Tori Hunter leaned back in her camp chair and watched with amusement as her best friend attempted to get the fire going.
“O’Connor, what the hell are you doing?”
“Lighter fluid.” Casey paused. “Unless you want to get your ass up and help.”
“No, no. I’m fine. But after you blow that thing up, would you bring me a beer?”
Casey turned to her. “Are you going to get up and do anything?”
“I’m on vacation. I think that’s what you promised me when I agreed to come out here, wasn’t it? That you’d take care of everything and I could relax,” Tori reminded her.
“Yeah, but as bossy as you are, I didn’t think you could stand it.”
Casey gave her a crooked smile. “Oh, yeah, Hunter. You.”
“Come on. I’ve mellowed in the last few years. That’s what Sam says. Some people might even say I’m nice now.”
Casey laughed. “Name me one of your colleagues who would use that word. And I mean current colleagues. You can’t use John. You saved his life. He’s got to say that.”
Her current team flashed through her mind quickly and . . . okay. So maybe Casey had a point.
“Yeah. Thought so,” Casey teased as she headed toward their rented RV, presumably to fetch the beer she’d requested.
Tori smiled at her, then took a deep breath of the fresh mountain air, so different from the city air she was used to. She had to admit, it was relaxing, this camping trip that Casey and Leslie had talked them into. She’d balked at first. A trip to New Mexico? In a rented motor home? For a whole damn week? No, not her thing. But Sam had thought it would be fun and Casey had badgered her enough that she finally agreed. Back in Dallas, the four of them hung out whenever their schedules allowed, which seemed to be less and less lately. Casey and Leslie still worked Homicide and Sam was still at CIU. Tori had moved on to the FBI a few years ago now. She would like to say she loved it, but the truth was, she missed Homicide and she missed working with Casey. But after what had happened to John Sikes, after the whole Patrick Doe thing, she needed a change. She hadn’t even told Sam yet, but she was thinking about going back to the Dallas Police Department. That was one reason she’d agreed to this trip. She wanted time away to think things over and decide if she was ready to go back. She didn’t want to get Sam’s hopes up if she wasn’t sure.
“Here you go, princess,” Casey said as she handed Tori a bottle of beer.
“Thanks.” Tori glanced toward the RV. “What are they doing in there?”
“Sam is making some sort of rice dish and Leslie is seasoning the chicken.” Casey pulled her chair closer. “This is great, isn’t it? We could be back home sweltering in the heat. September and it’s still in the upper 90s there. That’s crazy.” She took a deep breath. “Instead, we’re up here in the mountains. No humidity. It’s nice and cool. And we’re getting to see a little early fall color.” She clanked her beer bottle against Tori’s in a silent salute. “It’s great up here, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is.” Tori took a swallow from her beer. “Thanks for making me do this.”
“Yeah.” Casey took a swallow of beer too. “You know, they want to go into Taos tomorrow. How about we let them go and you and I hike down to that trout stream the ranger was telling us about?”
Tori raised her eyebrows. “You think they’ll go for it?”
Casey nodded and grinned. “Yeah. We’ll just whine enough. They’ll be glad to get rid of us.”
“Well, it’s been a while since we’ve been fishing.”
“It’s been a while since we’ve hung out,” Casey reminded her. “That’s why I thought this vacation would do us all good. You’ve been a little, well, cranky lately.”
Tori laughed. “Cranky? Me?”
“You need to talk about something?” Casey offered.
Tori nodded. She’d met Casey by chance. Casey was still with Special Victims Unit back when they’d assigned her to Homicide to work a case. They’d hit it off immediately, something very rare for Tori. Back then, she didn’t have any friends, only Sam. But she and Casey had clicked right away. She found it was as easy to talk to Casey as it was to Sam.
“I’m thinking of leaving the FBI,” she said.
“Really? I thought you loved it.”
Tori shrugged. “It was a nice change. I needed it.”
“It’s just goddamn politics all the time. I hate that part of it.” She looked over at her. “Truth is, I miss Homicide. I miss the team.”
“You want to come back?”
“Maybe. What do you think?”
“Oh, hell yeah, Hunter, that’d be great. You know Lieutenant Malone would find a spot for you, no problem. Maybe me and you, you know.”
“You recently got a new partner though.”
“Yeah, and I like him okay. I mean, he’s not Leslie, don’t get me wrong,” she said with smile. “But I’m not really attached to him or anything. Besides, he thinks I talk too much.”
