A Taste of... killer encore
Jane Lin stood in East Nashville’s Blue Label Liquor Store and tapped an impatient toe on the chipped linoleum floor.
Was this all they had?
The store’s wine “section” consisted of six shelves crammed into the back of an outlet smaller than the vape shop under her New York apartment. Nashville’s population was a tenth of New York’s, but it still struck Jane that someone would want more than the four Woodbridge and Gallo wine options on offer.
She was visiting her brother, and he liked to talk a good wine game, sniffing the cork and scrutinizing the label. She’d seen him go on about “bouquets” and “hints of cedar” to Caleb, his best friend and FBI colleague, but luckily, he knew no more about the subject than she did.
And she knew that if you stuck a glass of white vinegar in front of him and said it was a thousand-buck Chardonnay, he’d call it crisp and zippy, saying it was the greatest thing to leave a spout since Aladdin polished some brass.
Not that she was any kind of wine connoisseur.
As a public defender, she couldn’t afford the exotic vintages her old law school friends loaded into their upstate cellars by the crate. But even her local liquor store had choices—from Chardonnay to Chianti.
There was nothing in this store she couldn’t find in the bargain bucket of a strip mall supermarket. Limited displays offered two kinds of vodka, four brands of light beer, all produced by the same beverage conglomerate, and a dozen types of whiskey.
Jane pondered selecting a whiskey instead of wine. This was Tennessee, after all. Martin might prefer it, but he’d ditched her tonight for his FBI colleagues.
However, she understood the nature of law enforcement, so she didn’t begrudge him too much. Still, she’d come all the way from New York to see him.
Forget whiskey. I want wine.
She leaned back and called to the clerk sitting at the register, flicking at his phone. “Hey there, you got any Riesling?”
The clerk rubbed a palm against his thick black beard but didn’t look up from his phone.
She raised her voice. “Hey, pal.”
The clerk pulled an earbud from one ear. “Huh?”
“Riesling. Got any?”
He shook his head. “What you see is what I got.” His Southern accent was so thick, it took him nearly a minute to get the sentence out.
Jane rolled her eyes and took a bottle of Pinot Grigio, wiping the dust from the shoulder of the glass with her thumb.
This stuff must have been sitting here since the days of the dinosaurs. Wine ages, though, right? The older the better.
At least that was what she’d heard.
She paid and left, her twelve-buck bottle hidden in a brown paper bag. Jane had tucked her wallet and phone in her back pockets to avoid carrying a purse on unfamiliar streets. Now, with only the wine in her hands, she felt like some kind of wino.
The area outside was empty. Every building across the street was dark. The only light came from the store itself, reddened by bottles of bourbon in the window. The glow hit the sidewalk, filtering through a metal grille covering the front of the store.
The building opposite looked like some kind of warehouse. A small window was high and unlit, so all Jane could see were three stories’ worth of brick wall. An empty cigarette box crushed in the gutter and half-spilled bags of cement suggested someone was trying, and failing, to improve the place. Her brother’s apartment was about a seven-minute walk away, on a street only slightly better than this one.
“Dude, gotta say, thought you’d be doing better,” Jane muttered to herself.
She hadn’t visited Martin since he’d been posted to Nashville three years ago. Her clients kept her in the city and his cases kept him too busy to meet up. But she’d managed to come down anyway, seizing hard-earned personal time. Even if Martin worked all day, Jane figured they could squeeze in a weekend of cozy meals and maybe even a bit of country music. That wasn’t usually her kind of thing, and it had never been Martin’s…but when in Rome and all that.
Maybe she should pick up a pair of cowboy boots while she was down here, to learn how to do a barn dance or something like that.
The thought made her laugh.
How her brother wound up down South and not in his beloved New York City was a mystery.
He must really love his work.
Retracing her steps, she turned toward his apartment and crossed in front of a dark alley, giving it a wide berth. As she was passing the next building, a shuttered storefront, she heard something.
Jane stopped. What was it?
“Help. Help me. Please.”
A woman? Or maybe a child or young man? The voice was so faint.
The voice came from somewhere behind her. She turned but couldn’t see anything.
“Help.” The voice was even weaker this time. “Plee-ease.”
Jane took a step back in the direction of the liquor store, her bottle gripped in one hand like a club. All her attention was on the dark alley. “Hello?”
“Mommy?” The voice definitely belonged to a child, and though Jane wasn’t a mother, every maternal instinct inside her stood to attention.
She stopped at the mouth of the alley and peered inside. The passageway was just wide enough to hold a rusty dumpster. Stinking, rotting vegetables and the heavier stench of human urine permeated the air. Jane took half a step back, gripping her wine bottle tighter. The firm glass under the brown bag offered cold comfort.
