Main Girl in the Grave

Girl in the Grave

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Gruesome murders. Missing prostitutes. Underground clubs. When the mob strikes in D.C. no one is safe. Have Gray and Shepard finally met their match?
Dana Gray never thought she’d find herself knee deep in bodies–literally. But after visiting yet another strange D.C. crime scene at Jake’s behest that’s exactly where the occult specialist finds herself. To help FBI Agent Jake Shepard crack the string of violent mob crimes, she’ll need to prove what she knows about death can put together the missing pieces of her victims’ lives.
The last thing Dana wants is to be sucked into another dangerous investigation, but the bond she’s forged with Jake begins to crack when she uncovers his plan to stop the killers is to use someone she loves as bait.
With no other choice Dana throws herself into the dark and dangerous underworld of mob crimes. The clock is ticking. Can Dana stop another murder before it’s too late? Or will she be forced to go along with Jake’s plan and risk losing someone she loves?
Liquid Mind Publishing
Dana Gray Mystery
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Dana Gray Mystery 03-Girl in the Grave

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Copyright © 2022 by C.J. Cross.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be copied, reproduced in any format, by any means, electronic or otherwise, without prior consent from the copyright owner and publisher of this book.

Liquid Mind Publishing

This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places and events are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Also by C.J. Cross

About the Author



SHE WALKED through the busy terminal toward her gate. He continued to watch. He had to be sure she boarded the plane. He’d stacked the deck perfectly. Soon the game would begin. She was the catalyst he’d been waiting for.


DESPITE THE FRIGID NOVEMBER AIR, Dana Gray was glad to be back in D.C.

Five months on the road was grueling, though she still stood by her decision to publish. Sharing the Priory of Bones manuscript was the right thing to do; for her, for her profession, for the world. Knowledge was meant to be shared—some; thing she and her publisher actually agreed on.

One lecture turned into two and before she knew it, a few speaking engagements snowballed into a full-fledged book tour. Thirty-six lectures in ten countries in five months.

She’d never been so happy to return to the comforts of her own home. The orderly quiet of her office three stories below the Smithsonian was calling to her, but oddly it wasn’t her first stop.

Dana strode across the icy parking lot toward the J. Edgar Hoover Building. It’d been almost six months since she’d last seen Jake Shepard. They hadn’t left things on the best of terms, but he’d been right to tell her to figure out what she wanted.

All her time away had given her ample opportunity to think. The conclusion she’d come to: being alone was overrated. Working with Jake and the FBI had proven it was nice to have backup from time to time. Perhaps there was room in her life to let someone in. The right someone. She couldn’t say with absolute certainty Jake was that someone, but it was worth finding out.

Her work would always be important to her. Shining light on the mysteries of the occult was a calling she believed in. The last few months demonstrated how vital her research was. Publishing her findings on the world’s most secret society was not only noteworthy, but it would hopefully save others from being manipulated by them. Others like Meredith Kincaid.

That was another stop Dana planned to make now that she was back in D.C.

Meredith was still at St. Elizabeth’s. Even with the best attorneys money could buy, she’d spend the rest of her life in a padded cell. That didn’t mean Dana would forget about the girl she’d once called her best friend.

Meredith was part of the reason Dana decided to publish. She didn’t want the Priory of Bones to steal anyone else’s future. Absently, Dana’s finger found the ladybug charm on her keychain, rubbing it for luck. She kept it as a reminder of what she was fighting for.

The elevator dinged, and Dana exited onto Jake’s floor. Right away her eyes landed on Margot. It seemed the last few months had changed the receptionist’s life as well.

“Dr. Gray!” Margot put down her yogurt cup and blinked at Dana in surprise. “Is Jake expecting you?”

The glittering wedding rings on Margot’s finger caught Dana’s eye, but it was the receptionist’s very pregnant stomach that left Dana speechless as she tried to do the math. “How far along are you?”

Margot grinned, resting her bejeweled hand on her swollen belly. “Almost six months. Can you believe it?” She took Dana’s stunned silence as an invitation to continue babbling. “It came as a shock to me, too. But it’s true what they say; sometimes you find the thing you’ve been looking for was right under your nose all along.”

Dana felt like she’d just done three tequila shots on an empty stomach. She was too late. It’d taken her analytical mind too long to come to the conclusion that she wanted Jake in her life.

This was her fault. He’d told her he wouldn’t wait, and she’d practically pushed Jake into Margot’s arms before she left. She had no one to blame but herself.

The cell phone on Margot’s desk rang, and she answered. “Hey, baby. Can you hang on a sec? Jake’s got a guest I need to take care of.”

Blood whooshed in Dana’s ears, as realization tore through her like a bullet. The baby wasn’t Jake’s. Margot and Jake weren’t together!

Margot pressed the phone to her chest, grinning as she reached for the desk phone to call Jake. Dana caught her hand. “Actually, I think I’ll surprise him.”



Agent Jake Shepard looked across his desk at Jo Walsh. He hadn’t been expecting his dumplings to come with a side of bombshell. Jo picked up on that.

“I know it’s a big decision, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. I mean, it’s HRT. Not many people get that call.”

“I know. But it’s on the other side of the country.”

“It’s Colorado, Jake. Not Siberia. Besides, the FBI has a field office in Denver. They’d be happy to have you.”

He put down his water bottle. “You already looked into it?”

Jo’s cheeks flushed, betraying the cool demeanor she always exuded. “Look, I know this is new, but we’re good together, right?”

He nodded slowly.

“So this just feels like the next step.”

In his mind, the next step was letting her leave a toothbrush at his place. Moving to Denver with a woman he’d been seeing for a few months? That was a fucking cliff jump.

“Nothing needs to be decided right away.”

He swallowed. “When do you need an answer?”

“HRT knows I’m tied up with this case.”

“It could take a while.”

“I can be patient.” She leaned across his desk, her long blonde ponytail swaying like a pendulum. “But Jake, I know what I want, and I’m ready to go after it. You need to take a look in the mirror and ask yourself the same question.” Her fingers caressed his jawline, nails scraping across his scruff. “And maybe invest in a better razor,” she teased, her thumb tracing his lower lip before she kissed him.

She wasn’t playing fair. That mouth of hers could get her anything she wanted, and she knew it. She grabbed his collar, deepening the kiss. Her tongue swept his, erasing all his objections to her plan.

The sound of his door opening pulled them apart. Seeing who was standing there was like plunging into an ice bath.

“Dana?” Jake stood abruptly, tie askew, heart pounding. Even though she was the one who’d shown up unannounced she seemed as shocked as he was to be standing face-to-face. Walking in on him groping another FBI agent probably hadn’t helped.

“No way!” Jo was standing, too. “You’re Dr. Dana Gray.”

Dana finally broke their staring contest and turned to look at Jo. “You know who I am?”

“You’re sort of a legend around here. Librarian-detective who took down a serial killer and a secret society.” Jo walked toward Dana, hand outstretched. “I’m Agent Joanna Walsh, but everyone calls me Jo. I really enjoyed your book, by the way.”

Dana blinked. “You read it?”

“Figured it’d help me get some insight on my new partner here.” Jo thumbed at Jake over her shoulder. “Speaking of, if you could not mention you walked in on us sharing more than lunch, that’d be great. The FBI hasn’t joined the twenty-first century when it comes to workplace romance.”

Dana’s eyes were on Jake again. He felt like he’d just been caught cheating. He reminded himself he wasn’t doing anything wrong. She’d had her chance. “What are you doing here, Dana?”

“I just wanted to let you know I was back and see if …” she trailed off, looking at Jo again.

Jo’s pale green eyes sparked with excitement. “Wait! Did you come to help us with the Card Killer?”

“Jo.” Warning laced Jake’s voice.

“What? I’m not telling her anything the media hasn’t shared. Vultures,” Jo muttered.

“Anyway, I would be honored to have you assist, Dr. Gray.”

Dana frowned. “I’m not sure Agent Holt would sign off on that.”

“Then it’s a good thing he doesn’t have to.” Jo smirked. “Holt retired.”

Dana’s warm brown eyes filled with questions. “Who took his spot?”

“I did,” Jenkins answered, walking into Jake’s office. “And I’d love to have you on board considering forensics just identified a significant change in pattern that puts this case in your wheelhouse.”

Assistant Director Remi Jenkins held out a folder. Jo grabbed it, flipping it open as Jake joined the three women standing in the middle of his office with trepidation. “What kind of change?”

“The last victim wasn’t left with an ordinary playing card stuffed down his throat.” Jenkins pointed a manicured finger to a photo inside the folder.

Dana moved in closer, the scent of her perfume taking Jake back to the last time she’d been in his office. He shut down the memory, focusing on the evidence in front of him.

He stared at the photograph of the badly decomposed card. At first glance, it was easy to see it was larger than the others, but that wasn’t a major change. “Playing cards come in all different shapes and sizes, Jenks.”

“True, but this isn’t a playing card.”

Jake squinted, angling his neck to try to make out the design. “Then what is it?”

Dana sucked in a breath, her eyes widening. “The Tower.” She looked at the group. “It’s a tarot card.”

Jenkins snapped the folder shut, grinning at Dana. “Exactly. Looks like you came back to D.C. just in time.”


“SHEPARD, Walsh, get Dr. Gray up to speed on the case while I’ll get her consulting status reinstated.”

Dana tried to argue, but Jenkins breezed out of the room, her cell phone already to her ear.

The sound of moving furniture drew Dana’s attention back to the office. Jo was dragging another chair over to Jake’s desk. She marched around to the other side and keyed something into his laptop. A moment later she was spinning the screen toward them.

Dana did her best to ignore how comfortable Jo seemed in Jake’s office. The beautiful female agent exuded confidence. If Dana hadn’t walked in on her practically climbing over Jake’s desk to kiss him, she might even admire the woman’s bravado. But thanks to her unfortunate timing, Dana was now preoccupied imagining the other pieces of office furniture Jo’s long legs might’ve straddled.

Jake took one of the chairs, but Dana chose to remain standing.

“This is our first vic,” Jo announced. She sat on the edge of Jake’s desk so she could point at the image on the laptop screen. It was a close up of a severed head. “Keller Kent. Professional execution. Single bullet to the brain.”

Jo switched to a new image. Another gruesome decapitation. “This is victim number two. Azi Udo. Same cause of death. Both known members of Nigerian TOC.”

Jake spoke up when he saw Dana’s confusion. “Transnational Organized Crime.”

“Right, pardon my acronyms,” Jo added.

Dana’s shoulders tensed. “Organized crime? Like the mob?”

“Yes, but we’re not talking Sopranos,” Jo answered. “This is the dawn of a new mafia. Drugs, arms, human trafficking. On an international level.”

Dana’s gaze landed on Jake. “I don’t understand. You don’t work mob cases.”

“I do,” Jo replied. “My experience with the FBI’s organized crime division landed this case in my lap, literally.”

“The head was mailed to Jo’s office,” Jake explained. His brow furrowed with concern as he looked at Jo. “I still think someone’s trying to get your attention.”

She gave a shrug. “Well, they got it. Along with a hefty cleaning bill. I’m still not sure I’ll ever get rid of the smell of decomp. Thankfully, Jake’s been kind enough to let me work out of his office while mine gets re-carpeted.”