Tori laughed. “Now that’s a surprise.”
“No. Seriously. You going to come back?”
“It’s been on my mind a lot lately.”
“What does Sam think?”
“I haven’t told her. I wanted to be sure.” She took another swallow of her beer. “Our schedules are so off, we don’t have nearly as much time together anymore. I know she’d be thrilled if I went back.”
“Yeah, we all would.”
“We’ll see. Career-wise, that’d be taking a step back, you know.”
“Oh, please. You FBI types always think you’re on the top of the world,” Casey said with a laugh.
“That’s because we are, O’Connor.”
They looked up as a truck sped their way, then slammed to a stop. It was a dusty green Forest Service truck and a ranger got out, practically running toward them.
“You’re law enforcement, right?” he asked quickly. “They told me you were. I got a situation.”
“A situation?” Casey asked. “We’re kinda out of our jurisdiction, you know. I’m Dallas PD.” Casey pointed at Tori. “Hunter here is FBI. I guess maybe that would fly.”
“What’s going on?” Tori asked.
“I got a distress call from the wife of one of my rangers,” he said as he twisted his hands together nervously. “This is his day off. She said someone was in their house, that he had a gun. I heard shots and the line went dead.”
“Yeah, I called them, but they got a huge mess down on Highway 64. They got five cars involved, but they got gunshot victims too,” he explained. “They’re sending someone up here as soon as they can, but I got a bad feeling. I mean, I heard shots on the phone. I need somebody right now.”
Tori looked at Casey. “I guess we could go take a look.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Casey got up. “I’ll get our weapons and tell Sam and Les.”
But they had already come outside. Sam walked up to her, her eyes questioning. “Everything okay?”
“I think so. He wants us to check out something. Possible home invasion,” she said. “It’s going to be a little while before the sheriff’s department gets here. Thought we’d go take a look.”
“Okay. We’ll hold off dinner then.”
“We’ll be right back.” She hesitated a second as she looked at Sam, her gut telling her not to leave for some reason. She felt a bit embarrassed with the ranger watching, so she shook it off and pulled Sam into a quick hug. “Be right back,” she whispered into her ear.
“He’s got two daughters,” he said as he turned onto a small dirt road that cut into the forest. “I don’t know their ages. One is in high school. The other is, oh, I don’t know, ten or eleven, I guess.”
The road opened into a rocky clearing, and a small log cabin came into view. It blended well with the trees and rocks, and Tori had time to think how appealing it looked. But the ranger slammed on his brakes and her gaze was brought to the body lying on the road.
“Oh, shit,” Casey murmured.
She and Casey got out. Tori pointed to the ranger. “You stay here.”
He nodded, his eyes wide. “That . . . oh, God, that’s the oldest daughter.”
They walked forward. Casey squatted down, touching the girl’s neck. She looked up at Tori and shook her head.
“Shot. Back of the head.”
“Looks like she was running toward the road,” Tori said quietly, her eyes on the house. She pulled out her weapon and Casey did the same. Tori motioned with her head to the left and Casey headed that way. Tori moved slowly to the right, listening. But it was quiet. Too quiet. There wasn’t even a bird to be heard.
Casey pointed around the side, indicating she was going to the back of the house. Tori nodded, then walked up on the porch. The front door was ajar. A bloody hand print was smeared on the side. She pushed it open slowly, the hinges squeaking as the door swung inward. A man was on the floor, face down. Blood pooled around his head. She stepped over him, going into the living room.
She heard Casey enter from the back. The kitchen, she assumed. She took the hallway, opening the bedroom doors. All three were empty and looked undisturbed.
“Clear,” she called.
“Clear,” Casey called back.
Tori went back to the living room and into the kitchen. Casey met her at the door.
“Found the wife,” she said. “Dead.”
Tori nodded. “Yeah. Got a male by the front door. I assume the husband.”
“The wife was shot in the face,” Casey said. “Could have been while she was on the phone.”
“Bedrooms looked undisturbed,” she said. “Maybe the younger daughter wasn’t home.”
“Or maybe he took her.” Casey shook her head. “What the fuck happened here, Hunter?”
“I don’t know. It’s like they were executed. All shot in the head.” She headed back to the door. “Let me get the ranger in here to make a positive ID.”
With a little coaxing, Sam got the campfire going again. She would make a point to let Casey know she’d done it without lighter fluid too.
