With her palms flat against the floor, Michelle Timmer straightened her back, gritted her teeth, and lowered herself until her chin met the cool tile. Muscles in her arms and chest burned like they’d been set ablaze, but she powered through the pain to push her body back up to its raised position.
Done. For now.
Letting out an explosive breath, she shoved backward until she was resting on her knees. Workouts had never been a regular part of her life before, but now, they were all she could do to keep from losing her mind. From losing all hope and sinking into a pit of despair as black and thick as tar.
Michelle now understood why prisoners incarcerated throughout the world turned to exercise. She had no other form of distraction—no television, no books, not even a ray of sunlight. There were no other prisoners with whom to associate. Aside from the men who’d taken her, Michelle had barely glimpsed another human being since she’d been imprisoned by these terrible men.
Despite the beads of sweat still forming on her skin, a shiver raced down her spine as she recalled her last night of freedom…
A humid summer breeze rolled off Lake Michigan, whispering past Michelle as she climbed out of the passenger’s side of Joseph Larson’s sedan. Her heels clicked against the asphalt, and she smoothed the front of her lace-trimmed cocktail dress.
With a career as an FBI forensic analyst, Michelle’s opportunities to dress up were few and far between. Sure, she had to look professional when she testified in a trial, but the courtrooms of Cook County, Illinois weren’t the prime location to show off a new pair of heels or a designer party dress.
Michelle was far from a fashion icon, but even the geeks in the forensic lab enjoyed a black-tie event from time to time.
Looking back, she wanted to kick herself for worrying about such unimportant issues. Her clothing mattered little now. Neither did her memories, but that didn’t stop them from coming…
As Joseph circled around the front of the car and hooked his arm in hers, she made her best effort at an enamored smile. Joseph returned one of his patented grins—the type that softened his face but didn’t completely eliminate the menacing edge in his pale blue eyes.
Or maybe Michelle had simply begun to view him differently ever since she spotted another woman’s nude photos on his phone. He’d been a mixture of surprised and angry. “Are we exclusive?” The question had been filled with bitterness. “You sure haven’t acted as if you wanted anything more solid than we have now.”
Michelle understood the term, but when the covert manipulation had been turned on her, she found herself doubting everything…even her own feelings.
In the week following her messy discovery, Joseph had done something she’d never expected from a tenured FBI agent. He’d begged and pleaded for her forgiveness.
Before then, Michelle hadn’t been sure the man reciprocated the feelings she thought she’d had for him. Apparently, her assumption had been incorrect.
Or had it?
There was part of the situation that made no sense to Michelle. This man had been so aloof, almost to the point of apathetic, and suddenly, he was plagued by dreams of the two of them together?
Then again, he was a man. As an ex-military FBI agent in the Bureau’s Organized Crime Division, Joseph Larson wasn’t the type to familiarize himself with his own emotions. Michelle tried to give the men in her life the benefit of the doubt when it came to stereotypical masculine faults, but more often than not, she was disappointed.
Joseph was no exception.
Under normal circumstances, Michelle would have told him to get bent. But in the last couple weeks of their so-called relationship, she’d picked up on a few oddities. Phone calls he’d receive in the middle of the night that didn’t quite correlate to a case he was working. Michelle wasn’t a field agent, but she understood enough of the Bureau’s processes to glean that part of Joseph’s explanations were…off.
Word of a rat in the Organized Crime Division, or in an adjacent department, had filtered down to Michelle and her colleagues in the forensic lab. According to the rumors, a rogue agent had provided information about an undercover operation during the investigation of a mob-run sex trafficking ring.
As luck would have it, the timeline of Joseph’s strange behavior correlated directly to the big case.
Michelle had gone back and forth with herself for weeks. She’d even attempted to get ahold of her sister to ask for help, but Journey Russo was on an undercover assignment for the FBI in Las Vegas.
Without Journey to point her in the right direction, Michelle was on her own. She’d tried to ignore the suspicions burrowing into the back of her mind, but she’d done a piss-poor job.
If Joseph was the FBI’s rat, and if Michelle had suspicions but didn’t act on them, then what did that make her? Some kind of accomplice?
At the same time, she wasn’t confident enough in her assumptions to go to the field office’s Special Agent in Charge, Jasmine Keaton.
She needed more information. So, when Joseph had come begging and pleading for her to take him back, she’d obliged. If she could do more snooping, then maybe she could get something solid enough to bring to the SAC. Or, more likely, she’d allay her concerns by affirming to herself that Joseph was just a womanizing prick. Chances were, his late-night phone calls had to do with him banging another chick and not ratting out the Organized Crime Division of the FBI.