Something rustled on the other side of the dumpster. Jane’s heart thumped in her chest.
What the hell is that?
She tried to shake the fear out of her head.
C’mon, girl. A Tennessee raccoon’s got nothing on a New York rat.
She took one step toward the alleyway, her feet still planted firmly in the middle of the sidewalk. “Hello? Is anyone there?”
The rustle came again, something moving against a plastic bag. There were no words this time, only the sound of a young child crying.
If that is a raccoon, it’d better be no bigger than a rat.
She inched forward. “Hell—”
The voice came from behind the dumpster. Gripping the bottle, Jane squeezed into the alley, taking care not to let her jeans touch either the dumpster or the wall. Although the weather had been hot and dry, the ground under her feet was wet and slippery. In spite of her sneakers, she had to move carefully to avoid sliding.
Reaching the other side of the dumpster, surrounded by the scent of rot, she pulled her phone out of her back pocket. In the beam of bright white light, a teetering pile of full trash bags climbed the wall. The leaning tower hovered over Jane’s five-foot-five frame and stretched to the end of the alley.
She scanned the light over the garbage.
Thin coils of aluminum and sheets of dirty linoleum rolled out of some of the bags. The industrial smell of rubber and glue added to the stench of vegetables and urine. She brought the light down to the ground.
The lower half of someone’s leg with dark blue or black pants and a black combat boot poked out between two giant black trash bags. The boot seemed incredibly small, almost like a child’s.
Jane lifted her phone. The light shone on a dark-haired person with pale skin, half-buried in the wall of garbage. She dropped onto her haunches and dragged one of the bags away. The person, whose sex or age she still couldn’t distinguish, lifted a hand to protect their eyes against the phone’s glare.
Not a child after all.
Jane lowered the light, casting everything in shadow again.
“Sorry. Are you okay? Don’t move. I’ll call for help.”
The figure half rose, their face still hidden in the alley’s shadows.
“No. Please. No ambulance. No police.” The person’s voice was both wispy and hoarse.
Jane still couldn’t tell if it was a woman or a young man. “No police? But you’re hurt.”
“Please. Please, no.”
Jane hesitated. “I can’t just…tell you what. I’ll call my brother. He’s FBI. He’ll know what to do.”
She found Martin’s number.
But as her thumb hovered over the call button, the shadowy figure shifted onto their feet. The move was so sudden and graceful that Jane fell back.
Before she could say a word or even lift a hand, her attacker swung, bringing up something heavy from the garbage pile.
An explosion, sickening and hot, thundered through Jane’s head.
Dizzy and dazzled, she fell face-first onto the pile of garbage. The pain in her head throbbed and spiderwebbed from the base of her neck to her forehead and down her face. She saw the figure pick up her phone before the alley turned black.
Minutes or maybe hours or days later, Jane blinked. The act made little difference to her vision.
Wherever she was, not even a slit of light peeked from under a door or through a window. Her head pounded, and her arm ached where it’d been pinned beneath her weight.
She pushed herself up. A wave of nausea gripped her. Vertigo.
Debris stabbed into her palms, as though she’d fallen asleep in a room carpeted with Legos. She winced. As she leaned back, her shoulder brushed a wall. Slightly relieved to have some support, she rested her back against it as she stretched her legs.
Every time she moved, her temples compressed, as though her head were in a vice, and someone was tightening and releasing it, only to retighten it again. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard. The back of her head felt cold.
When she touched her hair, a bolt of electricity shot from the nape of her neck across her face. Her hand returned sticky. She wiped her palm on the side of her jeans and felt in her pocket for her phone.
Gone. Of course it was gone.
She opened her eyes.
A wall of black.
Easy, now. Easy.
Her breathing slowed.
Jane forced her eyes to remain open, to allow her vision to adjust to the gloom. She held her breath, trying to listen. Silence greeted her. But there was always the possibility her kidnapper was here. Hidden. Watching.
The idea caused goose bumps to rise on her arms.
Jane released her breath in a thin, soundless stream. She took another and listened again.
Eventually, the room lightened up enough to have some dimension. High to her right, a strip of narrow windows ran across the wall, the kind that gave natural light to basements and cellars. But the sky outside was black, the glow no stronger than a gray haze cast by a clouded moon.
However long she’d been unconscious, it wasn’t enough to push her into the next morning.
She exhaled slowly again and waited for her eyes to focus further.
Jane appeared to be sitting at the back of a small stage or raised platform that was littered with masonry and wood. In front of the stage, school chairs were scattered in a disorderly fashion—their plastic seats broken and their legs sticking up like brambles.
