“I’m an idiot.”
Benji Kopp had made a big mistake. He’d figured that starting his run at sunset would be enough to beat Tennessee’s June heat and that the late hour might even give him a breeze, a light wind pushing him gently from behind. Nothing strong enough to affect his time, of course. Just an occasional gust to cool him down and stop his shirt from sticking to his back.
He was wrong.
To be fair, he had beaten the crowds. The trail was empty, but the temperature was still in the eighties. The thick trees blocked the last of the sun, but they also trapped the moisture. In the woods, the humidity went from muggy to downright nasty.
Benji pumped his legs harder, refusing to let sticky air slow him down. Four miles under twenty minutes. Twice around the two-mile trail. That was the plan, and he wasn’t about to let the crappy weather keep him from achieving his goal. Coach said excuses were for losers.
He checked his watch. Seventeen minutes. He was on pace.
A puddle appeared in the path ahead. He jumped, landing on the far side. The mud that splashed his calves was cool and refreshing.
If he kept up this speed, he’d land a spot on the All-Star cross-country team that fall. Fourth year in a row. He’d graduate high school with an armful of ribbons.
He could imagine Gwen already cheering and jumping with excitement as he crossed the finish line first. He’d scoop her up, smile into her bottomless brown eyes, and kiss her right there in front of the crowd. Once he had that gold medal, everyone would know that he deserved such a beautiful girlfriend.
Benji adjusted his stride to veer around a log and stumbled just enough to send a jolt of adrenaline through his system.
Easy. Don’t sprain an ankle now.
He settled back into the steady rhythm. His lungs and thighs were starting to burn, so he distracted himself by picturing his parents’ excitement when he won.
They both already bragged about him, but if he made the All-Star team again, they might finally buy him that Mazda convertible. How cool would it be to roll up to Gwen’s house in such a sweet ride? They’d drive off with Gwen’s hair blowing in the wind.
Three hundred yards to go. Time to change it up.
The finish loomed ahead, and Benji stretched his stride, surprised he still had so much energy. He loved those moments when the rhythm came so easily.
As soon as his foot crossed the marker, he smacked the button on his watch.
Nineteen fifty-six. Yes!
Thrilled with his time, Benji stopped and leaned on his knees, breathing deeply. He’d need a quick walk to keep his muscles from cramping up. Hopefully, he’d make it home in time to shower before the sun finished setting.
Still panting, he headed toward the trailhead where the woods met the road. The birds were starting their evening song, and there was a breeze now, just rustling the top of the trees.
Maybe he should bring Gwen out here for a picnic one weekend. Somewhere private, though.
Out of sight of the access road that the rangers sometimes used.
When he crossed the old slice of asphalt, though, the truck he spotted didn’t belong to a ranger. He could just make the vehicle out between the maples. The paint job was a faded blue color, and patches of rust made up half the door.
The thing was ancient, like something straight out of one of those old movies his mom liked to watch. No wonder the hood was propped up.
A head belonging to an old woman emerged from under the hood. A floral dress hung from her shoulders, and her gray hair was a mess of curls that reminded Benji of his grandmother.
He hesitated. People around here knew how to look after themselves, but she might need some help to loosen a rusted nut or give the truck a push. He couldn’t just walk on and leave an old lady there. His parents had raised him better than that.
“Hey!” He raised his voice just loud enough to be heard but not too much that it startled her…he hoped. “You okay over there, ma’am? You need any help?”
The old lady circled around slowly, her old lady shoes moving an inch at a time. Her back was still half-bent and wide, round glasses with bright red frames covered much of her face. Her lipstick was even redder, and her long blue dress looked homemade.
The strangest thing by far, though, was the long white gloves on her arms, the kind debutantes pulled up to their elbows at their coming out balls.
Benji bit his lip and tried not to laugh. Old people were weird.
The elderly lady beamed at him. “If you wouldn’t mind, young man. I would appreciate that very much.”
“Sure, no problem.”
Up close, the truck looked even worse, like it belonged in a history museum. Or scrapyard.
The woman rested one gloved hand just above the headlights. “Old Reliable here has never let me down before. I’ve probably had this thing since before you were born.” She tapped the truck. “They don’t make them like this anymore, I can tell you that.”
Probably because it’s a heap of junk.
“Did you call someone?”
“I don’t have a phone, young man.” Her voice was high-pitched, and she tilted her head from side to side like a funny little bird.
Old people were really weird.
“I’m really not a mechanic, but I can take a look if you want. If I can’t see anything, maybe I can call someone for you?”
