The seventh thrilling novel in the Tracers series from an author who “excels at detailing the mystery and the chase” (Publishers Weekly) features a forensic photographer and an FBI agent who form an uneasy partnership to find a vicious criminal.
Every picture tells a story. But not all of them have happy endings.
As a forensic photographer at the Delphi Center crime lab, Maddie Callahan is used to seeing violence up close, but she’s never before been the target of it. When a freelance photo shoot goes awry, she realizes she may have seen, and perhaps photographed, the kidnapping of a key witness in a federal probe. And although her camera was stolen, Maddie knows she has something that could be even more valuable to investigators.
FBI agent Brian Beckman has spent months investigating a vicious criminal known as the Doctor, only to have a key witness abducted on his watch. Worse, he’s falling for the woman who may be the Doctor’s next target. Maddie’s aloof facade hides a world of hurt that he wants to heal, no matter how much she keeps him at bay. But first he has to protect her from the danger that’s just out of focus, drawing close enough to shoot . . . and kill.
Maddie Callahan’s newest clients seemed to have everything—youth, looks, money—which was precisely why she doubted their marriage would work. But she kept her opinions to herself as she snapped what she hoped was the final shot of the day.
“That should do it for the church backdrop. So, we’re all set?”
“What about the footbridge?” The bride-to-be smiled up at her fiancé. “I can post it on the blog with our engagement story.”
“Whatever you want, babe.”
Maddie stifled an eye roll and turned to check out the park. It wasn’t overly crowded—just a few people walking dogs—but their light was fading.
“I know it’s getting late.” Hannah held her hands together like a prayer and looked at Maddie. “But could we get something real quick?”
“We can if we hurry,” Maddie said, collapsing her tripod and looping her camera strap around her neck. She waited for a break in traffic and led Hannah and Devon across Main Street to the park, where she deposited her equipment beside the lily pond. She glanced around, cataloging the details of the composition. The wooden footbridge formed a low arc over the water. Sunlight glistened off the pond’s surface, creating a shimmery, storybook effect that Maddie had taken advantage of before. As one of the few natural backdrops in this congested college town, the park was a good place for wedding photos—or, as in this case, engagement shots. Normally, Maddie liked using it, but this appointment had run way over schedule, and she was anxious to get back to the lab. She opted to skip the tripod and keep this quick.
Maddie composed the shot as Hannah posed her future husband behind her. With matching white dress shirts, faded jeans, and cowboy boots, the couple’s look today was what Maddie thought of as Texas preppy. Hannah settled their clasped hands on the side of the bridge, putting her two-carat diamond on prominent display.
“How’s this?” she asked.
“Perfect.” Maddie snapped the picture. “I think I got it. Just a few more and . . . that’s it. You’re done.”
Both pairs of shoulders relaxed. Devon looked at his watch, clearly relieved to be finished with what he probably thought was a marathon photo shoot. He had no idea what awaited him on his wedding day.
Hannah turned and smiled up at him. “Do I have lipstick on my teeth, sweets?”
He grinned down at her. “No. Do I?”
Maddie lifted her camera one last time as he reached down to brush a lock of hair from his fiancée’s face.
And that was the money shot. Maddie knew it the instant she took it. The ring wasn’t in the picture, but she hoped they’d order a print anyway. Maybe they’d put it in a frame on their mantel, where they could glance at it occasionally and be reminded of the genuine fondness they’d had for each other before the years set in.
And, really, what more could anyone ask of an engagement picture?
Her mission accomplished, Maddie collected her equipment.
“How soon can we see something?” Hannah asked as she joined her on the grass.
“Oh, I’m guessing—” Maddie checked the time. Damn, it was already 5:40. “I should have these posted to the site tomorrow, plenty of time to pick one for Sunday’s paper.”
The bride-to-be looked crestfallen. “You mean, not by tonight?”
Maddie took a deep breath. She counted to three mentally. Yes, her day job paid the bills, but freelance work was the icing on her cake. And that business relied heavily on referrals.
