NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Agents Savich and Sherlock are back in the latest installment in Catherine Coulter’s #1 New York Times bestselling FBI Thriller series, and this time both are enlisted to help women with traumatic pasts who are in mortal danger.
When she was twelve years old, Kirra Mandarian’s parents were murdered and she barely escaped with her life. Fourteen years later Kirra is a commonwealth attorney back home in Porte Franklin, Virginia, and her goal is to find out who killed her parents and why. She assumes the identity of E.N.—Eliot Ness—and gathers proof to bring down the man she believes was behind her parents’ deaths. She quickly learns that big-time criminals are very dangerous indeed and realizes she needs Dillon Savich’s help. Savich brings in Special Agent Griffin Hammersmith to work with Lieutenant Jeter Thorpe, the young detective who’d saved Kirra years before.
Emma Hunt, a piano prodigy and the granddaughter of powerful crime boss Mason Lord, was only six years old when she was abducted. Then, she was saved by her adoptive father, San Francisco federal judge Ramsey Hunt. Now a twelve-year-old with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, she narrowly saves herself from a would-be kidnapper at Davies Hall in San Francisco. Worried for her safety, Emma’s entire family joins her for her next performance, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.. Sherlock and officers from METRO are assigned to protect her, but things don’t turn out as planned…
Release date: August 16, 2022
Print pages: 400
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Porte Franklyn, Virginia
Allison slid back under a single sheet after a middle-of-the-night trek to the bathroom. She lay still, breathing in the sweet deep-summer air, listening to the night sounds outside her open window—the symphony of crickets, the hoot of a barn owl, the wind rustling the oak leaves near her window. The air was heavy, and it was humid, so she soon kicked off the sheet. Even in her pink sleep shorts and tank top, it wasn’t enough. She rolled out of bed and walked to the wall switch beside her bedroom door to turn on the overhead fan. Her finger was on the switch when she heard slow, light footsteps on the stairs, tiptoeing steps, and the familiar creak of the seventh stair. One of her parents was up? She opened her door, looked out into the dim hallway, started to call out, and froze. Two men were walking quietly toward her parents’ bedroom at the end of the hall. In the hallway night-light she saw each man carried a gun. At first she didn’t understand, then she was afraid, paralyzed. Should she scream out to her parents, warn them? She pushed her door closed, grabbed her cell phone in its charger on her desk, and punched in 911. Instantly a deep man’s voice said calmly, “What is your emergency?”
She whispered, “Two men are walking toward my parents’ bedroom and they’ve got guns. Help, please, help.”
She heard two popping sounds, knew they were gunshots. Allison’s voice caught on a sob of terror. “Pl-please, hurry, I heard them shooting my parents!”
The man’s voice was whip-sharp. “Can you get out of the house?”
“Go now! Hide. Help is coming right now.”
She needed to do something, wanted to help her parents, but what? The man on the phone was right, she had to hide or they’d kill her, too. Allison pushed out the bedroom window screen, climbed out on the ledge, and jumped on the thick oak branch nearly touching the house.
She was sobbing she was so afraid, and clumsy, but she’d done it so many times, she didn’t fall. She shimmied down from branch to branch, sometimes swinging, sometimes crawling. She heard a low vicious voice shout from above her, “I see the little bitch! Let me do her!”
Allison heard a shot and felt a slap of pain just above her right ear. She saw white, the world tumbled and spun, and she nearly fell off the branch, but she flattened herself and hung on. She heard three more shots, all of them above her. She felt a shard of wood dig into her arm and a hit of pain. She was dizzy, the world spinning, but her fear brought her back. She knew she had to get down to the ground, she had to hide or they’d shoot her like they’d shot her parents. She’d climbed up and down this tree from her earliest years, and though her head pounded and her arm felt like it was on fire, she didn’t hesitate. She stepped down onto the lowest branch, sucked in her breath and jumped the last six feet to the ground. She rolled up and ran. She ran all out toward the mass of trees, dark shadows huddled together, sobbing, her breath hitching. They seemed a thousand miles away, but she kept running. Two more shots sounded and kicked up grass beside her feet. She changed direction, zigged and zagged, looked back over her shoulder at a man’s shout, and nearly stumbled. She realized blood was snaking down her forehead and into her eye from the wound in her head. Allison staggered into the trees, breathing hard, fell to her knees behind a huge old oak, and swiped at the blood on her face. She looked at her hand, wet, sticky, the blood black in the moonlight. She felt a wave of nausea and the world tilted sideways. She fell onto her side, hugging herself. She keened with pain and fear, until she heard shouts and realized she couldn’t stay there. The men were coming, running toward the woods, toward her. She had to move, had to hide or they’d see her, run her down, and shoot her dead.
