Save Her Child
She held her baby in her arms and she knew in that moment that he’d be coming for her. She couldn’t tell anyone her name, she couldn’t let him find her. She had to keep her child safe. In the summer heat at the Craven County Fair in rural Pennsylvania, Dr Leah Wright is shocked to find a pregnant woman hiding from view and in labor. Leah manages to deliver the baby safely, but the woman won’t reveal her name. She's terrified, running from someone, and days later both she and her newborn son go missing… Desperate to save them, Leah turns to Detective Luka Jericho for help. Eager for Leah’s help with a complex case of his own, Luka asks Leah to interview the widow of a man who has just been murdered. Soon they uncover a shocking connection between the two cases: the widow’s lawyer, a local minister, Reverend Harper, was spotted driving the missing mother away from hospital. Is this the man she was so afraid of? When Reverend Harper refuses to talk, Luka and Leah turn to the only person who he might speak to: his daughter and Luka’s newest detective, Naomi Harper. But Naomi’s childhood in her father’s stark white house up in the mountains was more painful than Luka and Leah could ever have imagined. Is it already too late to save the woman and her baby? Fast-paced and utterly gripping from the very first chapter, Save Her Child will keep you up all night. Fans of Karin Slaughter, Kendra Elliot and Tess Gerritsen will love New York Times bestselling author CJ Lyons. What readers say about Save Her Child : “ Absolutely fantastic… From the beginning the twists and turns began. But the twist at the end is the best. An unputdownable book. I read it in a day. ” NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars “ Thrilling. Tense. Action packed. Addictive. This one gripped me and didn't let go. Loved it so very much. This is one author to watch and a series to be wowed by and evangelistic about. Do read this book and series. I guarantee you will be a fan too.” NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars “ Wow right from the first page its go go go… never a dull moment with plenty of twists and turns that leave you wanting more… can’t wait for the next book in this brilliant series.” NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars “A gripping crime thriller which well and truly had me hooked.” NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars “ I was hooked from the beginning, and it was a page-turner I didn't want to put down… I can't wait to read the first two books and another other books that come out in this series!” Dani Reads 87, 5 stars “ Excitement on every page means non-stop reading… loved it.” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars “ Absolutely could not put this book down. Just when I thought I knew what happened a new twist was added and changed direction… a thrilling and captivating novel.” NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars “Page-turning… I was hooked and siting on the edge of my seat, all the time asking myself are they going to find the girl and her new born child.” Spooky’s Maze of Books, 5 stars “Filled with twists and turns, a topsy-turvy thriller!… CJ Lyons does not disappoint – she rocks! I was totally surprised by the time I was finished! Great, great read! ” NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars “You’ll never be able to guess how things all tie together. CJ Lyons never fails to create a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat read that won’t let you go till finished! ” NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars “A page-turner of a thriller that will keep the reader guessing right up until the end. Jericho and Wright Thrillers are a guaranteed pulse-pounding whodunit that will keep this reader coming back for more.” NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars
Release date: April 19, 2021
Print pages: 350
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Save Her Child
No, no, no. It was too soon. The pain stole her breath until she was gasping, swallowing any air she could get, doubled over, her hands cradling her swollen belly. Not now, not here, not now; the words became a bizarre mantra.
Then the pain released its grip.
She was all alone, stranded in a wilderness—a log cabin, of all things. He’d thought it was so cute, romantic, even. Most of all, safe. Their enemies would never find her here. And he had a plan. All they needed to do was follow the plan and everything would be fine: the baby would be safe, they would be rich and, best of all, they wouldn’t need to spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders.
He was going to save her and the baby. He swore to it.
But he wasn’t here.
Another wave of pain left her writhing on the floor, fighting to find any position that eased the pressure building inside her. He’d said no calls, that it was too risky and the phone was only for emergencies, only if things went wrong, but they weren’t going to go wrong because he’d thought of everything and he had a plan…
Drenched with sweat, her hair falling into her face, she crawled across the cabin to the phone. She didn’t care about his damn plan; all she cared about was her baby. Because something was wrong, something was very wrong.
