What the hell was I thinking?
Darkness and boredom surrounded Deputy Carlos Guerrero, causing him to ponder the majority of his life choices. Especially his most recent one.
A few hours ago, setting a speed trap at the highway exit had seemed like an excellent idea. After all, the potential for catching drunk drivers along this stretch was pretty darn good. Hell, he’d even been excited at the prospect of pressing the pedal to the metal in order to stop a muscle car or crotch rocket from using the smooth stretch of concrete as a racetrack.
He’d been wrong.
Not a single soul was out this early in the morning, and he was bored to tears.
Carlos lifted his coffee cup, noticed it was empty for the third time in twenty minutes, and dropped it back into its holder.
The only light was the glow of his onboard computer, and it was so bright it hurt his eyes.
“Almost done, man. Almost done.” The sound of his own voice didn’t do much to keep him alert. Of course, almost done wasn’t the perkiest pep talk, but for the life of him, he couldn’t think of anything more exciting to say.
With a groan, he picked up his phone and texted Maria.
Almost done. Home soon.
Figuring stretching his legs would do him good, he opened the door and stepped out into the inky black of the quiet Tennessee night. He’d take a few breaths of the sweet summer air, climb back into his cruiser, and mosey on back to the station.
His eyes took longer than normal to adjust to the deep darkness before the dawn, with afterimages of the computer screen creating bluish imprints against the horizon. The sky brightened as two beams of light approached. Rather than exiting the highway, though, the rocky roll of wheels pulling up behind him broke through the otherwise soft sounds of the outdoors.
Deputy Guerrero turned.
A truck—maybe a brown or rusty red GMC—parked a few feet behind the cruiser’s rear bumper. Dull headlights, with bulbs that needed changing, seemed to cast more shadows than they cut through. They were aimed right at Carlos’s face and forced him to raise a hand to shade his eyes.
The door to the truck opened, and a deep voice broke the silence. “Sorry, Deputy. I’m almost out of gas and I don’t think I can make it to the next station. Thought you might have a gallon?”
Finally, something to do. Good Samaritan time.
“Sure thing.” Carlos hit the button on his key fob and popped the trunk. “Everything else okay?”
“Oh, yes, sir. Everything else is just fine. Just feeling kinda dumb. Here, let me help you.”
The driver climbed out of the cab. He was all shadow and muscle. The man was a few inches taller than Carlos, but other details of his features were hard to determine in the current lighting. They met at the open trunk.
Carlos kept his sidearm away from the motorist. Can’t be too careful.
“Where you headed?” He lifted a red emergency kit to reveal the gas can.
“Almost home.” The driver took the can.
Carlos dropped the emergency kit back into the trunk.
“Just a few miles to go.”
“Almost safe and sound.” Carlos slammed the trunk shut.
“Aren’t you afraid out here? In the dark? I mean, anyone could just show up.”
It wasn’t the first time Carlos had been asked that question. “I’m not afraid of the dark. Same stuff is in the dark that’s in the light.”
The man chuckled. He took a few steps back to his truck, hefting the thirty-pound can around as if it weighed next to nothing. “So what are you afraid of?”
Before the deputy could fully process the question, the man swung. The container connected with the side of Carlos’s head. His skull exploded, shards of pain radiating from his ear and down his neck in sharp crackles as his knees buckled and gravel rushed up to greet him.
The night burst into a flashing ball of orange and gold from the impact. But the colors were all in Carlos’s head, blurring together. As if from a distance, he watched the gas can coming toward his face, but he couldn’t even lift his hands.
A second later, all the colors blinked out.
When he came to, Carlos wasn’t sure where the pain was coming from. His back screamed. His head thumped as though someone was beating on the inside of his skull with a couple of steel hammers. A siren hummed in his right ear. But even those agonies were nothing compared to the ache pulsing down his neck, across his shoulders, and through his arms. Pain throbbed through his body from the inside out.
He tried to move, to at least cover his ears to block the mind-bending noise, but he couldn’t. For a wild moment, he thought he was paralyzed, until it registered that his hands were bound behind his back. Kicking his feet, he realized they were also tied. Looking down, he saw layer upon layer of duct tape wound around his ankles.
