“I want to talk to Smoky Barrett or I’ll kill myself.”The girl is sixteen, at the scene of a grisly triple homicide, and has a gun to her head. She claims “The Stranger” killed her adoptive family, that he’s been following her all her life, killing everyone she ever loved, and that no one believes her.
No one has. Until now.
Special Agent Smoky Barrett is head of the violent crimes unit in Los Angeles, the part of the FBI reserved for tracking down the worst of the worst. Her team has been handpicked from among the nation’s elite law enforcement specialists and they are as obsessed and relentless as the psychos they hunt; they’ll have to be to deal with this case.
For another vicious double homicide reveals a killer embarked on a dark crusade of trauma and death: an “artist” who’s molding sixteen-year-old Sarah into the perfect victim — and the ultimate weapon. But Smoky Barrett has another, more personal reason for catching The Stranger — an adopted daughter and a new life that are worth protecting at any cost.
This time Smoky is going to have to put it all on the line. Because The Stranger is all too real, all too close, and all too relentless. And when he finally shows his face, if she’s not ready to confront her worst fear, Smoky won’t have time to do anything but die.
We pack away his shirts and slacks, his sweaters and shoes. The smell of him is everywhere — the ghost of him. It seems like I have a memory for every piece of clothing. He’d smiled wearing this tie. He’d cried at his grandfather’s funeral in this suit. Alexa had left a jam-handprint on this shirt. These memories seem less painful than I had expected. More rich than depressing.
Doing good, babe, I hear Matt say in my head.
I don’t reply, but smile to myself.
I think about Quantico and that possibility, too. Maybe it would be good to leave this place behind.
If I do, it needs to be about choice, not retreat. I need to embrace my ghosts and lay them down, because they’ll follow me wherever I go. That’s what ghosts do.
We get through the closet and the bedroom and then the bathroom, and I float through it all, the pain there but tolerable. Bittersweet, waitress, heavy on the sweet.
We file down the stairway together with the boxes, move into the garage, then up into the attic above the garage, dropping the boxes off and pushing them back into corners where I knew they’ll sit in the dark and gather dust.
Sorry, Matt, I think.
They’re just things, babe, he replies. The heart doesn’t get dusty.
By the way, Matt says, out of nowhere: What about 1forUtwo4me?
I don’t answer. I stand on the ladder, in the attic from the waist up.
“Smoky?” Callie calls from the doorway of the garage.
“Be there in a sec.”
Yes, I think. What about 1forUtwo4me? What’s the plan there?
I had learned, doing what I do, that good men and women can still have secrets. Good wives and husbands can still cheat on each other, or have secret vices, or turn out not to have been so good after all. And, I had learned, it all comes out once you die, because once you’re dead, others are free to root through your life at their leisure and you can’t do a darn thing about it.
Which brings me to 1forUtwo4me. It was a password. Matt had explained the concept of picking secure passwords to me once after a family email account had been compromised.
“You want to include numbers with letters. The longer the better, obviously, but you want to pick something you can memorize and not have to write down. Something that’ll be mnemonic. Like . . .” he’d snapped his fingers. “One for you, two for me. That’s a phrase that sticks in my mind. So I change it a little and add some numbers and come up with 1forUtwo4me. Silly, but I’ll remember it, and it’ll be hard for someone to guess by accident.”
He’d been right. It was like gum on your shoe. 1forUtwo4me. I’d never have to write it down. It would always be accessible.
A few months after Matt died, I’d been sitting at his computer. We had a home office, and we each had our own PC. I was feeling numb and looking for something to awaken an emotion inside of me. I scrolled through his email, dug through his files. I came upon a directory on the computer labeled ‘private.’ When I went to open the directory, I found that it was password protected.
1forUtwo4me, there it was, trotted out before I had to really think about it. My fingers had moved to the keyboard. I was about to type it out. I stopped.
What if? I’d thought. What if private really does mean private? Like, private from me?
The thought had been appalling. And terrifying. My imagination went into overdrive.
A mistress? Porn? He loved someone else?
Following these thoughts, the guilt.
How could you think that? It’s Matt. Your Matt.
I’d left the room, tucked away Mr. 1forUtwo4me, and tried to not to think about it.
He popped up every now and then. Like now.
Well? Truth or denial?
“Smoky?” Callie calls again.
“Coming,” I reply and clamber down the ladder.
I still feel Matt.
Packing away the past, it occurs to me, is messy stuff.
We’re standing in the doorway of Alexa’s room. I can feel discomfort looming in the not-far-off. Pain is a little sharper here, though still tolerable.
“Pretty room,” Elaina murmurs.
“Alexa liked the girly-girl stuff,” I say, smiling.
It is a little girl’s dream room. The bed is queen-sized, with a canopy, and it’s covered with purples of every possible hue. The comforter and pillows are thick and lush and inviting. ‘Lie down and drown in us,’ they say.
One quarter of the floor is covered in Alexa’s stuffed animal collection. They range from small to big to huge, and the species run the gamut from the identifiable to the fantastic.
“Lions and tigers and heffalumps, oh my,” Matt used to joke.
I take it all in, and a thought comes to me. I wonder at the fact that it never occurred to me before.
Bonnie has slept with me since the day I brought her home. I don’t think she’s ever entered this bedroom.
Be accurate, I chide myself. You never brought her in here, that’s the truth. Never asked her if she might want a king’s ransom of stuffed animals, or a purple explosion of bedsheets and blankets.
