The number-one New York Times bestselling author is back with an electrifying new entry in the FBI series featuring Dillon Savich and Lacey Sherlock.
FBI Special Agent Griffin Hammersmith, last seen in Backfire, has been recruited by Dillon Savich to join his unit in Washington, D.C. Savich sees something special in Hammersmith, an almost preternatural instinct for tracking criminals.
While on his way to D.C., Hammersmith plans to visit his sister, Delsey, a student at Stanislaus School of Music in Maestro, Virginia. Before he arrives, he gets a phone call that Delsey has been found naked and unconscious, lying in a pool of blood, after a wild party. The blood isn't hers-so to whom does it belong? Griffin must protect Delsey, but from whom?
Meanwhile, back in D.C., FBI Agents Savich and Sherlock have their hands full when the grandson of a former Federal Reserve Bank chairman is found murdered, every bone in his body broken, his corpse frozen at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. Was it revenge against his grandfather for the banking crisis, or something more insidious and personal?
It's a bitter winter, and in the endless cold, evil lurks.
Release date: July 9, 2013
Print pages: 464
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Listen to a sample
Very early Saturday morning
She’d drunk way too much. She was an idiot. Why had she, Delsey Freestone, a reasonably intelligent twenty-five-year-old supposed adult, swan-dived into those last two margaritas? Because the big cheese director of Stanislaus was treating you like his favorite student, making you his special margarita recipe, that’s why, and you were afraid to turn him down. To be honest, you were flattered, too. And what was in those margaritas that tasted so good?
She was very sure at that moment she didn’t want to know.
She didn’t understand why Dr. Elliot Hayman, the new director of the Stanislaus School of Music—Call me Elliot, my dear—had appeared to want to cut her out of the graduate student female herd at the party and bestow his margaritas and attention on her. Not only was Dr. Hayman in charge of the prestigious music school, he was also an internationally celebrated concert pianist, with a libido, she’d read in a critic’s review, to rival his glissandos. When it came to renown, he was in a different universe than hers. She and Anna Castle, a violinist from Louisiana and her best friend in Maestro, had decided Dr. Hayman enjoyed the role of director because it appealed to his vanity, but they also both acknowledged it was only the older graduate students, like herself, who believed that he was, at the core, faintly contemptuous of the students. On the other hand, he was a sharp dresser, dropping in conversations that he shopped twice a year in Milan for his suits, always fashioned for him by Bruno Giraldi himself. Whoever Bruno was, Anna observed, Dr. Hayman certainly dressed to impress.
So why had Dr. Hayman dogged her all evening, giving her entirely too much attention until she was certain every student within hearing distance now hated her guts? Thank you, Dr. Hayman—Elliot—that was just what she needed. And what would Anna say about him when she told her about his behavior tonight? She’d laugh and say something like, “Smile, Dels, and suck it up,” stretching it out in her lazy Louisiana drawl until Delsey would want to yank the words right out of her mouth. She’d wished all evening that Anna had come, but no, Delsey had had to fly solo.
Delsey supposed the sudden waves of gut-wrenching nausea combined with her flatlining brain had been heaven-sent, since it had gotten her out the door of Professor Rafael Salazar’s sprawling ranch-style home on Golden Meadow Terrace in under a minute, with no one the wiser, only one arm in her coat when she’d quietly closed the back door behind her. She’d sucked in the cold winter air, grateful to be out of Professor Salazar’s whooping hoedown, away from both him and his twin brother, Dr. Hayman, and wasn’t that a hoot? Twins! Separated as boys and ending up with different last names. The only thing they had in common, as far as she could see, was their incredible talent.
She drove very carefully until her head was pounding so hard and she was feeling so woozy she was swerving like a drunk, which, she supposed, she was. No cops, please—too much humiliation. She eased her ancient Spyder to the curb of Tinsel Tree Lane and shifted into neutral. She pressed her forehead against the steering wheel, willing the world to stitch itself back together for her, swearing to any power listening that she’d go back to her one-drink limit. She’d made that promise when she was only sixteen, after sharing a bottle of hooch with her boyfriend Davie Forman, and wanted to die, certainly not have sex with him in his daddy’s Mustang. Tonight was the first time she’d broken that promise in nine years. What an idiot you are; you deserve freezing your butt off and having your head explode, and the misery of hugging the toilet in the morning.