What had she been thinking? Even then, she’d known she was acting a fool. There was a chance Joseph had been sincere when he’d pled for her forgiveness, but deep down, Michelle doubted it. Since she’d supposedly forgiven him, he’d forever view her as a doormat.
All because she…what? Thought her boyfriend was a corrupt federal agent? Thought Joseph was in bed with the Italian mob?
She’d been watching too much television, or maybe she didn’t have enough excitement in her life, and she was vying for a little intrigue.
“Stop it.” Her sharp words echoed in her tiny cabin as she castigated herself for the thousandth time. She softened her tone. “There’s no way you could have predicted this happening.”
It was true, but that knowledge didn’t make her current situation any easier to face.
Sitting on the floor in the lotus position, Michelle worked to cleanse her mind of the racing thoughts that wanted to consume it. Since her captivity, she’d forced herself to workout every day and meditate even more often. When she escaped—and she would escape—she needed to be both physically and mentally fit. She refused to crumble because of these men.
“Breathe in…” Inhaling deeply, she mentally counted to seven before holding the breath. “And out…” The air whistled through her lips, the only music she’d heard in…
Michelle didn’t know, but it felt like forever.
As she attempted to deepen her meditative state, she struggled not to let her mind slip back to that long ago summer night…
As Michelle and Joseph boarded a large, luxury yacht decked out with string lights, neatly set tables, and well-dressed men and women, Michelle wished she was at home.
This was a stupid endeavor. There were people at the FBI who knew Joseph better than she did. People trained for these kinds of things. She should have left this detective shit to them. After all, they had badges and guns. Michelle had…
“Agent Larson, there you are!” A man’s excited greeting ripped her from her regrets and worry.
Turning her attention to the speaker, Michelle painted another smile on her lips. The black-tie event was a small fundraiser to solicit donations for one of the city’s hospitals. Joseph claimed a couple of his oldest friends would be in attendance, and he was eager to introduce her to them.
In hindsight, Michelle realized how ominous the explanation really was.
When she’d met the pale green gaze of a tall, impeccably dressed man in his late-forties or early-fifties, Michelle had no idea whose hand she was about to shake. In that moment, on the deck of a luxury yacht docked on Lake Michigan, she didn’t realize she was exchanging pleasantries with a monster.
Over the next god knew how many months, she’d learn the depths of Brian Kolthoff’s depravity.
She should have turned and run off the yacht or claimed she was ill so she could go home. Anything to get her away from those psychopaths…
“You must be Michelle. I’m glad to finally put a face to a name. I’m Brian Kolthoff, one of Joseph’s friends. We go…way back.”
The man’s name was vaguely familiar, like a tickle in the back of Michelle’s head. She couldn’t place it right away, so she ignored the thought.
“It’s so nice to meet you.” Michelle clasped Brian’s hand in a firm, confident shake, offering him a smile that was largely feigned. “I haven’t really met any of Joseph’s friends, so I’m glad I was able to tag along with him tonight.” She was impressed at her ability to remain polite and cordial despite her nerves.
Joseph turned to Brian with a wide grin. A wolf’s grin, though she hadn’t realized it at the time. “We appreciate the invitation.”
“Of course.” Brian waved a hand to a bar located near the entrance to the yacht’s second level. “Please, go grab yourselves a drink. We’ll have food brought out soon.”
Michelle’s stomach grumbled quietly at the thought of eating. She wasn’t sure if her nerves would allow her to shovel down a full meal, but she could go for some finger foods. If she didn’t, then the alcohol from her drink would hit her hard. Being wasted around Joseph and his friends was among the last things she wanted.
Side by side, she and Joseph made their way to the bar. As they waited for their drinks, Michelle glanced around the deck, her eyes widening for a beat as she spotted a pair of vaguely familiar faces. Senator Stan Young and his wife, Cynthia.
The sight of the Illinois senator and his wife was enough to put to bed the worst of Michelle’s fears. Surely, if Joseph was up to no good, he wouldn’t associate with friends of a senator, would he? Corruption couldn’t possibly run that deep—not all the way to the senate.
“What a complete dumbass I was.”
Rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands, Michelle pushed aside the memory as well as the self-flagellation that came so quickly when she thought of how naive she’d been. She’d thought through that night at least a hundred times by now. She’d analyzed every interaction, though there hadn’t been many. While she’d been busy gawking at the sight of Senator Young, Joseph must have slipped a drug into her drink.
The last memory of the party was of the rich wooden surface of the bar as she tucked her head into the crook of her elbow and passed out.
When she woke, she was in a room almost identical to where she was now. She’d been alone, but not for long.
Nausea churned in her gut as she recalled Joseph Larson’s face as he’d walked through the heavy door. The mask he’d worn for all the months she’d known him had fallen away, revealing who she now realized was the real monster behind the façade he presented to the world.
