They’re on a cold trail
and running out of time.
Convinced his brother was wrongly convicted of murder years ago, detective Cash Ryland’s determined to find the real killer—even if it puts him in the crosshairs. But he needs help from cold case investigator Mae Vogel, whom he mistreated in high school. Can they put their past aside to solve the murder…before the killer succeeds in silencing them for good?
From Love Inspired Suspense: Courage. Danger. Faith.
Cold Case Investigators
Book 1: Cold Case Takedown
Book 2: Cold Case Double Cross
Book 3: Yuletide Cold Case Cover-Up
Release date: August 24, 2021
Print pages: 224
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Cold Case Double Cross
Jessica R. Patch
Dread burst in Mae Vogel’s gut, mimicking the intensity of the red, white and blue fireworks exploding over the lake on this Fourth of July night. She’d taken a week of vacation—but she had every intention of letting her unit chief know it shouldn’t count. Since Mae stepped foot in her small hometown of Willow Banks three days ago, it had been nothing but stressful and tense, which was a far cry from vacation.
If Dad wasn’t dogging her for choosing a “man’s job” then he was ignoring her to pat her younger brother Barrett’s back. Only two years her junior—and also in law enforcement—it had always been clear he was the favorite child. If Mae had been born with a y chromosome, maybe Dad would be proud that she was a cold case agent with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.
A small child crying caught her attention. “Hey, bud,” she said to the preschool boy. “Did you lose your mom?”
His little, pitiful head nod broke her heart. The patriotic music medley against the backdrop of an enormous fireworks display was deafening. Willow Banks Park sat in darkness as families nestled on quilts to endure mosquitoes and ants while publicly celebrating freedom.
Children raced to beat the debilitating heat from devouring their patriotic popsicles. Food trucks, lemonade counters, and stands selling glow-in-the-dark bracelets, wands and necklaces abounded. But this boy had neither popsicle nor glowing beacon, and he wasn’t the cause of her nervous energy coupled with apprehension. Something felt off, almost tangible. The night didn’t feel free.
“I’m a police officer. I’ll help you find your mom.” He lifted his arms, trusting and afraid. Bless him. She scooped him up and he wrapped his sticky hands around her neck and laid his snotty nose against her shoulder. Her maternal gene kicked in, surprising her. Rarely did she let herself imagine being married or a mom. Some things simply weren’t meant to be.
A woman came running through the crowd. “Parker! Oh,” she cried and clutched her chest, a glowing bubble gun in one hand and cotton candy in the other. The little boy—clearly Parker—hollered and went to sobbing, reaching for his mother.
The frazzled woman thanked her. “I let go of his hand to pay for the cotton candy and he was just gone!”
“No problem. I was taking him to the security booth.” Parker reached out again and his mother embraced him.
“You scared me to death, little man.” She smiled and thanked Mae then disappeared into the night. One good deed done. Small towns could project a facade of safe living, but Mae had been in many of them working unsolved homicides with her team. Some of them child cases.
No place was truly safe.
But for a moment she was going to take her mind off the job, the tension with her family and her grandma Rose’s failing health, which was why she was on vacation here instead of somewhere tropical.
She moved toward the lawn chairs Mom and Grandma Rose were sitting in, glanced up at the radiant display and smacked into marble.
Nope. A man.
She peered up to apologize, but the words died on her lips as recognition dawned. Cash Ryland. Mae hadn’t laid eyes on him, by design, since high school.
Maybe this was the origin surrounding her jittery feeling.
She put some pep in her step and moved backward, but Cash’s tanned arm reached out, as if assuming she’d stumbled and not retreated from him.
She swatted away his steady hand. “I’m perfectly fine.” No need for physical touch between them.
His thick eyebrows tweaked upward. “Sorry.” His voice had grown deeper, huskier since he was a kid. Cash shoved his hand into his pocket, drawing her eye to the badge clipped to his thick black belt looping through well-fitted jeans.
What? How in the world did Cash Ryland make it into any branch of law enforcement and why would he want to? His teenage years had been spent as a juvenile delinquent. Not that she’d imagined what Cash might be doing now, but if she had it would be more along the lines of doing time for drug possession or grand larceny or maybe both. Not on the grounds with a criminal investigations division badge from Willow Banks Sheriff’s Office.