She finally cracked an eye open to see the half-moon crystal clear overhead. It looked as cold and hard as the solid mountains of snow that blanketed everything around her—trees, street signs, cars, mailboxes. Big snow, the locals called it—unusual, the locals also said—yet here it was, a big honking snowstorm. At least it had stopped pelting down for a while, but they said it would begin again hard near dawn. She’d come to realize after the first heavy snow in December that if she hit a snowdrift, she and her Spyder wouldn’t be found until spring.
Looking at the unrelenting white made her miss the warm salty air of Santa Monica, scented with the night jasmine trellised on the stone fence surrounding her former apartment building. To top it off, her car heater was struggling to stay alive, her Spyder no more used to this circuit-freezing weather than she was. She sure wasn’t helping any, staying out all hours of this frigid night—it couldn’t be more than ten degrees, and counting down. Houston, we have a problem. She squeezed her eyes shut; what should she do?
She became aware of how very quiet it was, not a single owl hooting in the snow-drenched trees, not a single car or truck engine tunneling through the snow on the interstate only a quarter-mile away. No wonder; it was nearly one o’clock on Saturday morning. Only people she didn’t want to know about were up this time of night. She looked around and sent a silent prayer of thanks upward that there weren’t any cops, either. She knew she wasn’t up for convincing anyone she wasn’t drunk. She’d probably shatter the Breathalyzer.
She raised her head after a few minutes, held perfectly still for a moment, noticed she didn’t feel as dizzy and, blessed be, her headache was throttling down. She shifted the Spyder into gear and drove slowly, in a perfectly straight line, as only those who are impaired and know it do. After another six blocks, she turned off onto Hitchfield Avenue and then onto Lonely Bear Court. She saw her building up ahead on the right, a duplex with her one-bedroom unit on the bottom and Henry Stoltzen’s on top. Built as a solid red brick back in the twenties, it had been split up in the late nineties by the heirs to the old lady who’d lived there all her life.
She looked up to see Henry’s light on. Henry and his prized six-inch goatee had helped her move in the day she’d arrived in Maestro, fed her hot dogs and beer, and quickly become a good friend. He liked the popular songs she wrote and sang, even though he sat solidly in the classical corner, a gifted cellist who adored playing Jean-Baptiste Sébastien Bréval’s Sonata in C Major.
He seemed oblivious to most other people around him, only his music and his iPod tethering him to planet earth. She turned into her parking spot next to Henry’s, drew a deep breath, thanked the Almighty she was still alive, and even better, not in jail. She promised good works she told herself she wouldn’t forget by morning, as she slogged through the snow to her front door. She was shaking with cold when she finally fit her old-fashioned key into the lock and the door opened. She stepped into a blissful seventy degrees.
She locked the front door behind her, slipped on the two chains, and shoved the dead bolt home. She flipped on the light inside the door in the small foyer. Home and warm. No more margaritas, no more one a.m. parties. I’m now a sensible woman, resolute and determined, and the Director of Stanislaus can go compliment someone in the reed section. She saw Eileen Simons of clarinet fame in her mind’s eye, and knew she was interested in Dr. Hayman—Elliot, my dear. Why hadn’t Director Hayman loaded Eileen up with booze this evening and stayed away from Delsey? Eileen had been at the boozefest, as drunk as everyone else, and giving Delsey the “die, bitch” eye all evening.
Now I’m safe.
Where had that left-field thought come from? Well, from being out alone and drunk in the boondocks of Virginia in the middle of the night, that’s where. Delsey bypassed the living room and went straight to the kitchen, swallowed three extra-strong aspirin and drank two full glasses of water. The tap water tasted nastier than usual, but she drank it anyway. She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth and walked through the hallway to the bathroom, turning on lights as she went. When she flipped on the bathroom light she saw the colorful South Seas shower curtain was pulled closed around the bathtub.
She never left the shower curtain closed because it made the bathroom look too small—well, unless she hadn’t cleaned the bathtub. Had she? Her brain was still fogged, and she couldn’t remember.
