My pulse thumped in my ears, and my breaths whooshed, ragged and quick. I leapt over a fallen tree, near the creek, and my boot landed hard in a puddle. Thick, heavy mud slashed my pant leg as the beam from my flashlight danced wildly through the tall pines.
Neither of us could keep up this pace for long. My lungs burned as I sucked in the crisp fall air.
“Suspect considered armed,” dispatch said in my ear.
I swore, panting, as I sidestepped a rotten tree trunk. “Teek…don’t…make me…shoot you!”
He gave a high-pitched squeal. “You’ll never take me alive!”
I swore again.
In the moonlight up ahead, Corbin “Teek” Fleming was slowing. A good sign for me and my screaming thighs. I slipped the hood off my weapon. “Let me see your hands!”
He tripped and pitched forward, losing his bag of potato chips in an explosive shower above his head. I caught up as he tried to scramble to his feet. Securing my gun, I tackled him into the pine needles and dirt. “Don’t you fight me!”
Teek squirmed, his torso making a loud crunching sound. More chips, I assumed. Something was in his left hand. I straddled his back, holding his arms with my knees, and shined my flashlight on what he was holding. It was long and black, with a green tip. I looked over the rest of him. Bright red T-shirt, pants barely hanging onto his ass, and one safety-yellow sneaker. The other foot was bare.
I panned back to his hand. “Is that a sock over a cucumber?”
I reached for his “gun.” He twisted, and I rocked forward on my knees until he yelped and stopped moving. I yanked the vegetable away and pulled off the sock. “Oh, you’re right. It’s a zucchini.” I tossed it onto the ground and pulled his arm back behind him. “Anybody else might have shot you, you know that?”
“I’m a lone wolf, Nyx. Wanted, dead or alive.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I handcuffed his right wrist and called into dispatch. “Delta Three, suspect in custody.”
I pulled Teek to his feet. “What were you thinking?”
“I was hungry.” A potato chip was lodged in the strawberry-blond scruff that hid his chin dimple.
“So you held up the Mini Market with a squash, while an army of police officers hung out in the parking lot? Genius.”
“They’re gonna write books about me.”
“Sure they are. How’d you get here?”
I rolled my eyes. “I am fully aware of how you got in the woods. How did you get to the gas station?”
“Oh, I walked.” He lifted his face toward the moon and howled. It was a long walk around the lake from the Boro, and Teek didn’t have a driver’s license or a car.
Officer Brian Everly, the newest member of the eight-person Delta team, met up with us halfway through the woods, on our way back. He was young and lanky, in desperate need of some protein shakes and a treadmill. “You got him?” he panted, doubling over to grip his knees.
“Yeah, I got him. Are you gonna make it, Everly?” I slapped his chest as I escorted Teek past him.
“I was right behind you.”
“Yeah, when we left the parking lot.” I flashed a grin over my shoulder.
He held up his middle finger. “Hey, where’s his shoe?”
“Who knows? Apparently, lone wolves don’t need shoes. Right, Teek?”
“That’s right,” he said proudly.
Everly fell into step beside me. “Did you get his weapon?”
I laughed. “Yep. I’ll probably make a salad later.”
“He wasn’t armed.”
“I have arms,” Teek said, rattling his handcuffs.
“Is he high?” Everly asked.
“The story is he’s been high for a couple of years. His friends say he ate a handful of acid tabs and never came back.”
Teek stumbled. “Drugs are bad. Just say no.”
Looking at Everly, I gestured toward Teek as if to say, “See?”
“Wow,” Everly said.
“Get used to seeing him. I’ve taken him to Sterling Heights at least three times this year.”
“No Sterling Frights,” Teek said, cringing. Sterling Heights was the mental health center.
“Oh, you’re going to jail tonight, my friend. That’s what happens when you rob people and run.”
Only three squad cars remained in the parking lot of the Mini Market when we emerged from the woods. Eric Jones was standing by his door, eating a corndog. Jones was tall and thick muscled. A fellow combat vet with a shiny, bald black head. Bright-yellow mustard was smeared from the corner of his mouth up his cheek.
He swallowed the bite in his mouth and grinned at me. “Beefing up your resume with an armed-robbery capture?”
“Yeah, I’m sure the board will be very impressed by a suspect armed with a zucchini.”
“It wasn’t a gun. It was a zucchini inside his sock.”
Jones bit down on the insides of his lips.
“You said it was a squash,” Teek said.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
“You got him?” a woman yelled from the door of the convenience store.
I waved. “We got him, Sally!”