His pale blue eyes had been lit with a sentiment that went beyond lust. It was a predatory hunger. Like Larson was a vampire and Michelle was about to become his meal.
No, that wasn’t quite right. Larson was far worse than a vampire. He was closer to a demon, some sort of demented hell spawn that could only draw pleasure from forcing women to bend to its will.
She closed her hands into fists and turned her attention to the room, knowing her mind wouldn’t settle enough to meditate right now.
The space wasn’t a room so much as a cell. With four beige, unadorned walls, a bed, a stainless-steel sink and toilet, and a door locked tighter than Fort Knox, the resemblance to a prison was uncanny. She’d memorized every square inch of the cell, having searched fruitlessly for a structural weakness she could exploit.
To her dismay, she wasn’t Andy in The Shawshank Redemption. She couldn’t chisel a hole in the wall of her cell and cover it with a poster of a pinup girl.
If she tried, Brian Kolthoff would know. Stan Young would know. Joseph Larson would know. Kolthoff paid close attention to the state of Michelle’s room. Any abnormality would set his hackles on end, and then he’d be on her, attacking her, beating her senseless like he was some rabid dog.
She touched the fresh scar behind her ear. It wouldn’t be the first time.
How long have I even been here? Six months? A year?
Not that she knew where here was. She’d gathered she wasn’t on solid ground and that she was aboard a seafaring vessel of some kind. However, the knowledge only made her conundrum worse. Three-fourths of the planet was ocean, meaning Michelle could be almost anywhere. She’d identified a few patterns to help narrow down her location, but there were only so many aspects of the environment she could piece together while in this windowless cell.
Based on the regularity of storms, Michelle assumed she was somewhere around the East Coast—the Pacific wasn’t quite as volatile as the Atlantic. The lack of humidity in the air led her to believe she wasn’t in the tropics, either.
Pushing to her feet, Michelle went to the sink. After wiping off her sweaty skin with a washcloth, she changed into a fresh t-shirt and shorts. Well, not fresh as in they’d just been pulled from the dryer, but fresher than the tank top and shorts she wore during her prison workouts. Unless she was exercising, the chill of the room typically permeated her skin, muscles, and all the way down to the marrow in her bones.
She sat cross-legged in the center of her bed, tugging a thin blanket up over her lap. With a sigh, she flipped over her only pillow.
The sense of relief she felt upon gazing down at a crudely illustrated face she’d drawn so long ago would have been embarrassing if she was anywhere else in the world.
But she wasn’t. She was here, in this beige, windowless hell, and she’d do whatever it took to come out alive on the other side. Not just alive, but sane as well. Michelle knew from her Yale education that the greatest risk to a person in solitary confinement was, put simply, losing their marbles. Humans were social creatures, and without some sort of companion, their cognitive functions suffered greatly.
Tom Hanks had Wilson the volleyball, and Michelle had Laurie the pillow.
“I had a good workout today. I did three more reps per set than yesterday. I think I’m getting stronger. You know, I used to hate working out. I’d have to bribe myself to go to the gym or even to go for a run around my neighborhood. But now,” Michelle sighed, fidgeting with a piece of her faded auburn hair, “it’s the only thing I can do that reminds me I’m still alive.”
Why do you even want to be alive?
The question invaded her head like it had been spoken aloud by a stranger. Her logical mind knew there was no one in the room but her. There were no cameras, no hidden mics. Michelle had checked. There were just four barren walls and a metal door. Still, the knowledge did little to quell her body’s visceral response.
Stomach twisting itself into knots, Michelle tightened her grasp on the blanket and inhaled deeply. A hot strand of anger unfurled beside the rush of anxiety. “I’m not going to die in here. I won’t give those sons of bitches the satisfaction.”
You’ve come within an inch of death once already. Who’s to say the next time won’t be your last?
“I don’t know.” She pinched the bridge of her nose, a headache building behind her eyes. “I don’t know why Senator…why Stan Young told Kolthoff to leave me alone. At first, I thought it might’ve been because the senator had a conscience buried somewhere in his head, but…”
She left the thought unfinished. Neither her brain nor Laurie chimed in.
“No.” She rolled the thin fabric between her fingers and dragged in a long breath. “That’s not why Stan told Kolthoff and Larson to leave me alone. If he actually had a conscience, he’d have pulled me out of here. He wouldn’t have ordered Kolthoff to keep me alive after Kolthoff had almost killed me.”
She’d long refused to think of Brian or Joseph by their first names. They didn’t deserve that amount of intimacy. Not after they’d…
On cue, an ache radiated outward from the site of the wound behind her ear. Tears sprang to her eyes at the sudden stinging pain, but she squeezed them closed and brushed them away.