A hot shower, that was all she could think about, jets of hot water pounding her face, clearing out her head, making her want to live again. She stripped off her clothes, paused on the clip of her bra when she heard something, movement, something. Maybe a sharp breath? She didn’t move, listened hard. No, there wasn’t anything. Her brain was still squirrelly with tequila. She got her bra off, left her clothes in a pile on the bathroom floor, pulled back the shower curtain, and froze.
She’d never believed she was a screamer, but a scream ripped right out of her mouth, and then another, her brain screaming in tandem, Not possible, not possible. Her breath caught when she heard the sound again and whirled around, but she didn’t have time to be afraid before something hard as a brick smashed her on her head, and she didn’t scream anymore.
Northwest of Maestro, Virginia
Special Agent Griffin Hammersmith drove out of Gaffer’s Ridge at nine o’clock, after chowing down the best blueberry waffles he’d eaten since his Aunt Mae’s famous Sunday brunches. He’d stayed with a college buddy, Jennifer Wiley, who happened to own Jenny’s Café in the quaint touristy center of the small postcard town set among low mountains and rolling hills. Since the café was filled to bursting at seven-thirty every morning, it seemed the locals agreed with him.
He’d enjoyed his trip from San Francisco across the country, seeing friends and relatives on his way to his new posting in Washington, D.C., but he realized after two weeks with not much more to worry about than his Uncle Milton’s arthritis in Colorado Springs, and catching up with a couple of old friends, pleasant though it was, he was getting antsy and ready to get back to work.
Griffin looked up at the bloated dark clouds pressing down, promising more snow. He hoped he’d get to Maestro before his world turned white again. He eased onto State Highway 48, planning to cut across to the highway.
Griffin was sipping at the rich, thick coffee from the Thermos Jenny had handed him on his way out the door: “Rich, thick, and dangerous,” she’d said, and winked at him.
His cell buzzed. Since traffic was building up, Griffin pulled off the interstate. He saw the call was blocked, and that was weird. “Yeah? Who’s this?”
“This is Ruth—Agent Ruth Noble. I would have called you sooner, Griffin, to see when you’d be arriving in Maestro, and arrange to meet you, but we’ve got something of a situation here, and I’m helping my husband, Dix Noble—he’s the local sheriff—figure things out.”
Her tone made his brain buzz. “A situation?”
“More a puzzle. It’s pretty weird, actually. A Stanislaus student was found unconscious in her bathroom with a head wound. Usually that would mean she slipped and struck her head on the bathtub rim or somewhere else close. But the thing is, the neighbor who lives above her heard her scream, found her, and called 911. If she’d just struck her head, why would she scream? And there was no evidence she’s hit anything. All the blood we think was hers was found on the floor around her head. The puzzle is that there was a good deal of blood in the bathtub, probably not hers, like someone else had been bleeding in there and then left or been taken away. Dix saw the blood in the bathtub and of course he realized the implications.
“The back door was jimmied. So was it a burglary gone bad? Well, whatever, it wasn’t a simple burglary, what with all that blood in the bathtub.
“She’s not with it enough to tell us what happened. She’s in Henderson County Hospital. I’m here with her, waiting for her to wake up.
“She lived alone, so there’s no roommate to call, and we don’t know yet if there’s a boyfriend in the picture. I’m also trying to get hold of her parents, but no luck as of yet.”
“Any sign of a blood trail outside the bathroom?”
“Nothing obvious, but we’re bringing in the Henderson County forensic team to analyze the blood and go over the young woman’s apartment. They’ll check to see if any blood shows up under Luminol outside the bathroom.”
“It went wrong in the bathroom? That sounds strange.”
“Whatever happened, that person might have been injured or died, and was then hauled away. Don’t know yet,” Ruth said. “It snowed heavily last night, and any evidence outside the duplex—blood trail, tracks, anything—is long covered up. At least it stopped snowing here an hour ago, so the plows can catch up before the next storm comes in.”
Griffin felt wired. He loved puzzles; the more convoluted, the bigger the rush when he figured them out.
The bathtub puzzle sounded complex enough to fit the bill. “I can be there in an hour and a half, if it doesn’t start to dump snow on me. Have you talked to the neighbor who called 911 yet?”