“I was already helping with ballistics,” he added, as though Dana would believe that was the only reason he was assisting the gorgeous blonde agent.

Dana’s gaze bounced between Jake and Jo as they rattled off details about the case. It was like watching tennis. They were an even match; a thought which stung. Dana was beginning to see how easily she’d been replaced.

“We didn’t discover the playing cards until the second body. Coroner’s short staffed,” Jo added.

Jake chimed in. “After the third body turned up with the same MO, I officially joined the case.”

“So you think this is serial?” Dana asked, her stomach churning at the thought of hunting another serial killer.

“We did,” Jake said. “But if the third victim swallowed a tarot card, it changes things.”

“It’s definitely a tarot card,” Dana confirmed.

Her doubts weren’t about the card. What she really wanted to know was if she could go down this road again? And without Jake? She was a librarian, not a cop. The only reason she’d had success on the last two cases was because Jake was on her team.

They’d always had an unspoken bond, but with Jo in the room, Dana felt nothing but an icy chill from Jake. In her absence he’d turned back into the brooding agent she’d first thought him to be.

“The media has sensationalized this thing. Could be a copycat,” Jo suggested. “Any theories right off the bat, Dr. Gray?”

No theories, but questions were already skimming through her mind. However, asking them would only ensnare her further. Something she wasn’t sure she wanted.

She didn’t come back to D.C. to get dragged back into solving crimes with the FBI. She came back because she missed her life and the people in it. She came back for Jake and Claire and Meredith. She came back because she cared about them, and she finally felt strong enough to show them. But there was one major flaw in her logic. She’d neglected to consider that the world hadn’t stood still while she was away figuring out what she wanted.

She was back, but the world she came back to wasn’t the one she left.

A wave of panic hit her so hard she had the urge to run. She needed to breathe air that wasn’t charged with tension and regret. “I just got back today,” Dana said, starting to back away.

“No better time than the present to catch a killer,” Agent Jenkins replied. She’d reappeared at the office door as silently as a cat, blocking Dana’s escape. There was a laptop tucked under her arm and a take no prisoners look on her face. “You’re good at this, Gray, whether you like it or not. And we could use your help navigating the occult angle now that the Card Killer has jumped into the realm of tarot.”

“Can I have some time to think about it?”

Jake snorted. “Typical.”

Dana turned to address the rude comment but was silenced by the anger she saw simmering beneath the steel blue storm clouds in his eyes. There was nothing left to say. Whatever she’d thought they’d built had turned to rot like an untended garden.

She faced Jenkins. “I’m sorry, I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to come on board. If you need help deciphering the tarot cards, I can refer you to someone else.”

Jenkins stepped in front of Dana, her voice calm and low. “I understand. Get me a name, but it will take time to get anyone you refer the proper clearance.” She offered Dana the laptop she’d been carrying. “Take this. Just in case we need help with the tarot angle in the meantime.” She fished a jump drive from her blazer pocket. “Your login codes.”

Arguing with Jenkins was useless. Dana took the laptop and jump drive if only to escape Jake’s office. “I’ll send you a referral first thing in the morning.”


CURSING, Jake took the steps two at a time. He’d known he’d crossed a line the moment he’d seen the hurt in Dana’s eyes. Even so, his stubbornness made him wait five minutes before making an excuse to chase after her.

In the Army, his iron will had served him well. Stateside, not so much. He heard his uncle Wade’s voice in his head. Stubborn and hot-headed; it’ll leave you perpetually single. Take it from me.

But Jake wasn’t single. His secret FBI girlfriend was sitting in his office while he chased down another woman. Again, Jake cursed himself for letting his temper get the best of him. There was just something about Dana Gray that brought it out in him. But he needed to fix this. She’d saved his life. He owed her.

When it came to life debts he had a lot to atone for, and that wasn’t going to happen without Dana. She was the best damn partner he’d ever had, and now that these mob hits had taken a turn for the witchy, he had a feeling he’d need her more than ever.

Rushing through the lobby, he pushed open the double doors scanning the parking lot. Dana must’ve been on a mission to get through security so quickly. He prayed she wasn’t already in her car. His chest eased when he caught sight of her, brown hair swirling in the wind. Jogging to catch up he called out her name. “Dana!”

She turned, crossing her arms when she saw it was him, but at least she didn’t keep walking.

“I’m sorry,” he said, lungs burning from the cold. “I didn’t mean what I said back there, and that’s not how I wanted you to find out about Jo.”

“It’s not my business.”

“It is if that’s why you’re turning this case down.”

“It’s not.”

“I didn’t plan this, Dana. Jo and I connected three months ago on a case and—”

“I don’t need the details, Jake. You said you weren’t going to wait, and you didn’t. I think the best thing we can do is move on.”

“I don’t.”

“Do you really want me as a partner again?”

“No.” He could see that stung, but he needed to be honest. “But I do want to solve this case before it escalates into an international war in our capital, and I think you’re the best chance we’ve got.”

“I already told Jenkins I’d refer another specialist.”

“And she told you getting FBI clearance for someone new will take time. Time we don’t have. I have three dead and a media frenzy that’s turning this into a Hoffa hunt. A bunch of yahoos were arrested digging up graves at Glenwood last night.” Dana’s eyes widened, and he knew she was thinking of Cramer. “Security got to them before they could do any real damage. Luckily the ground’s frozen solid this time of year.”

Dismay filled her brown eyes. “Why would people do something like that?”

“There’s a reward for the bodies that go with these heads.”

“What? From who?”

He nodded to the laptop she was clutching across her chest. “It’s all in the reports.”

“Jake, I want to help, but this isn’t a good idea.”

“Just sleep on it,” he urged, turning her back the way she’d been heading, ready to walk her to her car. “Where’d you park?”

“I didn’t. I told you, I came straight here.”

“From the airport?”

“Yeah, I flew into Regan and took the train.”

His chest tightened. She’d come to see him first. “You haven’t seen Claire yet?”


Jake frowned, rocking back on his heels as he pulled a stick of cinnamon gum from his pocket and popped it in his mouth. He rubbed his hands together, wishing he’d thought to grab his jacket. It was freezing out.

Dana’s eyes narrowed. “What’s wrong with Claire?”

Jake looked up, momentarily forgetting Dana knew him so well. He only chewed gum when he was stressed. And the Claire situation was, well … stressful.

“Jake, what is it? Is she okay?”

“She’s …” he trailed off. “You’ll see for yourself when you go to the library.”

“I’m heading there now.”

“Just go easy on her, okay?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I’m not the only one you abandoned.”

“Abandoned?” Color filled her cheeks, and it wasn’t from the cold. “I went on a book tour! I was doing my job. I didn’t abandon anyone.”

“Yeah, well that’s not what it felt like,” he muttered.

“Jake, you told me to figure out what I wanted.”

“And did you?”

Her eyes shone like liquid amber in the fading sunlight as her anger drained. “It doesn’t matter.”

It did matter. Standing there staring into her eyes, it felt like the only thing in the world that mattered, and that’s why he looked away. He couldn’t go down that road again. He’d been burned one too many times. He needed to focus on things that had a fighting chance, like solving this case. “You’re right. I suppose it doesn’t.”


BY THE TIME Dana reached the Smithsonian the sun had fully slipped behind a blanket of thick clouds, calling it a day. Something she wished she could do. It’d been a long journey home.

Dana started the day in Milan. 6810 kilometers later, she was so jetlagged she didn’t even know what time zone she was in, let alone what day it was.

She should’ve gone home and gotten a good night of sleep, so her head was on straight before going to speak to Jake. That was the smart play. But for once Dana didn’t want to make decisions with her head. It was her heart that led her back to D.C.

Little good it did her.

The truth of it was, she’d come back for Jake, but he wasn’t where she’d left him. He’d moved on and so should she. Telling him would only make working together that much harder. Not that she’d decided to get involved with another FBI case. The stress of the last two made her need time away. But she was the only occult specialist with FBI clearance in the city. It was inevitable their paths would cross again. The best thing to do was forget about her heart and remain professional.

As she pushed through the doors into the Smithsonian’s lobby, Dana went through her mental checklist. She’d reordered it in her time away. Family, friends, work. She was convinced she finally had her priorities in the correct order, even if Jake no longer fell into any of those categories. The balancing act was never easy, but Dana had been ready to let her career take a backseat after spending the last few months lecturing. Maybe she still would.

She still had Claire and Meredith. Without Jake, it just meant Dana would have more time for her friends. She let that thought soothe the sting of Jake’s rejection.

Dana’s footsteps echoed off the marble floor. The employee lobby was quiet at this hour. Everyone was most likely at home readying dinner or doing the other normal domestic activities she’d never been good at. Despite her well-intended priorities, here she was, back at work.

Pressing the elevator button to sublevel three, Dana contemplated the downside of her safety net. She had a sanctuary to retreat to when things didn’t go right. But maybe having a place to avoid life wasn’t a good thing.

Books had always been her escape. As curator of the Smithsonian’s Occult History and Ritualistic Artifacts department it was easy to disappear into the stacks of rare cultural phenomena waiting to be deciphered.

If the last few months taught her anything, it was that her time at the Smithsonian was well spent. The things she’d uncovered were important. Her most recent case was so relevant that it had almost cost her a best friend. More than that, her subconscious reminded her, serving up the memory of Meredith wielding a gun at Jake.

As the elevator descended, her conscience began to nag her. All those relevant, life-saving discoveries never would’ve happened without him.

The last two cases she’d worked with Jake Shepard and the FBI had cataclysmic results. It’s why she’d needed a break from it all. Now that she was back, she wanted to punch a clock like everyone else in this building and go home to a life outside of work, but somehow she kept getting sucked in.

With the FBI laptop heavy in her arms, she could admit she was intrigued by the subject matter. She’d done extensive research into tarot when she thought it might tie to her parents’ deaths. It hadn’t, but it was still a fascinating topic. Tarot dated back to the 1400s, with a variety of different decks and cultural relevance. Maybe she’d take a look at the files so she could direct Jenkins to the best specialist on the matter.

The doors whooshed open, and Dana stilled. She blinked, willing her eyes to adjust to the utter darkness. With the lights off, staring into her subterranean library was like staring into an abyss. For a terrifying moment she worried the power had gone out, but she could tell the air was still on. The Smithsonian had installed multiple backup generators to her library as a precaution to keep her rare books and artifacts in the optimal humidity-free environment to prevent further decay. But that didn’t explain why the lights were off.

A key card was necessary to access them. A key card only she and Claire were authorized to have. Even when they left for the day, the lights stayed on. Changing the light level was destructive to the already fragile books her library housed. That’s why they’d built it underground and kept the lights dim at all times. Her office and the lab were the only areas where lights could be manually adjusted to normal levels.

Dana stepped into the darkness, reminding herself she didn’t need her sight. She knew this library like the back of her hand. Even after being away so long, muscle memory kicked in, guiding her easily toward her office. Her mind raced ahead to what would have to be done. Looking up access codes, resetting the lights, raising them gradually so as not to cause further damage.