Medicine hadn’t been her specialty in graduate school, but she knew how serious and long-lasting head injuries could be. When Kolthoff had smashed her skull into the floor, Michelle had watched her life flash before her eyes.
Part of her had been relieved at the idea that she might die. She’d suffered so many assaults at Kolthoff and Larson’s hands, she couldn’t imagine how she’d ever go back to normal if she broke free.
There is no “normal” where you’re going.
Michelle licked her lips, glancing to her only companion as the pain in her head diffused into a dull ache. Before she could respond, a metallic click-clack sounded from the door. In reality, the noise was quiet, but to Michelle, the lock disengaging was like the cocking of a gun.
Flipping over the pillow to conceal the face of her only friend in this place, Michelle folded her hands on her lap, closed her eyes, and pretended to be in the midst of meditation. Mentally, she crossed her fingers in the hope that the visitor was Kolthoff’s head of security. Whenever he brought her a meal or herded her to the shower, he at least kept his mouth shut.
As the door creaked open, she made a show of blinking to reorient herself. Blood thundered in her ears, the volume increasing as Brian Kolthoff emerged.
His pale green eyes inspected the room, searching for any abnormality that might indicate she’d tried to break free.
He’d find nothing. Michelle wasn’t that stupid. Even if she Shawshanked her way out of this place, where would she go then? They were on some sort of seafaring vessel, and she wasn’t a fish.
Of course, she’d rather die trying to swim away than let this man kill her.
Kolthoff’s gaze settled on Michelle as he set a plastic container of food on a small table beside the door. Like everything else, the table was bolted to the floor, completely immovable without a set of power tools.
Michelle prayed to any god who would listen, begging them to make Kolthoff leave before he opened his mouth, or worse. He hadn’t touched her since Stan had ordered him and Larson to keep their hands off her, but she could never be sure how long the men would obey the senator.
Especially after her last encounter with Stan Young.
Cocking his head to the side, Kolthoff crossed both arms over his white dress shirt. “You know, I really should have bashed your head in harder. The only reason I didn’t was because I figured I’d get another opportunity. I didn’t expect Stan to jump in and save your ass.”
The man’s tone was cool and casual, like he was discussing the weather or a ball game, not how he’d nearly splattered Michelle’s brains across the floor.
Terrified to her very core, Michelle resisted the urge to dive behind the bed as Kolthoff drew closer. She’d been at this prick’s mercy for god knew how long, and she’d given in to plenty of displays of fear before.
But the bastard got off on it. Her terror and suffering gave this psychopath a hard-on.
She wouldn’t give him the pleasure anymore. For whatever reason, Senator Stan Young had ordered Kolthoff to keep his hands off her.
Rather than cower behind the flimsy bed, she met those eerie, pale green eyes with her back straight and her expression carefully blank. Kolthoff dropped down to his haunches in front of Michelle’s pathetic excuse for a bed, his gaze unwavering. Like one of those angels from Doctor Who.
Without warning, his arm snapped forward with the speed of a venomous snake. His rough grip clamped onto her chin, holding her face like a vise.
Seconds dragged by as if she’d stepped through a portal into a vastly slower universe.
Stan’s order still stood, didn’t it? Her last interaction with the senator had been…less than kind. Had he changed his mind? Had he ordered Kolthoff to kill her?
“I can feel your pulse. I know how scared you are right now.” A lazy smile crawled to his lips, self-satisfaction radiating off his body in waves. “Oh, how I miss all the fun we used to have. It’s just like Stan to claim the best plaything for himself. But I’ll be honest. The last few times I’ve spoken to him, he didn’t seem all that thrilled about your continued existence. If you ask me, I think he just wants to kill you himself.”
Michelle resisted the urge to rip herself out of Kolthoff’s grasp. He already had some inclination of how much he got under her skin, and she didn’t want to give him even more evidence of how desperately he terrified her.
“Just know this, my sweet little sin.” He tightened his grip until Michelle wondered if his fingers would leave marks. “If you try anything, I am permitted to kill you. If you think you’re going to try to run away like you did the last time we moved you, I will make your life for all these months look like a pleasant vacation.”
How many months had it been? And what in the hell could possibly make being repeatedly raped and beaten seem like a vacation? This man was evil incarnate.
Bile surged up her throat as he leaned in to brush his lips against her ear. She wished desperately she could transform into a werewolf to rip this man’s head from his shoulders.
“I’ll tell you a secret. I hope you do it. I hope you try to pull some Mission Impossible shit to break out of here, and I hope I catch you.” With a low chuckle, he gave a condescending pat to her cheek and rose to his full height.
Michelle wanted to throw up, but only if she could drown this asshole in the vomit. It was no less than he deserved.
Kolthoff could make his ominous warnings. He could continue to try to intimidate her, but it mattered little. The next time an opportunity presented itself to escape, she’d take it, no matter the stakes.