Black, terrifying thoughts ricocheted through Allison’s brain, of her parents dead in their bed, covered with blood, black like the blood on her hand and sliding down her face. Her parents. She could practically hear their voices, yelling at her to move, to get to safety. She pushed away the grief, staggered to her feet, and ran toward a familiar leaf-strewn trail through the forest that passed by the entrance to Williker’s Cave, tucked beneath an overhang of thick-leaved oak branches. She’d spent hours there, her own private hideaway when she was younger, but rarely now because she was twelve, her first teenage birthday only six months away. She fell to her hands and knees when she reached the cave, lifted the brush covering it, crawled in through the narrow entrance, and pulled the brush back into place. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t see inside because she knew the cave well, knew the narrow, winding stone corridor widened as it wove back into the hill, where the cave ceiling soared above her head.
She mewled as she crawled onto the ancient threadbare blanket still in a tangle on the sand against the cave wall. Jumbled images came to her of herself as a child hiding in her sanctuary, drinking forbidden Diet Coke and eating junk food, feeling cocky she’d fooled her mother. The ancient grocery bag she’d kept next to the blanket was still there, filled with her childhood treasures. She grabbed a Lenny Stiles T-shirt from the bag that felt clean enough. She pulled off the tank top she’d worn to bed, wiped the blood off her face with it, and pressed it against the bloody wound on her head like they did on TV. Her arm wasn’t bleeding much, but it throbbed like a nail trying to shove through her flesh. When the bleeding stopped, she pulled on the T-shirt and sank back against the cave wall. Her head was still spinning, she wanted to vomit, so she focused on the ancient grocery bag. She felt frozen, so afraid her breath came out in gasps. She felt a new pain. She looked at her bare feet, scratched and a few cuts oozing blood. She hadn’t felt a thing on her wild run, but now—wait—was that voices? Men’s voices? She slapped her fist against her mouth to keep the sob quiet. They’d followed her, they were close. Would they see the cave opening through the leaves and the brush? She scooted backward into the cave, around a corner, and waited, unmoving. Then she heard sirens but knew it was too late to help her parents. She heard the men’s voices, knew they were closer. They’d find her. She was crying as she pressed her back against the cave wall.
“It’s all right, sweetheart, you’re all right. You’re safe. Come on, wake up, you had a nightmare. You’re okay. I’ve got you.”
She heard his voice, a man’s voice, and he was close, too close. Terror squeezed her throat, made her heart kettledrum. The men were near, coming to kill her like they’d killed her parents. She fought like a wild thing, hitting at his arms holding her.
He held her tightly against him and continued to whisper against her cheek, his voice low and calm. Slowly she came awake, hiccuping at the knot of fear in her throat. She saw a dim face above her, a face she knew, a face she trusted. He was holding her, stroking her back as he continued to speak in his low easy voice, saying nonsense, really, reassuring her. Finally, she knew who it was.
Allison whispered, “Uncle Leo?”
“Yes, baby, I’m here. It’s all right. You’re safe. I’ve got you.”
Leo continued to hold her, lightly rubbed his hands up and down her back, slow and easy, like she was a wounded and terrified kangaroo joey tangled in a barbed-wire fence. “Don’t be daft. I’d have bloody nightmares, too, if I’d been through what you have. That’s right, breathe deep, that’s my girl.” He kissed her forehead. Slowly, the images from her dream blurred and faded. It was odd but sometimes in her dreams she felt the pain from the bullet wound on the side of her head, and the gash in her arm from the wood shard. She sucked in another deep breath, locked her arms around his back, and pressed her face against his chest.
The paralyzing fear wasn’t as hard to shake off this time. Even though it was pleasantly warm in the tent, she shivered and burrowed closer. She felt Uncle Leo’s steady strong heartbeat against her cheek, the warmth of his large hands stroking up and down her back. The world, her new world, wove itself together again.