“I’ll do my best,” she said brightly, even though it meant turning her whole evening upside-down. And that was assuming she wouldn’t get called out for some emergency. “I can probably get you something by midnight. If I do, I’ll e-mail you the password for the gallery.”
“Thank you! I really appreciate it. Everyone’s dying to see how these turn out.”
Maddie wasn’t sure who “everyone” was, but she managed to keep a cheerful expression on her face as they exchanged good-byes. Then she hitched her tripod onto her shoulder and trekked across the park.
Her stomach growled as she headed for the garage where she’d parked. She cast a longing look at the sandwich shop on the corner. Food would have to wait. She needed to get back to the lab and send out half a dozen files before she could possibly call it a day.
She ducked into the shade of the parking garage, avoiding the stairwell in favor of the ramp. The blustery February wind had died down, and the air was thick with car exhaust. Maddie hugged the concrete wall so she wouldn’t get clipped by a driver rounding the corner. She reached the third level and spotted her little white Prius tucked beside a pickup. She dug her phone from her purse and checked for messages. Her boss, her sister, her boss, her boss.
Shoes scuffed behind her. The skin at the back of her neck prickled. Maddie paused and pretended to be reading something on her phone as she listened.
Her pulse picked up. She resumed her pace.
She whirled around. No one. She clutched the phone in her hand and darted her gaze up and down the rows of cars. She searched for anyone lurking, any ominous shadows, but she was alone.
Anxiety gnawed at her as she surveyed her surroundings. It was light out. The streets below hummed with traffic. Still, she tightened her grip on the tripod. She tucked the phone into her purse and felt for her pepper spray.
In the corner of her eye, movement. She pivoted toward it and registered two things at once: man and ski mask. Fear shot through her. Maddie swung the tripod around like a baseball bat as the man barreled into her, slamming her against the pickup. The tripod was jerked from her grip and clattered to the ground. Hands clamped around her neck. Maddie punched and bucked as fingers dug into her skin. She tried to scream. No air. Gray eyes glared at her through the holes in the mask.
She smashed the heel of her hand into his nose and felt bone crunch. He staggered back. Maddie jerked sideways. He lunged for her, grabbing the collar of her jacket. She twisted out of it and bolted for the stairwell.
“Help!” she shrieked, yanking open the door. She leaped down the stairs, rounded the landing, leaped down more. Her butt hit concrete, but she groped for the railing and hauled herself up. Hinges squeaked above her. Her pulse skittered. Footsteps thundered over her head.
But they were alone in the soundproof shaft. Another landing, a door. She shoved it open and dashed through. She searched desperately for people but saw only rows and rows of cars. Another door. Light-headed with terror, she pushed it open and stumbled into an alley. On her right, a passageway lined with Dumpsters. On her left, a gray car parked at the mouth of the alley. Someone was inside.
Maddie rushed for the car. It lurched forward. She halted, stunned, as it charged toward her like a rhino. Maddie sprinted away. Behind her, a door banged open. The engine roared behind her as she raced down the alley. The noise was at her heels, almost on top of her. Panic zinged through her like an electric current as her arms and legs pumped. The car bore down on her. At the last possible second, she dove sideways behind a Dumpster and felt a great whoosh of air as the car shot past. The squeal of brakes echoed through the alley.
Maddie darted through the space between the back bumper and the Dumpster. She raced for the street. Despair clogged her throat as she realized the distance she’d covered. Where was the ski mask guy? The people and the traffic noise seemed impossibly far away. She raced toward the mouth of the alley as fast as her burning legs could carry her.
The man jumped from a doorway. They crashed to the ground in a heap of arms and legs and flying elbows. Her skin scraped against the pavement as she kicked free of him and scrambled to her feet. He grabbed the strap of her camera, and her body jerked violently. She landed on her side as a fist pummeled her, and pain exploded behind her eyes. She managed to roll to her knees as another blow hit her shoulder. She fell forward but caught herself on her palms and kicked backward, desperate not to end up on the ground under him.