Or she’d die trying.
Death—even hell, or the devil himself—couldn’t possibly be worse than staying here.
As Special Agent Amelia Storm closed the door of the small incident room, her mind was still reeling from the announcement she’d just received. Turning to her frequent case partner in the FBI’s Organized Crime Division, Special Agent Zane Palmer, she squared her shoulders and made her best effort to wipe the dumbfounded look off her face. Amelia and Zane weren’t only partners at the Chicago Bureau, but in the last couple months, they’d also become partners outside the office.
A measure of amusement danced in the back of her head as she recalled the first time she’d made the cheesy observation to Zane. He’d flung an arm over his eyes, slumped so far down in his seat he’d almost plopped onto the floor, and groaned. Loudly. Puns and dad jokes were the lowest form of humor, but that had never stopped Amelia.
She brushed away the musing but was grateful for the shot of normalcy. Zane had blown into the incident room proclaiming Michelle Timmer’s sister—a special agent from the Violent Crime Division in the Bureau’s Las Vegas Field Office—was here looking for clues regarding Michelle’s whereabouts. Since then, Amelia couldn’t help but feel like the hallways of the ten-story FBI building had been replaced with the corridors of a funhouse.
For a beat, Amelia had been convinced Zane was pulling a prank on her and the Assistant U.S. Attorney, but Zane wasn’t much of a prankster. Virtually all his pranks were reserved for Amelia’s cat, a long-haired calico named Hup.
“Michelle Timmer’s sister is here to talk to us?” Amelia’s voice was barely above a conspiratorial whisper. “The same Michelle Timmer who was dating Joseph Larson before she disappeared? The Michelle who Larson lied about dating, at least to me? That Michelle Timmer, right?”
Zane offered a half-smile as if to let her know they were both on the same page—surprised but prepared. They were always prepared. “Yeah, that Michelle Timmer. Michelle’s sister is in a meeting room on the first floor. I already shot an email to SAC Keaton. Spencer Corsaw is down there with her right now, but they’re waiting for us before they start going through anything major.”
Goose bumps prickled the back of Amelia’s neck. Ever since she’d first dug into Michelle Timmer six months earlier, she’d had a nagging suspicion there was more to her story.
Michelle had held a position as a forensic analyst in the Chicago Field Office before she’d disappeared. Why on earth would a woman who’d graduated Yale at the top of her class vanish when she had such a promising career ahead of her?
Simple. She wouldn’t.
Though Amelia had found no evidence to link Michelle’s disappearance to her then-boyfriend, former Special Agent Joseph Larson, Amelia’s gut told her the connection wasn’t a coincidence.
Joseph was a rat, a chauvinist piece of shit, and a liar. After the prick had tried to blackmail Amelia into screwing him, she’d known what she had to do. A man like that didn’t randomly decide to rape one of his coworkers. He had a history of that behavior, and Amelia had taken it upon herself to unearth the old skeletons.
Excavating Joseph’s secrets and discovering his long-standing friendship with Brian Kolthoff hadn’t been an easy endeavor. However, with Amelia and Zane’s efforts, they’d provided SAC Keaton with enough information to force Joseph to resign from his position as an FBI special agent.
Even that hadn’t been a slam dunk. If it wasn’t for Zane’s CIA connections, who knew how long it would’ve taken to get Joseph out of the Bureau.
On paper, Zane had worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation for the vast majority of his adult life, from age twenty-one until now, at thirty-four. However, by Amelia’s best guess, the official records had been forged by the CIA itself. Including one’s tenure as a covert operative on a resumé wasn’t exactly how the CIA preferred to operate.
Zane hadn’t revealed any of the gory details of his time with the Agency, but he’d confirmed he had worked for the CIA. Amelia wasn’t sure how long he’d been with them, but his stint had lasted long enough to yield him a reliable contact who’d come through with video footage of Joseph Larson fraternizing with his old friend, Brian Kolthoff.
The video surveillance had corroborated a couple photos Amelia had received from the man who could best be described as her informant. Alex Passarelli, a capo in one of the city’s two major Italian crime families, would cut out his own tongue before he’d let himself be labeled an informant, but Amelia wasn’t sure what else to call him.
A friend? Her high school sweetheart? Both titles were accurate, but they didn’t sound great on paper.
The end result was what mattered. With the CIA’s footage to corroborate Alex’s paparazzo-style photos, Joseph had been forced out of the FBI. Joseph’s friendship with Brian Kolthoff—the man who’d been the prime suspect in Amelia’s first major case in the Chicago Field Office—had compromised the integrity of the investigation and had called into question whether Joseph could be trusted at all.
