When a fellow FBI agent is kidnapped and a protected witness vanishes, Leo Gallagher will stop at nothing to find them both. So when he discovers a link between the case and a single mother in Wyoming, Leo and his trusty K-9 partner rush to question Alicia Duncan. Could she be the key to locating the missing persons? Not if a killer has anything to say about it. Someone is determined to keep Alicia from talking, so Leo and his chocolate Lab must keep her and her little boy safe on their family ranch. With danger lurking around every corner, Leo must work overtime to not lose another person who's important to him.
“Mommy, where are the fishies?”
“Hey, be careful, buddy. Don’t slip off the rock.” Heart lurching, Alicia Duncan grabbed her son, Charlie, by the back of his green life vest. If he leaned over any farther, he would go headlong into Wyoming’s Blackthorn River. His fishing pole clattered against the outcropping of smooth rocks, where they’d plopped down to fish. The exact place she’d fished from as a kid and teen. “Hang on to your pole, sweetie.”
Heat bounced off the stones and reflected off the river water from the unseasonably warm April morning sun, making perspiration break out at her nape beneath her long dark hair. It was a beautiful spring day for spending time outdoors with her son in the middle of Wyoming’s northwestern mountain range. The clear, smog-free air smelled sweet with the scent of ponderosa pines. So different from city life. A welcome change.
Alicia had always loved the river. About five miles downstream, the lazy flow of water cut a path through the rural town of Settler’s Valley, where she’d grown up. There was something soothing, comforting even, about the way the mountain runoff filled the riverbed.
Especially in this particular area, where the river pooled into a deep canyon with high cliffs across the bank and more cliffs a little ways upstream. The water was deep enough here that she and her friends would jump off the cliffs into the river. Those had been the days when her husband had been her boyfriend and had promised her the world.
She sighed wistfully, as the bittersweet memories washed over her.
The summer after high school she’d married local football hero Jeff Duncan. She’d believed his promise. She’d believed him.
How innocent she’d been…
She and Jeff had escaped their small-town life for the city of Tacoma, Washington. He’d been her hero, both personally, as the love of her life and the father of her child, and professionally, as a highly decorated police officer. But nothing had been as it seemed.
Now eight years later, she was back home in Wyoming. A widow, raising her son and caring for her elderly father.
Oh, and let’s not forget, licking her wounds. She hadn’t even known until after the funeral that her marriage had been a sham. That Jeff hadn’t been the man she thought he was.
Never again would she fall for charm and slick promises.
She shook her hands as if somehow the motion would relieve the restlessness that seemed to plague her these days.
“But I want to catch a fish,” Charlie grumbled. Sunlight reflected off the water and lightened the blue of his eyes, shaped exactly like his father’s. She could see Jeff in the jut of Charlie’s chin as well. Only on Charlie it looked good, not arrogant, the way it had on Jeff.
Okay, she was being uncharitable. There’d been a time when she’d loved her late husband. When he’d been everything to her. But that was before.
Alicia sighed and ruffled Charlie’s thick dark hair, which he got from her gene pool. They’d been out fishing for over an hour without even a nibble. In the world of fishing, an hour was nothing, but with a three-year-old it was more than enough. So much for trout for dinner tonight. “I know, sweetie. They don’t seem to be biting today.”
She reeled in the lure on the fishing rod she’d borrowed from her father’s collection. A fat worm still dangled from the hook. “How about we call it a day and treat ourselves to rainbow sherbet?”
“Yay! Sherbet.” Charlie swung his legs in anticipation. His rubber boots slapped against the rock. She helped her little boy to his feet. He stood with his back to the water. She kept a hand on his shoulder in case he took a step backward.
The sound of a powerboat echoed off the walls of the stone cliffs rising up on the far side of the river. A boat, traveling downstream, rounded the bend into the mouth of the canyon. Alicia didn’t pay the noise any attention as she gathered their fishing gear.
The motor sputtered to a halt. Silence echoed off the walls of stone. She glanced up to see a sleek, fiberglass sport boat floating in the middle of the river.
That was a little odd. The boat looked more like one used for waterskiing, not fishing.
A large man lifted a slim woman into his arms. Her head fell back, her long red hair cascaded in loose waves over the side of the boat and her arms hung limp at her sides. Was she asleep?
At this distance, about the length of a football field, Alicia couldn’t tell. She frowned as her pulse sped up. What was he doing with the woman?
Without hesitation the man tossed the woman into the water. Her body splashed and then disappeared beneath the surface.
Alicia gasped and held her breath. Unwilling to believe what she’d just seen, she prayed the woman would come bursting to the surface. She didn’t.