Trying to understand his situation, he glanced around as much as his stiff neck would allow. He was curled inside some kind of crate. The wooden walls held him so close, he couldn’t roll fully onto his back. The most he could do was lean a little, a move that eased the strain in his shoulders but squashed his fingers against the bottom of his compact prison.
Carlos’s dark blue uniform shirt had come untucked from his trousers, leaving patches of skin exposed to the rough wood. A splinter dug into his upper hip.
Worse, his duty belt was missing, meaning his flashlight, pepper spray, and gun were all gone. The radio, normally attached to his shoulder, was no longer a head twist away, and his phone wasn’t in his pocket.
Flashes of a truck with dull headlights came to mind. A man asking for help. A gas can. The heavy weight slamming into his head.
He’d been off his game from the boredom, from the late hour, and from manning his shift alone once again. Ezra Forman, his partner, had been pulled for a different time slot. The short staffing was nearing unsustainable levels. Couldn’t even put two partners together for an everyday traffic roster.
Carlos tried to turn a little more and winced as splinters on the crate’s wall scraped against his arm. He leaned away from the wall as much as he could, and blood rushed back into his fingertips. The ache in his right shoulder deepened.
Don’t feel, dammit. Think.
The pain in his head was his only response. But between the dull pulses throbbing behind his eyelids, he remembered…
Tall. Muscular. Strong.
What else? The guy had lifted the gas can and swung it like it weighed nothing. Carlos’s head could testify that it weighed significantly more than nothing.
“What are you afraid of?” That’s what the man had asked.
Who is this guy? Carlos couldn’t come up with an immediate answer. Who would kidnap a deputy and throw him into a crate? Scenarios of human trafficking, kidnap-for-ransom, and torture burned through his brain.
But him? Why?
Dazed as he was, he couldn’t get a clear motive in his pounding head.
Angry and frustrated now, Carlos twisted his wrists, trying to loosen his bonds with new fervor. When he got hold of whoever did this… Man, there wouldn’t be a hole deep enough to throw the bastard in. Assaulting a deputy would be but the first in a long list of charges.
That asshole was going to trip on so many stairs after Carlos brought him in, he’d get PTSD just looking at a stepladder.
He paused in his attempts to wriggle loose. Listened.
Silence. Emptiness. No one was there. He let his shoulder fall back against the side of the crate. Numbness returned to his fingers. With his shoulder supporting him, at least the splinter in his back wasn’t pressing any deeper.
His eyes adjusted to the gloom. The box wasn’t completely dark. Narrow gaps between the four-inch planks let in thin lines of yellow light. The dim glow highlighted the crate’s rough, unplaned walls that were secured together by old, rusty nails. And he saw something else.
A black spider, which sat in the center of its web above Carlos’s thigh.
It was huge, at least a couple of inches if it spread itself out. The shafts of yellow light cast the spider’s shadow against the wood. It seemed larger than his knee. Thin, wicked legs maneuvered against the web. Carlos’s chest tightened as revulsion and fear punched him in the gut. His breath came in short, fast gasps. The ringing in his ears grew louder.
It’s just a spider, man. Just a bug. You’ve got bigger things to worry about than a damn arachnid.
The spider sat there, shifting from one thread to another. Watching him with little spider eyes…
Eight years old. He climbed into bed and slipped his legs under the blanket. So warm, so welcoming…until the short, sharp stab on the back of his calf jarred him awake. He whipped down the blanket just in time to watch the brown spider run across the sheet and disappear under the mattress.
He’d only seen the spider for a second. It wasn’t big or especially ugly. He was sure it wasn’t one of those venomous creatures that could kill a man. The bite was from just a regular house spider, no bigger than his thumbnail.
But the reaction started an instant later.
The bite swelled and grew hot and itchy. His lips ballooned, and his throat tightened. He struggled to breathe as he stumbled downstairs to the living room.
Carlos’s mom and dad drove him to the emergency room, where he received an injection with a needle as long as his arm.
“You could have died, hijo.”
That’s what they told him. And ever since then, before he got into bed, he’d pull down the blanket to check that there were no spiders hiding between the sheets.