She reached the living area. The rustic end table shifted against her weight, so she grabbed hold of the itchy plaid couch beside it, heaving herself onto it. Panting, trying to get as much oxygen to her baby as she could, she took the cell phone from the charger. She turned the screen on, to be greeted by a red light: low battery.
Low battery? They hadn’t even used it—it was for emergencies only. Like now!
She glanced at the cord leading from the charger to the wall outlet and realized the plug wasn’t fully in the socket. The table must have wobbled sometime during the two weeks that she’d been trapped here.
Another wave of pain had her cursing, gripping the phone so tight she thought she might crush it. This time when the pain eased, it left a strange sensation in its wake. She looked down and saw a trickle of blood going down her leg.
The baby! She needed to call for help—to hell with his rules and their enemies and bloody vows of revenge—she would not allow her baby to continue to suffer, not for another moment.
She tried to dial but realized there was no signal.
She would have to go outside, leave the safety of the cabin.
She stood, blinked back the wave of red-spotted dizziness that rushed over her, and shuffled toward the door, her feet numb against the rough wood floor. Her vision swam; the door seemed so close, within reach, then impossibly far away. But she gritted her teeth and kept moving, inching toward it, holding onto the phone with one hand, the other cradling her baby inside her swollen belly.
Halfway there, just as she reached the threadbare braided rug, pain slammed into her, so fierce that she realized the first waves had been mere ripples compared to this tsunami. It threw her to her knees, then face down on the floor, convulsing through her.
She screamed. But there was no one to hear her.
And then, like a drowning person going under for the last time, the world faded away, beyond her grasp, the light surrendering to black.
Despite the August heat stifling the night, the corpse didn’t smell too bad. Not yet, anyway. Detective Naomi Harper knew that wouldn’t last long.
Avoiding broken glass and puddles of undetermined origins, Harper crouched on the pavement of a narrow alley on the east side of Cambria City’s Kingston Towers. Around her came camera flashes and the chatter of the crime scene techs as they worked the perimeter of the scene, leaving the body to the coroner’s investigator and Harper. She settled her weight on her heels as she hovered over the young woman’s body.
Maggie Chen, the death investigator, pulled back the bloody length of plastic sheeting that had been found draped over the body. Harper got her first look at the victim. Tangled cornrows, blood coating her face, bruises, swelling, and obvious broken bones combined to create a monstrous profile—Harper doubted even the girl’s own parents would be able to recognize her in her current state.
Harper’s gaze traveled down the body, noting more bruises and damage, apparently inflicted by a brutal, prolonged beating. Mostly along one side, so probably all from a single attacker, she thought. The girl was dressed in shorts and a camisole, nothing too flashy or outrageous, but there were very few reasons why a girl her age would be in this alley at night—and they all had to do with sex.
“Any phone or purse? ID?” Harper asked Maggie.
Damn. Then Harper noted a tattoo along the girl’s wrist. “Can I get a closer look?”
Maggie stretched her gloved hand across the body, the hood of her Tyvek overalls slipping, exposing a stray strand of robin’s-egg-blue hair. She raised their victim’s wrist gingerly as if holding a diamond bracelet out for inspection. Except it wasn’t diamonds encircling the woman’s dark skin, rather an intertwined ribbon of inked calla lilies.
“Lily.” Harper sighed. “Last name is…” She thought back to when she’d patrolled this sector. So many girls came and went here, the Towers seemingly swallowing them whole. Three generations and the young were still paying the price of Cambria City’s failed effort at affordable public housing. “I think her name is Lily Nolan. Can’t remember for sure, but she’s on file.”
“I’ll run her prints as soon as we get to the morgue, confirm her identity.” Maggie stroked the dead girl’s hand before gently turning it over. “No obvious flesh beneath her nails.”