A cloud moved past the moon. The silver glow from the windows grew brighter. The walls to either side of her were decked out in graffiti that had been layered over what looked like musical notes or sheet music.
A music room. A small one.
Maybe a school? What the hell am I doing in a school? How did I get here?
The place felt empty. Sounded empty. Looked empty. Abandoned.
Jane risked moving and pushed herself to her feet, curiosity and confusion driving her movements.
Her head throbbed. She wobbled a little in the darkness. Waiting for the room to stop spinning, she told herself to take it slow.
She spoke aloud, as though the sound of the words could take her out of this hellscape and back to the real world. “There was someone. I went to help. I bent down and…ow.”
Her hand returned to her scalp. A giant knot had formed under her hair, which was still sticky with dried blood.
She lowered her hand. “And why are you standing here waiting to find out, idiot?”
Jane staggered to the edge of the stage and carefully lowered herself to the floor. Using her outstretched arms for both balance and guidance, she began to move sideways. Stray chair legs scratched at her skin. She scooted closer to the wall, feeling along until she reached an alcove.
A thin gap at the floor let warm, musty air blow in at her feet. Her grasping hands touched a metal handle.
The door. She’d found the door.
Her heart leapt. Everything was okay.
She would get out, find a phone, and call her brother.
Her fingers curled around the handle and pulled.
The door opened an inch before stopping.
She’d pushed so hard, the muscles in her arms began to ache. Jane stumbled into the remains of one of the chairs behind her. Its leg poked her already injured head.
Cradling the back of her head, Jane stepped forward again.
Through a gap, she could just make out the shape of a board wedging the door shut. She threw her weight against it anyway. It rattled but didn’t give. Again and again and again.
“Nooo.” Jane gave up all pretense of silence. She shouted through the door. “Let me out, you asshole! You’ve had your fun. We’re done! Open this door right now, and I’ll forget pressing charges!”
Her cries faded into the darkness. Quiet returned.
She sank to the floor.
“Dammit.” Jane took a deep breath, telling herself to calm down. “Martin. Martin will help me. He’s in the FBI. They have to help me.” Her voice was so weak with fear and worry, she could barely hear herself.
She closed her eyes. Her head throbbed.
The door rattled as the board was pulled free.
“Your sister? Ha ha ha. Oh, honey, you’re never going to see your sister again.”
FBI Special Agent Stella Knox’s mind whirled as the wispy, oddly pitched voice on Martin Lin’s phone echoed through her head.
Only a moment before, the mood in her small loft apartment in East Nashville had been one of calm camaraderie. She’d finally told the other members of the Nashville Violent Crimes Unit everything she knew about her father’s murder.
They’d all listened as she described Keith Knox’s assassination and explained how her dad’s partner and best friend, “Uncle Joel Ramirez,” told her it had been a hit by dirty cops. They’d paid close attention while she explained how Joel—far from being dead as she’d thought for years—was alive and living in Atlanta under an alias.
For the first time since his death, Stella felt she had the support she needed. Now she could go to Atlanta, confront her errant “uncle,” and get key information to bring her father’s killers to justice.
She’d thought of her brother, who’d died of cancer soon after their father’s death, as she recounted the tragic story of their father. It felt as if he were with her.
We’re going to get him, Jackson. We’re going to get the man who killed Dad.
Jackson’s voice resounded in her head. “You go, Stella. Slap those cuffs on him.”
She’d almost chuckled to herself.
But all that hope and excitement died in the face of Martin’s strange phone call. Her brother’s voice disappeared under, “Your sister? Ha ha ha. Oh, honey, you’re never going to see your sister again.”
Horror and concern consumed the apartment like smoke from a blazing fire.
“Put Jane on!” Martin screamed into the phone. “Who is this? Answer me now, dammit!”
But the caller had hung up.
Special Agent Ander Bennett stepped over and pulled the phone away from Martin.
What followed was a brief arm-wrestling situation as Martin kept yelling. “Jane! Let me talk to my sister!”
For a second, it looked like SAs Caleb Hudson and Chloe Foster were going to step in. Caleb, Martin’s best friend, a tall Black man whose expressions could go from sunny to stormy the instant he spotted trouble, moved forward.
Chloe, a woman of action with a roundhouse kick to prove it, got halfway across the room before Ander took over the situation. That was probably for the best. Stella wasn’t sure who Chloe would’ve kicked to stop the emotional upheaval going on…and she didn’t want to find out.
Ander, who was older and stronger than Martin, managed to take the phone and get a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “It’s okay, man. Listen, Jane must’ve dropped her phone or something. Someone probably found it, called a number, and when you answered, decided to play a joke. She’s probably back at your place now, waiting for you, and all kinds of pissed off she lost her phone.”