And now, a spider, a damn big one, was his crate mate.
“Hey!” Fear caused the word to warble. “Get me outta this damn box.”
The web rippled as the spider lifted one leg, then another. Though Carlos hadn’t dared move, the damn thing jolted forward as if it’d been poked by a prod. It scurried onto the planking. As he watched in numb horror, it made its way across the top of the box until it was directly over the zipper of Carlos’s trousers. Goose bumps formed on the skin exposed by his untucked shirt.
“God. No. Get out of here. Go on.”
There were gaps between the planks, plenty of places for the hairy beast to escape through. Surely, it would leave. It would scurry through the space and leave him alone. Spiders didn’t like people. That’s what his mom always said.
But it didn’t leave. With a jerk, the spider lowered itself until it hung a couple of inches from his body. There wasn’t even a breeze to blow the critter’s legs back to the wall.
“No, no.” Carlos sucked in his belly button. “Please no.”
As if the web had been cut, the spider fell onto the waistband of Carlos’s pants.
Carlos froze. If he moved, the spider would jump onto his belly and sink its fangs into his skin. He was sure it would. And then he’d suffocate in there. His throat would close, he’d struggle to breathe, and he’d die. Venom from a pesky bug was going to accomplish what a dozen years of criminals, drunks, and angry drivers hadn’t managed to do.
The spider turned. It paused for a moment on Carlos’s trouser button, then slowly made its way up over his waistband, one leg, then another, then another, onto the bare skin of his belly.
Carlos tried not to shudder. He held his breath. The spider’s sharp little legs tickled his skin. How he wanted to jump up, twist his torso, and scratch his stomach until he’d removed the top layer of skin.
He exhaled carefully, keeping perfectly still.
Get a grip. It’s just a damn spider. You’re a cop. You’ve handled worse than this.
He just needed to control his fear response, control his breathing.
In and out. That’s it. That thing’s not biting. Just stay still.
The tickle crawled up his waist. A second later, the spider skittered up until it reached the side of Carlos’s rib cage. If he moved fast…
Without giving himself time to think his actions through, Carlos rolled onto his side, forcing his ribs into the unfinished planks. Pain shot down one arm, and the splinter in his back screamed. The tip of his knee banged the side of the box.
None of that mattered when a sticky wetness spread along his side.
In the dim light, he grinned.
“Gotcha, little bastard.”
Footsteps sounded outside the crate. Carlos froze in place. A deep shadow cut through the thin streams of light. He held his breath, not wanting whoever was on the other side of the planks to hear his struggles. Something about the surety of the footsteps told Carlos the man from the truck stood just outside his cage. All the muscles in his body tensed, ready to fight or roll away.
As the breath he was holding grew stale in his lungs, the lid was thrown back, and the yellow light that had leaked through the planks filled the crate. It was just bright enough to cause Carlos’s eyes to water. He blinked to clear his vision.
He was in a barn. Carlos could make out a hayloft that was so warped it looked like it was ready to collapse at any second. Rafters crisscrossed along the ceiling. Overhead, a bare lightbulb cut through the grayish light of early morning leaking in around the barn door.
A figure stood over him. The dim glow cast him into a silhouette. Carlos couldn’t make out the figure’s face. Again. It was like the man was made of shadow.
He could, though, make out a large box the man gripped between his fingertips.
His captor leaned over the crate. “Are you ready to answer my question?”
Carlos twisted, trying to get a better look at the man’s face. “What question?”
“What are you afraid of?”
The man slid the lid off the box he held. Another spider, small and brown, sped over the man’s thumb and dropped into the crate. Carlos couldn’t see where it landed.
Incongruously, Carlos thought of Maria. Two nights ago, he’d leapt away from a spider in the kitchen sink. She had laughed before scooping the li’l beast up in a paper towel and setting it loose in the backyard.
Was this lunatic inside his head? Had he been stalking Carlos, watching from the kitchen window that night? A box of snakes would’ve been less scary. How did this guy learn about his greatest fear?
Another spider, black and orange, crawled over the top of the box and dropped into the crate.
Carlos gritted his teeth to stop a scream from escaping.