“Oh, thank you.” She pressed her hands together in a prayer position. “That would be wonderful.”
Benji walked around to the front of the truck and peered into the engine. Nothing appeared obviously out of place. There was no smoke. No missing caps or frayed wires. Beyond that, he had no clue.
He pulled his head out of the engine. “I’m sorry, I can’t see anything wrong.”
The old lady was standing so close to him, their shoulders almost touched. Her head was down, and she was digging around in her blue handbag. “Can you check the spark plugs?”
“Erm, sure.” Benji bent over the engine again. All he noticed was rust, rust, and more rust.
Shaking his head, he started to straighten. “I’m sorry, I—”
The rest of his words melted in his mouth as his gaze landed on the old lady’s face. Where a pleasant smile had just moments ago stretched her mouth wide, her entire expression had transformed into an angry scowl.
Before he could think or even take a step back, she lunged at him, jamming something deep into his neck. Pain burst up the side of his head and down his arm.
He tried to leap away, but the woman held tight to his arm with a strength no lady should have possessed. She cackled, the same sound he imagined the wicked stepmother made when she lured Hansel and Gretel into her house.
Benji tried to ask the question that lingered on the tip of his tongue, but his mouth refused to move. He took a step, and his knees crumpled beneath him. As he fell forward, his skull struck the truck.
The world went black before he hit the ground.
Benji cracked open his eyes to a flickering orange light. A candle, maybe? Beyond that, the room was dark. All he could make out was a nearby wall with cobwebs strung from the top and a small table beside him.
An earthy odor reached his nose. Mold, or maybe rotting wood. Like the bottom of the garden fence when the rain had soaked it through.
Benji’s neck ached, and his head throbbed above the temple. He was pretty sure there was dried blood on his cheek. His mind was all fuzzy, like someone had stuffed his brain full of cotton balls.
Where was he?
As he pondered the question, his memory started to return. The woods. Running. A truck and an old lady with big round glasses who moved her head like a bird and had a creaky-cracky voice.
Shuddering, he tried to stand and get away from the dark place and was surprised when he couldn’t move. A rope tied his arms to the armrests and his chest and ankles to the chair.
“Help!” His shout wasn’t nearly as loud as he needed it to be. “Help me!”
Silence. No traffic, no birds, not even the wind in the trees. Only the creaking of the chair when he tried to move.
Benji’s heart beat faster, and he forced deep breaths into his nose, hoping to clear his thoughts. How on earth had he gotten here? There was no way that old lady had picked him up, tossed him into the back of the truck, and carried him in here slung over her shoulder. She could barely carry herself.
He didn’t remember anyone else in the woods, but there must have been someone hiding behind the trees. Maybe the woman had been the bait to catch Benji? Except…why would anyone want to catch him?
One possibility after another popped into his head, each worse than the last. He pushed them down. They rose again. Torture. A snuff video. A…a practical joke, that was it!
The hope stirring in his gut subsided a moment later. None of his friends would think this was funny. “Help! Someone, please help me!”
Once again, his voice died in the silence.
Ice crawled along his skin, and he started to shiver. He didn’t want to die. Not here. Not in this dark, smelly…whatever this terrible place was.
Tears dampened his cheeks. He hadn’t cried since he was a kid, and his dog, Timmy, had been hit by a car. He was crying now.
As the worst of his sobbing decreased, a door creaked. Something shuffled in the corner, beyond the reach of the orange glow. Benji curled his fingers around the armrest and waited…for what?
The shuffling grew louder. Slowly, one foot scraping the floor after the other—schhfft, schhfft—the old lady approached.
Benji’s heart raced as though he were sprinting to the finish line at regionals. “Please.” His voice cracked, but he didn’t care. “Please let me go.” An idea hit him. Maybe he could appeal to her feminine senses. “My mom, she’ll be so worried.”
The old lady stopped directly in front of him. With the candle behind her, Benji couldn’t see her face, only the outline of her curls, her long dress, and her bent, stoop-backed posture. Her head rocked slowly from side to side.
“I’m sorry I had to bring you here, but it was for your own good.” Her voice still creaked and cracked, like an old tree branch before it broke in the wind. “Don’t you worry. I know all about it.”
“Know? What do you…” Benji racked his brain, searching for any clue that might explain what she was talking about. There was nothing. Gwen. School. Grades. Running. That was him. His life just wasn’t that interesting.
“Oh, yes.” The old woman’s head nodded deeply. “I know you’ve had a hard life. It’s been too hard, hasn’t it?”
His mouth was dry. “Not really. I mean, it’s—”
“Hush now.” She pressed her finger to his lips. “Grandma knows best.”
