She opens her eyes and focuses on the room around her. Everything is in place, yet something isn’t right. She walks towards her daughter’s room, calling her name, as she does every morning. But this morning is different. This morning there is no response, Marissa’s daughter has vanished.
Single mother Marissa Bukowski stands in her daughter’s untidy room. Olivia’s phone is still charging at the wall and her clothes are still hanging in her closet. The mirror above her daughter’s desk is cracked and a message written in red ink reads ‘Never Forget’.
As FBI special agent Max Carter is called in to investigate, he delves into the lives of Marissa and her quiet, studious teenage daughter, and soon discovers that Olivia has been lying to her mother. Not only did she have a secret boyfriend, but she had also been talking to her guidance counsellor in the weeks before she disappeared. What was so big that Olivia couldn’t tell?
When a blood test reveals that Marissa was drugged the night Olivia went missing, Carter turns his sights towards Marissa’s estranged husband, only to find that he too has vanished without trace. And when he uncovers a family secret that could put the teenager’s life in danger, it’s clear that time is running out for Marissa’s beloved daughter. Can he discover the truth about Olivia’s family and find her before it’s too late?
Fans of Melinda Leigh, Kendra Elliott and Lisa Regan will love this pulse-racing crime thriller from bestselling author Ed James. Before She Wakes will keep you up all night!
What readers are saying about Ed James:
“Wow, what a book—revenge, corruption, death and politics. Max Carter certainly has his hands full with this one. Loved it.” NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars
“Awesome thriller that kept me turning the pages to see how it ends.” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
“This is brilliant from start to finish and I loved it. Max Carter is a great protagonist… So many twists it kept me turning the pages way past my bedtime! This book knocks it out of the park on every level and I can’t wait for the next one.” NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars
“Wow, what a start to a new book and series!… Do yourself a favour and get out there and read it now!” Chapter in my Life Blog, 5 stars
“Fast-paced and enthralling book. A page-turner—impossible to put down.” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
“Not one for the faint of heart. It is full of danger and despair and the action starts and continues at breakneck speed… I could not put this book down.” Robin Loves Reading
“So many twists it kept me turning the pages way past my bedtime!” NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars
“Enter Max Carter, a new protagonist in an exciting new series. Well-paced and excellent plot that keeps the story moving…
Release date: January 29, 2021
Print pages: 350
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Before She Wakes
The vein in her temple was thudding like a disco tune, a constant drumbeat. She could barely open her eyes, the thick crystals surrounding her lids were breakfast cereal left in the bottom of the bowl.
It was still dark, and the house was silent.
She reached over to her nightstand—to where she thought it was, at least—and flicked the switch. The light was way too bright.
She rubbed the sleep away from her eyes and tried to sit up, pushing herself up. It really shouldn’t be this hard.
Her cellphone sat on the charger. No missed calls or texts, just the time. Six thirty.
Way too early.
The digits seemed to swim in the air. How much had she drunk last night? Barely a glass. Well, that was all she could recall, but she couldn’t remember anything more than the first disappointing mouthful. All day, she’d been looking forward to her treat, that half hour with something nice, something that gave her that warm, fuzzy feeling.
And she couldn’t remember much of it.
She needed to start the day.
An extra-hard session on the bike, then a hot shower, then breakfast, then she had to drive Liv to school. Breaking it down like that made it seem achievable, but right now, Marissa didn’t feel like she could even put either foot down on the floorboards.
But she had to at least try.
There. Ice-cold against the sole, sending a tingle up her leg. And the other.
She winched herself up to standing and just about toppled over, but used a hand to brace herself against the wall.
All Marissa could do was stand there, breathing hard and slow. She was thirty-eight, could do two spin classes back-to-back, and then a whole day of teaching.
So why did she feel like she was eighty years old?
And not a healthy eighty either.
She caught a glimpse of herself in the full-length mirror. Gray shorts and pajama top. Blinking eyes set in puffed-up bags. Her hair flattened against the side of her head, the rest of it spiraling out to catch its natural curls.
With a deep breath, Marissa grabbed her robe from the door back and wrapped it around her shoulders. She was shivering, goosebumps puckering both arms, rising in waves.
What was wrong with her?
She had no idea, but the fear gnawed at her. If someone had done something to her, had they gotten to Liv?
A spike of something—adrenaline, fear, whatever—pushed her off and she was on autopilot, opening the bedroom door and padding through the hallway, out to the staircase.
Her room was down at street level and the front door was shut and locked, the alarm primed and blinking. At least it wasn’t a home invasion.
Well, didn’t seem to be one.
She set off up the stairs to the living area, the wood creaking under her feet.