Her shin struck something solid. Yelping in pain, Dana bit her lip to keep her anger from boiling over. She could be mad later. Her first priority was fixing the lights. Gingerly reaching around, she discerned the object she struck was a chair. One that should’ve been in its rightful place tucked neatly beneath a research table.

What was going on? Claire was as meticulous as Dana when it came to putting things where they belonged. Her conversation with Jake came back to her, flooding her with worry. If something had happened to Claire, he would’ve come right out and told her. At least she hoped he would. But from the disarray of the library it was evident that something was most definitely wrong.

Dana’s intern was a creature of habit, peculiar and particular in her own way. She was often misunderstood by the rest of the world, but to Dana she was family. There was no one else she would’ve entrusted the care of her library to while she was away. But if Claire had let things get this far off kilter, there was no telling what was wrong.

Worry quickened Dana’s pace. She struck another chair in the darkness before finally making her way to her office door. She turned the knob and the door opened soundlessly. Her hand automatically sought out the light switch.

Light flooded the room and something shrieked! The blur of movement charging forward caught Dana off guard. Before she knew it, she was on her ass. Rolling to her side, she untangled her purse strap and reached inside, pulling out the taser she kept on her at all times since her encounter in the catacombs.

The light in the adjoining lab flipped on giving Dana a clear line to her assailant. She aimed, ready to fire, when Claire leapt in the way. “Stop!”


SHOCK TWISTED to rage as Dana climbed to her feet. Thanks to Claire, the intruder had time to flee. The assailant turned back just long enough for Dana to make out her face: a frightened teen with long purple hair and a lip ring. Not someone who belonged in her library, but she’d seen enough to give a description to the police. She grabbed her phone, ready to make the call, when Claire spoke. “What are you doing?”

“Calling the police.”


Dana turned her seething gaze to her intern. “Why not?”

Claire fidgeted, wringing her hands like she did when she was anxious. “I didn’t know you were back.”

Dana’s anger boiled over. “That much is obvious, Claire! What on earth is going on here?”

“It’s not what it looks like.”

“Really? Because it looks like you forgot the rules.”

All at once, Claire’s fretting vanished. Her soft voice filled with venom. “You mean your rules? You left me in charge, remember?”

“Yes, because I trusted you to understand the importance of protecting these archives.”

“The books are perfectly fine.”

“You turned the lights off, Claire. You know how damaging that can be.”

Claire’s ice-blue eyes narrowed with anger. “That’s all that matters to you, isn’t it? You’re precious work. I don’t know why I even bother.”

“Bother with what?”

Claire stalked away, all long black hair and fury, but Dana wasn’t finished with their conversation. Rushing after her, she grabbed Claire’s thin shoulder. The girl shrieked like a cornered cat, whirling on Dana. “Don’t touch me!”

Claire had rigid physical boundaries, always keeping most of her skin covered with garish black clothing. Dana knew it was a defense mechanism meant to keep people at bay, but right now she was too pissed to care. “Claire, I need you to tell me exactly what’s going on here.”

“Nothing. I got kicked out of my campus apartment, so I’ve been crashing here until I find something else.”

“Kicked out? Why?”

“It’s not important.”

“I say it is.”

Again, bitterness overtook Claire. “And whatever you say goes.”

“Actually yes. As your boss, mentor and dissertation committee member, I’m making the decisions regarding your future here. I trusted you could handle the responsibility while I was gone, but it appears I was mistaken. Unless you can tell me exactly what’s going on and who that girl was, I’m calling the police to report her.”

Claire’s paperwhite skin paled to nearly translucent. “You wouldn’t.”

Dana crossed her arms. “I most certainly would. She was trespassing.”

Anger crackled behind Claire’s black cat-eye frames. “Her name is Sadie. She’s a friend who needed a place to stay. I’m not like you. I couldn’t just abandon her. But I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”

“I didn’t abandon you.”

“Whatever,” Claire muttered.

Dana threw her hands up as she stalked after Claire. The girl was acting like a moody teenager, not the well-educated doctoral candidate Dana knew her to be. “No, not whatever. You let an unauthorized guest into a restricted area of the Smithsonian, and from the look of it, more than once.” Dana gestured to the stacks of takeout piled on a table in the lab. “This is serious. It’s grounds for termination unless you can promise me it will never happen again.”

Claire blinked up at Dana, seemingly stunned for a moment. Then she huffed a laugh and dug into the pocket of her black cardigan. “Don’t worry. It won’t.” She slapped her key card and ID badge against Dana’s chest before storming out.

Watching Claire’s thin figure walk away, Dana clutched the key card and badge to her chest. It felt like Claire had punched a hole straight to her heart. Jake was right, something was wrong. And the worst part was, he was the only person she wanted to talk to about it.

It was becoming painfully clear to Dana that she’d been foolish to assume she could slip back into her old life. Before she could pick up where she left off, she needed to pick up the tattered pieces she’d left in her wake. Which was precisely why getting involved in another FBI case was a terrible idea. She needed to focus on repairing broken bonds. But first she needed to repair her library.


JO FOLLOWED Jake into his kitchen, making herself at home as she opened the fridge and grabbed a bottle of water to quench her post-workout thirst. Jake went straight for his wet bar, pouring himself a bourbon. It was a habit she was trying to break him of, but the more she nagged, the more he resisted.

There was a lot to like about Joanna Walsh. But her alcohol-free lifestyle was one of Jake’s least favorite traits.

“I was really hoping to work with her,” Jo grumped between gulps of water. “Do you think she’ll change her mind?”

Jake huffed a laugh, shaking his head as he walked to the window, rocks glass in hand. “Nope. The woman’s more stubborn than a two-headed mule.”

“Ha! How on earth did you two work together?”

Jake turned around. “I’m not stubborn.”

“Sure, and I’m not ambitious.” Jo sauntered over, wrapping her arms around him so she could steal a kiss. Her lips were salty and greedy, mixing perfectly with the bourbon stinging his tongue. Jo deepened the kiss, and Jake felt his control slipping. He wanted to let go, to let Jo ease his burdens, but thoughts of Dana kept pulling him back.

Despite her being gone these past few months, he’d never really been able to shake his thoughts of her. And after she’d walked back into his office today, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to rid himself of the strangled feeling that crowded his chest when the occult librarian was near. Even now, it was like she was still here in the room with him.

What he and Dana had endured together connected them. He sensed her as if a part of her lived under his skin. When she was near, he felt comfort, if only for the fact that he knew she was safe and not off running headlong into danger. But right now, knowing she was near, but still so far out of reach … it was killing him.

What the hell is wrong with me? Jake was ignoring the sexy, confident woman in front of him to pine after one who played head games. Jo was straightforward and, more importantly, here.

Pushing all thoughts of Dana from his mind, Jake drained his bourbon, ready to give Jo the attention she deserved. He let himself get lost in the feel of her. She set his glass down, pulled his shirt off and started to kiss a path down his neck. He stopped her before she got to his chest. His patchwork of scars was a turn off. He didn’t let anyone touch them. Except Dana. But that was a lesson learned. He’d let her in, and now she was buried under his skin.

Shit, he was thinking of her again. Tearing off Jo’s sports bra remedied the situation. Sweat still glistened between her breasts from the rigorous workout they’d just completed. But it seemed she had energy for more. Jo grabbed the waistband of his shorts and tugged him toward her, kissing him hard. He moaned into her mouth when her hand slipped into his shorts, teasing him the way he liked.

“Come on. Let’s shower,” she whispered, towing him behind her.

Though Jake preferred to be the one in charge, it was hard not to give in to Jo’s wicked ways. The woman knew how to get what she wanted, but he couldn’t make it too easy for her. “What, you just expect me to follow you? That shit might work over in TOC, but I’m Army. I don’t follow, I lead.”

Jo grinned. “Don’t I know it.”

She had her own 101st Infantry tattoo to prove it. Her service record was what drew him to her in the first place. The woman was a badass in her own right. An equal. Someone who could be a true partner—if he’d let her.

“Come on,” she grinned. “I’ll make it worth your while.”

That much he knew. He looked longingly at his bourbon collection, but decided to follow her to his bathroom instead.

Steam swirled around them both in the shower as Jo lathered him with soap, her hands gliding over him until he ached. “You know, if you come to Colorado, we could do this every day.”

His eyes snapped open. He didn’t want to talk about Colorado right now. He didn’t want to talk, period. His blood was busy elsewhere, leaving his brain to make poor decisions if he opened his mouth. Something Jo was aware of. They were both seasoned interrogators, which sometimes complicated things. Other times it led to great sex. Jake was willing to roll the dice.

Jo was torturing him in the best way, her lips lingering in all the right places. She knew the precise type of pressure to apply to get exactly what she wanted from him, and at the moment, he just wanted relief. Anything to let him shut out the chaos crowding his head. He pushed Jo against the shower wall, ready to take what he wanted when the sharp ring of his phone interrupted.

“Ignore it,” she ordered, but then her phone began to ring next to his on the bathroom counter.

Their eyes met, both of them knowing gratification would have to wait. Postponing pleasure was something Jake was used to in his line of work. He’d learned death took joy in making sure the living had none.

Opening his shower door, he grabbed a towel to dry his hands and face before answering. “Shepard.”

He was greeted by Jenkins’ voice. “We got another one.”

“Christ. Already?” The killer was escalating, which meant he was desperate. Desperate equaled sloppy. Sloppy meant Jake had a better chance of catching him. “Where?”

“Ninth and T.”

“Roger that. Walsh and I will meet you there.”

“Jake, I’m gonna need you to bring Dr. Gray in on this one.”

“She made it pretty clear she’s not interested, Jenks.”

“No, not for consulting. We need to question her about the vic.”

Panic hit him so swiftly he grabbed the counter for support. Dana had already lost too many people in her life. “Who’s the vic?”

“Jane Doe for now, but we’ve got a witness who can place Dr. Gray with the body less than an hour before TOD.”

“Is this a credible witness?”

The pause in Jenkins’ voice filled Jake with dread. “Dr. Gray’s former assistant, Claire Townsend.”

Former? The word snagged his thoughts like a splinter. What the hell was going on? His questions would have to wait. “Claire’s at the scene?”

“Yes. I’m here with her now.”

“Tell her I’m on my way.”


“HEROIN?” Dana scrolled through the toxicology results on the laptop screen. Jenkins had left out some major details about this case. It was more than rival mobs and tarot cards. This was drugs, gangs, and executions. It was a few prostitutes short of a Scorsese film, and way out of her league. Even if it weren’t, there was little expertise she could lend to the case with one tarot card.

At least that’s what she told herself as she shut the files and closed the laptop.

She’d looked at the case like she’d promised, she owed Jake and Jenkins that much, but her mind was made up. She needed to distance herself from the FBI and the chaos it brought into her life. And with the Nigerian cartel bankrolling a ransom for the bodies of their fallen enforcers, Dana wanted to keep her distance. She had enough problems of her own at the moment.

With the lights back up and running and the library restored to order, Dana was ready to focus on repairing emotional bonds. She hated how she’d left things with Claire. She needed to talk to her, but she wasn’t sure how. Did she need space? Time? Tough love?

They’d never fought before. It was one of the many things Dana adored about her quirky intern. The girl was rational with an analytical mind. She was much like Dana in that way.