Benji shook his head to rid himself of the dirty digit, wincing when pain shot through his temples. Had the taser jacked with his brain? None of this made sense.
“Now, don’t you worry, young man, I have just the thing to make you feel better.” After more shuffling, she returned, holding a tall glass in one hand. The other held a paper plate. “Here we are. Milk and cookies. Eat up and tell Grandma what’s bothering you in your life.”
Confusion battled fear as Benji glanced from the glass to the plate. “Bothering me? Nothing. Everything’s fine. Really, I—”
Placing the food and drink on the table next to him, the old lady shuffled forward until her face was just a few inches from Benji’s. Her features were mostly hidden in the dim light, but she brought with her the scent of dust and flowers. She smelled like an old bottle of perfume.
She leaned close to his ear and hissed. “Don’t be naughty.”
Benji jerked his head away. He pulled at the ropes binding his wrists to the chair. They held tight. “O-okay.”
The old lady leaned back. “Good boy. Now, you tell Grandma what’s been troubling you.”
Benji took a deep breath, hope rustling in his chest once again. Maybe if he made up something—anything—the crazy old witch would let him go.
“Erm, my mom and dad. They…they won’t buy me a car. My friends all have cars, it’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to beg for the keys so that I can drive Gwen—that’s my girlfriend—to the movies.”
The old lady made a soft little sigh and reached for the plate on the table. “Poor little boy. Here, eat my famous chocolate chip cookies, and your life will be so much better.”
What was the deal with the stupid cookies? Benji was afraid he’d hurl if he tried to eat anything right now. “Thanks, but I’m not hungry.”
The old woman lowered her chin. “Eat them, or I’ll be very upset. You don’t want to upset me, do you?”
Her voice took on a deeper, sharper edge that chilled Benji down to his bones. Maybe if he kept playing along and ate whatever she wanted to feed him, she’d let him go.
Before he could agree, she pinched his nose between her fingers, shoving a cookie inside his mouth as he gasped for air. Benji coughed and spat out bits of dough and chocolate chips. When he breathed in, pieces of cookie caught in his throat, forcing him to cough and splutter again.
The old lady wagged a finger at him. “Now, look at what you’ve done.”
He coughed up a crumb and whimpered. “Please stop.”
“It will make you feel better, I promise.” She cackled and flapped her arms like a bird. “All your troubles will fly away.”
“But I don’t want—”
Another cookie was shoved into his mouth. “Don’t you dare spit it out,” her voice was low this time, more like a hiss, “or I might have to take it out on your mom and dad. Or your Gwen.”
Benji froze. Not his mom and dad. Not Gwen.
Before he’d even made a conscious decision to obey, he started chewing and swallowing. The cookie tasted…okay. A little weird, but he’d had worse.
If eating cookies kept everyone safe, he could eat every damn crumb.
The old lady lifted another to his lips. “Good boy! Here’s another one.”
She broke the cookie in two and fed the first half into Benji’s mouth. Now that he was used to the flavor, the cookie tasted pretty good. Either that, or he was really hungry. The old lady fed him the second half, followed by another cookie…and another. Before he knew it, he’d eaten the entire plate of them.
“Good boy.” She beamed at him. “Now you just wait right there.”
She shuffled away while Benji grimaced. Like he could go anywhere, all tied up to the stupid chair.
The candle flickered and burned lower, but nothing else moved as his heart rate slowed. He wasn’t sure how much time passed before the door creaked again and the old woman’s slippers shuffled across the floor.
The sound seemed different somehow. Distorted. Muffled, even though she was right there. The candle kept shifting back and forth from one flickering flame into two before blurring into an orange haze.
His chest rose and fell more quickly than usual, his breath coming in short gasps. Sweat dripped into his eyes, causing them to burn.
In response, the old lady clapped her hands. “Good boy! Everything will be just peachy now. You’ll see. You trust Grandma.”
Two of her hunched-back forms swam in front of his eyes, both heads thrown back in laughter. His stomach cramped, and Benji tried to double over, but the rope held him in place. Oh god, it hurt. His stomach hurt so much like the worst side stitch he could ever imagine. He rode wave after wave of pain.
“What,” he gasped, “what did you put in those c-cookies?”
The old woman clapped again, but the noise sounded very far away. Benji wished he could fade too and escape the agony ripping at his guts. He couldn’t breathe, no matter how hard he gasped.
Please, just make it stop.
Time became a living thing, crawling forward and backward on itself. He could have been in the chair for minutes or days, he didn’t know. All he knew was that there were much worse things than death.