“No broken nails, either.” Harper nodded to the elaborate acrylic nail art adorning the girl’s fingers. More lilies, done in a rainbow of bright colors with gold sparkles and diamond embellishments. The kind of nails she would have loved to have when she was a teenager—but as a minister’s daughter, she’d been lucky to be allowed clear coat polish over natural flesh tones. The Reverend did not believe in “unnatural adornment.”
“How could she not have fought back?” Maggie’s tone was mournful as she placed paper evidence bags over Lily’s hands. “She just stood there and let him do this?”
Harper didn’t say anything. She was certain that during Lily’s time on the street she had never fought back—not against the gang who’d turned her out, acting as her pimps while brainwashing her into thinking they were the only family who could care for and protect her; not against the johns who promised to pay more for violence but rarely kept their word; not against the drug dealers who took their payment in trade.
“How old was she?” Maggie asked.
“It’s been almost a year since last time I saw her. I was working Vice.” The only time that being one of the few Black women on the Cambria City’s police force had served in Harper’s favor, allowing her to participate in various undercover operations for the vice and drugs squad even though she was only a patrol officer. Those days were behind her now—as of four days ago. She was now finally out of uniform and off the streets, officially a full-fledged detective assigned to the Violent Crimes Unit. “I think she was seventeen.”
Maggie said nothing, her silence an offering of sympathy and remorse at Lily’s short life lost to the streets and the violence that stalked alleys like this one. Then she began to hum, a tune that carried both sorrow and hope in its harmony.
“What’s that song?”
“Nothing. Just made it up.” Maggie shrugged. “Call it ‘Lily’s Song.’”
“It’s good. You should keep it.” Maggie and her husband often performed at local open mike nights.
“Would rather not have had the opportunity to create it in the first place.” They both pushed to their feet. “Where’s Luka?”
Harper knew that what she was really asking was why Harper, who’d only earned her gold shield a few days ago, was here without Detective Sergeant Luka Jericho supervising her. It was a little after four a.m. on a Sunday morning, meaning the on-call team of detectives—this weekend Harper and Luka—had to travel from their homes. Luka lived across the river with his grandfather and nephew, while Harper’s apartment was only a few blocks away.
“Luka’s coming, but I’m primary on this one.” Harper couldn’t stop the hint of pride in her voice. Her first homicide that was hers and hers alone. Glancing at Lily’s battered body, she quickly sobered, realizing the weight of the responsibility—this murder was hers to solve. For Lily. For Lily’s family. “What can you tell me?”
“Not much,” Maggie admitted. “No obvious penetrating wounds. Lack of rigor and body temp indicate possible TOD as little as a few hours ago.”
“So, she was beaten, and time of death was not so long ago,” Harper translated. She’d pretty much figured all of that out herself. “Did she die from the beating?”
“Possibly,” Maggie stressed. As a death investigator, any of her findings needed to be confirmed by the medical examiner’s postmortem. “I found track marks on her left arm, but they were all old and scarred. Once I clean her up, I can look for any fresh ones and we’ll run a tox screen for drugs of abuse.”
Harper glanced around the alley. There were two industrial-sized dumpsters, a small mountain of broken wooden pallets, trash spewing out of discarded garbage bags, along with an assortment of used condoms, syringes, cigarette butts—a wasteland overflowing with human DNA. A crime scene tech’s nightmare. The plastic sheet the killer had draped over the body bothered her as well. “Was she killed here or dumped?”
“The blood spatter seems consistent with her broken nose and oral injuries, so my guess is that she sustained those injuries here. I haven’t found any evidence that the body was moved. However—”
“That doesn’t mean the other injuries weren’t inflicted elsewhere, before she was brought here.”
“Exactly. But gross appearance does suggest that all the injuries were inflicted contemporaneously, with the same blunt instrument, and very close to the time of death.”
Harper gave Maggie an exaggerated eye-roll. “You’ve been spending way too much time with Ford Tierney.” The assistant medical examiner was noted for his punctilious way of speaking.