Joseph and Brian’s alliances with organized crime were a damned mess. A twisted, interconnected web of mafia influence bleeding over into the political landscape not just of Chicago but the entire state of Illinois and the federal government as well.
To say Joseph had friends in low and high places would be an understatement. Hell, Joseph had existed simultaneously in the lowest low and the highest high. His position as a federal agent had given Kolthoff and their other criminal counterparts god knows how many advantages over the years.
Amelia wouldn’t, couldn’t, underestimate Joseph. The man was a sleaze, but he was smart, and he was manipulative. Dealing with Larson was like playing a game of chess. Amelia had to think two, three, or even four moves ahead.
Taking Joseph’s gun and badge was a start, but it wasn’t enough. The bastard needed to spend the rest of his life in an eight-by-ten cell, under constant threat of being beaten to death by some of the same criminals he’d put away during his tenure with the Bureau.
Renewed determination rolled over Amelia as she and Zane approached the elevator. Maybe, with the help of Michelle’s sister, Joseph would finally get what he deserved.
Neither Amelia nor Zane spoke for the remainder of their short journey to the first-floor meeting room. As eager as Amelia was to learn more about Michelle’s FBI agent sister, she didn’t want to try to speculate on the situation. She’d prefer to let Michelle’s sister fill in the details.
Pausing in front of a door labeled “1-C,” Zane lifted an eyebrow as his gray eyes shifted to Amelia’s. His sandy hair was brushed forward, styled as neatly as ever. Along with his tailored Tom Ford suit, expensive watch, and lean, muscular frame, he could have passed for a CEO or a wealthy banker, maybe even a Wall Street day trader.
He could have chosen any of those occupations and likely succeeded. His mother was a fabulously successful hedge fund manager, but like her son, she’d wanted to do some good in the world, so she’d left the world of finance. Wealth clouded the judgment of many people, but the Palmers had their priorities straight.
Amelia nodded, and Zane shoved open the door. Blinds were half-drawn over the expansive window on the far end of the room, blocking out the brightest part of the midday sun.
Spencer Corsaw leaned against the edge of a whiteboard, his black suit nearly as impeccable as Zane’s. Months ago, the Supervisory Special Agent of the Organized Crime Division had announced his plan to step down from his leadership position. Either Spencer had changed his mind, or the Special Agent in Charge, Jasmine Keaton, hadn’t settled on a suitable replacement yet.
The SSA’s Italian heritage was plainly visible in his brown gaze, tan complexion, and slicked-back ebony hair. Amelia wondered how many mafia-related undercover operations Spencer had conducted in his tenure with the FBI. She knew painfully little about the man who’d been her boss since she’d transferred to the Chicago Field Office nearly a year ago.
Spencer wasn’t the person Amelia and Zane were here to meet, though.
An unfamiliar woman rose from where she’d been seated at the oval table in the center of the room. The knit sweater she’d layered over a pastel blue button-down, chevron scarf, and charcoal slacks could have been stolen straight from Amelia’s own closet—simple, comfortable, but professional, and even a little stylish.
Spencer straightened and gestured to the woman. “Palmer, Storm, this is Special Agent Journey Russo from the Las Vegas Field Office. Journey, these are agents Amelia Storm and Zane Palmer. I’m sure you can figure out which is which.”
Journey Russo humored Spencer with a soft chuckle. “Please, call me Journey.”
Ignoring Spencer’s attempt at humor, Amelia extended a hand. “Afternoon, Journey. I hope the cold hasn’t been too jarring.”
The agent’s indigo eyes moved from Amelia to Zane as she accepted their handshakes. “A little, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. I…we grew up in Pennsylvania. Michelle and I.”
“Which is why you’re here, for Michelle.”
Journey blew out a breath and pushed her dark shoulder-length hair back from her face. “Yes, my sister.”
Amelia wanted to delve straight into their collective suspicions about Joseph Larson, but at the same time, she reminded herself to keep an open mind. Besides, the two women looked nothing alike. Genes could split in interesting ways in families, but Amelia needed to make sure Journey Russo was as close to Michelle Timmer as she claimed to be.
“Pardon me for being intrusive, but you and Michelle don’t…um…”
“Look alike?” Journey smiled, but the grin fell away too quickly, worry taking its place. “We get that all the time, for good reason. We actually aren’t related at all. My grandparents raised me and a slew of foster children.” The smile returned, almost reaching her blue eyes this time. “Michelle was special, and when she came to live with us, she never left. My grandparents adopted us both, but Michelle wanted to keep her last name in honor of her parents, who died when she was little.”
The story warmed Amelia’s heart, cementing her desire even more to bring Michelle home. “So, she really is your sister.”
Journey’s eyes glistened. “Yes, she is. I may have Italian roots, and she might be as Irish as they come, but we’re sisters in every way that matters.”