“Thank you, Nyx!” Sally Penrod, the night-shift clerk, held up a thumb and walked back inside.
“Where’s everybody else?” I asked Jones.
“Called to handle a ‘delicate matter’”—Jones used air quotes—“at the Drexler. So, of course, everyone is headed that way.”
“You going too?”
“Bet your ass.”
With lakeview chalets going for over $10,000 per night, the swanky resort, golf course, and casino drew an always-interesting clientele. The last time we were called to handle something “delicate,” a hammered and naked Hollywood A-lister (not naming names) was tearing up the hotel golf course with a Bugatti.
Needless to say, no one was missing out this time.
Jones looked down. “Where’s his shoe?”
I tugged on Teek’s arm. “Did you stash it somewhere around here?”
Teek lifted both shoulders and his eyebrows.
“Guess you’re going to jail without it. Come on.” I walked Teek to my unmarked black patrol car and opened the back door. He stepped into my back seat, and as I reached to hold his blond head…
All our heads whipped in the direction of the lake. Smoke billowed up through the moonlight from somewhere around the Drexler.
“That wasn’t me,” Teek said, breaking our stunned silence.
“Officer down!” Corporal Mason Baker yelled, breathless, over the frequency. “Explosion at the Drexler, north side, near the chalets. We need medical!”
Jones tossed what was left of his corndog into his car.
“Who else is there?” I demanded as I hurried Teek into the back seat.
“Sarge and Rivera, I think,” Jones replied, getting in his driver’s seat.
Everly was still frozen to the concrete. “Get in your damn car!” I yelled at him as I got behind my wheel.
“I’ve never driven Code Three by myself.” His eyes were as wide as the moon above us.
“Go!” I slammed my door and flipped on my lights and siren. Then I floored the gas pedal.
My radio beeped as I followed Jones onto the highway. “Delta One,” a deep, winded voice said.
My heart eased a bit.
“Go ahead, Delta One,” dispatch replied.
“All officers are OK and accounted for,” Sergeant “Sarge” Essex said.
I exhaled fully for the first time since the explosion.
“Roll medical and fire. Possible casualties inside Chalet One-Ten on the golf course.”
At ninety miles per hour down the winding mountain pass, Jones, Everly, and I peeled through the entrance of the Drexler before Sergeant Tyler Essex even stopped reporting over the radio. In my back seat, Teek wailed along with the siren.
“Holy shit,” I said when I rounded the steep curve toward the back of the golf course.
The chalet, once a bi-level, wood-and-stone marvel that faced the sixteenth hole on one side and Sapphire Lake on the other, was now split down the middle. Raging flames devoured the crevice as black-and-gray smoke swirled toward the stars. Even the surrounding sugar pines glittered with embers against the cloudy night sky.
I parked beside Sergeant Essex’s unmarked black SUV and opened my door. “Teek, sit tight.”
He didn’t answer; his wide-eyed face was plastered to the polycarbonate front wall of my caged back seat.
I pulled my undershirt up over my nose to block the smoke. “Everly, watch Teek!” I yelled as I ran past him toward the scene. Jones was right behind me as the first fire truck pulled in.
The silhouettes of two men, on significantly larger than the other, were coming down the hill toward us. The smaller one was limping. When I was close enough, I made out a black police uniform and a black suit. The officer was my boss, and the giant dressed like a penguin was my older brother, Ransom, head of night security for the hotel.
Ransom had grown a short beard since last I’d seen him, and his dark-walnut hair had some kind of faux hawk thing happening in the center. Something I’d definitely give him shit about later.
For now, all I cared about was that he and Essex were safe. “You all right?” I asked both of them.
Essex’s face was covered with ash and a few small cuts. “Yeah, I’m OK.” His limp said otherwise.
“Me too.” Ransom peeled off his jacket and tossed it to the ground. His ruined shirt was only recognizable as white by its sleeves. “Damn, that was close though.”
I looked back toward my car. “Everly! There’s a case of water in my trunk. Bring some over.”
Officer Jadon Rivera jogged down the hill behind them. Rivera was our shift’s reigning asshole, but I was thankful to see him in one piece.
“You good?” Essex asked him.
Rivera gave a thumbs-up. Soot streaked his face.
“What the hell happened?” Jones asked.
Essex took a few deep breaths. “Some people walking on the beach heard screaming inside the unit. They called hotel security.” He tipped his head toward my brother. “When Ransom couldn’t get an answer, they called us.”
“There was nothing but silence by the time I got here,” Ransom said.
“Why didn’t you go in?” I asked him.
