On Sundays, Sam Faulkner had a ritual. And much to his Catholic mother’s chagrin, that didn’t involve attending mass.
Sam wasn’t a religious man. To him, Sundays were a day for silent reflection…on the week’s sales numbers. He’d close Faulkner’s Guns & Ammo by four, send everyone home, lock the doors, and settle in for an evening of bookkeeping. A tumbler of bourbon in his hand, the tempting scent of souvlaki wafting in the air from the Greek restaurant two doors down, and stacks of paperwork spread across the counter.
Sam double-checked the date his employee had listed on the background check for a customer looking to buy a Sig Sauer P365. He didn’t have to review his team’s PICS requests—the Pennsylvania Instant Check System was online, and most mistakes errored out quickly.
He did it anyway.
Sam reviewed every piece of documentation going in and out of his shop. Selling firearms was serious business, and he sure as hell wouldn’t let a clerical error cost him his shop.
With a wife and two daughters to consider in a tanking economy, he knew his family wouldn’t survive on Tammie’s salary alone. Sam had college funds to consider for his girls to receive all the opportunities they needed for their futures.
His business couldn’t just follow the rules, couldn’t just cover monthly expenses—it had to thrive.
Faulkner’s Guns & Ammo was dead quiet. Sam groaned as he lifted his head, his neck sore from hours spent hunched over the showroom counter. The office would’ve been a more logical place to work, but the air conditioning didn’t reach back there, and the tiny desk left little room to spread out.
Anyway, the shop was empty, and he had all evening. Tammie and the girls knew not to expect him home before midnight on Sundays. He’d make up the lost time with them during the summer. Take the family on a vacation while the girls had their break from school.
Glancing around the showroom, Sam smiled with pride. Unlike his competitors, who stuffed their shops like they were planning for Armageddon, Sam avoided clutter, which he believed led to better sales. Black steel against white walls. Give buyers too many choices, and analysis paralysis sent them back out the door with their money still in their pockets.
And with his setup, he could see customers from every angle, no matter where they stood.
Sam had just finished reviewing the distributor invoices when the lights went out.
He counted to ten. The backup generator normally didn’t take long to kick in. He’d installed it to make sure his alarm system remained functional. Couldn’t be too careful. But when he got to twelve, the darkness lingered.
Tiny hairs on the back of Sam’s neck tingled. The generator should’ve kicked in. He’d tested the system last week.
Any second now.
The generator remained silent.
He was just pushing to his feet when a crash reverberated up the hallway like a thunderclap. It sounded like a box of ammo cans tipped over in the stockroom, but that wasn’t possible. Not by itself.
Ominous silence followed.
Someone was in the store.
Sam’s brain raced as he stood still. Moments like this were the reason he’d designed the place the way he had. Cameras in every corner. A generator for backup power. Even a silent alarm that rang straight to security dispatch. But nothing was working, none of the interior emergency lights coming up. There wasn’t any reason for his backup system to fail.
Unless someone knew about it.
That realization hit Sam like a punch. Was he under siege by one of his own, an employee who knew his security system?
His fingers grasped for the comforting solid steel of his Glock, Ole Bastard.
Game on, rat.
He took a steadying breath and considered his next move.
If this was a burglary, the rat would most likely stay in the stockroom. A team member, if this was an inside job, would know the snatch-and-grab was easier there. Items on the sales floor were bolted and tethered to prevent theft.
Sam stealthed toward the short hallway leading to the break room, stockroom, and office. Slowing his breath, he listened for the intruder. His knuckles whitened as his grip tightened on Ole Bastard.
Whoever you are, you picked the wrong place to rob.
They had to be close. The hallway wasn’t that wide or long.
The whispered squeal of rubber against concrete sent Sam’s heart hammering against his ribs. A sudden burst of air rushed past.
Sam cursed under his breath. The intruder had just made a mad dash for the showroom, and he hadn’t reacted quick enough to get a shot off.
A fast-moving shadow sped by the shop’s window, briefly illuminated against the parking lot lights. He couldn’t make out any detail, male or female, armed or not. It was too dark.
The rat surfaced again near the shop entrance. Maybe they’d changed their mind, decided to flee. Or maybe they were assessing the space.
Go ahead. Case the joint. You’ll never know it better than I do.
Sam crept back to the front display cases where he’d been working. The wall display would provide cover from behind, and maybe, with the outside light coming in through the windows, he could spot the rat.
Gun at the ready, Sam crouched behind the glass display counter and scanned the showroom.
A deeper darkness fell over him as the rat dove across the counter. Sam fired blindly at the shadow.
A second shot followed the first, but not from Sam’s gun.
Flames tore through Sam’s gut as the force of the impact threw him against the display. He slid down to the floor.