The kitchen was empty, just the faint humming of the fridge. As much as she needed a glass of water, she didn’t stop for one, instead charging on up to Liv’s floor. She knocked on the door and waited. “Hey, you up?” Her voice sounded a hundred miles away.
She could barely focus on the sign stuck to the door:
Seemed cute when they put it up last year, but now… Now, it felt different. Like a threat.
And it was silent in there.
Another knock. “Liv, it’s Mom. You okay, honey?”
They had a rule—two knocks and it was okay to come in, so Marissa gave her the required second knock. “Liv, I’m coming in, okay?”
She gave it that little pause, waiting for a refusal from her daughter, but nothing came. The fridge downstairs did its little shiver thing, a beep followed by a wash of something. Otherwise, the only sound was Marissa’s heavy breath.
“Honey, are you okay?” She grabbed the door handle and twisted it. “Liv?” Her voice sounded even more shaky, but it was louder now.
No response, so she opened the door. “Liv?”
Cold morning light spilled through the open curtains, and the room was sheer mayhem. Bedclothes strewn across the floor. The closet doors hung off their hinges, the contents spilled across the boards.
Marissa rushed in, but didn’t know what the hell to do, where the hell to look, what the hell to think or feel, other than terrified.
Liv was gone. Her laptop sat sleeping on the desk next to her cellphone, her ever-present companion. But there was no sign of her.
Marissa turned around, ready to rush down to her room to grab her own cellphone. But she stopped dead.
Olivia’s wall mirror was cracked, like someone had punched it, but only before they’d written a message in red Sharpie:
FBI Special Agent Max Carter tied the poop scoop bag with a flourish. “Thank you for this gift.” He set off again at a furious pace, pulling the leash behind him, his breath misting the air. The damp Seattle air, thick, just not rain. Not yet. The forecast was always for rain, but it hadn’t arrived yet. He wasn’t alone in the baseball diamond overlooked by houses on all sides, but he doubted many of the other dads out walking family dogs lived in those homes. Little League only needed one set of bleachers, and a woman sat up at the top talking on her cellphone.
Why he had let his daughter Kirsty call her dog Doggy was still a mystery to him. Carter called her Deogie though. D-O-G. He shouldn’t have let her get the dog in the first place. How had she successfully worn down Carter and his wife Emma’s continual refusals?
That he was the one who landed the morning walk while his father slept like a baby, despite promises that he would look after Deogie, well. That was something he should’ve seen coming a mile off.
Not that he hated his morning hikes with the strange hybrid of greyhound and… something else. Whatever it was, it still looked like a greyhound, just one with long fuzzy fur. And such soulful eyes.
No, he actually liked it. Getting up before six to do an hour of exercise with the dog, listening to podcasts and audiobooks while the rest of the world snoozed. And whatever the weather too. He had to do it. Time was, he would have gone into the field office and torn through some paperwork, but these days… Well, he definitely felt a lot calmer in his own head.
Carter led Deogie over to home base and, despite his age, he still did the same celebration he had as a kid, arms wide, like he was back in the early nineties competing in the Washington state championships, heading toward the minor leagues at least.
Kid had to dream, right?
Carter opened the gate and led Deogie through just as his cellphone blasted out through his earbuds, cutting off the podcast covering California’s prison system.
This early in the day it could only mean one thing. Another parent waking up to find a missing kid or two, maybe three. Another call out, another case.
Carter quickened his pace as he headed home and answered it. “Carter.”
“Max, it’s Lori.” Lori Alves, the duty agent on the roster for that night. She paused long enough for him to hear her breath through his earbuds, coming in short bursts in stereo.
“What’s up? Another case?”
“Not that I know of.” And there it was again, that pause. “Max, it’s about your father.”
Carter slowed his pace and swore he got a thank-you nod from Deogie. He didn’t need to be reminded. It was a constant thorn in his side. There when he went to bed, still rattling around when he got up from a terrible sleep. A recurring thread all day. Yeah, all the endorphins he got from walking Deogie maybe didn’t tell the full story.
Chewing himself up over whether he had made the right decision.
First, that London cop deciding not to prosecute his lousy father for his part in his mother’s death, many years ago. Bill had protested to Carter that he had nothing to do with it, and Carter believed him.
Then, deciding to try to forgive his father for abducting him as a small child, for hauling him across the Atlantic and the States from London to Seattle, to a new life shut off from his old one, and from his mother.
Finally, the lost hours spent mulling over her death. A death that maybe, just maybe, wasn’t an accident. Who was Carter kidding? His mother’s accidental death was a direct result of Bill Carter trying to send her a message to let her son go.