“You never were too good at masking your feelings.”
She glanced from his badge to his face and his lopsided grin rolled another wave into her stomach. How dare her body betray her common sense by being attracted to his strong, chiseled features.
His blond hair had turned a little sandier, but it worked for him, unfortunately. His eyes hadn’t changed—they were still the same intense shade of blue that won the hearts of girls determined to rebel against their parents. Cash had never been meet-the-parents material, unless a girl wanted to give them a heart attack and end up grounded for life.
Mae knew better.
And she’d still been charmed then burned.
Speak, Mae. You have to at least speak. “I’m just surprised, I guess.” As if she were still a high school girl enamored by the bad boy of Willow Banks and unsure of herself, she folded her arms, which felt like dead weight across her chest.
Cash Ryland—a detective. She’d seen it all.
“Well, it’s a surprising thing. Um...” He scratched the back of his neck. “I actually was looking for you. I saw your family and hoped you would be here. Your brother mentioned you were in town on vacation.”
Why did Barrett have vocal cords? He hadn’t mentioned Cash to her. But then, why would he? Barrett was clueless about what had transpired during her senior year with Cash. All he knew was Mae had tutored Cash in English. But if anyone had been schooled that semester, it was Mae.
“Barrett talks too much.” She tried to pass around him, but he blocked her. “Detective or not,” Mae said, tossing grit into her tone, “if you don’t move, I’m going to move you. And I promise you, size doesn’t matter. I can do it.”
While Cash towered above her five-foot-one frame, she was not porcelain, and attached to her petite frame was the muscle to maneuver him if necessary.
His hands shot up in surrender, but there was no teasing in his eyes. “I have no doubt, Mae. You’ve always been strong.”
No one had ever uttered those words about her before, but flattery wasn’t going to get him one solid inch. His charm no longer affected her.
He cleared a path for her to flee. “I just want to talk to you for a minute or two. Please?”
His voice and sharp blue eyes pulsed with desperation—a look and tone she’d witnessed dozens of times in family members who needed hope to cling to after a loved one’s case went cold. It never failed to reach out and draw her compassion. Even now it hit her chest with a dull ache and rippled through her rib cage. His scruffy jaw and wildly handsome looks didn’t hurt either. Ugh—she was a pitiful!
Reluctantly, she nodded. “Okay. Two minutes tops.” So much for the tough agent persona she’d worked hard to depict. But desperation wasn’t an emotion that could be easily faked. The loud music and fireworks in addition to shouts of joy and applause made hearing nearly impossible. Cash pointed to a more secluded area and she followed his long and purposeful stride. His broad shoulders squared—not in arrogance but in confidence and with a touch of swagger from the old days.
He’d always had sun-kissed skin, like his mother, who Mae had only briefly met once.
Cash leaned against a vending machine near the restrooms.
“Two minutes,” Mae reminded him.
He nodded and held up his index finger. “First, I should have said it years ago, but I’m sorry for what I did. For what I took from you.” His Adam’s apple bobbed and his jaw worked as if fighting for composure. “I haven’t been that guy in a long time, Mae. And, I’ve thought about you a lot over the years and how things ended.”
Was he serious right now? Mae tossed him a humorous laugh. “How it ended? It ended with you stealing my English essay and handing it in as your own, leaving me with nothing to turn in.” No one had even believed her, which was startling since Cash had never done any work that scholarly once in his life. But that was how things had always gone down for Mae. It was his word against hers and Mae had drawn the short stick. Cash barely passed the class using her paper and she lost out on 75 percent of the class grade. “It cost me the valedictorian spot. You catfished me and I fell hook, line and sinker. And now you want to ask me something by prefacing it with a weak apology. Like that’s going to get you what you want. I beg to differ at your statement that you’re no longer the same guy you used to be.”
Her words hit their target. His face faltered with a pained expression, and resignation surfaced with a slow nod, as if he’d expected the swift rebuke. Cash was not stupid—even if he had referred to himself during tutoring as a lunkhead or a moron. She’d always redirected his negative self-talk and never believed it.
But he was all about taking the easy way out and shortcuts, hence the stolen paper.