“I knocked, even tried my master key, but the lock was disabled. It was like all the power was out in the chalet.”
My brow lifted with surprise. “You didn’t break down the door?”
In his wilder days, my brother had been an MMA fighter. And at six two and two hundred five pounds of solid muscle, a door couldn’t have stood in his way if Ransom had been determined to get through it.
“It’s company policy to call the police before forcing entry.” He looked back at the building. “Maybe that was a mistake.”
“Or maybe it would have gotten you killed too.” I squeezed his arm, thankful he was alive.
Rivera looked from Ransom to me and back again. “You two know each other?”
“My brother.” But there was no time for formal introductions.
Everly came over, cradling an armful of water bottles. As he passed out water, Corporal Mason Baker joined us.
A former semi-pro linebacker, Baker towered over the rest of us, even Ransom. In addition to our normal patrol shift, Baker and I were both part of the SWAT team, a specialty unit called out to resolve high-risk tactical situations.
Baker swiped the back of his hand over his brow, leaving a sweat smear through the ash speckling his forehead. “Sarge, I’ve got units blocking the roads up here, but we probably should put someone on the beach.”
“Everly, go down and block beach access—”
I stopped Essex. “Everly’s busy.”
“Guarding my suspect in custody.”
“Babysitting seems about Everly’s speed,” Rivera said with an eye roll.
Essex spoke into his radio. “Delta One, I need units blocking beach access. Nobody on or off the golf course.”
“Delta Five, en route,” Chris McCollum responded.
“Delta Six, en route,” Cameron Legieza said.
“Ransom, does the hotel have barriers handy?” Essex asked.
“Already on the way,” Ransom answered.
The firefighters were knocking down the flames, but it was clear the chalet was a total loss.
“What caused the explosion?” Jones asked.
Essex turned toward the dying inferno and shook his head. “No clue. I was looking in the front window when it blew. In seconds, the whole place went up in flames.”
“Gas leak?” Rivera asked.
“The hotel doesn’t use gas,” Ransom answered between sips of water.
“Did you see anything inside?” I asked Essex.
“Just the glass blowing at me.”
I walked closer to him and examined his face. Blood drizzled from a cut across his cheek. “You’re bleeding.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out the napkin left from the gas-station dinner I didn’t get to finish. I dabbed it against the cut.
“I’m fine, Nyx.” He took the napkin from me and held it against the cut himself. “No way the same is true for whoever was inside.”
“Who was it?” I asked.
“We didn’t get that far.” Essex looked at Ransom. “Who was staying in this chalet?”
Ransom looked nervous, a rare emotion for my brother. “Ryder Stone.”
“Who?” Essex asked, because if someone was famous for anything outside ESPN or crime action drama, he was lost.
I leaned toward him. “The son of country singer Shooter Stone. They had a reality show called The Family Stones.”
Essex lifted both shoulders.
Baker looked down at me and cocked an eyebrow. “I’m a little surprised you know that, Nyx.”
“Our grandfather loves that show,” Ransom said.
“I heard he was in town with his girlfriend, filming an episode of Romancing the Stars,” Jones said.
We all turned to look at him.
My mouth gaped. “Big fan, are you, Jonesy?”
“Hey, I have teenage girls,” Jones said.
Rivera laughed and crossed his arms. “Whatever you say, man.”
Essex shot us all a look, and the amusement died immediately.
“Stone checked in with Amber Stevens yesterday,” Ransom confirmed.
“Anybody seen them today?” Essex asked.
“Damn,” Jones said, looking at the fire again.
Two firefighters in full gear dragged a hose past us. “Essex!” a voice boomed.
We all looked back as the captain of the fire department, waved him over. Essex winced as he limped in that direction, taking my napkin with him.
“You didn’t see anything?” Jones asked Rivera.
Rivera shook his head. “I was lakeside, checking the back of the unit when, boom! I hightailed it back around front and found Sarge lying against the rock wall.”
I followed the direction Rivera was pointing. The wall that lined the driveway was nowhere close to the front window.
“That’s more than five feet,” Jones said with a grimace. “No wonder he’s limping.”
“At least his first few days on night shift were calm,” I said, walking back to my car. Teek’s scruffy face was smushed against the back window, and his eyes looked like they might bug out of his head.
“Anybody hurt?” Everly asked.
“None of us.” An ambulance screamed into the lot. I leaned toward Teek’s window. “Teek, you good?”
His wild smile indicated he was just fine.
When he finished speaking with the firefighters, Essex joined us and looked in the back seat of my car. “You caught Butch Cassidy, huh?”