Yeah, that was going to keep anyone up at night.
And he had asked them not to prosecute. Even Bill Carter didn’t deserve a trial back in London. Or was it because Bill was dying? The Grim Reaper would catch him soon enough.
But maybe he really deserved it, and Carter had chosen to put his own daughter’s short-term needs ahead of any justice?
Not that Carter had that much of a say in it, just a chance to sway a pending decision. He gripped Deogie’s leash tight as he hauled her across the street, like the evil Superman in that movie where he turned a lump of coal into a diamond. “What about it, Lori?”
The Seattle rain started up, thick drops like baseballs falling to the ground.
“That London detective, Chris King, he’s coming here, Max.”
“I think so. He’s landing at SeaTac at lunchtime.”
Carter’s turn to pause now. He hadn’t heard from King in a while. Thousands of miles away, over the Atlantic Ocean, over most of England, DI Chris King had been investigating Bill—and a few others too. A real nest of vipers. “You’ve spoken to him?”
“A few times, Max. Look, I’ve thought long and hard about whether to discuss this with you. I decided not to, but it felt wrong, so here we go. Karen’s ordered me to work with him.”
“Why you? The FBI has a ton of agents.”
“Apparently, he asked for me personally. That London cop I worked with in Miami? He’s King’s boss now.”
Carter had to stop at the red man, waiting for the nonexistent traffic to flow past. “I thought King wasn’t investigating Bill?”
“He tried to stop it, Max, but there are between five and twenty cases all linked together. All linked to your abduction as a child. King has no choice but to investigate Bill.”
“Okay, well, thanks for letting me know.”
“Max, don’t be like that.”
“You know. You’re going all cold again.”
Carter tried to smile, tried to inject some humor or levity into his voice. “Lori, thanks for doing this. It’s tough to hear, so I’m sorry I sound cold. But you do what you got to do, okay? Bill deserves what’s coming to him.”
“I know it’s the right thing to happen for Bill, but I worry about you and about Kirsty.”
“I can handle myself, Lori. And I’ll look after her.”
“Have you been doing that therapy?”
Carter nodded, even though she couldn’t see it. Part of him was angry at the intrusion into his life, into his mental state, but a lot of him was relieved that someone took that level of interest in his mental wellbeing. So easy for an FBI agent to succumb to numbness. “I have been to a few sessions, Lori. I can sort of remember what happened. Fragments of memories. An airport, being on a plane, landing.”
“Sounds promising, Max.”
“It’s been helpful, so thanks for the recommendation. Look, I better go. Thanks.” Carter ended the call and stood there in the rain, feeling like he had been punched in the gut. He hit pause, because listening to a deep exploration of the California penal system felt a bit too close to home.
An investigation into Bill. It was serious.
This was the last thing Carter needed right now. Everything in his life felt so strained, like pizza dough stretching in a restaurant kitchen, but then snapping into a million pieces.
He didn’t need anyone prosecuting his father.
And Kirsty sure as hell didn’t. They’d grown so close; it’d be a wrench to her.
But there was nothing Carter could do about it.
He looked down at Deogie, shivering in the rain. He needed to get her home, dry her off, then get on with his day.
Should he speak to Bill about it? He hadn’t so far, but maybe it was time. At least he could prepare something, prepare Bill for what was coming his way.
And maybe, just maybe, Bill would suffer that little bit more for what he had done to Carter’s mother.
Carter powered down the lane toward their home. He could see their house, his SUV at the front, with Emma’s plug-in charging under the carport. No lights on, so Bill was still asleep, still dreaming his sweet dreams without any regret or remorse for what he had done.
Carter’s cell blasted out again. The rain was heavy now, so he answered it without checking the display. “Carter.”
“Max, it’s Karen.” Special Agent in Charge Karen Nguyen. His boss. Her icy voice made his spine straighten.
“Max, I just received a call in from Seattle PD. They’ve attended a suspicious child disappearance in Capitol Hill. Looks like an abduction.”
In truth, the address was slightly too far south to be Capitol Hill.
Carter pulled off Madison, past the Trader Joe’s entrance, then trundled along Fifteenth East, a tree-lined residential avenue, and counted the numbers down toward his target. Hard to see through the rain, but the joy of being an FBI agent was you never had to search for the house, just look for the one with a ton of police cruisers out front.
His and Emma’s first apartment together was nearby, few blocks east, and even more north. Close to the heart of the action. Capitol Hill was hardly uptown living, but it had a charm and vibrancy that was hard to get elsewhere in the city. And boy had it changed over the years. Gentrification was creeping in, turning the old dive bars into craft beer breweries, pushing out the subcultures to other areas.