“Only three days and police work comes into play,” Leslie said as she sat down beside her.
“I know. We all needed a break. I hope it’s nothing serious.” Sam leaned closer. “And now that we’re alone, tell me about this house you’re looking at.”
Leslie’s eye lit up as she smiled. “We’ve been talking about buying for a few months now. And of course, the first thing Casey did was look in your area.”
“That would be great, you know. It seems like it’s so hard for all of us to get together lately. I know Tori misses spending time with Casey.”
“Casey too,” Leslie said. “I don’t want to crowd you, though. If Casey had her way, we’d move next door.”
Sam laughed. “And I think that would be fine with Tori too.”
“What do you think about—”
“Help! Help us!”
They turned, seeing a man dragging a young girl. She was covered in blood. They jumped up, hurrying toward him.
“What happened?” Leslie asked as she took hold of the girl.
Sam was about to do the same when the man pulled out a gun, using it to smash against Leslie’s head. Leslie fell limply to the ground, taking the girl with her.
“No!” Sam yelled, turning, grabbing the man’s hand, but he twisted away, wrapping an arm tight around her neck and pressing the barrel of his gun against her temple.
“Don’t think I won’t shoot you.”
Sam drew in quick, short breaths of air, but she stopped struggling against his hold. She turned her head, glancing to the ground where Leslie lay. She was bleeding from a wound to her head, unconscious. The girl who lay beside her appeared to be dead.
“Who . . . who are you?”
“Not your concern.” He pulled her roughly after him, his arm still holding her tightly around her neck. Up the steps of the RV they went, and Sam’s eyes darted to a drawer beside the television. Her weapon was there, but if she disabled him, she wasn’t sure she could get to it in time.
He flung her down on the small sofa, the gun aimed at her head. “Put some jeans on. Hiking boots too.”
She frowned. “What? Why?”
“I am not in the mood for stupid questions. Do it,” he yelled.
They had flipped a coin for sleeping arrangements, and she and Tori had won the bedroom as opposed to the fold-out sofa. She got up slowly, holding her hands up. She pointed into the bedroom. “My . . . my clothes are in there.”
“You have fifteen seconds.”
She had her back to him as she took her shorts off and slipped on jeans. Her hands were trembling slightly as she found her hiking socks and put them on, her mind whirling as she tried to figure out what to do.
She barely had time to put her boots on before he grabbed her arm and pulled her up. “Sweatshirt and a jacket.”
“Where . . . where are you taking me?”
“You don’t get to ask questions.”
She was a cop, yet she felt so helpless. If this was Tori, the man would already be dead. But she wasn’t Tori and she wasn’t about to try to disarm him. If she failed, she had no doubt he would kill her. So she did as he said, only it was Tori’s sweatshirt she grabbed instead of her own. That brought some comfort to her as she slipped it over her head.
He pulled her back outside and pushed her down to the ground. She looked over at Leslie, who still hadn’t moved.
“On your knees,” he said. “Cross your ankles. Hands behind your head.”
She did as she was told, her body trembling from fear as she raised her hands over her head and locked her fingers together. Was he going to execute her? No. He’d had her change clothes for a reason. He ripped down the rope they’d strung up to hang their towels on to dry. A sheath on his leg produced a large knife, and he cut the rope in half. He walked over to her, then jerked her up.
“Hold your hands out.”
Her eyes were locked on the knife, and she did has she was told, knowing once she was tied up any thought of escape would be gone. Her bound hands were tied to a nearby tree.
He took the remaining rope and tied Leslie’s hands to those of the girl’s. Sam stared helplessly as Leslie was tied up.
“Is she . . . is she dead?”
“The girl? Yeah. Your friend here, no.” He held his knife up. “Should I finish her off?”
“Please . . . don’t,” Sam whispered.
“And if I spare her, what do I get in return?”
“What . . . what do you want?”
He said nothing. He walked back toward the road from where he’d come. For a moment, Sam thought he was leaving. But he bent down, pulling out a large backpack from behind a tree. He slipped it over his shoulders and headed back toward her. He paused at the water spigot, moving his hands under the stream of water. Washing off blood. When he looked at her, Sam averted her eyes. She heard him walk near and he untied the rope from the tree.
“Lift your arms.”
She did, trying to decide if she was strong enough to fight him. He took the excess rope that dangled from her wrists and pulled it up roughly, halting her thoughts. He wrapped it around her waist, then tied to around his own.