“Yeah. About halfway up Reyna Peak.”
“His dad wasn’t with him, was he?” he asked with a chuckle.
“No, you’re safe.” Borg Fleming was still in lockup last I heard, but that reminded me to ask, “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I told you I’m fine.”
“You also said you were fine when Borg knocked a molar out of your jaw.”
The corner of his mouth tipped up. “You know me well.” With a grimace, he leaned to one side. “Might have a couple of broken ribs.”
I cringed. “God, I hope not.”
“I know, broken ribs are the worst. I’ll be fine though. Thanks for worrying.” His tone lightened. “You know whose fault this is?”
My brow lifted in question.
“Back at the Mini Market, he said it was a quiet night.”
Our laughter was cut off by the roar of a powerful engine. A silver car with an emblem that boasted “I cost more than your condo” sped through the tidy golf-course grass to bypass the driveway clogged with emergency vehicles.
“Harlan’s here,” my brother announced.
Real estate tycoon Harlan Drexler had almost singlehandedly built the mountain town of Sapphire Lake. As the heir to the biggest lumber-mill fortune in Nevada’s history, Harlan and his late father had converted the family’s 20,000-acre estate between Lake Tahoe and Carson City into a booming economy. It all began with a golf-course resort built around the manmade blue lake that once supplied the silver mines with water and timber.
These days, Sapphire Lake was the seventh largest city in the state. It now included ski slopes, two outdoor shopping villages, three schools, and the biggest casino between Las Vegas and Reno.
I’d never met Harlan Drexler in person, despite Sapphire Lake having been my home on and off for most of my life. Ransom spoke highly of him, and he had the reputation of being as charitable as he was enterprising.
The sports car parked sideways on the imported sod, and Harlan tripped over his own slippers as he scrambled out of the driver’s seat. He caught himself on the door, staring in horror at the flaming chalet. “My god. Was anyone hurt?”
Essex and I walked to meet him. “Mr. Drexler, I’m Sergeant Tyler Essex. We’re waiting on the official word from the fire department, but I’m afraid this fire was deadly.”
This was news to me.
Harlan ran both hands back through his wild silver hair. “Oh no.”
Ransom began speaking to Harlan in a hushed, soothing tone.
I tugged on Essex’s sleeve and jerked my head to the side. We stepped away from them, toward our guys. “They found a body?” I asked quietly.
He scanned the area to make sure we were out of everyone’s earshot. “Two bodies so far. The fire captain thinks it might be arson to cover up a homicide.”
“Shit, really?” Jones asked.
“Yeah. The first body was charred so badly it was unrecognizable.”
“And the second?” Rivera asked.
“A female. Only partially burned, but—” Essex had to pause for a breath.
“But what?” I asked.
“Her eyes were oozing black, and her torso was ripped in half.”
I took a small step back.
“Never seen a fire do that,” Jones said, his dark eyes dancing with the dying flames.
Unease stirred inside me. The whole situation felt eerily familiar.
Something caught Essex’s eyes behind us. “Shit.”
I turned to see a news van stopped by some of the hotel’s security guys.
“How the hell do they get here so fast?” Essex asked.
“I’m on it,” Jones said, starting in that direction. Rivera followed him.
Ransom walked over, passing Jones and Rivera. “The vultures are here.”
“We’ll handle it,” I said.
My brother offered his hand to Essex. “Good to see you, Corporal Essex.”
The two men shook hands.
“He’s a sergeant now,” I said.
“Congratulations. You two are on the same shift now?” Ransom looked down at me, the corners of his mouth fighting a smile. “Isn’t that convenient?”
I withered inside.
“As of Monday,” Essex answered. “But we won’t be for long. Your sister has a big promotion coming up.”
“So I hear,” Ransom said.
“It’s not for sure. I’m not even finished interviewing,” I told them.
“But we all know Nyx has it in the bag,” Essex said to Ransom. “There’s even a betting pool. I hear the pot is over five hundred now.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
Essex nodded. “That’s what McCollum said.”
“Sarge!” Rivera called from the news van.
Essex groaned. “Excuse me. Nice to see you, Ransom.”
“Hope to see more of you, Sergeant.”
I wanted to crawl under my patrol car. When my boss was out of earshot, I backhanded my brother’s chest. “You’re an asshole.”
My brother smiled. “I know.” He lowered his voice and looked toward the chalet. “What happened in there?”
“Did I hear someone say one of the bodies was torn in half?”
I nodded. “But you’re not supposed to know that.”
