right? He’s still in prison. They gave him eight to ten. You said that would most likely mean eight.”
“I’m sorry, Skye,” he muttered between clenched teeth.
She couldn’t catch her breath, couldn’t slow her pulse. “What are you saying?”
“They’re letting him go next week.”