“He’s next on my list. Dix talked to him at the scene, but he was so upset Dix couldn’t get much out of him. He’s had some time to settle. Hopefully he can fill in some of the blanks.”
“I’d be glad to help when I get there if you’ll let me. Who is she?”
“Her name’s Delsey Freestone. She’s a student at Stanislaus, like your sister.”
Griffin’s heart flatlined. “Ruth,” he said, and the words hurt coming out. “Delsey Freestone is my sister.”
He heard her sharp intake of breath. “I’m so sorry, Griffin. But listen, don’t worry, the doctors say she’s going to be okay, I promise. You all right?”
Griffin couldn’t wrap his brain around Delsey being attacked in her own bathroom. And with all the blood—maybe a body?
“I’m okay, Ruth. Hearing this, it’s difficult.”
“I can only imagine. But like I said, Griffin, your sister will be fine.”
He was silent a moment, calming himself, then, “Don’t bother trying to reach our parents—they’re in Australia, in the outback for another three weeks or so, out of touch, no cell phones.
“As far as I know, there isn’t a boyfriend. She told me she had a nasty breakup in Santa Monica and swore off men for the next five years.”
“All right. Get to the hospital as soon as you can. I’ll be here with her, room three-fifteen.”
Griffin punched the accelerator to the floor. A burglary, it had to be. He felt a hot slick of fear roil in his belly. Who had been bleeding in her bathtub and why? Was it the person who’d struck her down or another victim? She’d surprised someone? Why hadn’t he killed her? None of it made sense to him.
He knew in his gut he shouldn’t be surprised that Delsey was involved. She was, in fact, the perfect candidate, a Trouble Magnet—that was her family nickname, and it had all started when she was sixteen. She’d witnessed a convenience-store robbery, managed to escape whole hide, and was the main witness at the trial that sent two felons to jail. When she was seventeen she was proudly depositing her first checks for delivering newspapers in the local bank when two robbers came in with semiautomatics. It turned out she actually knew one of the robbers. She delivered his papers. “He always gave me great tips,” she’d said sadly. “You think the money was all stolen? Will I have to give it back?”
Even her breakup with her boyfriend in Santa Monica hadn’t been because of something common, such as the guy sleeping around on her or being a control freak. No, Delsey had managed to hook up with a guy who ran a car-theft ring and sold guns for his Mexican buddies on the side. “What a bummer that gorgeous red Ferrari belongs to a shopping-mall developer,” she’d told him when she and Griffin watched him leave the courtroom in shackles.
His parents had celebrated with champagne when their daughter was accepted into the Stanislaus graduate program that emphasized instrumental composition, what she’d wanted to learn more than anything, she’d told him when she’d applied. Delsey had been so pleased she’d kicked up her heels and announced, “At last, I’ll learn how to score ‘Eleanor Rigby’ for the tuba,” and she’d laughed. Stanislaus was not only the most prestigious music school in the South, it had the added advantage of being isolated, a very safe place on the planet, far away from big-city crooks and wackos—and trouble. Griffin agreed. Delsey had assured him during her once-a-week phone calls that there wasn’t a single criminal in sight, she had a great girlfriend who played the violin and waitressed in town—everything, in short, was so normal he should worry she’d get bored, not get into trouble. And so he’d arranged to stop off in Maestro to meet Agent Noble and visit with his sister on his way to Washington, D.C.
He was a moron. And now this.
Luckily for him and the other drivers on Highway 50, snow didn’t start falling again until Griffin pulled into the Henderson County Hospital parking lot. He’d made it here in fifty-eight minutes.
Henderson County Hospital
Late Saturday morning
Griffin ran through the hospital lobby, saw a dozen people staring up at the three stationary elevator arrows, and took the stairs two at a time to the third floor. He’d spoken to Ruth two more times on his wild drive through the mountains to the hospital. There was no change in Delsey’s condition; she was still in and out, still groggy when she was in.
He ran down the corridor, ignoring a nurse’s voice behind him, and opened the door to room 315 to see a tall woman in a white blouse with a black cashmere V-neck sweater, black pants, and boots standing close at the foot of Delsey’s bed. She was fit and slender, her short dark hair waving around a strong, intelligent face. She looked over when he came in, and smiled. “You must be Griffin Hammersmith. You didn’t let any snow melt under your tires—that was fast.”