My heart pounded in my chest. “The woman’s eyes were oozing black.”
“Damn.” Ransom stared up the hill. “Mutilated bodies and a fire cover-up… You know what this looks like.”
I shook my head. “Don’t even say it.”
He looked at me with his lips pressed in a hard line. We were both thinking the same thing. I hated we were both thinking the same thing.
“Ransom!” a man yelled. Another car had pulled up behind Harlan Drexler, and a red faced bald man waved to my brother.
“That’s my boss. You gonna be here for a bit?” Ransom asked me.
I glanced toward my car. Teek was still smiling in the back seat. “Yeah. Gonna stay as long as I can.”
A half an hour later, the fire was almost out and hotel security had pushed all the media back to the hotel’s entrance. The guys and I were waiting around our patrol cars when a fireman walked toward us. He removed his helmet.
“What’s up, hose dragger?” Jones asked.
“Your momma’s risk factor for STDs,” the fire captain replied as he stopped in front of Essex. “You definitely want to get your investigators in here.”
“They’re on the way. Why?” Essex asked.
“We found a third body missing its throat. The bit of wall left standing in the living room is covered in blood.” He put his hands on his hips. “Whatever happened in there, it was brutal, man.”
Nausea churned in my stomach. This had absolutely happened before.
Harlan Drexler rushed toward us. “Is there an update?” He grabbed the fire captain’s arm.
“The coroner is on his way, Mr. Drexler. We’ve recovered three bodies.”
Harlan’s knees went out, and he would have fallen had I not been there to catch him. “Come with me, Mr. Drexler,” I said gently. “Let’s find you a seat.”
Harlan leaned heavily on me as we walked toward a bench on the golf course. “What am I going to do? What am I going to tell their poor families?”
I patted his back. “I don’t know. It’s a terrible thing that’s happened.”
“Do they know how the fire started?”
“There will be an investigation.”
“Do they have any suspects?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Who was in the back of the patrol car?”
I smiled. “No one relevant to what happened here tonight. He’s harmless, mostly, but he did try to hold up the Mini Market down the street with a zucchini.”
Harlan’s bubble of laughter seemed to surprise him, and he walked the rest of the way to the bench all on his own. When we reached it, I held his hand until he sat down. Sweat drizzled from his hairline, and his face was freckled with soot.
He glanced at my name tag. Cpl. S. Nyx. “Nyx. Are you related to Ransom?”
“My brother, sir.”
“What does the S stand for?”
“Saphera, but my friends just call me Nyx.”
He grabbed my hand and squeezed my hand. “Thank you, Nyx.”
I really hadn’t done anything, but I smiled and said, “You’re welcome.”
Ransom’s boss joined us. I stepped out of his way and turned back toward the chalet. It was an eerie sight poised against the moonlit clouds over the lake, and another cold chill took my breath.
“It’s happening again,” someone whispered behind me.
I spun on my boot. “What was that?”
Ransom’s boss looked up from his smartphone. “Pardon?”
Harlan’s eyes were glazed over, looking past me at the chalet.
I blinked. “Sorry. Thought you said something.”
Maybe I was hearing things. Or maybe my imagination was making this into more than it really was. After all, my father was still safely behind bars. That much had been reconfirmed by the state penitentiary only days before.
But when I turned back toward the chalet, the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach returned like the recoil on a shotgun.
This wasn’t a coincidence.
And I knew it.
“Nyx!” Essex called from near my car. I walked to him, and he jerked his head toward Teek. “He says his wrists are starting to hurt. Better go book him in.”
“The guy’s harmless. Can’t we just call somebody to come get him?” Everly asked.
“Under some circumstances, sure, but he held up a store clerk. Made her fear for her life,” Essex said.
I opened my driver’s side door. “Don’t worry, Everly. I’ll make sure they call his brother or Gramma T.”
“Gramma T?” With worried eyes, Teek’s head whipped around like his grandmother might be in the parking lot.
Essex held onto my doorframe. “I’ll see you back at the station. We should wrap up here soon.”
He stepped back and shut the door.
I wound through the labyrinth of emergency vehicles along the path to the exit. Seven different news vans had gathered at the closed front gate. One of them, I recognized. Sapphire Lake’s premier newswoman, Marianne Clarke, and her cameraman from News 4 ran toward my patrol car as I drove past. “Looks like you might make the news, Teek.”
The interior lights flickered, all the doors locked around me, and my surveillance cameras shut off.
From the back seat came a chilling voice that didn’t belong to Teek Fleming.