No way was he going to let this creep see how scared he was. He held still, trying not to startle the arachnids now crawling around somewhere outside his line of vision.
“You’re the one who should be scared.” He tried and failed to use the command voice he’d learned in the academy. “Of what I’ll do to you when I get out of here.”
The man gave a short laugh. “Good. That’s good. How about now?”
He upended the box. A stream of spiders—all sizes, all colors—cascaded through the air and into the crate, their legs and bodies spiraling toward Carlos in the yellow light.
The creatures filled every empty space. They clambered over Carlos’s legs, his shoulders, his neck, his cheeks. And still, they kept coming. He was drowning in an endless sea of spiders.
Carlos opened his mouth to scream, and a long, hairy leg brushed his upper lip.
It touched his tongue.
As he flailed, tiny fangs sank into his skin.
His leg. His head. His face.
The lid of the crate slammed shut.
FBI Special Agent Stella Knox licked her lips as the scent of fresh, buttery croissants and strong brewed coffee made her mouth water and her stomach growl. Coco’s, the café beneath her apartment, always smelled liked heaven in the morning.
“My usual, please. And I’ll take one of these.”
She lifted an enormous chocolate chip cookie from the box on the counter while Kate steamed milk for the hot chocolate Stella preferred. The cookie was the size of a small plate and contained enough chips to choke a horse.
She reached for another. “Make it two.”
Kate smiled. She was a pretty twenty-something with bleached blond hair that needed a touch-up. Or maybe the dark roots were on purpose? Even at the still-youthful age of twenty-eight, Stella couldn’t keep up with the ever-changing trends anymore. Not that she wanted to. No trend would keep her from pulling her long, dark strands back into the sensible ponytail she preferred.
Stella tucked the second cookie into her bag. It was for Mac, a friend and colleague who deserved a reward much bigger and more expensive than this chocolatey treat, but it would have to do for now. Special Agent Mackenzie Drake had put herself on the line to help Stella investigate the murder of her father.
Mac’s snooping had led to the shocking discovery that Joel Ramirez, a man Stella thought of as “Uncle Joel,” hadn’t been killed in the line of duty, as was reported. He was alive and well and living in Atlanta under another name.
Stella still couldn’t believe it.
Like the cyber beast she was, Mac had found the family address of her father’s former partner. Following the lead, Stella and fellow agent Hagen Yates had driven down to Georgia to speak to Joel’s surviving family. The hope was that Joel had told a family member some important tidbit about Stella’s father’s death.
To her shock and surprise, Joel himself had walked out his front door. She and Hagen had been trying to regroup from that curveball when they received the call for their last case.
She sighed. If she’d only been granted an additional few hours last weekend, she would have pulled her shit together and confronted the man who’d lied to her family for so long. She’d have learned why the trusted cop—who’d been like a second father to her—disappeared.
She could have discovered what else he knew about her father’s killing too.
Because he knew something. Her gut insisted he did.
The night before he faked his own death, Uncle Joel had arrived on her porch and drunkenly claimed that dirty cops had killed her father, that Stella’s dad had been betrayed by one of his own.
No! Not Uncle Joel, she reminded herself. She could no longer think of him like that. Not until she’d spoken to him face to face. Learned the truth behind his duplicity.
If she and Hagen hadn’t been called to Chapel Island to crack a series of cheerleader murders, she’d have the answers to all those questions by now. Or at least some of them.
A giant chocolate chip cookie to start a Friday morning was the very least Mac deserved.
She blinked and came back to the present as Kate placed the hot chocolate on the counter and rang up her items. Under different circumstances, Stella might have been embarrassed to be caught daydreaming. But Kate had seen Stella space out before and never seemed to judge. And she knew how to make her hot chocolate exactly the way she liked it, light on the chocolate and with extra frothy cream.
“Sorry. Miles away.”
She paid, dropping an extra couple of bucks in the tip jar. That should prevent Kate from gossiping too hard about the absent-minded FBI agent from upstairs.
Stella gathered her goodies and headed to her 4Runner. She’d save her own cookie for the office. She savored the warm drink as she drove, using its sweetness to ease into the day…and to knock out the bitterness of the previous evening, another topic she wanted to discuss with Mac.