Griffin realized she had to be Agent Ruth Noble, but all he could do was nod. He felt frozen, not from the cold but from gut-wrenching fear for his sister.
He said, “Yes, I’m Griffin Hammersmith. You’re Ruth Noble.”
He shook hands with her even as he looked to the bed. Delsey looked to be asleep, or out of it. There was a large bandage on her head. “How’s my sister?”
Ruth said in a calm, steady voice, “Dr. Chesney’s telling us Delsey will be all right.” She knew she sounded mechanical, words spoken to a family member scared out of his mind, and not a fellow agent, but still, they were true and they calmed him.
Ruth had seen Griffin Hammersmith’s photo, but she doubted she’d have recognized the wild-eyed man who burst through the door still wearing a fur-lined parka over jeans and boots. Ruth looked at him again when he tossed the parka on a chair, and was surprised at her next thought. Wowza, your photo doesn’t do you justice, señor.
His attention turned immediately to the doctor who walked into the room, an older woman wearing a white coat, a stethoscope around her neck. She was plump and pretty, a pile of curly white hair thick on her head. She smiled at him, patted his arm. “I’m Dr. Chesney.”
Griffin said, “I’m Griffin Hammersmith, Delsey’s brother. What’s going on with her? Agent, ah, Ruth said you believed she’d be okay, but she’s not awake.”
Dr. Chesney automatically lowered the pitch of her voice. “We’ve done a CT scan. She has no evidence of a skull fracture or of any bleeding or contusions in or around her brain. She had a laceration of her scalp that required stitches, and she’s suffered a rather severe concussion.”
Dr. Chesney saw he’d taken it all in, and added, “We gave her some medications for her pain, though we have to be very careful with that. She’s still groggy, not completely oriented. It’s hard to predict how long that will last, after the severe blow she had. Maybe hours, maybe days, even weeks.”
Griffin knew all about concussions, since he’d had his own bell rung more than once when he’d played high school and college football. Mostly he remembered having nagging headaches and just not feeling quite right. Griffin looked down at Delsey’s face, leached of color, winced at the large white bandage. His fingers hovered over her cheek, then touched her warm skin, maybe to reassure himself she was alive. He closed his eyes as his fingers lightly pressed against the pulse in her throat. Slow and steady.
Dr. Chesney lightly touched a spot above her left ear. “As I said, the wound required stitches, but it looks a lot worse with this big bandage than it really is. We’ll change it out tomorrow for something smaller. The blow jarred her brain, of course, so we can expect short-term symptoms even after she’s fully awake, like difficulty concentrating, dizziness, nausea, and balance problems.
“But she will recover nicely in time, Agent Hammersmith. Right now, she’s still confused. Having you here will help her. I understand she’s a student at Stanislaus. I doubt she’ll be up to performing for a while. What is her instrument?”
“She plays both the guitar and the piano, but she’s mainly a singer and a composer,” Griffin said.
“An opera singer?”
Griffin smiled, hearing Delsey say as she rolled her eyes, The Good Lord save me from climbing to high C every other note, except for the National Anthem. Hey, Griffin, wouldn’t it be great to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl? I wish I knew who to kiss up to to wrangle that.
He said to Dr. Chesney, “She could have been an opera singer, but what Delsey really likes is to compose and perform popular music. She’s already had some success. She’s at Stanislaus because she wants to learn everything she can about composition and instrumentation, ah—” Griffin’s voice fell away, and he swallowed. “She’s very talented. She’s like our grandmother.”
Dr. Chesney smiled, showing a wide space between her front teeth. “Your grandmother? Freestone?”
“Hammersmith? Goodness, Aladonna Hammersmith is your grandmother? Oh, how I wanted to be an opera singer after I first heard her perform at Carnegie Hall, but alas, even the shower water turns cold when I try an aria.”
Griffin smiled. “She was Miss Aladonna to all of us grandkids. She made the best chocolate-chip cookies in the world.”