This was uncharted territory. Did she call or was this a face-to-face situation? Once again, she wished she could call Jake for some insight. He’d alluded to something being off with Claire. It would’ve been nice if he’d warned her just how bad things were. If Jake knew Claire was homeless, he should’ve stepped in to help or at the very least let Dana know.

Grumbling under her breath, she closed up her office and got on the elevator, vowing to find a way to fix things. She pulled up Claire’s campus address, hoping her roommate might shed some light on things. Her phone rang as she stepped off the elevator. The shrill sound pierced the silent lobby. Seeing Jake’s name on the caller ID sent a wave of heat rushing through Dana. She didn’t know if she was happy or angry that he was calling, but she knew what he wanted.

Answering, she began speaking to cut off his bargaining. “Jake, I haven’t changed my mind about the case. I don’t—”

He interrupted, his voice clipped with anger. “Dana, it’s Claire.”

Everything stopped. Her feet. Her heart. Her world. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sending you the address. I need you to come. Now.”

“On my way.”

DANA ARRIVED AT THE SCENE, her heart pounding as she swallowed back the bile assaulting her throat. It started the moment she saw the blue and red lights. Each flash brought with it a crime scene memory she wished she could forget.

Too soon. Too much. Not ready.

She fought to silence her fears. “You’re here for Claire,” she reminded herself. “She needs you.”

Dana didn’t ask Jake what was wrong. She didn’t have to. She knew him well enough to know he only used that tone when things were dire. His anger came through when he couldn’t protect the people he loved. Hearing it when he’d referenced Claire threatened to steal the steadiness Dana gained in those months away.

She’d thought leaving was the right thing. She wanted to get her head right so she could be her best self when she came back, but maybe leaving was a mistake. Or maybe returning was. She didn’t know, but either way, she’d never considered that her absence would hurt others. She’d spent a lifetime teaching herself not to need people and that sometimes made her forget not everyone felt the same.

It was natural to need companionship. Healthy, even. But after she lost her parents, Dana existed in a fortress of solitude. There was only room for research and vengeance. She allowed very few people to breach her walls: Meredith, Claire, Jake. After Meredith burned her, Dana shut down. It wasn’t until this exact moment she saw the true aftermath of that decision.

Claire stood in the middle of the crime scene, blood smeared across her pale cheeks. She looked as fragile as an eggshell as Jake held her, sheltering her from the gruesome scene.

A body lay draped in the street, dark smears of blood staining the sidewalk where the assault must’ve started. A frigid breeze ripped through the scene, lifting the sheet enough for Dana to catch a glimpse beneath. Purple hair, a nose ring. Her stomach dropped. It was the girl from her office. The one Claire had been trying to help.

Was this Dana’s fault, too?

Out of the corner of her eye, a flickering of color caught Dana’s attention. She watched something dancing in the wind: purple, yellow, black. The whirl of color stopped at an officer’s feet. He bent down with gloved hands and picked up the tattered rectangle, a perplexed look on his face before he placed it in an evidence bag.

Another tarot card!

Dana couldn’t tell which one it was from this distance, but she couldn’t stop the tingle of intrigue. Someone was trying to send a message. The question was to whom?

Claire’s sob broke through the pounding in Dana’s temples. Time stood still as she looked in on a life she no longer belonged to. The sharp ache in her chest told her she should be standing there with Claire and Jake, not on the safe side of the yellow tape.

She wasn’t sure when exactly she’d adopted the lifestyle of protect and serve, but it stung to be pushed out. But what could she do?

Standing with the crowd of onlookers, she watched the bizarre display of affection between agent and witness. Claire hated to be touched and Jake, well, touching him wasn’t an option. Dana closed her eyes, trying not to remember the feel of his skin when he’d made a rare exception to his rule. Electricity dwelled inside his veins. Six months ago, he’d almost kissed her, but she’d stopped him. Being that close to Jake Shepard was like grabbing a live wire. And that terrified her.

It was the first time Dana had truly run from her fears. She always preferred fight over flight. It’s why she’d come back. She wanted to fight to put things right. Starting with Claire and Jake.

Even from here Dana could see the way he was holding himself back. It wasn’t often that he let his professional persona slip on the job. But Claire had a way about her. She could worm herself into even the stoniest of hearts. Dana longed to cross the police tape and join them, but she stayed put. She was on the outside now. She’d have to earn back their trust.



Dana jumped at the sound of Jenkins’ voice. She forgot how stealthily the keen-eyed agent moved. One nod from her and the police officer holding the line lifted it to let Dana pass beneath the yellow tape. She walked toward Jenkins. “I came as soon as I heard. What happened? How is Claire involved?”

“What exactly did you hear?”

“Jake called. All he said was Claire needed me.”

“Good.” She waved a man in a suit over. “We’re going to need a statement.”

“A statement. About what?”

“Your last conversation with Claire Townsend and your whereabouts for the last few hours.”

“I was at my office. Going over the files you gave me.”

“You used the access codes I gave you?”


“Good. That will help corroborate your story.”

“It’s not a story. I was looking at the case like you asked, which is a lot more involved than you initially shared.”

Jenkins lowered her voice. “Yeah, I’m gonna need you to keep that to yourself. There are too many agencies involved already.” The man she’d summoned arrived. “Dr. Gray, this is Agent Fuller of the CIA. He’s going to take your official statement. He does NOT have clearance to our active investigation. The CIA has temporary jurisdiction over this crime scene. Understood?”

“We’ll see how temporary it is,” Fuller muttered.

Dana looked between Jenkins and Fuller, panic making it impossible to speak. Agent Fuller focused on her, a greasy smile spreading across his face like a virus. “Well, if it isn’t the infamous Dr. Gray. I knew we’d see each other again.”

“You two know each other?” Jenkins asked.

Fuller grinned. “We go way back.”

Dana did her best to block out the unpleasant memories of her first interaction with Agent Mike Fuller, one he’d made as hostile as possible. Ignoring him, she looked at Jenkins. “I don’t understand. Am I a suspect?”

“You tell me?” Fuller quipped.

Baffled, Dana sputtered. “I-I have no idea what this is about.”

“Try again, Dr. Gray. The vic was found dead hours after trespassing in your office, something you were outraged by, according to your former employee.”

“And you think I came here and killed her?”

Fuller crowded her personal space. “Nah, that’s not your style, is it? You like to lure people in, earn their trust first. Say how are those friends of yours, Grant, Rickman and Cramer? All dead? And the Kincaid girl, she might as well be from what I hear.” The smell of stale coffee and cologne assaulted Dana as Fuller leaned in closer, his voice a harsh whisper. “Why is it people who get close to you always turn up dead?”

Rage and fear quarreled inside, filling her with the same slithering anxiety she’d tried to outrun when she left D.C. Her hands balled into fists while she took a few steps back, torn between hitting the arrogant prick and running away. The worst part was, he wasn’t wrong.

“Dana!” Claire’s shrill voice cut through the chaos in her mind. Dana turned in time to see her intern sprinting toward her. A moment later she was in her arms. Dana barely had a chance to embrace her before Claire was yanked away again.

Fuller hauled Dana backwards, wrenching her arm painfully behind her back while another officer restrained Claire.

Claire screamed, going feral at the touch of a stranger. The panic on her face had Dana trying to shake Fuller’s grasp, but it was unnecessary. The officer manhandling Claire managed to get one cuff on her wrist before Jake was there. He looked ready to breathe fire. “You have two seconds to get your hands off my witness,” he snarled.

“My scene. My witness,” the cop snapped.

“Gentleman …” Warning edged Jenkins’ voice as she tried to diffuse the situation, but it was useless. Dana could sense the calm before the storm, and she was ready.

Jake struck the officer holding Claire. The jab was swift and true. One second the guy was sneering, the next he was on his ass clutching his windpipe. Dana made her move in the moment between, driving her elbow into Fuller’s solar plexus. He sucked in a startled breath, wheezing with the wind knocked out of him. It gave Dana the time she needed to get to Claire.

Once again, she had her intern in her arms, pulling her behind Jake for cover as a dozen officers and agents drew their weapons.


WEAPON TRAINED on the jackass in front of him, Jake took a step back until he felt Dana’s form against the back of his leg. Her warmth seeped into him, spreading a false sense of security. This powder keg was one hair trigger away from exploding. He shouldn’t feel comfortable. But he did. He lived his life balanced on the edge of a blade. This was his element.

With both women behind him he searched out all viable exit strategies even while Jenkins tried to talk down the officers wielding weapons. Jake caught Jo out of the corner of his eye. For a moment she’d faded into the background. He didn’t have time to worry about what that meant or that if he hadn’t been well-trained, he might’ve registered her as a threat when she moved up to cover him.

She approached from his left flank. Her subtle nod told him they were good to move, but he shook his head. He’d spotted the easiest way out too, but Jenkins was their best bet to end this thing safely.

“Fuller, put it down and everyone will follow,” Jenkins ordered.

“Why should I? Your man assaulted a police officer.”

“We’re all on the same team,” Jenkins replied. “We have enough mourners here today, don’t you think?” Jake watched her eyes sweep over the crowd of onlookers who were foolishly standing by, phones out, ready to capture the latest headline.

The public’s fascination with gore and tragedy baffled him. Here they were standing around risking catching a stray bullet for a glimpse of what he was trying to forget. Maybe if they knew death’s stain couldn’t be washed away, they wouldn’t be so quick to pull out their phones, but some things had to be experienced to be understood.

The only good thing about the mob of people standing by was that it made Fuller think twice about how far he was willing to take this power struggle. Working joint cases was never easy. The FBI had a big footprint. Toes were bound to get stepped on and the CIA was notoriously sensitive. That’s why having Jenkins here was crucial. The woman was a negotiating savant.

Jake remembered a time when he was about seven and she’d talked him out of the last popsicle in the icebox. He still didn’t know how she’d done it. She could talk the devil into an ice bath. Or at least that’s what Wade always said.

Jenkins was working her skills on Fuller now. “It’s your scene. I’m just trying to help you get everyone through it in one piece. We’ll follow your lead.”

Realizing there was no win in sight, Fuller made the smart call and lowered his weapon, giving the call for his team to follow. With the tension defused, Jake felt Dana sag against him. He holstered his Sig Sauer and turned around to offer her a hand. His blood ignited with her palm pressed against his. Thankfully Jo was there, front and center, to remind him where his loyalties belonged.

Jo reached down to help Claire, but the girl yelped away from her. Jake reacted, pulling her reflexively to his side. She reached for Dana, burying her head in her mentor’s chest, with one hand still clutching his arm. Dana’s brown eyes burned with questions as they met Jake’s. He could do nothing but stand there, holding Claire, entangled in Dana once more while Jo, Jenkins and the others looked on disapprovingly.

There was nothing he could say. Actions spoke louder than words. And once again, his actions had drawn a line in the sand. From the look on Fuller’s face they’d also painted a target on the backs of the people he cared about most.


“START FROM THE BEGINNING,” Fuller demanded.

Dana gripped the edge of her metal folding chair as she stared through the reflective glass. By now it was clear that the body under the draped sheet at the crime scene was that of Sadie Azeez; the purple-haired girl who’d been sleeping in Dana’s office.