Amelia reached over and squeezed her hand. “Then let’s get to work on bringing her back to you. Tell me everything you know.”
“Okay.” Journey returned to her seat, followed by Spencer and Zane. “Michelle worked in this field office before she…disappeared, and she was dating an agent from the Organized Crime Division here.” Her mouth was a hard line as she glanced to the door. “Where is he? I’d like to speak to him directly.”
Amelia’s eyebrow arched. Journey was truly in the dark. “He’s not here. He was recently relieved of his position.”
For a split second, Journey’s dark blue eyes widened, though she was quick to wipe the surprise off her face. “He was fired? What for? When? Has he been charged with anything?”
As much as Amelia wished she could say yes, she shook her head slightly. “No, we didn’t have enough to charge him.”
Spencer cleared his throat, and the room’s attention shifted to him. “None of this leaves the room. SAC Keaton and I are keeping the details about Joseph Larson under wraps, just in case there was anyone else in this office who might’ve been affiliated with him. Officially, he resigned. In reality, he was forced to resign due to his relationship with a suspect in a previous investigation.”
From there, Spencer walked Journey through the Leila Jackson investigation—including their suspicions that Joseph had worked with the Leóne family to compromise an undercover venture.
By the time he’d finished, anger sparked in Journey’s gaze. “This can’t be a coincidence. Joseph Larson was dating my sister at the time of that investigation. She disappeared in July, a little less than a month after your office closed the Leila Jackson case, didn’t she?”
“As far as we can tell, yes.” Zane leaned back in his chair, tapping an index finger against the table. “Michelle’s case has been primarily worked by the Chicago P.D. so far. Agent…sorry…civilian Joseph Larson claimed he helped the CPD, but if you want my opinion, he only did that to make himself look good.”
Since Michelle hadn’t actually been involved in the Leila Jackson case, Amelia hadn’t given much real consideration to the idea that the two events might be connected. She’d considered the possibility, but that was the extent of it.
Journey flattened her palms on the table and took in a deep breath. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence, and I’ll tell you why. I talked to Michelle right before I went on my most recent assignment, and one of the topics of conversation was the guy she was seeing, Joseph Larson.”
The concept of a casual conversation about Joseph was such a foreign concept to Amelia that her knee-jerk reaction was to think Journey was messing with them. She pushed aside the inane thought as the agent continued.
“She told me she was interested in him, possibly even in becoming more serious. I think more than anything, she was grateful to be with someone who understood what a career in the Bureau is like. I wouldn’t say she was smitten or anything, but she was…intrigued by him, I guess. They’d become intimate, but she couldn’t tell if he wanted more than that.” Journey averted her eyes, and it took Amelia a second to realize the woman was experiencing a moment of powerful regret.
So far, Amelia liked Journey Russo. Though she was instinctually compelled to provide reassurance, she stopped herself. She didn’t know the rest of Journey and Michelle’s story.
Journey scratched her temple and sighed. “She was in the middle of telling me about Joseph Larson when I got a phone call from my SSA. It was about my newest assignment, which was a deep undercover investigation into a cult out in rural Pennsylvania. The Philly Field Office wanted someone who was a local, and the Las Vegas SAC recommended me since that’s where I grew up.”
The puzzle pieces clicked into place in Amelia’s head. Journey regretted not listening more closely to her sister’s rundown of Joseph Larson because she’d been preoccupied with work. A pang of sympathy stabbed at Amelia as she considered her own sister, Lainey Storm.
Lainey was a heroin addict, and Amelia carried a large part of the blame for her sister’s current position in life. After being caught with drugs at the Milwaukee airport, Lainey had been arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Amelia could have used her position as an FBI special agent to seek leniency for her sister, but she hadn’t.
If Amelia had stayed in Chicago instead of fleeing the city, the state, and then the entire country after being threatened by Alex Passarelli’s father, Luca, maybe Lainey’s fate would have been different. But back then, Amelia had been an eighteen-year-old girl with stars in her eyes, and Luca Passarelli had been a hulking mafia capo. She’d have been hard-pressed to find someone in Chicago who wasn’t frightened of Luca.
In her family’s pitiable financial state, Amelia had only one option to get far away from Chicago and the Passarelli family—join the military. She’d walked through the doors of a local recruiter’s office, and for ten years, she hadn’t looked back.
She could definitely relate to Journey.
Amelia’s chair squeaked as she straightened and folded her hands atop the table. They could deal with the emotional fallout from Michelle’s disappearance later. Right now, she wanted to learn more about what had happened to the forensic analyst. “Did you hear from Michelle again after that?”
A bolt of anticipation rushed through Amelia’s veins. She’d expected the answer to be a resounding no. “What did she say? Anything about Larson?”