Last night had started so well. After solving the cheerleader murder case, she’d wanted nothing more than a meal and her bed. Hagen’s unexpected offer to come over with bags of Korean takeout had made Stella think this would be the moment. He’d open up and tell her about the death of his own father. He’d discuss how he felt now, and he’d explain the real reason he wanted to help her confront Joel Ramirez.
Even after working with Hagen Yates for a few weeks now, Stella still wasn’t sure what made the man tick. He could have come with her to Atlanta last weekend because he genuinely cared about her and wanted to help her find the justice she craved.
Instinct told her that he had his own reasons to hunt down the man who’d inhabited the same world as their fathers.
Yes, their fathers might have worked on different sides of the law—Stella’s police sergeant dad catching the criminals while Hagen’s defense attorney dad tried to release them—but they had mingled in the same circles and known the same people.
And yet, each time the conversation had approached Hagen’s father last night, he’d pulled away, shut it down. As long as he didn’t want to discuss it, Stella struggled to trust him. She’d been so open with her feelings…
“It’s just…it bothers me, you know? Seeing him with a family. When I thought he was dead, it hurt, but I wasn’t angry with him. Getting murdered wasn’t his choice. But while I was mourning, he was watching his kids grow up, taking vacations with his wife, playing with his grandchildren. Now I just feel…”
Did Hagen even know how close to the center he’d hit that target? If he did, she hadn’t been able to tell by either his words or actions…
Hagen patted her arm. The contact was friendly and warm, but in its brevity, distant and formal. “I get it. He was your dad’s partner. It was natural you’d want someone like him around after your dad was killed.”
“Is that what happened to you? Did you have—”
“Listen.” His bottle clanked on the counter. “The answers are in Atlanta, so that’s where we need to be. We’ve got a few days of paperwork ahead of us, but assuming Tennessee’s population of psychopaths and disgruntled ex-cheerleaders take a break through the weekend, once we’re done, we can head back down there. This time we won’t waste a second. We on?”
She hadn’t been able to think of a good reason to say no.
Did she really want to tell him no?
She took a long sip of her hot chocolate and returned the cup to the holder. Tapping her thumb on the steering wheel, her gaze remained on the rearview mirror a little longer than usual.
She’d been followed recently. An SUV trailed them to Atlanta. Then, at some point, it turned into an old, beat-up Camry. But she hadn’t seen the Toyota when she’d returned home last night. And there was no sign of the car now as she headed to the office.
Maybe the tail had given up. Part of her hoped she’d still catch sight of whoever it was and could force some answers. Part of her was relieved.
Relief eased some of the morning tension, letting her thoughts drift back to Hagen.
When they had taken down their suspect yesterday, she’d trusted her fellow agent utterly. She’d pulled out her gun and moved to where the killer was waiting. She hadn’t even bothered to look back to make sure Hagen had followed. She knew he would be there. He had her back.
She took another long sip of hot chocolate. Some of the chocolate had collected at the bottom of the cup, giving the drink a bitter aftertaste.
The traffic cleared. She slipped the cup back into its holder and put her foot down.
But at times, instead of being the support she needed, Hagen was a weight she was forced to bear. A weight she was constantly shifting on her back to maintain balance lest she drop it.
“And he shouldn’t be.” She spoke aloud as she pulled into the parking garage of the FBI’s Resident Agency. “I need to know he’s there with me. For me. And, if not for me alone, why he’s there.”
She turned off the engine and reached for the cup again. It was empty.
Stella took her bag with its pair of giant cookies and climbed out of the SUV. She hated feeling this way, unsure of her direction.
Her brain told her one thing. Hagen was exactly the help she needed, a trained FBI agent who cared about her. A friend who brought some benefits.
But her heart shouted something else, that he was secretive and dark, hiding something she needed to know.
She locked the doors to her 4Runner and swung her bag over her shoulder.
Stella exhaled deeply and checked her watch. She was early. The rest of the team wouldn’t be in for another twenty minutes or so, but Stella had wanted to get a start on the day.
So much paperwork had built up over the last few weeks.