From what Fuller said, the girl was a known addict. It was still beyond Dana how Claire befriended her, but after filling out a police report about Sadie’s trespassing, Dana was brought here to listen in on the interview.

Dana did her best not to chew her nails while she sat quietly in the precinct viewing room. Claire was on the other side of the dingy glass, trembling across from Agent Fuller, who was taking pleasure in terrifying her while she recounted her story.

It seemed his tactics hadn’t changed much since Dana’s encounter with him. The only difference was his hair was thinner and he was with the CIA now instead of the FBI. She didn’t know if that was better or worse. It just meant another agency to deal with. At least with the FBI she had Jake and Jenkins in her corner. At least she thought she did.

Dana glanced at Jake who alternated between pacing and scowling, his jaws working the cinnamon gum harder than the saltwater taffy machines at the boardwalk. Jo was in the viewing room with them, doling out coffee and calming antidotes every time Jake took his frustration out on a folding chair. Jenkins was on the other side of the glass with Fuller and Claire.

Assistant Director Remi Jenkins was an ally, but Claire didn’t know that. From her point of view, she’d just witnessed a friend murdered and was now being isolated from the only people who could comfort her.

“Take me through the assault again,” Fuller demanded.

“Sadie was standing with her back to me. S-she kept looking down the road like she was waiting for someone. Then a black SUV pulled up, and she walked over. It happened so fast. The window rolled down and … s-she screamed. There was so much blood.”

“Then what?”

“I ran toward her, but I-I was too late. She stumbled into the street and …” Claire’s words dissolved into sobs. She looked so small under the bright interrogation lights. The forensic team had taken her clothes and belongings for analysis. The pale blue DOC uniform she wore made her look like she’d already been convicted of whatever Fuller was accusing, which was still unclear to Dana.

Sadie had obviously been assaulted by someone in the black SUV Claire described, then stumbled into traffic. Dana had overheard the first responders at the scene saying the body was badly damaged. She knew what that meant. It would make the coroner’s job harder to discern what damage was from the vehicle that hit her and what was from the murder weapon.

It didn’t help that the case was in no-man’s land.

The FBI wanted it because a tarot card had been found at the scene. Metro Police had a claim since they’d been first on the scene and there was a traffic accident, but Dana still hadn’t figured out what piece of the pie caught Agent Fuller and the CIA’s interest.

“How do you know Sadie Azeez?” Fuller demanded.

“I-I told you, we’re friends. We met at a club.”

“What club?”

“I-I don’t know.”

“Like to party, do ya?”

Claire’s eyes widened. “No, I-I mean I … what does that have to do with what happened to her?”

“I’m the one asking the questions,” Fuller barked. “Why was she trespassing at your place of employment, or should I say former employment?”

“She needed a place to stay. I-I was trying to help her.”

“Yeah, help her get murdered.”

“Fuller.” Jenkins’ tone was clipped.

Fuller changed tactics. “You one of her little junkie pals?”

Claire shook her head.

“You sure?” He reached for her arm, but Claire yanked it back.

“How is your boss involved in this?”

Claire’s wide eyes focused on the glass, and Dana felt her fear.

Fuller snapped rudely in front of Claire’s face. “Don’t look at them. They can’t help you. Look at me. I want to know how you knew where to find my informant.”

Claire blinked up at Fuller, her clear blue eyes suddenly devoid of fear. “Informant? You! You’re the reason she’s dead. She wanted out! But you made her go back in. Do you have any idea what they did to her in there?”

Fuller stood up, slamming his fist into the table. “It’ll seem like nothing when I’m through with you, you little bitch! Now tell me what you know!”

Jake burst into the interview room before anyone could stop him. Dana followed right behind.. Every instinct told her she needed to get Claire out of there before the girl’s fragile coping mechanisms failed and shock took over completely.

“Time’s up, Fuller,” Jake snarled.

“It’s up when I say it’s up, hotshot.”

Dana caught Claire’s eye. “Are you feeling unwell? Too unwell to continue?”

Catching on quickly, Claire nodded. It was all Jenkins needed. “The witness has had enough for today. Fuller, you can set up another time to interview her after she’s had a chance to rest and recover.”

“She hasn’t answered my questions!”

“Then you can refer to the police report she gave at the scene.”

“That’s bull and you know it!”

“Actually, it’s not,” Jo interjected. “Research shows witnesses give the most accurate statements immediately following trauma, followed secondly by accounts given once their memory has had time to recover. Furthermore, you know as well as I do any eyewitness testimony obtained under duress holds no credibility.”

Fuller scowled. “She’s not under duress.”

Jo pointed to the cameras in the room. “They might show a different story.”

Fuller’s expression soured as he took in the scene. Claire cowered, still seated and shaking while Dana and three FBI agents crowded into the small room in her defense. “Fine, but she’s spending the night in custody.”

“Not unless you charge her,” Jenkins countered.

“We can get lawyers involved if you’d like,” Jo pressed.

Finally, Fuller relented. Shoving past Jake, he paused in front of Dana. “And don’t think I’ve forgot about you, Princess. This time Cramer’s not around to protect you.”

Dana hated that she flinched. Hearing Cramer’s name still made her physically ill. Jake hadn’t missed it. “What was that about?”

“It’s not important,” she muttered. “I’m more concerned about Claire.”

Jenkins spoke up. “Give me a few minutes, and I’ll get us out of here.”


AN HOUR later Dana found herself back in Jake’s apartment. She still couldn’t quite wrap her head around the fact that Claire wanted to come here rather than her place. She’d spent the night at Dana’s dozens of times before—another reason it was strange she’d chosen to hole up in the library rather than ask to stay at Dana’s. Her home was warm and inviting. Jake’s was the complete opposite, not to mention a one bedroom.

But when she’d offered her home as a refuge, Claire immediately turned it down. “I’d rather just go back to Jake’s.” Back to, like it was comfortable, routine. Which begged the question, if Claire and Jake had been spending so much time together, how had he let things get so out of hand?

Dana pushed the thought aside. It’d been over twenty-four hours since she’d slept. And judging from how today was going, she wouldn’t be climbing into her bed anytime soon. She needed to save her criticisms for when her critical thinking was less impaired.

Dana followed Jo, Claire and Jake into his living room. Once again she was reminded she was an outsider as everyone else moved around the sparsely decorated space with ease. Jo started a pot of coffee, while Claire curled up on the couch, taking the heavy blanket Jake offered.

“Who wants coffee?” Jo called.

“Make it strong,” Jake grumbled.

Dana raised her hand.

Claire said nothing. Jake sat next to her, speaking softly. “You need to eat something, Claire.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You sure you don’t want some coffee?” Jo asked. “Sugar will help with the shock.”

“I’m not in shock,” Claire snapped. “I’m pissed.” A tear spilled down her cheek, and she angrily wiped it away. “I’m pissed that after everything I tried to do for her, it didn’t matter.”

Dana perched on the armchair near to the couch. “What did you do for Sadie?”

“Are you really going to make me relive her murder for the hundredth time?”

“I’m not talking about what happened today,” Dana said. “Why do you blame Fuller for what happened to Sadie? You said she wanted out, and he made her go back in.”

Claire wiped the errant tears from her cheeks. “I didn’t know she was an informant. I knew someone was threatening her, but I just thought it was one of them.”

“Who?” Jake asked.

Claire slouched further into the couch, tightening the blanket around her until only her shaking hands were visible. Claire’s knuckles were raw, her cuticles red and cracked around her chipped black nail polish. It was unlike her. Claire was neat and orderly, bordering on obsessive-compulsive. Seeing her so disheveled, even after what she’d been through, had Dana on edge. “You need to tell us what’s going on.”

The icy look Claire shot at her stung. “Oh, now you care what’s going on in my life?”

“Claire,” Jake warned, but she turned her glare on him.

“Don’t defend her. She left you behind, too.”

“Yeah, but if you want justice for your friend, we need her on our side.”

Dana cringed. Did they really believe she wasn’t on their side?

Claire bit her lip, her eyes watering as she glanced back at Dana, then the floor. “You’re right,” she whispered. “That’s all that matters.” Finally, Claire looked up, meeting Dana’s gaze. “You’ll help, right?”

Dana knew she couldn’t say no. Not with Claire looking at her like that, but she hesitated, not sure what to say. She hated when her emotions surfaced. Everything about this felt too close to home. Young, vulnerable women being preyed upon. She’d almost lost Meredith to a monster with the same tastes. She couldn’t lose Claire, too.

The similarities between Claire and Sadie were too much to ignore. If Claire’s raven hair had been purple the two might’ve been mistaken for sisters. One was a PhD candidate, the other a junkie, but still they’d both started out in this world the same way before fate altered their paths.

Dana knew what it was like to have the ground torn out from beneath her, swallowing the best laid plans and paths. She easily could’ve ended up like Sadie if she hadn’t channeled her grief into revenge. Still, the jury was out on whether or not she’d truly survived. Losing her parents at such a young age had forever scarred her. Some days survival just felt like trading one nightmare for another.

But this wasn’t about her.

Everyone deserved justice, not just those with the privilege to afford it. This was her chance to even the score. “I’ll do everything I can to help find who did this to Sadie.”

“Thank you!” Claire threw her arms around Dana, sobbing wildly into her hair. The uncharacteristic display of affection was over almost as quickly as it had begun. Claire untangled herself and stood, wiping her cheeks with trembling hands. “I’m sorry, I-I just need a minute.”

Dana watched Claire walk down the hall toward Jake’s bathroom, baffled by her mood swings.

Jo ambled over, passing out coffee. “I don’t know how you take yours,” she said, offering Dana a mug.

“Black is fine.”

“Just like Jake,” she quipped, making a show of pouring a heinous amount of creamer into her own cup.

Dana was surprised Jake even had creamer in his fridge. Or maybe she keeps it here.

Pushing the stinging image of their domestic bliss from her mind, Dana gratefully sipped the piping hot beverage. She preferred tea, but she wasn’t picky. She needed the caffeine. Wrapping her long fingers around the mug she tried to shake off the cobwebs of drowsiness clouding her mind. She needed to stay sharp. For Claire. For Sadie. For all the other victims out there who never got the justice they deserved.

“I hate to say it,” Jo mused, “but I think Fuller might be right.”

Jake’s eyebrows knitted together. “About what?”

“Claire being a junkie.”

He put his coffee mug down so hard some of it spilled over onto the table. Dana hated that the oozing pattern reminded her of blood. But she couldn’t blame that on Jake or today’s crime scene. Her morbid mind was triggered long ago.

Shutting out the images of her parents’ crime scene, she pulled in a steadying breath to keep herself in the present.

Jake was on his feet. “She’s not on drugs, Jo!”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because I know her.”

“She’s displaying all the signs. Mood swings, agitation, tremors, and her pupils look like bullseyes.”

“Cut her some slack. She just watched her friend get murdered. There’s no play book for that.”

“Actually, there is,” Jo argued. “And we’re trained to know the signs.”