“Yes.” Journey’s remorse was abruptly replaced by determination as she unlocked her cell. “She sent me a message on an app we used to use in lieu of texting. It’s more secure, or at least that’s their selling point. Here it is.” She slid the device across the table to Amelia. “I didn’t even see it until I got back from deep undercover last week.”
Hey, Journey. I know you’re busy working right now, but I wanted to send this message because I know you’ll see it eventually. Remember that guy I was “dating,” Joseph Larson? Well, long story short, I’ve started to think he’s up to some shady shit. I dumped him, but he’s been up my ass for the last week. I’m going to go with him to some fundraiser event tonight, and I’m going to try to learn more about what he’s up to. I’ll keep you posted.
The message was dated July 11.
The taste on Amelia’s tongue turned sour. She slid the phone to Zane, and his dark expression soon mirrored her own.
Anxiety played at the edges of Amelia’s nerves like a harp. She already knew the answer to her next question, but she was compelled to ask anyway. “Did she send you any other messages? Anything to follow that up or elaborate?”
Journey scooped up her phone and shook her head. “No. That’s it. That’s the last message, call, email, or anything I received from Michelle. Since I returned from Pennsylvania, I’ve tried to get ahold of her every way I could, but…”
She trailed off, leaving Amelia with another ache of sympathy.
“There’ve been a couple social media posts made on her account.” Zane was back to drumming his fingers, as he often did when he was lost in thought. “And the CPD’s case file noted that a suitcase and some clothes were gone from Michelle’s apartment.”
A crease formed between Journey’s eyebrows. “How did they know that?”
Zane’s fingers halted mid-tap. “Joseph Larson told them. They showed him photos from her apartment, and he claimed a suitcase was missing.”
Anger unfurled in Amelia’s chest like a living flame. Everything always came back to Joseph Larson. In her gut, Amelia knew he’d twisted and manipulated Michelle’s case to suit his own design.
Could she prove it, though? That was the question spinning in her head.
Journey’s palm slammed onto the table. “He must have fed that same line of BS to my sister’s coworkers in forensics. That’s why I didn’t come to you all sooner. But there’s no way.” Journey crossed her arms. “Michelle wouldn’t do that. She wouldn’t take a vacation and neglect to tell anyone. Unless she conveniently told Joseph Larson and no one else.” The venom in Journey’s voice could have wiped out an army battalion.
Spencer rubbed his chin, appearing thoughtful. “The main issue we’ve had with declaring foul play in Michelle’s case is that we haven’t had a friend or family member to give us information. Now that we do, and with that message Michelle sent to you, I think we can say there was foul play in Michelle’s disappearance.”
The announcement was like music to Amelia’s ears. For the past six months, she’d been trying to solve a puzzle with at least fifteen missing pieces. “What about jurisdiction?”
Spencer nodded. “That’s something we can take care of now. We’ll see what Michelle was working on around the time she disappeared. Since she was in the employ of the FBI, if there’s a possibility she was kidnapped due to her work, then the crime lands in our jurisdiction.”
Amelia could read between the lines. They couldn’t definitively prove Michelle had been kidnapped or killed because of the forensic analyses she’d been conducting at the time, but they also couldn’t completely rule out the possibility. As long as there was a chance her work had led to the disappearance, then the Bureau could make an argument to take the case from the CPD.
The Chicago Police Department worked hard, but their manpower and resources often were stretched too thin. Plus, with Joseph’s meddling in the Michelle Timmer missing persons case, who knew what other evidence was still out there waiting to be found?
Spencer smacked the table with his palm as he rose to his feet. “All right. I’ll take this to SAC Keaton, and we’ll pull this case into our jurisdiction. I’m not sure how long this’ll take, considering we’re nearing the end of the workday, and the SAC is in meetings until five. Familiarize yourselves with the information that’s been collected by the CPD in the meantime.”
Amelia was confident she could recite the CPD’s case file verbatim, but she didn’t protest as Spencer took his leave.
Finally, she had the resources and time necessary to devote to Michelle.
Anything involving Joseph Larson turned into a rabbit hole, but Amelia didn’t care.
One way or another, she’d find the truth behind Michelle Timmer’s disappearance. And if that truth was Joseph, then she’d finish the job she’d started by caging him like the animal he was.
Revenge is sweet. But justice is sweeter.
Seven months ago, one of the FBI’s own went missing without a trace. The forensic analyst was smart and beautiful, and she had been dating Joseph Larson…the same man who’d been working with the Chicago PD to investigate the young woman’s missing persons case. The same man who’d just been forced to resign from the Bureau.
Something’s terribly wrong, FBI Special Agent Amelia Storm knows it in her gut. But knowing and proving are two very different things. Read More