Maggie grinned. “Just wanted you to look good, writing up your first report as lead detective. But, yeah, she probably was beaten and left to die here.” She followed Harper’s gaze around the alley. “Which, forensically speaking, is probably the worst place possible. Don’t envy the crime scene techs.”
“Speaking of which—”
“I’m done.” She gestured to her transport team, who were waiting on the street. “We’ll be out of your hair in a few minutes.”
“Good luck.” Maggie rested her gloved palm on Lily’s head for a moment. “She deserved better.”
Harper stood and surveyed her crime scene. “Don’t they all?”
Detective Sergeant Luka Jericho watched from beyond the police barricades at the entrance to the alley. He angled himself so that he was behind one of the halogen work lights CSU had brought in; even if Harper glanced in his direction she wouldn’t see him.
She’d done a decent job so far, first making certain the scene was clear of any potential danger, then establishing an adequate perimeter and dispatching the uniforms to start canvassing for witnesses—not that anyone from the Towers would voluntarily cooperate with the police, but you could always hope. Besides, if the case ever went to court, you never wanted to give the opposing attorney grounds to suggest that the police had missed something like an eyewitness, opening the door to reasonable doubt.
Maggie followed the gurney with the woman’s corpse, now wrapped in a sterile sheet inside a body bag. She motioned for her team to continue as she stopped and turned to Luka.
“How’d she do?” he asked.
“Good,” Maggie answered, clearly uncomfortable with playing the role of proctor. “Asked all the right questions, even made a tentative identification, despite the fact that there was no purse, wallet, ID or phone on the body.”
Luka arched an eyebrow at that. “It was someone Harper knew, then?”
“Hard to say, her face was really brutalized, but Harper recognized a tattoo belonging to a sex-trafficking victim she’d arrested during Vice operations.” The disdain that filled Maggie’s face had nothing to do with the fact that her victim was a prostitute. Rather, Luka understood that it was aimed at the men who’d forced her onto the street and the Vice cops who insisted on treating her like a criminal, not a victim.
“You know that bringing them in off the street is the best way to offer services and a way out without their pimps interfering,” he said. They’d had this discussion too many times to count.
“Except the police always attach a price by asking these women—mostly girls—who have already had so much taken from them, to turn on their pimps, testify against them, help you do your jobs for you. Never mind the men who buy their services—”
“We charge the johns as well—”
“Yeah, a summons. One that costs less than a speeding ticket,” she flared.
“The johns can’t lead us to the traffickers, not with everything arranged online. That’s why we need the girls to help.” He wasn’t even sure why they were having this debate—again. He hadn’t worked Vice in over a decade; Luka’s job was violent crimes, which usually translated to homicide. “Look, I’m sorry this girl ended up on the street—”
“Harper said she was seventeen, Luka.” Maggie’s face was flushed, whether by the August heat or her equally sweltering emotions, he wasn’t sure. “Seventeen. She had her whole life ahead of her.” She made a noise deep in her throat as if swallowing a sob. “Tossed out like garbage.”
“We’ll do everything we can, Maggie. Doesn’t matter that it’s Harper’s first case as lead, I’ll make sure—”
Her glare blazed brighter than the halogen lights surrounding them. “See that you do. She deserves your best.”
He nodded, a solemn vow. “Call me when you get an ID confirmed.”
“I will.” She slung her camera case higher up onto her shoulder. “You want to make the notification or should I?”
Usually the coroner’s investigator notified the family of a loved one’s death. But Luka preferred to be there for cases under his jurisdiction. Not only because it was often a family member or someone intimately involved in the victim’s life who was responsible for their death, but also because seeing the family’s faces, hearing them talk about their loved one’s life, all helped Luka to better understand the victim. For him, that was vital in forming an understanding of the crime.
“I’ll do it. With Harper.” Death notifications were the most difficult part of the job, and he knew Harper wouldn’t like it, but this was her case now. The dead girl belonged to her.
He’d fought for Harper’s promotion—she’d passed all her exams with flying colors, but several high-ranking officers had questioned her attitude. Luka had interceded and the brass had grudgingly added her name to the promotions list, assigning her to Luka’s squad, warning him that any problems Harper created would be his to solve.