Fire spread everywhere now, digging into his belly, racing down his legs. Even his ears screamed with it, a tornado of searing pain threatening to explode his skull. Death stood like a towering black mass at his feet, ready to sweep him away into the abyss.
Sam tried to kick, but Death only laughed and brought a heavy heel down on his leg.
“You won’t be needing this anymore.” Death leaned close, toeing Ole Bastard from his limp hand. Tequila on his breath. “Tsk. Tsk. Who’d expect a gun store owner to be such a bad shot?”
That voice. Where had Sam heard it before?
“This is the end for you. But you know that already, don’t you?”
Sam wasn’t dead yet. The wound was serious, but it hadn’t killed him. He reached for his pistol, stretching his fingers. Forgetting he’d been disarmed.
“Guns, guns everywhere.” Death grabbed him by the jaw, twisting his face to look at the display directly overhead. “And not one of them can save you.”
The edges of Sam’s vision darkened, the thought of sinking into unconsciousness bringing a sense of peace. But he couldn’t rest yet. If he just made it to the counter, maybe he could trigger the silent alarm.
Had he already? Maybe he was doing it now?
The black abyss pressed heavily on his body.
Sam’s mind found refuge, slipping into the pond near his house. The one from his childhood. The water his memory conjured cooled the fire scorching his body and whispered a promise to end his pain.
It tempted him to sink further into the darkness. Sam blinked against the seduction.
As his eyes struggled open, he focused on the figure towering over him. Death gripped an object, a little bigger than his palm. He weighed it in his hands.
Sam’s eyes closed again, blocking out the looming figure as he prayed to get back to the image of the pond near his house.
Maybe his wife and kids could join him this time.
“This’ll work.” The voice ripped through Sam’s head, shredding his peaceful drift into oblivion. “It’s perfect.”
Sam recognized the voice. His eyes shot open again.
It was an accident…
Thunder clapped against Sam’s head, and lightning whipped through his vision. For a moment he saw Death’s face, but the white-hot pain that followed stole the memory and replaced it with rippling echoes of agony. He screamed and kicked, as if that might somehow make the pain stop.
“It’ll be over soon.”
Sam closed his eyes and allowed the darkness to take his pain away.
Special Agent Journey Russo was experiencing a rare Sunday with nothing to do.
Boredom was unsettling. Journey had to keep herself busy, so she’d taken to the kitchen in her apartment, along with her sister. It was quite the complex dance in the smallish space, with her playing baker and Michelle in the role of chef.
“You know you want one of these banana chocolate chip muffins.” Journey waved the platter beneath Michelle’s nose.
“Not now.” Her sister pushed the dessert out of the way and reached for a spoon from the utensil jar beside the stove. “I haven’t finished cooking the chicken yet.”
This was how food prep went with Journey and her adopted sister, Michelle Timmer. Michelle cooked some amazing dish based on instincts and vibes. Journey followed a baking recipe to the letter to reproduce some grandma’s sought-after gravestone recipe. Despite their siblinghood, they were different in many, many ways.
To Journey, she couldn’t have looked more different from her sister. She always felt like a giant next to Michelle’s petite frame, even though they differed by a mere four inches. Her eyes were a dark indigo compared to Michelle’s liquid blue. And though at one point they’d both had brownish hair, Journey still sported her natural color, but Michelle’s was currently dyed an inky black.
Despite the night-and-day differences in their appearance, they were sisters in every way that truly mattered, raised by Journey’s grandparents when they were teens. Though not related by blood, Journey and Michelle were as close as twins. They needed each other as much as any two people could.
Michelle turned her attention away from the stove to Journey. “Why are you anxiety-baking anyway? It’s your day off.”
Journey pulled off a small chunk of muffin and popped it into her mouth. “I’m not anxious. I just don’t know what to do with so much free time.”
Michelle wagged the spoon at her. “Ooh, a whole twenty-four hours to yourself. How will you possibly survive?”
“Why do you think I invited you over to make your tasty chicken piccata?”
“Because I’m your only friend. Or, more likely, because if it weren’t for these dinners, we’d never see each other, even though we only live three blocks apart.”
Journey smiled, then turned away as tears burned her eyes. She’d come so close to losing Michelle two years ago.
“Fair point. We don’t hang out as often as we should.” Which was pretty bad, considering they worked out of the same FBI Pittsburg field office. They’d each been there two years now, Journey as a special agent in Violent Crimes and Michelle in Crime Scene Investigation. They loved their jobs, not exactly beating allegations of workaholism.
A few years earlier, Michelle would’ve happily accepted that title. But she’d gained a better sense of work-life balance since…
Journey shook her head. She didn’t want to think about why Michelle needed balance in the first place. Or why she’d left her job in Chicago and moved to Pennsylvania.
As for Journey, she was due for an intervention, as long as she could schedule it between cases.