Shock punched Alicia in the stomach. She took a deep breath, and then another. She’d just witnessed a murder. Or rather, the woman was probably already dead and the man was disposing of her body.
A cold shiver of fear slithered down Alicia’s spine. She glanced at Charlie, who studied a bug crawling on a nearby rock, and was grateful to realize he hadn’t witnessed the horrifying scene.
When she returned her gaze to the boat, the killer shaded his eyes and locked his gaze on hers.
“Oh, no,” Alicia breathed out in a panic.
The powerboat’s engine roared to life, spurring Alicia into action. Her and Charlie’s only chance was to get to the shelter of the forest along the riverbank and make their way to the marina, about a half mile away. She knew this part of the river like the back of her hand. She and her school friends had spent almost every summer day along the shores of the Blackthorn River.
“Charlie, we need to go,” she urged. “Now.”
This was one time she couldn’t explain her rationale. She hated when parents of the kids she taught gave their kids commands without explaining the reasons why the child needed to comply. “Because I said so” wasn’t an acceptable form of communication in Alicia’s book.
But right now she didn’t have the mental or emotional wherewithal to use her words, let alone explain that she’d just witnessed a man dump a woman into the river and now said man was coming after them. She needed Charlie to do as she asked. “Charlie, please, do as I ask. Get up.”
She glanced over her shoulder. The sport boat was closing the distance. Was that a gun the man held in his hand?
Terror fastened around her throat like a noose. Please, Lord, protect us!
She hooked her hobo bag with one hand, slipped the strap over her shoulder to hang across her body and grabbed Charlie around the waist with her other arm and drew him to her chest, using her own body as a shield against the man with the gun
“Mommy!” Charlie protested. “Too tight.”
“Sorry, honey,” she muttered but didn’t lessen her hold as she stepped carefully off the rock, leaving behind the fishing gear. Dad would be irritated, but she didn’t have the time to grab the poles and tackle box. She’d have to come back later, when it was safe.
She slipped slightly in the soft dirt along the shore, but the bottoms of her boots dug in and kept her upright. She was thankful she’d worn her hiking boats instead of the deck shoes she’d almost put on this morning. With the roar of the powerboat drawing closer, she ran into the woods and headed south. There wasn’t a clear trail, but she didn’t hesitate. She knew her way around these woods and just hoped whoever was on the boat didn’t.
The sudden quiet sent a fresh swell of terror hurtling through her. Had the man reached the shore? Behind her, something crashed through the forest. A loud pop and a thud in the tree to her right startled her. Debris spit from the tree trunk. The killer was shooting at them!
Using every ounce of strength she possessed, she forced her legs to pump faster. She zigzagged through the trees and scrub brush. Jeff had always said a moving target was harder to hit, especially an erratic one.
“Hang onto me, Charlie,” she said softly as she hunkered down, trying to make them as small a target as possible.
She broke through the trees to the marina’s gravel parking lot. She ran down the parking lane, intending to head straight to the boathouse for help. But her car was right there. The forceful thought to get away, to put as much distance between her and the killer, pounded inside her head.
Jamming her hand into her hobo bag, her fingers curled around her key fob. She pressed the button that unlocked the doors and ducked behind a car parked two spaces from her own white all-wheel-drive hatchback. She needed to catch her breath. To think.
Charlie’s hands grasped her face. “Scared, Mommy.”
“Yes, I know, sweetie. A bad man is after us.” Staring into her son’s trusting gaze, Alicia vowed she’d do whatever it took to keep her son safe. “So I need you to be very quiet, okay?”
The skidding of feet on the gravel echoed through the still air. The killer had reached the parking lot. She shuddered with dread.
Please, let him think we went to the boathouse, Alicia prayed.
She scooted closer to the car so that her feet were blocked by the tires in case he looked beneath the undercarriages of the row of vehicles hoping to pinpoint where they were. Terror ricocheted through her and she held her breath. As if sensing her fear, Charlie buried his face in the side of her neck and grabbed fistfuls of her shirt.
Listening intently, she made out the crunch of heavy steps on the loose rock as the killer moved closer. She titled her head and closed her eyes. He was coming down the lane to her right. Adjusting her grip on Charlie, she edged to the left and around the back of the vehicle.
In a low crouch, she risked sprinting to the rear end of the next vehicle. She pressed her back to the tailgate of a truck and waited. After a moment, she darted to her car. Carefully, she opened the back passenger door far enough for her and Charlie to climb inside.
Pulling the door closed but not latching it for fear the click would alert the killer, she squatted awkwardly on the floor and set Charlie on the seat. She quickly undid his life vest and set it aside. “Charlie, I need you to get into your seat and buckle up, okay?”