The number of police cruisers and FBI SUVs meant he was getting closer. And there it was, a row of apartment houses on the left. Some entrepreneur had wedged six thin slivers of apartments into a lot that would normally only allow three at most. Smart way of doubling your money.
Carter pulled up and got out into the rain, though his FBI windbreaker took the brunt of the downpour as he strode across the road. Up here, they needed rainbreakers.
The small block was guarded by two SPD beat cops at the fifth door along, their navy jackets pulled up high. The older of the two took a look at Carter’s shield. “You with the FBI, huh?”
Not the usual SPD displeasure at having their role usurped by federal law enforcement. “Max Carter. I head up the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Unit.” He put his shield away and gave them both a broad smile, the kind he knew earned trust. “Obviously not as quick off the mark as you guys, but here I am.”
“Upstairs. Second floor.” The cops separated and Carter got between them.
The door was held open, a trail of rain on the carpet inside. A high-end security system was beeping, but disarmed. At least it worked.
And the home was exactly as he expected. Three floors, with a staircase between them. Bedroom down here on the first, probably the master, and a living space up on second, then another bedroom or office on the third. Should be a roof garden up top too, with views to the downtown towers.
Two doors down on this floor though. One led to a master bath, with some cops working away, cataloguing, and inspecting. He got a nod from them as he passed. Definitely a master bedroom, for Mom and—
Carter didn’t know if there was a Pop. Didn’t know much, to be honest. Either way, it was a king bed, the covers splayed only on one side.
Curtained-off French doors that probably looked out onto a shared green space. One of those fancy sports bikes sat there in the window, the kind that cost a bomb to buy and you still had to pay a monthly subscription, all so you could do spin classes at home, broadcast over the internet. Probably meant just as many folks not exercising as if it was a gym, but still paying for the privilege. A super-expensive way to hang clean laundry.
Carter headed upstairs. No handrail, which always made him feel a little bit queasy.
Another SPD cop blocked the staircase up to the third floor, guarding it with a clipboard and a stack of Tyvek crime-scene suits.
Carter stopped and gave him a nod while he checked out the area.
A nice kitchen. Modern stainless-steel fridge, dark units and countertop. Through back was a spectacular view over rooftops to downtown, to the spreading skyscrapers. Couldn’t even see the Space Needle these days.
The living area had an L-shaped couch looking at a wall-mounted flat-screen hanging over a small white soundbar. Some modern artwork hung on the walls, all greens and reds, but the place was ultra-minimal. Hardly homey.
A dark-haired woman sat at the glass dining table. Marissa Davis, presumably. She had a severe look. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, but a few curly spirals escaped. Glasses with designer frames but thick lenses. Fizzing with nervous energy, like she needed to do something right there and then, but all she could do was shake her head and stare into space.
The agent next to her caught Carter’s gaze and returned it with a tight shake of the head, one that read “She’s nowhere near able to talk.”
One Carter had seen many, many times, and one he had a ton of strategies to counter.
And no matter how many times he saw it, it still cut him to his core. Seeing the mother or the father locked into a cycle of grief and panic. A missing child, every parent’s worst nightmare, and they were living it. The physical sensations were almost overpowering—the colony of ants climbing his back, the acid burn in his gut, the thickness in his throat. Deep memories of his own past, his own abduction, mixed with the colossal fear of his own future, of losing Kirsty to similar circumstances.
Yeah, this is what drove him. Over and above it being his job, Max Carter was both a parent and a child. He knew what everyone was going through, and he needed to put it all right.
But to do that, he needed to get the lay of the land first, find out all the questions he needed to ask before he started, so he grabbed a crime-scene suit from the stack and tugged it on, lost to his winding thoughts. Before he knew it, he was dressed in puffy white. He pulled up the hood and snapped on the mask, then started climbing the steps, his mask puffing with each breath. When he’d started, he thought he would never get used to wearing one, and yet here he was, a total pro with them. He stepped out into the hallway, swarming with CSIs. Now the FBI were in, they were all his guys and gals.
He passed through carefully, taking stock of everything. Just a hallway, as far as he could tell, some arty black-and-white photos of eighties and nineties rock bands, but Carter could only name one of the seven and, even then, he was not sure if it was Sonic Youth or the Pixies.
Another bathroom at the end, with two CSIs working away inside.
The bedroom was another story.
The walls were a lot like so many others Carter had seen, all belonging to teenage girls, sadly all abducted. Over the years, the faces on the posters changed, but they were always the pop stars of the day. And today, K-pop was big to Olivia Davis.
But it wasn’t just pop. She had women’s soccer te. . .
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