“I’m here now. Catch me up on all your news.” Michelle leaned over the skillet, breathing in the fragrance of the sauce and smiling at her creation.
The muffins weren’t holding Journey’s hunger at bay. Not with garlic, butter, and lemon teasing her nose. She busied herself by pulling two plates from the cupboard. “Did I tell you about my new case partner?”
“A little.” Michelle stirred the bubbling sauce. “Lucas, something?”
“Sullivan. Technically, it’s Lucas, but he gives you a death stare if you call him that. Just transferred into Violent Crimes from White Collar.”
“Would I recognize him?”
Journey considered. While the Pittsburg field office wasn’t the largest in the country, it employed dozens of agents dedicated to serving twenty-five counties in Pennsylvania and all of West Virginia. It would be easy not to know everyone in the four-story building.
“Seen anyone who looks like James Dean dressed in a Men in Black costume?”
Michelle grinned. “Sounds like I’m missing out.”
“Anyway, I think he’ll make an excellent partner.” Journey set down the plates and turned toward the silverware drawer. “He brought me coffee several times last week without asking.”
“Iced, creamy, and with seventeen sugars.” Every time Michelle joked about Journey’s coffee preferences, she added one packet of sugar to the list.
“Yum.” Journey took her coffee only one way—black, extra hot. Perfect. “You know that’s just the way I like it. Didn’t have to tell him twice either.”
“So competent. As if black, extra hot is difficult to remember.”
“Whatever it takes to get good coffee. Anyway, he doesn’t talk about his personal life much, but I know one delicious tidbit.” She bumped the silverware drawer closed with her hip and waited for Michelle to take the bait.
Michelle, however, remained focused on thickening her butter sauce.
Journey didn’t have the patience to wait. “His daughter’s name is Hallie.”
Michelle didn’t respond verbally, but the way her sauce stirring went from passive to aggressive confirmed she’d heard her.
“You remember Hallie?” Journey struggled to hold her expression neutral. “As in Hallie with the hollyhock hair?”
“I’m ignoring you.”
No, you’re not.
In tenth-grade English, Michelle had been out sick with the flu when the teacher gave the class an assignment to write a modern fairy tale about an everyday problem. Michelle had written a story about talking tortoises and a girl named Hallie with flowers for hair.
Being absent, Michelle had missed the examples of modern fairy tales they read in class, so she didn’t understand what a modern fairy tale included.
“What was my favorite line?” Laughing, Journey pretended to think, but in reality, she knew she could recite the entire tale for the rest of her life. “Oh, right. ‘But, Mr. Tortoise, you have a short, little neck and a tiny, bitty nose, and couldn’t possibly sniff my strands of violets and rose.’”
“Still ignoring you.”
“I wonder if hollyhocks grow well in patio planters.” Hand pressed to her belly, Journey moved to the sliding glass door and looked out onto her balcony. “It’s April fourth. Spring is just around the corner.”
“I’m ignoring you. Haven’t you heard?”
All evidence to the contrary.
Still…the chicken piccata was ready. If Journey didn’t quit teasing, Michelle wasn’t going to share.
“Fine.” She heaved an overly dramatic sigh. “I thought you’d be ready to laugh about it after all these years, but I guess some people just can’t move on from the past.”
“You’re the one living in the past here, so I wouldn’t know.”
They sat together at the sturdy, vintage farm table Journey had picked up from an antique shop. The refurnished solid-fir surface was scratched, but Journey loved the character it added, so she hadn’t sanded out the nicks.
While Michelle passed the salad, Journey poured iced tea.
“In another small-world coincidence, I’ve actually crossed paths with Lucas before.” Journey tore a chunk of bread from a warmed baguette and handed the basket to her sister. “He was on the WC team handling the investigation into The Chosen nearly ten years ago.”
Journey shook her head, mentally rewinding to the cult’s strange beginnings.
Against the tumultuous backdrop of 1969, amid the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, two returning soldiers, the Leopold brothers, found themselves disillusioned with society. Neither Jack nor George understood or resonated with organized religion, leading them to purchase property northeast of Pittsburgh and establish a community with likeminded people.
Initially rooted in benign religious and hippie-like love and peace ideals, the group’s nature began to change. After Jack’s death in 1977, George assumed leadership, shifting the community’s ethos toward a more rigorous doctrine and emphasizing the conversion of others.
Under George’s influence, members bequeathed their life savings and insurance benefits to The Chosen, though their contributions essentially lined George’s pockets. His children and grandchildren continued this legacy of financial manipulation.
Unlike their predecessors, the newer generation was a set of true believers in the cult’s prophetic teachings of an impending war. Only the most fervent followers remained, and they discreetly recruited others of similar zeal.