As he rode the final wave into oblivion, the old lady’s words whispered after him.
“Sleep tight. Your suffering is over now. It’s all over.”
Stella was sitting in an auditorium, surrounded by sobbing people, when the chirp reached her ears. The noise was followed by a voice, clear and urgent.
“Dispatch to Sergeant Knox.”
Silence. A deep, soft, comforting quiet.
“Dispatch to Sergeant Knox.”
The quiet returned. Darker now.
“Dispatch to Sergeant Keith Knox, badge one-three-seven-two.”
The silence that followed was black and terrifying. Wrong, all wrong.
The woman’s voice crackled through the radio again, stronger this time. Resigned.
“We thank you for your dedication, loyalty, and for years of exemplary service to the Memphis Police Department, the citizens of Memphis, Tennessee in the United States of America. You’ve made the people you have served and your family proud. Your sacrifice will not be forgotten. Rest in peace, Sergeant Keith Knox, badge one-three-seven-two. Coding,” a pause was followed by, “forever.”
The auditorium spun and folded in on itself, reopening as a warehouse. The Mississippi River ran alongside it, oddly devoid of the usual heavy scent of oil and fuel and wet mud.
The wide doors of the warehouse were ajar, revealing, between the steel girders at the far end, two men seated at a table. A third stood with his back to the door and one hand deep in his pocket. The other hand rested on one of the rectangular bags piled on the table.
Just outside the door, a fourth figure lurked. Dread fermented in Stella’s gut.
Something was wrong here. She tried to race for the opening, but her shoes were stuck to the floor. A scream lodged in her throat and died without a sound.
No, no, no.
What was her dad doing here? He shouldn’t be there, peering into the room. He should be home eating dinner with them and playing a board game afterward with her and her brother. He should be sprawled out on the sofa, snoring while they snuggled up next to him watching movies.
The quiet murmuring and laughter from inside the room grew louder. Stella couldn’t catch what they were saying, but even so, her dread expanded until she could hardly draw a breath.
Leave! Leave now!
This scream didn’t work any better than the last one. All she could do was watch in mounting horror as her dad held his fingers up. He counted down—three, two, one—before he lifted his right boot and kicked as hard as he could.
The doors crashed back into the wall of the warehouse with a loud ba-boom that shot through the silence.
“Police! Hands in the air.”
Arms rose. Heads turned. Bags dropped on the table. One man’s hand left the pocket of his tattered shorts and reached behind his back.
Stella finally yanked her feet from the floor. She ran, but it was like running through a forest made of glue. The man in the tattered shorts was already extending his arm toward her dad.
An echo. Smoke.
A smoke alarm started ringing as her dad crumpled over. The table disappeared. The men vanished. The wailing continued.
She ran harder, tripped, and then she was falling. Plummeting as the ringing blared on and the wailing alarm turned into an ambulance siren.
Before she hit the ground, Stella jerked awake with a gasping breath, as though she’d risen from the bottom of a deep swimming pool. She opened her eyes, rolled over in bed, and slammed her hand on her alarm clock.
The ringing disappeared, leaving behind an uneasy silence. Six forty-five in the morning. Plenty of time to get ready for work.
She rubbed her eyes, but she couldn’t rub the visions from her imagination out of her head. The final call. The warehouse. The shot that had left her father dead on the warehouse floor.
She hadn’t been there, of course, but she had imagined the scene the moment Uncle Joel, her father’s partner, had told her about the shooting that took her dad’s life. The images would sometimes drift to the front of her head, fill her sleep, and remain there long after she woke.
Stella pushed a strand of long brown hair away from her face and rolled onto her side. She really wanted a cup of cocoa. She also really wanted to stay in bed.
One of the advantages of living in a loft apartment was that everything was visible. The jar of cocoa was looking back at her from the kitchen, but a lot of good that did when she couldn’t reach it. Her morning drink wasn’t going to make itself.
“Come on, Scoot. Help a girl out here.”
The goldfish darted around the aquarium on the kitchen counter before diving under a faux coral bridge at the bottom.
With a sigh, Stella swung her bare legs out of bed, crossed the loft, and flicked the kettle on, sticking her tongue out as she passed the aquarium.
While the kettle boiled, she showered, combed her hair back into a neat ponytail, and dressed in loose navy pants and a V-neck t-shirt. The fit was loose enough to be comfortable and formfitting enough to show that she was in condition and could hold her own in a foot chase or a fistfight.