She’d write up her interviews, complete all the forms waiting on her, focus on what she needed to do, and check out at the end of the day all caught up. The monotony wasn’t appealing, but it was a nice change from confronting killers.
Plus, human resources was interviewing and assessing new applicants, so it was going to be all bureaucracy round the clock at the Agency today.
And it looked like one of those applicants, a woman wearing a knee-length skirt and peachy pumps, was headed inside. The woman had a slight limp. A twinge of sympathy struck Stella in the chest.
New shoes, huh? Maybe that’s what’s up with the limp?
A tall man in baggy jeans and a tight, white t-shirt that stretched across the muscles of his broad chest headed out of the garage toward the building site at the end of the road. He was carrying a backpack over a shoulder as he rushed past Stella.
She assessed him until he disappeared. She’d always been a people watcher by nature, which served her well as her livelihood and her life depended on her ability to discern evil from good.
Was Tight White simply late for work? Was he sneaking home after a late-night bender? Rushing to the store to pick up milk for his family? Odds were, he was doing something innocent like the majority of Nashvillians. Probably. She hoped.
Digging in her bag for her entry badge, Stella halted her musing so she could open the door to the Nashville Resident Agency. She was getting ready to swipe when a yellow piece of paper secured to the door by a piece of duct tape caught her attention. It wasn’t the first memo of its kind, and it resembled the kind a maintenance person would put up to provide a warning.
Maybe someone had broken the lock. Maybe the office was closed for the day, and she’d have to go home and have the entire day off instead of doing paperwork.
Ha. Fat chance.
She drew closer. The writing on the memo wasn’t typed out like normal, though. This one boasted capital letters, each word scrawled but clear.
What Are You Afraid Of, Paul Slade?
What the hell?
Stella glanced around the parking garage. She still had a good view of the street level beyond the red and white arms of the entry barriers. Vehicles clipped by at a steady pace. A few pedestrians crossed the road at the intersection across the way. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. No one paused to watch her reaction.
She peered through the windshields of the handful of parked cars. They were all empty.
Feeling a little overly cautious, she leaned down to check if anyone, or anything, was hiding under a vehicle.
Stella read the memo again.
She’d never seen her boss, Supervisory Special Agent Paul Slade, afraid of anything. He’d been a little overly sensitive during their recent case involving teenage girls. Not that she could blame him—he had three daughters. But she wouldn’t call him afraid.
The question struck her as odd. Stella considered it for a second.
What was she afraid of?
Did she fear the people who had killed her father since she knew they might kill her, too, if she got too close to the truth?
Stella wasn’t afraid of them, whoever they were. Her biggest concern about those killers wasn’t what they might do, but the possible emptiness that could follow finding them. She feared that hole could be dark and unending.
She wasn’t afraid of killers or psychos or monster clowns from outer space.
The thought of losing someone else she loved was terrifying.
She’d lost her father to a drug gang and dirty cops. She’d lost her brother to cancer. Apart from her mother, she’d lost everyone she’d ever loved.
The thought of losing her mom seemed to open a great hole just in front of her feet, a dark space that could suck her down and steal all remaining hope. She shook her head. Her mom was fine. Her stepdad wasn’t in great shape, but he was okay after the heart attack too. At least that’s what her mom had said.
The question was so strange, and the handwriting was almost threatening. She felt the need to treat it as potential evidence. Stella pulled out her phone and snapped a picture. Then she went back to her 4Runner and yanked out a small forensics kit she kept in the back seat.
Back at the door, she used a pair of tweezers to carefully remove the tape from the door, keeping everything intact. Then she dropped the yellow paper into a clear evidence bag and sealed it.
Why the hell is someone asking what Slade is afraid of?
She pushed the door open and carried the memo inside. It was probably a joke. A bad joke.
But maybe not.
When death leaves a warning…
FBI Special Agent Stella Knox hasn’t finished the paperwork on her last assignment when she walks straight into her next case. A memo written on bright yellow paper looks unassuming at first.
What are you afraid of, Paul Slade?
It’s a curious question. One the Special Agent in Charge of the Nashville office doesn’t take seriously…at first. Read More