Michelle’s eyes widened. “Seriously?” She shook her head. “That is quite the coincidence, isn’t it? Maybe the universe has conspired to have you two work together so you can finally bring The Chosen down.”
“From your lips, sister.” Journey blew out a long breath. Just thinking about The Chosen made her blood pressure rise. “I met Lucas briefly before I went undercover. After I came out of cover, we both helped the D.A. with the court case. I didn’t know him well, but we weren’t strangers.”
“Ah.” Michelle dropped her gaze to her plate.
Journey instantly knew she’d stuck her foot in her mouth. She’d been so focused on dishing about her partner that she hadn’t considered the memories she’d be dredging up in the process.
It took only one look at Michelle’s face for the memories to come up for Journey too.
Two years ago, Journey had been working undercover as a member of The Chosen while Michelle lived in Chicago, working at the FBI field office there. She’d been doing well in her forensic analyst position before meeting a special agent who swept her off her feet.
Michelle’s story didn’t have a fairy-tale ending, though. Instead of being the good man any FBI agent should’ve been, Michelle’s suitor kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and nearly killed her.
Journey still hated herself for not knowing what was happening in her sister’s life back then. Sure, she’d been undercover at the time and had no way of knowing Michelle was missing, but Journey couldn’t forgive herself for not knowing when Michelle had needed her most. It was only through sheer luck and willpower that she’d gotten to Chicago in time to help save her sister’s life.
“I’m sorry.” Journey dropped her fork and reached for Michelle’s hand. “I didn’t want to bring it up, but, full disclosure, I didn’t want you to find out on your own. Figured you’d think I was hiding it from you.”
Michelle’s awkward smile said she was eager to change the subject. “Thank you.”
Desperate to avoid saying something else, Journey shoved in a bite of chicken, and the explosion of flavor had her moaning with bliss. “This is incredible.”
Thanks to Michelle’s teaching, Journey could cook, too, but she’d never master the subtleties of the craft like her sister. This chicken piccata was melt-in-your-mouth delish.
“Aw, thanks.” Michelle reached for the bread but paused and pulled her hand back as if she’d changed her mind. “I forgot we have muffins for dessert. Can’t wait to try them. If the special agent thing doesn’t work out, you could kill it as a baker.”
Journey tapped her fork against her cheek. “Having a sweet tooth is my secret to success.” She finished chewing. “Hey, speaking of secrets. How’s the new job going?”
Michelle’s face brightened. She’d recently transferred onto the Evidence Response Team, ERT, from the forensic lab, where she’d been an analyst. If Journey had her way, she’d have her sister on every one of her cases.
“I love ERT. I admit, I didn’t expect to enjoy being in the middle of the action so much. All the variety and the new challenges are so exciting.” Michelle took a sip of tea.
Journey’s cell buzzed in her pocket. For the first time in twenty-four hours, she was tempted to ignore the call. It’d been two years since Michelle’s kidnapping, and with all the trauma that followed, Michelle was only now starting to act more up than down. If her sister was enjoying something, Journey wanted the full scoop.
“Just last week,” Michelle launched into her story, “there was a case where the angle of a bank’s CCTV couldn’t capture the location of a shooter. I determined his probable location by assessing the bullet wipe, ballistics trajectory, and limiting factors within the shooting zone. The perp fired eight rounds, but only one hit its mark. He was a terrible shot.”
“That’s amazing. How—”
When the phone buzzed again, Journey gave in and pulled the device from her pocket to check the caller ID. This was a call she didn’t have the luxury of letting go to voicemail.
“I want to hear more, but it’s my partner. I’ve got to take it.”
Michelle stabbed a bite of chicken, but a tiny twinkle entered her eye. “Man in Black calls.”
“Har.” Journey pressed the answer button and lifted the phone to her ear. “Hey, Lucas. What’s up?”
“We got a call about a robbery and homicide at Faulkner’s Guns & Ammo. Kenner wants us to head to the crime scene.” Lucas Sullivan had, of all things, a light Korean accent, despite his file indicating he grew up in the states. His Rs and Ls came out sounding a little bit the same. “The murder appears to be similar to that park ranger from West Virginia we were handed last week. Oh, and ATF is on scene too. Check in with Agent Blaine Dubovsky if you get there before me. Looks like there’re quite a few weapons missing.”
So much for hanging out with Michelle.
Journey sighed. “A dead ranger and missing guns? You couldn’t possibly keep me away.”
When fate calls, death could be dialing.
Journey Russo is no stranger to the harsh shadows cast by secrets. The fire that claimed her family when she was just thirteen years old left her life scorched by mystery and loss. Raised by her grandparents amidst the embers of her past, Journey transformed her trauma into resolve, forging a path as an FBI special agent. But beneath her determined facade lies a lingering fear of fire and the unhealed scars of betrayal.
In a world of hidden flames, truth is her only weapon. Read More