She struggled for her feet, but her vision blurred, and the strap was like a noose around her neck. The vinegary taste of fear filled her mouth. He heaved his weight into her, smashing her against the wall. The strap tightened again. Maddie gripped it with her hands. She tried to buck him off, but he was strong and wiry and determined to get her into a headlock. He clamped his arm around her throat. She turned her head to the side and bit hard through the fabric of his T-shirt. The grip loosened for a moment, and she twisted free of the strap, the arms, the fingers clawing at her. Adrenaline burst through her veins as she realized this might be her only chance.
She rolled to her feet and rocketed down the alley, toward the noise and cars and people that meant safety. Faster, faster, faster! Every cell in her body throbbed with the knowledge that he was behind her. Her heart hammered. Her muscles strained. Faster! For the first time, she thought of a gun and imagined a bullet tearing through skin and bone. She surged forward, shrieking hoarsely and racing for the mouth of the alley.
Behind her, a car door slammed. Tires squealed over the asphalt. She glanced back as the gray car shot down the alley, moving away from her. Taillights glowed. Another screech of tires as the car whipped around the corner.
Maddie stopped and slumped against the side of the building. Her breath came in ragged gasps. Her lungs burned, and it felt as though her heart was being squeezed like a lemon. Something warm trickled down her face. She touched a hand to her cheek, and her fingers came away red.
Tears stung her eyes as she looked down at herself. Her purse was gone. Her camera was gone. Her phone was gone. She wasn’t gone, at least. She was here—in one shaking, terrified, Jell-O-y piece. But her knees felt so weak she didn’t know if they would hold her up. She closed her eyes and tried to think.
She couldn’t stay in the alley. But she couldn’t go back into that garage—maybe never again. She looked out at the street, at the steady flow of cars and people. Her gaze landed on the neon sign in the window of the sandwich shop. It glowed red in the gray of dusk, beckoning her to safety with its simple message: OPEN.
Maddie pushed away from the wall. On quivering legs, she stumbled toward the sign.
The two men were cops, she could tell at a glance. Maddie watched them from her place beside the patrol car, where she’d been sequestered for the past half hour, answering questions from a rookie detective who’d probably been in diapers when she got her first speeding ticket. Maddie knew almost everyone in the San Marcos police department, but it figured the first responder to her 911 call would be someone she’d never laid eyes on before, someone who didn’t have the slightest interest in doing her a favor by moving things along. Added to the scraped chin, the swelling jaw, the lost purse, and the stolen Nikon, it was just another part of the crapfest that had become her day.
And if her instincts proved right, the party wasn’t over yet.
Maddie watched as the two mystery men walked up to the patrol cars parked in front of the sandwich shop. Definitely cops. But they were more than that, clearly. She pegged them for feds based on their dark suits, and that guess was confirmed when one of them flashed a badge and exchanged words with the patrol officers milling on the sidewalk. Jeff Grimlich—a cop she did know—had just emerged from the shop with a steaming cup of coffee. He said something brief and gave a nod in Maddie’s direction, sending them her way.
Maddie checked her watch. Whatever these two wanted, it wouldn’t likely be quick. She looked them over. The one leading the charge appeared to be her age, in his mid-thirties. His shaved head and his solid, stocky build would have made him look like a bouncer, had it not been for the suit and the determined scowl that said cop.
Maddie shifted her gaze to his friend. Taller, probably six-one. Broad-shouldered, muscular, lean at the waist. He had sandy-brown hair that was cropped short on the sides and longer on top. The word military popped into her head. It wasn’t just the haircut and the build but also the supremely confident way he carried himself. He was watching her, too, but in contrast to his partner’s expression, this guy looked utterly relaxed.
“Are you sure you don’t want to get this looked at?”
She turned her attention to the EMT handing her an ice pack. Maddie pressed the pack to the side of her face, where a bruise was forming.
“Because it’s entirely possible you could have a concussion.”