“You’re wrong, but I can see your point.” And now he was going to argue with her. She bit back a remark.
“What do you want, Cash?”
“It’s about my brother, Troy. You probably know he’s been in prison for about fourteen months for murdering his ex-wife, Lisa.”
Mae raised an eyebrow. What could she do for his younger brother? She’d only met him once or twice. “Barrett might have mentioned it. I can’t say I remember. What about it?”
He gripped the nape of his neck and squeezed. “Troy’s a lot of things—I’ll be the first to admit it. But he’s not a murderer, which means whoever did kill Lisa is roaming free. That makes her case a cold one.”
Ah, now he was getting to his agenda. Help on a cold case.
“I’ve exhausted my resources. I’m only one man, and I’ve never claimed to be the sharpest tool in the shed.”
“You’re a detective, Cash. You’re clearly bright enough to solve cases or you cheated on the exam.” Sadly, she believed the former. Cash was sharp and smart even if she didn’t like him and held a grudge about the past.
He shrugged off her subtle compliment—well, more fact than compliment.
“My point is that I’ve done everything from investigating to hiring a private investigator. I was wondering if you and your team may be able to look into it.”
Before she could decline, he raked his hands through his hair. “It’s killing me, Mae. Troy isn’t doing well and the last few times we’ve talked he’s mentioned ending it all. You’re our last chance and if anyone is smart enough to get to the truth, it’s you.”
Mae pinched the bridge of her nose as “God Bless America” blared through the speakers. She couldn’t help him and if she were being honest, didn’t want to. “How concrete was the evidence that convicted him?”
“Overwhelming, but I’m telling you there’s a whole lot that doesn’t make sense. If you’ll let me, I can show you the case files or share them with you by memory. I know every single word.”
“You memorized case files?”
Wow. Okay. But still. “If the evidence is overwhelming and you nor a PI could find anything new, then it sounds like it’s not a cold case, Cash. It’s a closed case. I’m sure you don’t want to believe that your own kin could do something like murder an ex-wife, but it’s possible that you can’t find anything because there’s nothing to find because he did it. Prison is hard on even guilty people. I don’t see how I can help you.”
Cash rubbed his temples. “I’m telling you he didn’t do it.”
“You also told me you didn’t take my essay. But you did. And it appears—based on evidence and probably testimony—that your brother took a life even if says he didn’t.” Mae didn’t try to soften the harsh blow. Cash needed to hear the truth in all its ugliness even if the disappointment and fear in his eyes unsettled her.
“I—I deserve that,” he said quietly, looking away into nothing.
For a split second, Mae felt sorry for him. But that sweet tone and gorgeous face had messed with her head and her heart once before; it wasn’t happening again. Detective or not, Cash Ryland couldn’t be trusted. “Sorry, but I can’t help you.”
“No, I get it.” He worked his jaw and let a defeated sigh escape his lips. “Apology still stands. I wish you well, Mae.” He turned and slunk in the darkness, his shoulders no longer confident but slumped.
The decent human being inside her nudged her to catch up and offer a quick scan of the case files with no guarantees, even if the hurt high school girl with a broken and betrayed heart protested. One look wouldn’t kill her. If anything, it would confirm she was right—closed case, not cold case.
She mentally kicked herself then chased after Cash, not completely sure where he’d gotten to. As she pushed through the crowd toward the woods on the edge of the park, she spotted him as he withered to the ground.
A dark figure bolted from behind Cash and tore through the congregated picnickers toward the trees.
Mae’s heart lurched into her throat as she bolted to Cash then dropped beside him. His faced was pinched in pain and his hand was covered in blood.
“Cash!” she hollered over fireworks exploding in rapid succession as the climactic moment began to wind down the grand show. “Were you shot?”
“I don’t know.” Shock radiated in his voice. Mae lifted his shirt to inspect the wound and cringed. “You’ve been stabbed. Call it in, Cash. And keep pressure on the wound.” She couldn’t be sure of the damage due to the dark night and the amount of blood.
He clutched the radio from his belt. “Delta 3 SO, send me a car to the west side of Willow Banks Lake near the pavilion, and start an ambulance to this location. I have been stabbed but am stable. Repeat, I am stable.”
Several first responders on duty ran in their direction,
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