She made her cocoa and sprinkled some food into Scoot’s tank. Someone having breakfast waiting for her when she woke up in the morning would have been nice, but living with someone who could actually do that? No, thank you. Scoot was the closest she’d come to a family since leaving home almost ten years ago. She didn’t see that changing anytime soon.
After a long sip of warm chocolate goodness, she placed the mug on the bedside table and opened her jewelry box. Her father’s police badge rested on one side, while the only earrings she owned were nestled on the other. Her father had bought the gold studs for her when she was fourteen. She’d worn them every day since.
She rolled the studs between her fingers and sighed.
The earrings were all that remained of her family now. Crime had taken her father. Cancer had taken her brother. Florida had taken her mother years ago, not that Stella blamed her for moving so far away. All she had left of her family here were the two golden earrings that she attached to herself each morning.
Two earrings and a burning desire to bring to justice the men who had broken her family apart.
After attaching the earrings to her lobes, she glanced at the clock. There was still a little time. Last week, when she’d made her first trip from East Nashville to the FBI’s Criminal Investigation Division, she’d found the drive to take less time than expected.
She’d also found her new work environment to be quieter, friendlier, and even more serious than she’d expected.
During the two years she’d served as a cop, the offices of the Metro Nashville Police Department’s East Precinct were always buzzing. At almost every desk, someone would be clacking a keyboard, checking records, or writing up a report. Or they’d be on the phone or taking a statement from a witness. People were always coming and going, some in uniform, some in plain clothes. The station was as lively as the city.
With the switch to the FBI, the crimes grew bigger and the stakes higher. Life, though, was quieter. The desks were usually empty as agents fanned out to visit crime scenes and talk to people. The atmosphere was more solemn, as though she’d moved up a league. There had been times over the last week, and during the twenty weeks she’d spent at Quantico, that she missed being a cop.
Her chest tightened as she stared at her father’s badge, but she had no regrets about her career change. Joining the FBI didn’t just mean that she’d get to investigate more serious crimes than street dealers and violent neighbors. She would also gain access to records and data and people who would lead her to her father’s killers.
Solving her father’s case and bringing those men to justice was worth any sacrifice.
So far, all she knew was what Uncle Joel had told her the night he’d turned up on her mother’s doorstep, so drunk he could barely stand. Before he’d crashed on the sofa, Joel claimed the drug dealers weren’t the ones responsible for her father’s murder. Stella’s beloved father had been set up by dirty cops.
That was the last time she’d seen Joel. He’d been killed in the line of duty the very next day.
Criminals stole too much. She was going to make them pay.
Stella stroked a finger across the number 1372 on her father’s badge.
“I’m going to find them, Dad. I promise.”
Her phone pinged. She closed the jewelry box and checked her phone. The text message from Mac included a picture of a stack of coffee machine pods.
Got the cocoa K-cups restocked in the breakroom. They’re all yours! Welcome to the FBI family.
Stella grinned. She waved the phone toward the aquarium. “See, Scoot? Someone cares.”
Only a week at the new job and Special Agent Mackenzie Drake was turning into a good friend already. At almost twenty-seven, Mac was just a year younger than Stella, but her white-blond hair, round face, and clear, lineless complexion made her look less like a cyber specialist and more like a sorority freshman.
Stella had witnessed another agent talk down to her, followed by Mac rattling off a stream of information on VPNs, COBOL, and gateways. When the agent’s brow creased with obvious confusion, Mac had slowed down and started explaining cybersecurity to them in words of two syllables or less.
She and Stella had laughed about the incident together over lunch.
Stella whipped off a quick return text.
You’re the best. If anyone tries to take one, just tell them you can hack their browser history.
She checked the time again and leapt to her feet. Crap. Only half an hour to get to work.
Her boss, Supervisory Special Agent Paul Slade, had been friendly until now, but she’d also seen him bawl someone out for failing to cover a tattoo. She didn’t want to get on his bad side.
She grabbed her keys and raced for the door. “See ya, Scoot.”
Her phone pinged again as she closed the door behind her. She smiled. Maybe Mac had picked up some chocolate croissants too.
No such luck, though. This text was from Slade.
Go straight to the briefing room. You’ve got your first case.
If looks can kill, a smile can be deadly.
Special Agent Stella Knox became an FBI agent to find the dirty cops responsible for her father’s murder and make them pay. But fresh out of Quantico, her first case has her seeking justice for a different victim—three of them, in fact.
The bodies of three teenage boys have turned up in a sleepy town outside of Nashville, TN. There’re no fingerprints, no DNA, and very little to connect the murders, except for a smiley face drawn in blood near two of the bodies. But why only two? The case makes zero sense, and the questions outnumber the answers. Read More