Again, Dana felt she was watching a tennis match, or perhaps a battle of wills. Joanna Walsh was not to be trifled with. She’d gone toe-to-toe with Fuller today, and now she was skillfully taking on Jake. She looked cool as a cucumber while doing it too, which was more than Dana could say for Jake. The deep red coloring of his ears said he was two seconds away from flipping the coffee table as Jo rattled off the signs of shock like she was reciting the FBI handbook.

By the sounds of it, Jo was even more of a stickler for protocol than Jake. But all the humor Dana might’ve found in Jake having met his match drained away the more she realized Jo might be right.


JAKE WAS DOING his best to remember every technique he’d been taught to keep his cool as Jo threw the rule book at him; like he didn’t know the signs of addiction. He had enough firsthand experience battling demons to write the Bureau’s procedures and protocols. But right now, that didn’t matter because they were talking about Claire. He knew her. Hell, she was like a little sister to him.

These past few months he’d been worried about her and doing his best to look out for her. He wouldn’t have missed something so critical. “You don’t know her like I do. She’s not on drugs, Jo.”

Jo was about to argue, but Dana cut her off. “Jake, I think she’s right.”

“Excuse me?” He whirled on her, the veins in his neck bulging. “You’ve been back all of a minute, Dana. Maybe you should consider how well you understand the situation before you start throwing around accusations.”

She pointed toward the bathroom. “I understand that isn’t the same Claire I left.”

“Yeah, no shit! You haven’t spoken to her for six months.”

“That’s not true.”

“Emails about extending your lectures don’t count,” he countered, cutting off her argument.

He stormed to the bar. Hell with coffee. He needed something stronger. The irony of the situation was not lost on him. Long ago he’d beaten one addiction by trading it for another. His love of a good bourbon was acceptable, but he knew he teetered on the edge of what was healthy. Right now though, for the sake of everyone in the room, he poured himself enough to take the edge off.

Gulping it down, he took a moment to relish the pleasant burn followed by the even more pleasing calm. Collecting himself, Jake turned back to face Dana. “Did you see any tracks on her arms?”

“She’s too smart for that, and you know it.”

He did. There were lots of ways to disguise pain and the remedies people used to mask it. Taking another drink, Jake fought the sinking feeling in his gut. The bourbon was already doing its job, dulling his temper enough to let him think clearly. What Jo said made sense, and he couldn’t deny that Claire had been acting irrationally. It was more than just what she’d witnessed with Sadie today. There’d been a sadness about her over the past few months, like she was carrying the weight of the world. He’d blamed it on Dana, but maybe he was just projecting.

Had he missed it? Had he failed Claire, too?

Resigned to at least listen, he walked back to the living room. “So what do we do?”

Jo spoke up first. “This isn’t a halfway house, Jake. We’re not equipped to deal with something like this, let alone the withdrawal. She needs to go to a methadone clinic.”

“We don’t even know what she’s on,” he argued.

“After Fuller said the vic was a junkie, I did some digging. Sadie Azeez has a rap sheet a mile long. All drug charges. The last six, heroin.”

“I might have something.” Dana stood up and walked to the kitchen counter. She dug through her purse, pulling out a small round tin that looked like shoe polish.

Jake followed her. “What is that?”

“Something to help her sleep off the withdrawal. I just need to boil water to make tea.”

“I think she’s gonna need something a little stronger than tea,” Jo interjected.

“Trust me, it’ll work. Even in micro-doses it’s powerful stuff.”

“Why do you have it?” Jake asked

Dana’s gaze met his. “Insomnia.”


She shrugged, and he fought the urge to pry. He wanted to ask her what else she had in her purse, his eyes straining, as if he could see through the leather. Did she still carry the prescription bottle in case Cramer came to haunt her dreams? He wanted to ask, but that wasn’t his business. Not anymore.

“What’s in it?” Jo asked, curious now.

“Mostly valerian root and a few other herbs. It’s from a shaman in the Philippines. He’s the only one who knows the true ingredients.”

Jo blanched. “That’s a little too trusting for me.”

“Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” Dana replied.

“What cult came up with that beauty?” she teased.

Dana smirked. “It’s from the Bible, so I guess it depends on your take.”

Jo’s cheeks colored with embarrassment while Jake tried not to be impressed. Dana had always floored him with that beautiful mind of hers. Now he just hoped she’d be able to put it to use on this case.


WHEN CLAIRE CAME out of the bathroom, they had their stories straight. Jake would play “bad cop” and Jo “good cop,” which left “concerned friend” for Dana. Staging an impromptu intervention wasn’t in her plan for the evening, but at least she was comfortable with her role. She needed to regain Claire’s trust, and this was as good a way as any.

Guilt gnawed at her as she watched Claire take up her spot on the couch again. She looked so brittle as she curled her legs beneath her. There was no denying Dana was to blame for Claire’s downward spiral. If she’d been here, she would’ve spotted her struggling. Or maybe she wouldn’t have gone down this path at all.

Dana should’ve stayed put and continued to mentor her. She hadn’t meant to be gone for so long, but the book tour took on a life of its own. One lecture always led to another. Truthfully, Dana had craved the time away. She needed the distance to make sense of everything she’d been through, with Jake, the FBI, Cramer, Meredith. It was a lot to unpack. There was no doubt her sabbatical had been necessary, but she was learning there was a price for clarity, and Claire had paid it.

Dana pushed the mug of tea toward her. “Here, this will help.”

Claire took it, wrapping her boney fingers around the warm ceramic. “Help with what?”

“The detox,” Jake said.

Eyes wide, Claire stilled, the mug halfway to her lips.

“Yeah, we know you’ve been using.” Jake’s tone was sharp enough to cut.

Claire set the mug down. “No I’m not.”

Jo spoke up. “Claire, we’re all on the same team here. We want to help, but that only happens if we’re completely honest with each other.”

“Sadie was a known user,” Jake accused, “and that SUV you saw, I’d put money on it belonging to her dealer.”

“It’s not like that.”

“Then help us understand,” Dana pleaded.

Claire looked frightened, her pale eyes darting between them like a cornered animal. “I can’t.”

Dana kept her voice soft. “Why not?”

“The people Sadie worked for … it’s not safe to get involved.”

Jake scoffed. “A little late for that.”

“I’ve got a call in to one of my old TOC friends,” Jo added. “They’re looking into the SUV. It’s only a matter of time before we find out who’s behind this. The sooner you tell us, the better chance we have of apprehending them.”

On cue, her phone rang. Jo held up a finger and excused herself, her voice trailing down the hall until she disappeared into Jake’s bedroom.

Dana spoke. “Claire, I know I haven’t been here for you, and for that I’m sorry, but I want to make it up to you. We all do. But you have to let us in.”

Tears welled in Claire’s ice blue eyes, but she made no move to wipe them. “It could’ve been me.” She shook her head slowly. “Sadie was just looking for a way to fill the void, to take away the loneliness. I thought I was helping her. I thought we were helping each other.”

The pain in Claire’s voice reached inside of Dana and opened a door she’d locked the day her parents died. She knew what it felt like to have a gaping hole inside, one so cavernous it felt like it could swallow the universe. That’s why Dana had locked her emotions away. It was the only self-preservation she understood. It meant she couldn’t connect, it cost her friends and relationships, but it kept her upright.

Claire was different. She wore her pain like a badge of honor. Dressed in black clothes and gothic jewelry, there was no mistaking she’d been brushed by death’s icy hand. But somehow, she’d used it to make her stronger. Dana wanted to help her find that version of herself again. “Claire, please let us help.”

She picked up the mug of tea, her eyes meeting Dana’s. “This will get me through the withdrawals?”

Jake’s knuckles were white as he gripped the arms of his chair. Dana expected the wood to splinter, but she kept her focus on Claire. “It will.”

She took a sip, then another. “I met Sadie outside the Grave. It’s an underground club here in D.C.”

“Where?” Jake ground out.

“It’s somewhere new each time. Never the same place twice.”

“What kind of club?”

Claire looked into her tea. “Whatever you want it to be.”

Jake was standing now. “What the hell were you doing at a place like that?”

Claire shrugged. “Looking for something to fill the void.”

“Did Sadie work there?”

Claire nodded. “But I didn’t know that at first. She was fun. We’d get high and dance. That was it. She’d text me the next address, and we’d do it again, but then I started to get creeped out by the men who were there … I could tell they were bad news. I tried to get Sadie to go to other places with me, but she refused, until one night, I showed up and she wasn’t there. I asked around, and one of the other girls told me she’d OD’d. I’d seen what happened to people who partied too hard at the Grave.”

“You found her?” Dana asked.

Claire nodded. “In a dumpster off 8th. She was still alive. That’s when I took her back to the Smithsonian.”

“Why didn’t you call me?” Jake yelled.

“I wanted to, but Sadie begged me not to. That’s when she told me what was really going on at the Grave.”

“Which is?”

“Diablo, that’s what they call the guy in charge, he brought Sadie here from Venezuela. He offered to give her a job and get her family refuge in Brazil. She just had to bring a package to him first.”

Jake’s hand gripped the back of his neck. “She was a drug mule.”

“Worse. Diablo got her hooked on H and made her work at the Grave.” Claire trembled. “She told me about the things the men did to her there. She told me he threatened to have her family killed if she tried to leave. That’s why I didn’t tell you. We thought if Diablo thought she was already dead she’d be safe to leave. I was just trying to help her get clean first.”

“Except she forgot to mention she was a CIA informant,” Jake muttered. “Do you have any idea what kind of danger she put you in?”

Claire flinched at his harsh tone. “I was just trying to help her.”

“Then you should’ve come to me!”

“Jake,” Dana warned. He was taking his “bad cop” role too far. Claire was opening up to them. If they were going to rebuild their trust, she needed to tell her side of the story without judgment.

Dana moved closer to Claire on the couch. She stroked her long black hair. It was tangled and limp. “You’re telling us now. That’s what matters.”

“No, he’s right. If I’d said something earlier, we could’ve saved her.”

Dana took Claire’s hand. “We can’t change the past, but we can stop this guy from hurting anyone else.”

She nodded. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

Jake sat back down, pulling his notebook from his pocket. “This Diablo guy, what can you tell me about him?”

Claire shrugged. “Not much. I never saw him.”

“Ever heard him called by any other names?”

“How ‘bout Obasi Ikemba?” Jo asked, striding back into the room. “I just got off the phone with my TOC contact. He confirmed our SUV belongs to a dealer who goes by the name of Keke. He’s part of Ikemba’s crew.”

Jake swore.

“What?” Dana asked, not following.

“The Ikemba Cartel is the largest narcotics organization in Africa.” Jake explained. “They’ve been bankrolling the Nigerian mafia by using Venezuelan drug mules to move product from South Africa to Europe and now the states. And if they’re running the Grave, you can add human trafficking to their resume.”

“Yeah and it gets worse,” Jo added. “I got CCTV footage of the same SUV doing a second look while Metro was on site.”

Jake stood abruptly and kicked his chair, swearing again.

“I don’t understand. What does that mean?” Claire asked.

“It means they saw you, Claire. It means you’re on Ikemba’s radar, and that is not a place you want to be.”


THEY SPENT the next hour going over all the locations Claire could remember for the Grave along with the type of clientele she saw there. That plus the dump site where she’d found Sadie painted a picture Jake didn’t like. Drugs, arms, human trafficking; it was a criminal trifecta, which meant there was no way he’d be able to pry this case back from the CIA. Especially since Jo’s contacts also revealed that Fuller and his team had been tracking Obasi Ikemba for more than a year.