“Thanks, but I’m fine.” And a trip to the emergency room was the last thing she needed tonight. She had an aversion to hospitals.
“Well.” The woman flipped shut the lid to her first-aid kit. “Suit yourself. I can’t make you take commonsense precautions.”
She turned, startled. She hadn’t expected such a deep voice from someone so young. He stared down at her, hands resting at his hips, suit jacket pushed back to reveal a semiautomatic pistol and—as she’d suspected—an FBI shield. She lifted her gaze to his smooth, clean-shaven face. If she was right about the military thing, he must have graduated from the Academy about a week ago.
“I’m Special Agent Brian Beckman with the FBI. This is Special Agent Sam Dulles.” He nodded at the bald guy. “We’d like to ask you a few questions, ma’am.”
Dulles leaned back against the patrol car parked perpendicular to the one where Maddie stood. Clearly, he intended to hang back and observe. Maybe this was a training exercise.
She looked back at the young one. Beckman. He was watching her intently with those hazel eyes.
“Could you take us through what transpired here, please?”
Transpired. Typical cop-speak. Maddie folded her arms over her chest and leaned against the side of the car. “It was a mugging.”
His eyebrows tipped up. “Could you be more specific?”
“Someone attacked me in the parking garage. Stole my purse, along with my brand-new camera.”
“I’m a photographer. I was doing a photo shoot down at the park—a couple getting married.”
Both men were regarding her with frank interest now, and she had the feeling she was missing something.
Beckman eased closer. “We’d like you to walk us through the entire incident, ma’am. Step by step.”
Irritated by the ma’am-ing, she shot a look at Dulles. “Since when does the FBI have jurisdiction in a mugging?”
She turned to see Jeff walking toward her, hand outstretched. Her brown leather purse dangled from his fingers.
“Oh, my God! Where was it?” She beamed a smile at him and snatched up the bag.
“Scanlon found it under a truck near your car. Phone’s in there, too. You just had a call come in.”
“Thank you! You have no idea how much trouble this saves me.” Maddie already had the phone out, and her heart lurched when she saw the text from her boss. It was just as she’d feared. She was needed at a crime scene, ASAP. He’d sent her a message coded 911 and a street address.
Maddie stashed the ice pack in her purse and shoved the phone into the pocket of her jeans. Now, she really needed to leave.
She glanced up. The young agent was watching her expectantly. So was his partner.
“Listen, you see Officer Scanlon over there? The one with the notepad? I guarantee he’ll be turning in a full report before he clocks out tonight. You can get the details from him.”
“We need them from you,” Dulles said, speaking up for the first time. He was still leaning against the side of the car, looking disapproving.
“Is there a specific reason the FBI is involved here? I told you, it was a mugging.”
“Looks to me like an assault, too,” Beckman said evenly.
“Okay, fine. But I really need to be somewhere, like, an hour ago, so unless you can explain how this is relevant—”
“We’re investigating a federal case.”
“A federal case involving . . . ?” She waited as they exchanged looks.
“There was a theft across the street from here about five-thirty.” Dulles nodded toward the park. “Given the timing, we think it could be connected to your incident.”
Maddie glanced across the street, where a bank faced out onto the park. A bank robbery certainly would explain the feds, but why weren’t there any police cars?
“Take us through what happened,” Beckman said, all trace of politeness gone.
And so Maddie did.
Brian watched as Madeline Callahan gave a concise but thorough account of the events following her photo shoot. The woman had an eye for detail—that much was clear. She also had an attitude. He wasn’t sure where it came from. Most people tended to perk up and take notice when FBI agents arrived on the scene, but this woman seemed mostly annoyed.
Brian watched her, intrigued. She wore faded jeans that hugged her hips, brown leather boots, and a black T-shirt that stretched tight over her breasts. Her arms were folded as if she were cold, and she probably was, given that the temperature had dropped into the forties since dusk. Her curly brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, but strands had escaped, and she kept tucking them back behind her ears. A nervous habit, maybe? But she didn’t seem nervous, and Brian had interviewed more than enough witnesses to know. His attention drifted to those full lips that seemed to taunt him as she talked. He watched her mouth and knew he was going to be fantasizing about it for a good long time.