Children, Dr. Chesney thought, had their own criteria for what was important. She remembered Aladonna Hammersmith had died of heart failure in the early nineties. In the years that followed, she’d seen a good half-dozen retrospective shows about her life. “I look forward to hearing Aladonna Hammersmith’s granddaughter perform when she’s up to it. If we’re lucky, she’ll be back to normal before you know it, so please don’t worry too much. I’ll be back in a couple of hours, unless she needs me. They can reach me on my beeper.”
She turned to Ruth. “I hope Dix can figure this all out. We sure don’t want a repeat of anything like last year in town. Talk about horrific. At least she won’t die like the others did.” Her eyes flicked again to Delsey. Dr. Chesney left the room, leaving dead silence in her wake.
Ruth shook her head. “Talk about a klutz thing to say, but that’s Dr. Chesney. She was probably still so excited to hear her patient is the granddaughter of her opera goddess she forgot you were here.”
He said, “What did she mean, a horrific time last year? Was another Stanislaus student hurt? Killed?”
“There was a murder—well, several actually—but that’s all over and done with. If you want to know more about it, I’ll fill you in later.”
Murders at Stanislaus last year? Did Delsey’s being struck down have anything to do with that old trouble? Had she somehow managed to start up with the wrong person? He wouldn’t doubt it. The Trouble Magnet could sniff out a bad apple in a sealed barrel.
“Tell me, Ruth, that the murders last year were neatly solved and the killer sent to prison.”
“Well, all of them were resolved except the last one; well, there are still some questions in my husband Dix’s mind and the primary suspect is in the wind, but far away from here, we think. Trust me, it has nothing to do with this.”
Griffin realized he was probably being paranoid and tried to turn it off. But a cop is a cop, and he wanted to hear all about last year’s murders. But now wasn’t the time. He pulled up a chair and sat beside his sister. She was sleeping, her breathing slow and regular. He pulled her hand from beneath the hospital blanket, looked at her long white fingers, magic fingers that made such beautiful music the angels wept, and when she sang you wept along with them. He slowly began to rub the back of her hand. “My mother told me when a person is down and out Miss Aladonna had told her it helps if you can hold their hands, that they somehow know, and she did that for my grandmother when she was very sick. I haven’t any idea if it’s true.”
Ruth pulled up the only other chair and sat on the other side of the bed, picked up Delsey’s left hand and began rubbing it. She looked over at Special Agent Griffin Hammersmith. She imagined that when he walked down the street women nearly got run over staring at him. He’d rolled up the sleeves of his blue shirt to his elbows, and his jeans were old and fitted him very nicely. He looked, she thought, very fine. He was as pretty as his sister, with all his thick blond hair, his eyes as green as wet grass, a small hollow in the middle of his chin, and cheekbones sharp enough to slice a lemon. He was saved from being too pretty by a nose obviously broken a couple of times when he’d been younger, and which now sat a bit off-kilter. He and Delsey looked nearly the same age even though Delsey was six years his junior. According to her driver’s license, Delsey had turned twenty-five the previous week.
She said quietly, “You know, Griffin, Dillon described you as the real deal. I’m glad you’re here, for Delsey’s sake.”
Griffin arched a perfect eyebrow at Ruth and continued rubbing his sister’s hand. He said, “Delsey told me she wanted to learn everything in the known universe about how to put together a multi-instrument score, and this was the place. She never wanted to go to Juilliard, said New York was too big, too noisy, too claustrophobic.
“I haven’t seen Delsey since she moved here last September to attend graduate school. I didn’t make it home for the holidays because there were three bank robberies right before Christmas that had the police chief and the mayor screaming at us, and so I volunteered to head it all up, since, unlike most of the other agents, I’m not married with kids whose stockings needed stuffing.”
“Did you catch the bank robbers?”
Griffin nodded. “Two brothers, both two-time felons, neither very bright. We cuffed them while they were sleeping off a drunk in a Napa Valley motel.”
“I’ll bet they bragged about their big score in a bar.”
He gave her a grin that would smite female hearts from twenty paces. “Yeah, something like that. The bartender called us.”
A tech appeared in the doorway. “Dr. Chesney said to bring this to you right away, Agent Noble.”
Griffin said, “The results from the blood in Delsey’s bathtub?”
“Looks like.” Rut
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