Jake knew it was only a matter of time until Jenkins called Fuller, trying to spin the joint task force angle. It wasn’t ideal, but at least it would mean the FBI wouldn’t be shut out. There were far too many people involved in this case that he cared about for him to be left in the dark. Three of them sat in his living room.

Caught in the middle wasn’t a place Jake liked to be. Working a case with his current flame and past flame was hard enough. Knowing Claire was a target made it worse. The pressure was seeping in, distracting him from doing his best work. Which was probably why he’d missed the connection between the Grave and Ikemba. But still, something didn’t fit.

Jo was showing Claire photographs of D.C. dealers to see if she recognized any of them from the club. So far, of the three decapitated vics, Claire recognized the first two. Jake already pegged them as low-level organized crime thugs, so Claire putting them at the Grave wasn’t news. They were probably bagmen for Ikemba. Blowing off steam at a sleazy underground club was par for the course.

The thing that bothered Jake was the third victim. He still hadn’t been identified and Claire didn’t recognize him which meant he probably wasn’t on Ikemba’s payroll. It was also where the pattern changed, playing cards to tarot cards. Then there was Sadie. Was she a part of this or were the Nigerians just tying up loose ends? A tarot card had been found at her scene too. Not jammed down her throat like the others. Another pattern change. Jake tried to get access to the card but Fuller refused.

If Ikemba was behind Sadie’s murder, then it meant the tarot cards were his calling cards. It could mean the playing cards were the signature of Ikemba’s rival, but without more to go on, it was barely a theory.

Jake hated this part of the hunt. He had more questions than answers.

Who’d left the playing cards? Was this as simple as a turf war between drug lords? And how the hell had he let Claire get tied up in it?

Again, his mind drew him back to the crime scene. From the blood spatter on the sidewalk, he’d guess the girl’s jugular had been severed. It was consistent with Claire’s account of the assault. Thanks to Sadie’s unfortunate luck of stumbling into traffic, it would be a while before forensics could confirm cause of death. The car that hit her sent her up and over, only for her to be run over by the car behind.

The corpse had reminded Jake of a broken rag doll. Purple hair, vacant eyes, twisted limbs. He hated that Claire had to see that. For him, it was just another day on the job. He’d seen a lot worse. In a way he was grateful the Army desensitized him to such brutality. But for those who weren’t, he imagined it would haunt them.

He watched Claire. She sat on the couch between Jo and Dana, her eyelids growing heavy. Dana’s potion was finally kicking in. Jake studied the women, the way they interacted. As usual, Jo was all business, but Dana looked strangely maternal as she stroked Claire’s hair or squeezed her hand. Even stranger than that, Claire let her. Whatever was in that tea must be powerful stuff. Or maybe Claire’s drug use was more than the brief recreational dabbling she was trying to brush under the rug.

Jake had seen just how deep a drug could penetrate, altering personalities until people he thought he knew became unrecognizable. A memory of his mother strapped to a hospital bed surfaced before he could stop it. He could still hear her screaming. It had been his father who’d broken her spirit, but the drugs had taken what was left. Jake refused to let that happen to anyone else he cared about.

He continued to watch the women, his eyes finding their way back to Dana as she mothered Claire. It wasn’t that Jake thought Dana was cold. He knew she cared about Claire the same way he did. But he also knew she was damaged, just like him. Dana rarely let her emotions show. She had trouble letting people in. Claire was the same way, but at the moment, she didn’t seem to mind being comforted by her mentor.

Maybe it was the tea, or maybe it was a step toward Dana and Claire reconciling. Either way he was glad to have both of them here. He always felt better when he knew they were safe. And right now, Claire needed protecting more than ever.

A moment later her head drooped onto Dana’s shoulder. “She’s out,” Dana said.

“You sure?” Jake moved to get a closer look. Sure enough Claire’s eyes were closed, her breath finding the steady rhythm of sleep.

“Now what?” Jo asked.

“We let her sleep.” Dana said.

“How much did you give her?” Jake asked.

“Enough. She’ll be out for at least eight hours.”

He nodded. “I’ll put her in my room.” Stooping between Dana and Jo he scooped Claire into his arms. She was even lighter than she looked. His chest tightened. How had he let this happen right under his nose? He’d failed her.

Gently, he carried her down the hall to his bedroom, vowing to make it up to her.


DANA WATCHED Jake disappear down the hall, Jo moving alongside him to help. Again, she was left with the nagging feeling of emptiness. Before Jake, she’d always been comfortable being invisible. If people didn’t see her, they couldn’t see her flaws, her pain, her secrets. But Jake had seen her, and he hadn’t looked away.

Now, standing alone in his apartment, it was hard to feel unseen.

Feeling like an intruder, she went about gathering her things. Jake and Jo could take it from here. Claire would spend the next eight hours or so sleeping, which was what Dana needed to do if she was going to be of any use tomorrow.

She was halfway to the door when she heard Jake’s voice behind her. “Where do you think you’re going?”

She turned to face him. He looked as tired as she felt. “Home.”

“The hell you are. You just drugged our only witness. You’re not going anywhere until she wakes up, and I know that tea isn’t worse than whatever she’s already on.”

“Do you really think I’d give her something if I wasn’t certain it was safe?”

“I don’t know what I’m certain of anymore.”

And there it was. Jake laid it out for her as plain as day. He didn’t trust her. Dana sucked in a breath, gutted. She’d saved Jake’s life, twice. He’d told her about the soldiers he’d lost. She’d told him about her parents. Hell, she’d had enough faith in him that she’d let him shoot her to get to a serial killer. How had they fallen so far from that safe space?

But that was the thing about trust. It took a lifetime to gain and a moment to lose.

Jo walked into the tension filled room. A trained FBI agent, there was no way she missed the strain between them, but she was gracious enough to try to diffuse the situation. “I’m starving. Why don’t we order some food? I’m sure Claire will be hungry when she wakes up. She likes Chinese, right?”

“Thai.” Dana and Jake said the word in unison, their eyes still locked in a showdown.

“Right.” Jo rifled through a pile of menus she pulled from one of Jake’s kitchen drawers.

“We don’t need a menu,” Jake muttered. “I’ll just order the usual.”

“Oh. Okay.” Jo shut the drawer. “Am I figured into the usual?”

Jake was still staring at Dana. When he didn’t answer, Jo cleared her throat. “Okay, I guess you can just get me whatever you’re having.”

Jake finally turned away from Dana to look at his girlfriend. “You don’t like spicy food.”

“Then I’ll have what Dana’s having.”

“It’s vegetarian,” Dana replied.

Jo gave a tight smile. “I can make that work.”

Jake pulled his phone from his pocket and quickly called in the order. “It’ll be here in twenty,” he grumbled once he’d ended the call.

“Great.” Jo stretched her hands above her head, her back popping loudly. “Mind if I take a quick shower? I’d love to get the smell of crime scene off me before we eat.”

Jake gave a stiff nod. Undeterred, Jo crossed the kitchen and kissed him. Running her hand through his short brown hair, she grinned up at him. “Everything looks better after a shower and a hot meal.” She gave him a smack on the ass. “Hooah, soldier.”

“Hooah.” Jake’s reply was automatic but lacked enthusiasm, though Jo didn’t seem to notice. She padded down the hall and disappeared into the bathroom, taking her good-natured attitude with her.

Without Jo in the room the tension returned ten-fold. For Claire’s sake, Dana knew she had to find a way to make things right. If anyone was going to break the ice, it would have to be her. “Jake, you know I’d never purposely endanger Claire.”

“Neither would I.”

“I know that.” She took a step toward him, but he moved around the kitchen island into the living room, stopping in front of the bookcase. Dana watched his gaze settle on the folded American flag. Her mind pictured the dog tags she knew he wore beneath his shirt. Was he thinking about Ramirez? “We’re going to protect her, Jake.”

“What if we can’t?”

“You can.”

He turned to face her. “Not with the CIA involved. They only care about results. Anyone who gets in the way is collateral damage.”

Dana’s skin crawled as she thought of Fuller. It seemed the snake had finally found a place where he belonged. Was Jake right? Would the CIA look the other way if Fuller’s aggression went too far?

“How do you know him, by the way?” Jake asked.


“Yeah. There’s no way we shake him off this case, so I’d like to know what I’m up against. What’s the story with you two?”

“There’s no story.”

“With you, there’s always a story.”

His words hit their mark, but Dana refused to show he’d wounded her. Jake had enough to deal with without knowing Fuller had harassed her years ago and possibly framed and murdered someone who’d been willing to help her when no one else would. Mentioning it now would do no good. Besides, it was a lifetime ago, though it seemed Fuller had staying power when it came to holding a grudge.

Let him, she thought. He may have found where he belongs, but so had she. She wasn’t the same scared girl she’d been back then. She’d slayed demons worse than him. If he came at her again, she’d be ready.

“There’s really nothing to tell,” she said. “Our paths crossed a long time ago. He was a jerk then, he’s a jerk now.” Jake didn’t look convinced, but Dana shifted the conversation back to what mattered. “Why didn’t you tell me what was going on with Claire?”

“I didn’t think you cared.”

“That’s not fair, Jake.”

“Yeah, it didn’t feel very fair when you left her behind either.”

“I left to go on my book tour. To shed light on the Priory of Bones so their darkness wouldn’t infect anyone else. Claire knew that.”

“You’re too smart to play dumb, Dana.”

She threw her hands up. “And you’re too blind to see what’s right in front of you!”

“Just what the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means it doesn’t matter why I left. I’m back now and I’m here to help Claire, so get over yourself so we can keep her safe.”

Anger simmered off Jake in waves, his nostrils flaring. She watched him chew the inside of his cheek for a full five seconds before he muttered, “Fine.”

He turned his back on her and walked over to his wet bar to pour another drink. Dana’s mind immediately jumped to another time when she’d come here to share a drink with him. She shoved the memory back into her vault and locked it away. Changing gears, she asked, “How is she managing her course work in the middle of all of this?”

“She’s not.”

Dana stilled. “What do you mean, she’s not?”

Jake corked his bourbon and faced her. “She took a break.”

“Jake! PhD candidates don’t get breaks! She’s on an accelerated program.”

“Considering I’m focused on trying to keep her alive, I’d say PhD’s can wait.”

“How could you let this happen?”

Jake crossed the room so quickly Dana barely had time to keep her balance. She backed into the wall. With nowhere else to go, Jake invaded her space. His breath was warm with a hint of bourbon as it caressed her skin. To an outsider, they might look intimate, but there was nothing inviting about the way he was looking at her. “Don’t you dare blame this on me. We both let her down.”

Dana swallowed hard. “You’re right.”

“We need to fix this.” Jake stood there, glaring at her like he was waiting for her to tell him how. He was a man tormented by the guilt of past failings. She wouldn’t add to them.

“We will,” she promised, though she hadn’t the slightest clue where they went from here.

The doorbell rang, breaking the spell that held them a breath apart. Jake stepped away first, leaving Dana feeling like she did before she’d left—unsteady.