He nodded solemnly, his eyes big and his lower lip quivering. She hated scaring him like this, but there was nothing to be done. They needed to get away.
She stayed crouched behind the driver’s seat until he was secured in his car seat. She grabbed the life vest and pressed it to his chest. “Hold on to this, okay?”
It wouldn’t stop a bullet but she had nothing else to provide a barrier.
Taking a deep breath, she squeezed herself across the middle console and climbed into the driver’s seat. She slunk down in the seat and could barely see over the dashboard. Adrenaline surged as she saw the back of the killer’s head as he lumbered toward the boathouse. She hesitated with her hand on the key in the ignition. The second she fired up the engine, he’d know where they were.
When the killer reached the boathouse and disappeared inside, she sprang into action. She started the car, threw the gearshift into Reverse and stepped on the gas. Heart in her throat, she barely managed to brake before hitting the car parked in the opposite space. She spun the wheel, put the vehicle into Drive and stomped her foot on the gas pedal. The car tires spun and found traction, and they hurtled forward.
The killer ran out of the boathouse with the gun aimed at the car. Alicia sucked in a quick breath and took a sharp turn at the end of the lane. She sped toward the main road, which would take her into town and to the police station.
Up ahead one of the three traffic lights turned red. She took her foot off the gas, letting the car slow, and glanced in the rearview mirror. A big 4x4 truck barreled out of the marina parking lot and raced toward her.
Her breath hitched. She looked in both directions for oncoming traffic. Seeing that it was safe, she gunned the accelerator. The car shot forward through the intersection. She hung a quick right on Elm Street, then a sharp left on Cedar Drive, hoping that the killer wouldn’t be able to track her. Racing down Cedar, she hooked another right on Evergreen Avenue. Up ahead the new brick building of Settler’s Valley police station was a beacon of sanctuary.
The squeal of tires behind her sent a chill of terror over her flesh. The killer’s truck rounded the corner and roared down the street after her. She gripped the steering wheel so tight that her hands ached.
Only a few more feet to safety. She laid her hand on the horn in an effort to attract attention. She lifted a prayer to God that someone inside the building would hear the commotion and come out to investigate.
Because surely, the killer wouldn’t risk doing something to her and Charlie within plain sight of the police station, would he?
Leo and True slipped through the ground-floor doors of the FBI’s Tactical K-9 Unit headquarters in Billings, Montana.
His boss, Max West, had called for a team meeting, pulling Leo and True in from a morning run. His T-shirt was damp with sweat and his running shoes were silent on the concrete floor. He hoped this powwow meant some news about Jake.
Leo left True in the care of one of the dog trainers, then scrubbed a hand over his bristled jaw as he took the stairs. He’d hardly slept in the week since Jake went missing. They’d had no word on his whereabouts. The silence and lack of information concerned him deeply. For the millionth time, Leo prayed that his buddy was alive and that the team would find him.
The six-story brick building was the unit’s base of operations, but at any moment each team member could be deployed to any crime scene in any state in the country. That was how they’d ended up in that Los Angeles warehouse a week ago.
The K-9 unit consisted of the training facility on the ground floor, while the second floor housed the agents’ offices and computer tech center. The other floors were occupied by a variety of government officials. Both the training center and the presence of other governmental employees helped to disguise the team’s covert operations
Stopping by his desk in the bullpen, Leo shrugged off his lightweight jacket and hung it over the back of his desk chair. He checked for messages in his inbox on his FBI-issued laptop, flagged a couple to return to later, then headed to the communications center. Pausing in the doorway, he noticed the team wasn’t gathered there. There was only Dylan O’Leary, the computer genius. “Hey.”
Dylan spun from the bank of computer monitors to grin at him. His spikey, sandy blond hair and dark framed glasses screamed techno geek while his loud Hawaiian shirt over his official FBI Tactical K-9 Unit polo made it clear he was a man with a sense of humor. “How’s it going, Leo?”
“Going.” Leo leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb. “You?”
Dylan sighed and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “I miss Zara, but Radar and I are doing okay. We’re getting along.”
Leo was glad to hear his fiancée’s dog wasn’t giving him trouble. Zara was at Quantico, training to be an official FBI agent so that she could come back and officially join the team. “Where is everyone?”
“The debriefing room.”
Leo chuckled. In other words, the kitchen. “You coming?”
Dylan turned back to his computer monitors. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
Leo left Dylan to his gadgets and headed into the large open area of the “debriefing” space. Along the far wall was a state-of-the-art kitchen, complete with oven, stovetop and fridge, all in stainless steel. A bank of windows provided natural light and an extralarge monitor hung on the wall near the door.