“She’s ready,” Maggie said, effortlessly reading his expression.
“I hope so,” he murmured. Maggie joined her team in the coroner’s van while Luka donned booties and gloves. Then he stepped past the barricade and entered the alley. Harper had been crouching, sketching the crime scene, but quickly stood when she saw him.
“Sir. They just removed the body.” She sounded abashed, as if she’d already made a mistake. “I didn’t want to delay—”
“Of course not.” He nodded his approval, hoping she’d relax and perform like the competent investigator he knew her to be.
Luka still remembered his first case as lead. A homeless man’s burnt remains had been found in an oil drum in an abandoned warehouse down by the river. With all forensics destroyed it had seemed like the kind of case that might never be closed. It had taken him months of painstaking investigation, widening his circle of suspects until he’d eventually determined that five high school kids from Cambria Preparatory Academy, an exclusive private school across the river, just outside city limits, had taken a “bum-bashing” spree too far. Despite his meticulously documented case, the DA had declined to prosecute on the murder, instead allowing all five to plead out to lesser charges. Justice often had little to do with the practice of law, Luka had learned, the lesson driving him to work even harder.
Shaking away the bitter memory, he told Harper, “Give me the bullet.”
“Yes, sir.” Harper used her phone to access the department’s secure cloud account and pulled up photos of their victim in situ, before the body was moved. “We have an unknown female, found at approximately 3:26 a.m. by patrol officers after an anonymous 911 call. Caller was female, Dispatch said she used an unregistered cell phone. I’ll be asking for cell tower records to trace any calls from the time so hopefully we can get a location.”
All standard procedure. Luka examined the girl’s injuries. Beaten to a pulp was an understatement. An attack like that—no way it wasn’t personal. Their victim knew her killer, he was certain. “Maggie said you made a tentative ID?”
“She has the same tattoo as a girl I met while working a Vice operation. Seventeen-year-old, name was Lily Nolan. Maggie’s going to run the prints, see if it’s her or not. Maggie also said the blows appeared to be inflicted by a blunt instrument, but she’ll have more information after the autopsy.”
They both glanced around the alley and its abundance of possible weapons: loose paving bricks, lengths of rebar, stray two-by-fours broken off from shipping pallets.
“I asked CSU to bag and tag anything that might be a possibility.”
Luka pointed to the initial photos of the body, the ones taken before Maggie began her examination. Their victim was partially covered with a blood-spattered length of plastic sheeting. “What do you make of the body being covered?”
“At first, I thought the killer draped it over her body after he’d killed her—like a sign of remorse, covering her up. Or he’d used it to move her body here after killing her elsewhere.” Luka frowned and she continued, “But then I realized the only way to get that much blood on the sheet but not the surrounding alley was if he first incapacitated her—maybe with the blow to her face that caused the bloody nose—and while she was down, he threw the plastic over her and bludgeoned her in a blitz attack.”
“To protect any blood from spraying onto him. If you look closely, you can see pattern marks from the blows. I’ve asked the CSU guys to compare them to our possible weapons.”
He nodded, agreeing with her theory—contingent on what the medical examiner found during the autopsy. “Next steps?”
“Cell tower warrants, finish canvassing for witnesses and any surveillance cameras that might have caught our victim or our killer, confirm ID, check with Vice and patrol to see if there’s been any recent unusual activity in the area, and track down any family and known associates.”
It was a good plan, although Luka doubted she would get very far with any of her action items, not on a Sunday morning. Except Maggie was on the job, so that would help. “Okay. Let’s get to work.”
Dr. Leah Wright glanced at her schedule. If they were going to do everything the kids wanted, she’d need to be in two places at once. Her daughter, Emily, and Luka’s nephew, Nate, were both in front of her as they walked across the grassy field that served as a parking lot for the annual Craven County Fair. Emily and Nate had their heads together, peering at the map, planning their day. Trailing behind Leah, already bored, was Ruby, Leah’s mother and reluctant childcare-helper.