JENKINS CALLED THE NEXT MORNING. Just like Jake predicted, they’d been assigned to a joint task force with the CIA and a select few members of Metro police. Fuller was running point. So far, the only thing going Jake’s way was the fact that he’d gotten some shut-eye.

He’d set up shifts to watch Claire through the night while still managing to give each of them some rest. Jake had strategically set the schedule, so he was never alone with Dana. He didn’t trust himself. They needed to put the past behind them and find a way to work together for Claire’s sake, but he didn’t know how. And until he did, he planned to keep his distance when he could.

Currently, Dana was sitting at his kitchen island with Jo, pouring over the new evidence the CIA had sent over while Jake made eggs. It felt strangely domestic, despite the fact that both women were pouring over crime scene photos like it was a Sky Mall catalog.

Jake put a plate of eggs in front of Jo and she grinned. “Thanks, babe.”

“Dana, what can I make for you?”

“Coffee’s fine,” she said, taking a sip from the mug in front of her.

“You’ve got to try Jake’s eggs,” Jo prodded. “They’re the best.”

Dana eyed the eggs distastefully. “I’m a vegetarian.”

“That’s right. Do you want some of your leftovers from last night? Oh, or I think I saw a waffle maker in the cabinet. Jake, why don’t you whip her up some waffles?”

Dana’s dark brown eyes met his. They filled with regret before she looked back into her coffee. “I don’t really have much of an appetite for waffles these days.”

Jake cleared his throat, trying not to read too much into her comment. They’re just waffles, Jake. Let it go. He looked at Jo. “Anything new to go on?”

“Yeah, too much. This is like a year’s worth of research.”

“Did the CIA give us access to the tarot card from yesterday’s scene yet?” Dana asked.

“No. They claim they’re still processing evidence from yesterday.” Jo pushed her laptop toward Dana, presumably showing her the BS chain of command email they’d received this morning.

Dana frowned. “How do they expect us to get anywhere without all the evidence?”

“They don’t,” Jake answered, his tone flat. “This evidence dump is the first of many roadblocks.”

Jo explained when Dana blinked her big brown eyes in confusion. “It’s basically a bureaucratic needle in a haystack situation. It’s something other agencies do when they’re told to cooperate but don’t want to.”

“Then what’s the point of a joint task force?” Dana asked.

“Good question,” Jake muttered.

“They do work,” Jo defended. “Although I have to admit they work better when they’re conceptualized and created from the ground up, not cobbled together at the eleventh hour.”

“How do you know so much about this?”

Jo shrugged. “Lawyer’s kid.”

Jake huffed a laugh. “Modest.”

“Okay,” Jo conceded, “My father’s the DA, but to me he’s just Dad. He puts his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else.”

Jake smirked. “Somehow I don’t think anyone else can get away with saying that about Stonewall Walsh.”

“He hates that nickname, by the way.” Jo continued perusing the files. “I’m pretty sure my time could be better spent seeking out some of my old CIs.”

“Not by yourself,” Jake shot back.

Jo gave him her famous don’t patronize me glare. “Yes, because I need you to hold my hand. Remind me, were you there on my first tour in Afghanistan or was it my third? Oh, that’s right, neither.”

“I’m not questioning your ability, Jo. I’m just suggesting teamwork.”

“And I’m suggesting you sit this one out. My CIs will take one look at you and be in the wind.”

“Fine, but you need backup. Call Fuller and get someone from the task force to go with you.”

“I’ll go,” Dana offered.

Jake’s temper spiked. He gripped the dishrag in his hand to keep from cracking his knuckles. “That’s not the kind of backup I had in mind.”

Now he had both women glaring at him.

“Why not?” Dana challenged. “You’re the one who wanted me on this case.”

Actually, no he wasn’t. This clusterfuck was Jenkins’ doing, but he couldn’t very well say that.

“See, look at that,” Jo boasted, testing his patience. “I have back up. And someone from the task force, no less.”

“I meant take someone in law enforcement,” Jake ground out.

Jo turned to Dana. “Was he always this hard to work with?”

Dana smirked. “You have no idea.”

Jake conceded. “Fine, we’ll all go.”

“Someone needs to stay with Claire,” Dana objected.

He scoffed. “And I’m the obvious choice for babysitter in this scenario?”

“Who needs a babysitter?” Claire asked.

She stood in the hallway, dwarfed in Jake’s oversized ARMY sweatshirt. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her black hair stuck out in every direction. “Good morning,” Jake greeted. “You hungry? We got Thaiphoon last night. I saved you some dumplings.”

Claire shook her head.

Concern softened Jake’s voice. “You need to eat something, Claire.”

“What you need is more tea,” Dana said, crossing the kitchen to turn the kettle on. She fetched her tin and scooped some of the powdered concoction into a mug. Setting it back inside her purse she felt Claire’s forehead. “How do you feel?”

“Like I’m gonna be sick,” she said before rushing from the kitchen.

Jake flinched when he heard the bathroom door slam. His eyes met Dana’s, matching her unease. “How much longer will she be like this?”

“If she was truthful about the last time she used, I’d say the next twenty-four hours will be the worst of it.”

“Are you sure we shouldn’t take her to a clinic?” Jo asked.

Jake shook his head. “I’m not letting her out of my sight until I’m sure she’s not on Ikemba’s hit list.”

“Then it’s settled,” Dana said, pouring the boiling water. “You’ll stay here with Claire, while Jo and I go talk to her CI.”


“THAT WAS LIKE POETRY BACK THERE,” Jo said as she turned on 6th Street. “You just effortlessly spun Jake’s argument back on him. You’ve got to teach me how to do that.”

“I think you do well enough on your own.”

“Well sure, being able to hold my own comes with the territory. I didn’t make it this far in a career dominated by men with inflated egos without knowing how to play the game. But Jake’s different.”

Dana arched an eyebrow. “How so?”

“Well for one he’s the most pig-headed man I’ve ever met. Don’t get me wrong, he can be incredibly sweet too. But the moment we started dating he turned into this overprotective goon. It drives me nuts. Did you have to deal with that when you were partners?”

Dana cringed at the word, realizing she’d assumed they were more. “It can be frustrating, but it’s natural to want to protect the people we care about.”

“I get that. But he acts like this is my first rodeo. I’ve served as many tours as he has, and I’ve been with the Bureau longer.”

Dana gripped the door as Jo took a screeching left onto O Street. “It’s nice that you have so much in common.”

“Tell me about it.” Jo grinned. “Finding decent men to date in this city is impossible. Finding one that understands this job and the military …” She laughed. “Jake Shepard is a goddamn unicorn. I can’t tell you how great it is to be able to talk about Afghanistan with someone who gets it.”

Dana swallowed something that tasted too close to jealousy. “He talks to you about that?”

“When he needs to.”

“Good. I’m glad he found someone he can open up to.”

Jo laughed. “I don’t know if I’d use those exact words. I practically need a can opener to pry anything out of him. The man’s like Fort Knox when it comes to emotions, but I get it. We went through some dark shit over there. It’s not something that’s easy to let out in front of anyone who hasn’t lived it.”

“Why not?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess it feels like it might make people view us differently. It’d be like someone seeing your kill sheet, rather than seeing you. We were different people over there. We had to be. For me, I left that life behind when I started at the Bureau. But I think Jake still carries it with him.”

Dana agreed. She wished he’d let it out before it ate him alive. She knew the burden of carrying a painful past. She hadn’t exactly gotten closure with her parents’ murders, but at least it wasn’t something she had to hide anymore. Maybe now that Jake had Jo, he wouldn’t have to hide either.

Uncomfortable with the heaviness settling over the car, Dana changed the subject. “So why’d you choose the FBI?”

“It sorta chose me.”

“How do you mean?”

“When I was discharged, my dad was working this big mob case. I didn’t have a job so he hired me on at his office. I helped dig up the dirt they needed to prosecute the scumbag. Next thing I know I get a call from the FBI to work organized crime. I jumped in with both feet.”

It was hard not to like the woman. She was strong, funny, confident and gave Dana the respect most people in the Bureau didn’t. “I haven’t had a chance to thank you, Agent Walsh.”

“Please, call me Jo. And what are you thanking me for?”

“For helping Claire.”

“The way I see it, she’s family. Like you said, we protect the people we care about. Claire’s important to Jake, so she’s important to me. Same goes for you.”

Dana didn’t know what to say, only that she wished she could hate the beautiful blonde agent next to her. But so far, Jo’s only flaw seemed to be her driving skills. She veered onto 7th. “Ya know, I’m really glad we get to work this case together.”

“You are?”

“Well, yeah. I wasn’t kidding when I said you’re a legend at the Bureau. Getting to work with the great Dr. Gray before I transfer to HRT is the perfect bookend to my career in D.C.”

“You’re leaving D.C.?”

Shock flashed across Jo’s flawless complexion. “Jake didn’t tell you?”

Dana shook her head, not wanting the excitement coursing through her to seep into her voice.

“I guess you two haven’t had much time to catch up. Besides Jenkins, you’re the only one who knows. As soon as this case is over, I’m heading to Denver to start training. I’m still pinching myself. HRT has been my dream since I was a kid.” She laughed at herself. “I know, most little girls don’t dream of joining the FBI’s most elite tactical unit, but what can I say, I was an Army brat. This lifestyle is just in my blood.”

“What about Jake?”

“He’s been incredibly supportive. Honestly it was an easy choice to accept the position once I found a spot in the Denver field office for him. It’s all falling into place. Now we just have to wrap up this Card Killer case.”

Dana gripped the door handle, as Jo’s words harpooned her hope. Jake was leaving. The news stunned her. She hadn’t realized she still held hope that somehow, they’d get back to that place they’d been before she left. But this was the final blow. She’d taken him for granted, and now she had to deal with the repercussions.

That hollow space in Dana’s heart pulsed with regret. Silencing it with thoughts of the case helped. Claire was someone else she’d taken for granted, but she wasn’t lost yet, and Dana was determined to keep it that way.


DANA FELT queasy as she exited Jo’s SUV in the pay-to-park lot, unsure if it was from the agent’s breakneck driving or the news she’d shared. Still reeling, Dana did her best to focus on the case as they walked the short distance to a tattoo parlor on 9th.

“I’ll warn you,” Jo said. “Needles is a sleaze ball, but he’s harmless.”

“All that matters is that he gives us a lead.”

“If anyone knows what Ikemba is up to, it’ll be Needles. He specializes in inking lowlifes. His shop is like a gossip hub for gangbangers and drug lords.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“The plan is to let me do the talking. If I can get Needles to ID our third vic, we can figure out if this is a cartel war or something else.”

“What about Claire?”

“If you want to keep her safe, keep her name out of your mouth around Needles.”

“But how will we know if Ikemba is coming after her?”

“We won’t.”

Dana stopped walking. “Then what are we doing here?”

“We’re trying to gather dirt. With enough of it we might be able to bury Ikemba. Our best chance of protecting Claire is getting him off the streets.”

“That’s it? Just gather dirt? That’s not good enough.”

Jo exhaled. “I know. But right now, it’s all we have.” When Dana didn’t reply, she pressed on. “Look, I know it’s hard, but you need to trust me. I’m good at wh