A long hand-carved wooden table with bench seats dominated the middle of the room. The team was already seated and munching on fruit platters and trays of pastries from Petrov Bakery, a favorite with all the agents.
Max stood at the coffee machine, making himself a latte. He glanced up and tipped his chin at Leo. He was a tall man with short blond hair and a ragged scar on one side of his face. “The gang’s all here.”
Not quite. Jake was missing.
The familiar burn of guilt ate at Leo, killing any appetite he might have had. He straddled the end of the closest bench next to Ian Slade. The tall, muscular agent cracked a joke that had Harper Prentiss and Julianne Martinez and the team’s general assistant, Christy Burton, laughing. As usual the good-humored Ian was charming the ladies.
Max moved to the head of the table and sat. “Where are we with the Dupree case?”
“Reginald Dupree isn’t talking,” Harper replied. “He’s lawyered up and so have his henchmen. The US district attorney is spitting mad about it.”
“Angus Dupree escaped, we assume on the helicopter,” Timothy Ramsey, a junior agent, added. He sat across the table from Leo between Harper and another junior agent, Nina Atkins.
“And Agent Morrow?” Max asked, his piercing blue eyes surveying his team. “Jake’s brother, Zeke, has been hounding me for answers. I don’t have any to give yet.”
Leo’s jaw tightened. It had to be tough for Zeke thinking he’d never see his brother again. Jake had mentioned once he and his brother weren’t close and barely spoke, but still…family was family.
“The press is also pestering me for a statement,” Christy said with a flip of her auburn hair. “I can’t keep them in the dark for much longer.”
“It’s been a week and no word,” Julianne said, her voice soft. No doubt she was thinking Jake was dead. Leo wouldn’t accept that.
“Angus took Jake,” Leo stated. “We know that. We tested the blood we found at the scene. It was Jake’s.”
Ian swiveled toward Leo. “Why would they take him?”
“For leverage. To get information out of him.” Leo couldn’t help the growl in his voice. He should have had Jake’s and Buddy’s backs.
“Angus might use Jake to reduce Reginald’s sentence,” Harper added.
Ian shook his head, his normal good humor disappearing as he sobered. “If Angus was going to use him, he’d have done so by now, right?”
“Jake has intimate knowledge of our investigation into the Duprees,” Harper said. “He knows that we have Esme Dupree stashed away in witness protection ready to testify against her brother.”
“But Jake doesn’t have access to Esme’s whereabouts,” Ian pointed out.
Dylan stepped into the room carrying a computer device. “Hey, guys, I received an alert on a crime I think you might want to hear about.” He tapped some keys on his console. “A witness in Settler’s Valley, Wyoming, claims to have seen a man dumping a body into the Blackthorn River. By the description, it sounds like the victim could be Esme Dupree.”
Leo’s stomach muscles clenched. Could the report from Wyoming be true? Had a witness seen Esme Dupree’s dead body? Without Esme, their case would fall apart. “Is the witness reliable?”
“The Settler’s Valley police chief thinks so,” Dylan replied. “A school teacher named Alicia Duncan. She saw the killer, who she claims shot at her and her three-year-old son.”
Leo’s breath caught in his throat. A child. Memories assaulted him. He fought them back with the practice of over two decades. He focused his gaze on his boss. “We’ll go. True is the only dog qualified for the task.” True’s specialty was Water Search and Rescue.
Max’s eyebrows hitched upward. “Good point. Leo, you and True make your way to Wyoming. I’ll call the US Marshals to verify they haven’t lost our witness. Dylan, contact the nearest SAR team that has a qualified diver and send them to Settler’s Valley. Also get everything you can about this new witness to Leo, as well as any info you can get on the supposed killer.”
“On it.” Dylan pivoted and exited as quickly as he’d arrived.
By the time Leo had showered and changed into khakis and a black, long-sleeve polo shirt with the FBI logo on the breast pocket, Dylan had a dossier on Alicia Duncan ready.
After he had True secured in his special compartment of the official K-9 unit SUV, he flipped through the file on the witness, getting the basics. She seemed legit. A widowed schoolteacher with a young child living with her father. Not some attention-seeking nutcase wasting his time. Leo placed the folder on the passenger seat and set off for Settler’s Valley, Wyoming. He’d interview the witness and then take True to the river. If there was truly a body to be found, True would find the victim. He always did.
Thanks for joining in the fun with this sneak peak of Guardian. Leave a comment to be entered into the drawing. The winner will be announced on Monday, April 17.