The nightmares came less often now, but still, when they were on walkabout with one of their small tour groups, Uncle Leo slept in her tent, his sleeping bag close. “Do you think any of the jocks heard me scream?”
She always asked. His voice was low and gentle, his warm breath feathering the cool night air against her cheek. “No, you didn’t scream this time. Do you realize this is the first nightmare you’ve had in a week? That’s very good.”
“Then how did you know?”
He didn’t tell her whenever she tossed even once, he was wide awake. “You were moaning and thrashing around in your sleeping bag. Take some more deep breaths now, sweetheart. Here, drink some water.”
Leo handed her bottled water, watched her chug, water dripping off her chin. He remembered the first night he’d been with her, sleeping on a cot in her hospital room. He’d jerked awake when she’d screamed, grabbed for his knife that wasn’t, of course, anywhere near. He remembered how helpless he’d felt, but he’d pulled her against him then, too, hugged her and spoke nonsense until she quieted, nodding to the nurse who came silently to the doorway. Even after six months, it still ripped his heart out when she had that nightmare.
He rocked her now, feeling her finally ease. He remembered the phone call he’d gotten from the police in Porte Franklyn, Virginia, informing him his sister and her husband had been murdered, and his niece was in the hospital with a head wound. It had taken him a full day in a single-engine prop plane and a series of flights across the Pacific to reach her. He was grief-stricken, furious, demanded to know who had done such a thing, but the police had no answers. Maybe a home invasion, a robbery gone wrong, they’d said. He’d called Detective Jeter Thorpe every week at first, but after every phone call, he’d had to tell Allison there was nothing new. At least she was safe with him now, her only living family, in her new home in Australia. At first he’d been terrified he had sole responsibility for a twelve-year-old girl, but that hadn’t lasted. Now she was his.
Leo was single, loved what he called “safe” danger. He was thirty-one years old, viewed by many as a throwback to swashbuckler days. He’d become a celebrity, something that always amused and amazed him. Because he wrestled crocs? He didn’t. Because he knew how to survive in the outback? He did.
This weekend, he and Allison were leading a group of four jocks from Alabama on a challenging trek in the Northern Territory, along with only one team member, his good friend Jawli, an Aborigine. He’d established his company with Jawli six years before—Extreme Australian Adventures. They’d both survived just about everything the outback could throw at them, and Leo loved the life, loved owing nothing to anyone except his partner. But now there was his sister’s twelve-year-old daughter, who’d survived her parents’ murder, survived being shot herself. Just before he’d arrived in Porte Franklyn there’d been a second attempt on her life in the hospital, thwarted by a nurse who’d screamed until the man had raced away down the stairs. He hadn’t been found, either. It curdled Leo’s blood to think she might have been killed in her hospital bed. The police had welcomed him as a savior when he arrived. Not only was he Allison Rendahl’s uncle, he’d take her to Australia, on the other side of the planet, where she’d be safe.
Leo had brought her home to his sprawling glass house outside of Port Douglas atop a cliff overlooking the Great Barrier Reef. His niece was a silent, skinny kid, lost and grieving at first, afraid of every sound and wary of him, though she knew he was her uncle, her mother’s younger brother. He’d taken her to a place as strange to her as an alien planet. Thankfully she’d slept most of the way on the flights from Washington to Sydney and Sydney to Cairns, and when she was awake, he’d kept it simple. The seasons in Australia were opposite of those in the US; winter was summer and summer was winter. He told her kangaroos hopped around his front yard, and she had to be careful of the crocodiles. He’d cupped her face and told her Australia was so beautiful it would make her heart race. She’d whispered to him, “I read all about Botany Bay, how the English sent their prisoners there.”
Six months ago, he thought, and now it’s already January; such a short time in the scheme of things, yet she’d taken to her life with him more easily than he’d dared hope, woven her way into his life, actually, and into his heart. For the first time in his life, Leo felt fiercely protective of another person. Allison was no longer the silent little ghost with blank eyes who’d held his hand so tightly his bones hurt when there was an unexpected sound. She was wary of everyone at first, even at his house near Port Douglas. Not knowing what else to do, he’d taken her on a four-hour dawn hike around the Uluru Base Walk in the Northern Territory with a family from Norway. She was a fit, athletic kid, so he wasn’t too worried it would lay her flat, though he took more breaks than usual for her. To his great relief, she’d taken to being out there with him like a koala to eucalyptus leaves. She was enthralled to hear all about the story of the rock’s significance to the local Anangu people and how many Aussies had fought to ban climbing the rock, to preserve it and to respect the Anangu. He’d seen Allison smile then, her mother’s smile.