She traced her finger down the list of events. Today, the final day of the fair, was devoted to children. Poultry showmanship. Junior dressage and roping competitions. Quilting bee and auction. Small engine repair race followed by a tractor pull. Candle-making class. Livestock judging. And, the highlight of the day as far as Nate and Emily were concerned: the food and arts competition judging. Followed by a pie-eating contest, chili cook-off, and auctioning the various homegrown vegetables and other food items the children had entered into competition.
Leah hoisted her knapsack higher on her shoulder and reached for her water bottle. It was just past nine in the morning and already the temperature hovered around eighty-five. August in the central Pennsylvania mountains was known for its hazy, hot, and humid days, but this summer had felt particularly stifling. Some days it was a struggle for each breath. Although maybe it wasn’t only the weather. Leah’s husband, Ian, had been murdered in February and now, six months later, she still woke every day expecting to see his face beside her. And then, three seconds after she opened her eyes, an awful emptiness devoured her as reality came crashing down.
The kids reached the line at the ticket booth and waited for Leah to catch up. “Ruby said if we were good, we could get funnel cakes,” Emily said. “And then she said we could get kettle corn.”
“And apple fritters,” Nate chimed in. “Don’t forget those. I promised Luka and Janine and Pops I’d bring some home for them.” Nate had left Baltimore after his mother, Luka’s sister, had died, to move in with Luka, Luka’s elderly grandfather, and Janine, their live-in healthcare aide who kept the entire family running.
“Right.” Emily was already buzzing with a pre-sugar rush, bouncing on her toes. She’d recently turned seven but still was much shorter than Nate, who was eight. “And we need to ride the carousel and the whirl-a-tilt and—”
“I want to see the horses,” Nate put in.
Emily nodded. “And we need to be at our ribbon-winning. Of course.”
They both nodded and stared at Leah as if she could alter physics to allow them to do everything in one day.
Leah’s phone buzzed and both kids groaned when she pulled it out to glance at the message. The lab with an update on a sexual assault case she’d handled earlier in the week. It was all good news for the survivor, but Emily tugged at her hand. “You’re not leaving to go back to work, are you?”
Leah smiled. “Nope. I’m yours all day long.” Despite still being on call for emergencies in her position as medical director of Good Samaritan’s Crisis Intervention Center, Leah’s new job definitely gave her more time with Emily than her previous life as an ER physician had. Still, there were some days… okay, most days… when she missed her work on the frontlines. Although one unexpected perk of working at the CIC was its fledgling partnership with Cambria City’s police department, giving Leah an occasional chance to work in the field interviewing traumatized witnesses and helping with emotionally disturbed persons; she was even taking a course in hostage negotiation.
She bought their tickets and Ruby’s and they crossed into the fairgrounds. The empty field that was part of Craven Peak State Forest had been transformed into the claustrophobic cacophony of a carnival sideshow. The layout forced them down a long stretch of games and concession stands lined with vendors hawking a variety of things that no one needed, but nonetheless everyone still gathered to listen to their mesmerizing spiels and some would eventually buy. All the same useless gadgets and gizmos that they’d sold when Leah was a kid—and that she’d saved her allowance to buy, certain that the ‘guaranteed to write in zero gravity’ astronaut-certified pen would garner her straight As or that the X-ray glasses would grant her magical powers of observation.
It felt strange that this was the first time she’d ever come to the fair with her own mother. Ruby had left Leah in the care of Leah’s great-aunt, Nellie, when Leah was eleven. But after Ian was killed, Leah had returned with Emily to live at the farm Nellie had bequeathed Leah, and Ruby had joined them, somehow inserting herself back into Leah’s life. Their relationship was still strained by two decades of things not said, along with Leah’s fear that sooner or later Ruby would betray Emily’s trust in her, but they were making it work. Kind of. For now.
“What makes you so sure you won any ribbons?” Ruby asked the kids in a teasing tone. Emily had recre. . .
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