In an effort to stay focused, he shifted his gaze to the side of her jaw, which was swollen and rapidly turning purple. Her assailant had gotten in a solid punch, and Brian’s gut tightened as he imagined some fat, hairy fist connecting with her face.
She was staring at him now, and he realized she’d finished her story.
“So, your camera was directed north,” Sam stated, saving him from making an ass of himself.
Brian cleared his throat. “Ma’am, what are the odds you might have inadvertently photographed someone standing in front of that bank at five-thirty?”
She paused for a moment. “I’d say good. But I’d also say the odds of us ever knowing for sure are nil. So, as much as I’d love to help you guys, I think we’re all pretty much shit out of luck today.” She checked her watch, and a look of anxiety flashed across her face. “And now I really have to go.”
“Do you need a ride home?” Brian asked her.
She looked surprised by the offer. Then wary. “Thanks, but I’ve got my car.” She cast a glance over her shoulder at the parking garage, and the anxiety seemed to double.
“Would you like an escort?” he asked.
“To your vehicle.”
“Oh. No. Really, I’m fine.” She hitched her purse onto her shoulder. “So, if there’s nothing else you need . . . ?”
“If there is, we’ll call you,” Brian said.
Her gaze narrowed. “I didn’t give you my number.”
He smiled slightly. “We can get it.”
They watched her walk across the street, and Brian marveled at her confidence as she returned, alone, to the scene of her attack. After dark, no less. Granted, there were cops milling around, but still.
“What do you think?” Sam asked.
Brian glanced at his partner. “Seems pretty street-smart for a wedding photographer.”
“In a hurry to leave, too.”
“Maybe she’s got a date.”
Sam shot him a look.
“Shit, Beckman. Don’t you ever stop?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You were thinking it.”
“You believe she saw them?” he asked, changing the subject.
“I think the timing’s too perfect to be a coincidence,” Sam said grimly. “A photographer gets mugged right after a kidnapping goes down? By a two-man team, and they don’t even get her purse?” Sam rubbed his hand over his bald head and blew out a sigh, reminding Brian what a truly crappy day they’d had. And it wasn’t nearly over yet. They still had to get back to the office in San Antonio and help the task force piece together what happened to Jolene Murphy, the star witness in their upcoming case.
The star witness who had gone missing only minutes after leaving her office, which just happened to be across the street from Maddie Callahan’s photo shoot.
Sam was right. The timing, the location, the ruthlessness with which they’d gone after that camera but overlooked other valuables—taken all together, it was too much of a stretch. Maddie Callahan had been targeted.
Brian watched the garage now as a Prius pulled out. He recognized Maddie behind the wheel. She turned onto Main Street and sped away.
He pictured the bruise on her face, and his gut tightened again. This case involved some extremely dangerous people, and he didn’t like the idea of them knowing Maddie Callahan existed, much less targeting her.
He looked at Sam. “Maybe she didn’t see anything,” he said hopefully.
“Maybe not. But a woman doesn’t just disappear in broad daylight. Someone sure as hell saw something.”
“You know, Jolene Murphy could have taken off,” Brian said. “Maybe we’re not dealing with a kidnapping at all but a spooked witness.”
Sam sneered. “Trust me, they grabbed her. They want to know what she revealed, and then they want her out of the way. And if we don’t find her soon, you can be damn sure we’ll be dealing with a murder.”
Laura Griffin is the New York Times bestselling author of the Tracers series, the Wolfe Sec series, the Alpha Crew series, and several other novels. A two-time RITA Award winner and the recipient of the Daphne du Maurier Award, Laura lives in Austin, where she is working on her next book. Visit her at LauraGriffin.com, and on Facebook at Facebook.com/LauraGriffinAuthor.