From that day on, she’d thrived, and he did everything in his power to see her smile again. He said quietly now, “We need to get some sleep or those college jocks might even show us up tomorrow.”
Leo kissed her forehead again, rubbed her back. He’d learned that soothed her like nothing else. She whispered against his shoulder, “I won’t let you down, Uncle Leo. I’ve looked them over, sooks the lot of them.” She’d learned quickly that Aussies said sook, not wimp. He felt her mouth curve into a grin. “We’ll leave them moaning in the dust. Did you see those dark sunnies they were wearing even after the sun went down? They looked like wankers.”
She settled against his side, breathed in his familiar scent. She trusted this man she’d met only three times in her life before he’d come to her at the hospital. Her mother had chuckled about him, called him the family “wild hair.” Her father had rolled his eyes when he showed her a postcard he’d sent of the Blue Mountains near Sydney, a place they called a bushwalker’s spiritual pilgrimage. Allison had loved the word bushwalker, it called up visions of adventure and exciting discoveries. And now she’d actually hiked there on a four-hour trail with two intrepid older couples from Maine. The first time out, she’d been exhausted, but now, after six months, that Blue Mountains hike was easy for her—a piece of piss in Aussie talk. She loved the smell of the eucalyptus trees that stretched as far as she could see, the sound of the cockatoos screeching across the valley. She couldn’t wait for another group to book a tour to the Blue Mountains.
Uncle Leo took her to other landscapes so strange, so incredibly beautiful—he’d been right to tell her they could make you cry—and so profoundly hot they’d quickly kill you if you didn’t have shelter and water. This strange and awesome world was her world now. She thought every day of her parents, but less and less of her structured life in Porte Franklyn, with its sleepovers with girlfriends talking about makeup and boys, the volleyball and basketball teams. All of that was a world away, another life, another Allison.
Tonight, she and Uncle Leo were in Watarrka National Park with four extreme adventurers—actually, four college guys who’d bragged they could hike anything, in any conditions. She knew Uncle Leo would test them to their limits. In three hours, well before dawn, she and Uncle Leo and Jawli would lead them on the demanding six-kilometer Kings Canyon Rim Walk. If that didn’t knacker the jocks, if they proved themselves up to it, Uncle Leo would add on another hike he’d mapped out himself along the starkly beautiful Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory. When they returned to Port Douglas where they planned to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef, Uncle Leo would take them to the Down and Out Pub and buy them some cold ones, as the Aussies called beer, and the lot of them would probably drink their brains out and get legless, another Aussie saying. And they’d salute Leo and maybe Allison, too, if she stayed long enough to drink a glass of lemonade.
She enjoyed young men, always eager to show how tough they were. She remembered the fourteen-day trek in the outback leading six English soccer players from Manchester United, their demand, made with a smirk, to see what this outback was all about. And they’d looked at the skinny now-thirteen-year-old girl and joked among themselves who would end up carrying her. She’d nearly killed herself, but she’d made it.
So many adventures, a few unpleasant if the clients were jerks, but usually they’d get into it and their excitement would crackle in the air. And now she was an accepted part of Uncle Leo’s team. If not for the nightmares, her life would be perfect.
She’d eased herself back down to sleep, but Leo knew she was still awake. It was as good a time as any, he thought, and he said, his voice matter-of-fact, “Jawli agrees with me it’s time to give you a new name. Tell me what you think—Kirra. It’s an Aborigine name Jawli picked for you. It means ‘to live’ in the Murri dialect of southern Queensland. In part it’s for your protection, sure, but I think it suits you.”
Allison focused on the name—Kirra. Yes, she liked that, it was fitting. After all, that’s what she’d done, she’d lived, and now she had a new life, so why not a new name? “Kirra—I like it, Uncle Leo. But Rendahl—that’s still from my other life.” My other world—my other planet.
“I’m pleased you like it.” Now for the tough part. Leo said slowly, feeling his way, “If you agree, I’d like to adopt you. You’d be Kirra Mandarian.” It was yet another way to keep her safe if the men who’d killed her parents decided to come after her. He didn’t think there was any more danger, but he didn’t want to take any chances. He didn’t mention that to her or that it was for his peace of mind. She’d know.