“There. Now we’re attached. No escape.” He tightened the rope a little more. “And in case you’re wondering, I can kill as quickly with my bare hands as I can with my gun or knife.”
Sam met his eyes fully for the first time. She expected evil. She expected insanity. Instead, she found neither. Intelligent brown eyes looked back at her.
“What . . . what is it that you want?”
“A hostage.” He held up his knife again. “In exchange, I won’t cut your friend’s throat.”
Tori ran her hands through her hair, noting that they were trembling. Her stomach was in knots and her chest hurt. Sam . . . please.
She turned, meeting Casey’s concerned eyes. She nodded. “How’s Les?”
“They’re going to take her to the hospital,” Casey said. “She said a man came out of the woods dragging the girl. They didn’t know she was dead. When they went to help, he hit her with something. When she came to, she was tied to the girl.” She paused. “Sam was gone.”
“You called your people, right?”
“Yeah. I’m supposed to wait for a call from some guy named Murdock.” She let her frustration show. “Goddamn, O’Connor. The bastard took Sam and I’m supposed to wait? What the hell?”
“What else can you do?”
“What can I do?” she asked loudly. “I can fucking go after her, that’s what.” She headed to the motorhome as if to do just that, but Casey grabbed her arm.
“It’s dark, Tori. Come on. Where you gonna go, huh? Head north?” Then she pointed into the woods. “Or maybe head out there into the woods somewhere? I think that’s west. Hell, Hunter, or go south. Maybe he went that way. Or maybe he had a car and took the highway. Nobody knows where he went. The sheriff’s department is up to their eyeballs in crime scenes. They’ve got the house here. They’ve got the accident on the highway where four people were shot. I heard one of them say they found a car south of Taos with two bodies, both shot at close range. They’re thinking that may be linked to the accident. So you’ve got to wait, Hunter.”
“Goddamn, O’Connor,” she muttered, knowing Casey was right.
“You can’t just head out into the woods like a crazy woman, Tori,” Casey said. “We wait for a team to get here.”
“He killed that family like it was nothing,” she said, snapping her fingers. “What the hell do you think he’ll do to Sam?”
“He took her because he needs her. If he wanted her dead, she would be. So would Leslie.” Casey released her arm. “Now, anything disturbed inside?” she asked, motioning to the motorhome.
Tori swallowed down the lump in her throat. “She changed into jeans. Her shorts were on the floor. Hiking boots missing.” She closed her eyes. “And my sweatshirt.”
Tori shook her head. “It’s still in the drawer. So is her cell.” She flicked her gaze to the approaching paramedic.
“Excuse me, but we’re heading out,” he said to Casey. “Did you want to go?”
Casey looked at her and Tori nodded. “Go on, O’Connor. Be with Leslie.”
Casey walked over to her and hugged her quickly. “Don’t do anything stupid, Hunter. Wait for the team.”
Tori managed a small smile. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Casey left and Tori turned her gaze back to the ever-darkening forest. She closed her eyes. Sam . . . please be okay. She had never felt so helpless as she did in that moment. She wasn’t used to feeling helpless and she wasn’t used to waiting. She was used to doing.
She returned her gaze to the trees beyond the motorhome. That was where he took her. She didn’t know how she knew, but she felt it in her gut, in her heart. That was where he took Sam. She took a few steps in that direction, then stopped. She knew it would be futile to set out alone.
And alone was what she was. She stared up into the night sky, feeling as lonely at that moment as she had when her family was killed when she was a child. Maybe more so. She knew Sam meant everything to her, knew Sam was the most important thing in her life. She knew that. But she didn’t count on the complete emptiness she felt at her absence.
She heard a twig snap, and she turned, surprised to see Casey heading toward her.
“What the hell, O’Connor?”
Casey shrugged and stepped close to her, their shoulders touching.
“You’re supposed to be with Les.”
Casey shook her head. “Right now, I think you need me more than she does.”
“Oh, hell, Casey. You need to be with her.”
“I need to be with you.” Casey bumped her shoulder. “Besides, she made me stay.”
Tori nodded. Yeah, Leslie would do that. “Okay.”
“Come on,” Casey said. “We got that bottle of Scotch. I think we need a drink.”
Tori’s gaze drifted back toward the forest. “Yeah. Okay.” She looked at Casey. “But I don’t want to talk, O’Connor.”
“Hell, we’re not going to talk. We’re going to drink and wait for your people to call you.”