Hagen Yates watched from a corner spot on Stella’s bright red sofa, sipping his beer. Overt shows of emotion from other people didn’t generally rattle him. “Or maybe she’s playing a joke. Hoisting you with your own petard or something.”
Martin was infamous for his practical jokes.
He’d once cling-wrapped an entire floor of men’s room toilets. Another time, he’d rigged confetti cannons in Caleb’s car. The noise of the cannons in the parking garage had even triggered security. They’d come in with guns out, only to find Caleb covered head to toe in glitter and paper. He was still finding tiny bits of paper in his car seats.
If Martin’s sister was anything like him, a prank was certainly plausible.
But Martin’s reaction told another story.
Stella saw the fear in his face. She pressed one hand over her aching side and cursed Boris Kerne again. Her busted rib and wrist were gifts from the crazy pianist—a killer they’d stopped just nine days ago. She’d jumped in front of a bullet to save Hagen. Luckily, the vest took the brunt of it, but it still left her with a cracked rib. And she’d broken her wrist trying to break her fall onto a stack of stereo speakers.
Martin glared at Hagen. His face turned red, and he shook Ander’s hand off his shoulder.
Nope. Not a joke. He thinks this is real.
“If some lunatic had picked up her phone, how would they have called me? You think my sister’s stupid enough to leave her phone unlocked? She’s a New Yorker. Nothing is unlocked.”
“Wouldn’t that make a joke more probable, then?” Hagen countered. “If she’s there, she could’ve just handed the phone to some rando and told them what to say.”
“I know Jane. She might change your sugar to salt or wrap your toilet seat with cling wrap, too, but she’d never play with life and death. We’re a law enforcement family. There are lines. Trust me, my sister’s in trouble.”
Hagen put down his beer and nodded. He must have felt the same tingle of trouble Stella did. In spite of his clean-cut features and style of dress, Hagen knew darkness. He could recognize a crisis.
Because of his passion for stopping criminals, she’d relied on Hagen’s help with her father’s case, even though the handsome agent had his own reasons for getting involved. His own father had been murdered. Since Memphis, Tennessee wasn’t a huge city, they’d run on the assumption that their fathers’ deaths—both drug-busting related—were probably connected.
They’d both have to wait to move forward, though. The immediacy of Martin’s situation was too great.
And Stella wanted to support her team as much as they supported her.
She looked past Ander to the white-blond young woman sitting next to Hagen on the sofa. Mackenzie Drake was the best forensic cyber expert Stella had ever met. Mac didn’t just know how to drill through data to find information. She also had an ability to look for intel they didn’t even know they needed. That was a much rarer skill.
“Mac, can you get a location for Jane’s phone?”
Mac eased herself to her feet. Almost two weeks ago, she’d been abducted and tortured by a mission-driven murderer. Physically, she was almost recovered. Mentally, who knew?
Special Agent Dani Jameson, who had been with Mac during that terrible ordeal, had gone on immediate maternity leave and had delivered a healthy baby girl. But Mac had come racing back, keener to spend time in the office with her colleagues than recuperating at home. Maybe she felt safer in the company of her coworkers.
Stella wasn’t too sure what unseen bruises Mac was hiding.
Mac pulled out her phone and crossed toward the kitchen, where Chloe had retreated to perch on a high barstool. “Sure. Let me just make some calls.”
Caleb sat on the arm of the sofa. “Where did you say Jane was going?”
He and Martin had become close friends since Martin had arrived in Nashville three years ago and were often joined together on fraud or organized crime task forces. Stella hadn’t had an opportunity to work directly with them in the field yet.
Martin dropped his head into his hands. He talked through his fingers. “The liquor store. The Blue Label. You know the one. The crappy little place around the corner? She wanted to get a bottle of wine for the evening. I told her we didn’t have much in the neighborhood, but she didn’t care. She just wanted something white with alcohol in it and a cork.”
Mac sat on the barstool next to Chloe and dropped her phone on the counter. “No dice. Her phone must be off.”
Stella pushed her beer bottle to one side. She’d decided. They couldn’t sit here and wait. “Okay, here’s what we’ll do. I’ll head to the liquor store to see if she’s there.”
Ander stood up. “I’ll come with you.”
Martin headed toward the door. “Me too.”
Now it was Stella’s turn to intercept Martin. “No. You take everyone else back to your place. She might be back soon if she’s not back already. If she’s there, great. We’ll continue this party there. With the addition of something white with alcohol and a cork.”
Martin gave her a small smile, and the team filed through the apartment door behind him.
As Stella locked the door, a twist in her gut told her she wasn’t going to be drinking any wine tonight.
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