Kirra Mandarian. She leaned against his well-worn T-shirt and breathed in his familiar scent, man and sweat, not at all unpleasant. She felt his strong heartbeat against her cheek and knew she was safe. She whispered, “Does that mean I’ll never have to leave you?”
“That’s exactly what it means. We’re a team, you and I.”
On her eighteenth birthday, Kirra Mandarian opened her acceptance letter from ANU, Australian National University, in Canberra, Australia’s capital. She and Uncle Leo had visited the campus six months before, met professors, monitored several classes, and she’d told him she loved the place as they sat in an air-conditioned café, out of the ferocious February heat. Uncle Leo had helped her application because he was even more famous now than he’d been when she’d first come to Australia, a fact she’d slowly realized when she was fifteen. The prime minister had asked Leo to lead a private tour for him and a half dozen top politicos to Fraser Island in Queensland, the planet’s largest sand island, with its incredible rain forest, white sand beaches, and the vivid blue waters of Lake McKenzie. Even though there was no swimming because of riptides and sharks, it was one of Kirra’s favorite junkets. Uncle Leo had planned an undemanding walk for some of the older members of the group. Unlike the adventures Uncle Leo usually led, this one was relaxing and lazy, the company convivial. The PM liked Kirra, which didn’t hurt with ANU admissions because he and the other pols she’d met wrote glowing letters about her accomplishments, despite the fact she hadn’t stepped into a classroom since she was twelve years old. Uncle Leo had arranged for her to be homeschooled, along with the half-dozen other children of the Extreme Australian Adventures team. Kirra had learned even more from the team themselves, each with their own expertise. Mala had taught her how to throw a boomerang and how to feed a baby kangaroo separated from its mother. And she’d learned from their clients, athletes and sportsmen mostly, who’d come to learn skills to survive in the outback from Uncle Leo. She’d learned about their cultures, learned how to read people and put them at their ease. She’d described her education to the admissions office as eclectic—she probably knew less about fusion than some, but a whole lot more about the habits of wombats.
She was proud she’d been accepted as part of the team, jubilant because she’d actually added to the company’s bottom line. She’d come up with the EAA’s motto—Learn how to survive the worst, appreciate the best. She designed T-shirts and sweatshirts with some of the incredible scenery she’d seen on the hikes Uncle Leo had mapped out, but her favorites were ink drawings of Uncle Leo in profile. Most of the team thought Uncle Leo was wasting his money, but it turned out the shirts were so popular they couldn’t keep them in stock, so Uncle Leo gave Kirra permission to hire some locals to make the shirts for them. By the time she left Australia to attend law school, they had a line of EAA clothes so popular they had orders from Kuala Lumpur and Paris.
Leaving Uncle Leo and the EAA team was difficult for Kirra. She knew she wouldn’t be like any of the other students at ANU—an American with an accent who spoke fluent Australian that was even on the edgy side, like most of the other members of the EAA, except for Jawli’s wife, Mala, an Aborigine guide and chef, who’d taught her how to cook, throw a boomerang, and fly a drone. In her martial arts classes at ANU, the instructors weren’t surprised at her skill and toughness; after all, she’d been raised by Leo Mandarian with the outback as her backyard. Kirra was as fit as any of the major athletes. No one crossed her. She briefly fell in love with an Aussie whose dream was to race at Daytona Beach and Le Mans. He taught her how to drive, really drive. Unfortunately, she found out he was doing drugs, so she dumped him.
Kirra imagined if she was popular at all, it was because she was Leo Mandarian’s adopted daughter. But she’d known for many years she’d attend university, study law, then move back to her childhood home in Porte Franklyn, Virginia, larger now than when she’d left, not quite the size of Richmond, but close. Her goal was to be a prosecutor in the Porte Franklyn Commonwealth Attorney’s Office. It still hurt to leave Australia and Uncle Leo, but she knew she had to find out who killed her parents and tried to kill a twelve-year-old girl. It was her most important goal. Uncle Leo understood even though he didn’t want her to do it. You know how to escape a pissed-off crocodile, but a cold-blooded murderer? Different animal and more dangerous.
Even now she had the occasional nightmare about the night the men broke into her home and murdered her family. Maybe those men were still in Virginia, and still free.
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