Time to fix that, I think. I kneel down next to Bonnie. “Do you want anything in here, sweetheart?” I ask her. She looks at me, her eyes searching mine. “You’re welcome to whatever you want.” I squeeze her hand. “Really. You can have the whole room.”
She shakes her head. No, thank you, she’s saying.
I’ve put away childish things, that look says.
“Okay, babe,” I murmur, standing up.
“How do you want to handle this room, Smoky?” Elaina’s gentle voice startles me.
I run a hand through Bonnie’s hair as I look around the room.
“Well, “ I start to say — and then my cell phone rings.
Callie rolls her eyes. “Here we go.”
“Barrett,” I answer.
Sorry, I mouth to them.
A deep voice rumbles. “Smoky. It’s Alan. Sorry to bother you today, but we got a situation.”
Alan is overseeing the unit while I’m on vacation. He’s more than competent; the fact that he’s felt the need to call me raises my antennae.
“What is it?”
“I’m in Canoga Park, standing in front of a house. Scene of a triple homicide. Bad scene. Twist is, there’s a sixteen-year-old girl inside. She’s got a gun to her head and says she’ll only talk to you.”
“She asked for me by name?”
I’m silent, processing.
“Really sorry about this, Smoky.”
“Don’t worry about it. We were just about to take a break, anyway. Give me the address and Callie and I will meet you there soonest.”
I jot down the address and hang up.
The man had gotten it wrong: Death doesn’t take a holiday, apparently. Par for the course. As always, I was living my life on multiple levels: Make this a home, decide if I was going to leave this home and go to Quantico, go stop a young woman from blowing her brains out. I could walk and chew gum at the same time, hurrah for me.
I look at Bonnie. “Sweetheart–” I begin, but stop as she nods her head. It’s okay, go, she is saying.
I look at Elaina. “Elaina–”
“I’ll watch Bonnie.”
Relief and gratitude, that’s what I feel.
“I’ll drive,” she says.
I crouch down facing Bonnie. “Do me a favor, sweetheart?”
She gives me a quizzical look.
“See if you can figure out what we should do with all those stuffed animals.”
She grins. Nods.
“Cool.” I straighten up, turn to Callie. “Let’s go.”
Bad things are waiting. I don’t want them to get impatient.
“All tucked away,” Callie muses as we pull onto the suburban street in Canoga Park.
She’s talking to herself more than to me, but as I look around, I understand the observation. Canoga Park is a part of Los Angeles County. Los Angeles doesn’t provide a lot of distance between the suburbs and the city proper. You can be on a street lined with businesses, drive two blocks, and find yourself in a residential neighborhood. It was a casual transformation; traffic lights gave way to stop signs and things just got more quiet. The city hustled nearby, never stopping, always there, while the homes were here, tucked away.
The street we’d turned onto was in one of those neighborhoods, but it has lost that quiet feeling. I spot at least five cop cars, along with a SWAT van and two or three unmarked vehicles. The obligatory helicopter is circling above.
“Thank God we still have daylight,” Callie remarks, looking up at the helicopter. “I can’t stand those blinding spotlights.”
People are everywhere. The braver ones are standing on their lawns, while the more timid peek out from behind window curtains. It’s funny, I think. People talk about crime in urban areas, but all the best murders happen in the suburbs.
Callie parks the car on the side of the street.
“Ready?” I ask her.
“Born ready, bring it on, pick your cliché,” she says.
As we exit the car, I see Callie grimace. She places a hand on the roof of the car to steady herself.
“Are you alright?” I ask.
She waves away my concern. “Residual pain from getting shot, nothing I can’t handle.” She reaches into a jacket pocket and pulls out a prescription bottle. “Vicodin, today’s mother’s little helper.” She pops the top and palms a tablet. Downs it. Smiles. “Yummy.”
Callie had been shot six months ago. The bullet had nicked her spine. For one very tense week we weren’t sure she was going to walk again. I thought she’d recovered fully.
Guess I was wrong.
Wrong? She carries her Vicodin around with her like a box of Tic-Tacs!
“Let’s see what all the shouting is about, shall we?” she asks.
“Yep,” I reply.
But don’t think I’m going to let this go, Callie.
We head over to the perimeter. A twenty-something patrolman stops us. He’s a good looking kid. I can sense his excitement at being a part of this law enforcement cacophony. I like him right away; he sees the scars on my face and almost doesn’t flinch.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he says. “I can’t let anyone in right now.”
I fish out my FBI ID and show it to him. “Special Agent Barrett,” I say. Callie does the same.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he says again. “And ma’am,” he says to Callie.
“Don’t sweat it,” Callie replies.
I spot Alan standing in a cluster of suits and uniforms. He towers above them all, an imposing edifice of a human being. Alan is in his mid-forties, an African-American man who can only be described as gargantuan. He’s not obese — just big. His scowl can make an interrogation room seem like a small and dangerous place for a guilty man.
Life loves irony, and Alan is no exception. For all his size, he is a thoughtful man-mountain, a brilliant mind in a linebacker’s body. He combines meticulous precision with near-infinite patience. His attention to detail is legendary. One of the best testaments to his character is the fact that Elaina is his wife, and she adores him.
Alan is the third member of my four-person team, the oldest and most grounded. He told me when Elaina had been diagnosed with cancer that he was considering leaving the FBI so that he could spend more time with her. He hasn’t brought it up since, and I haven’t pushed him on it, but I am never really un-aware of it.
Callie popping pills, Alan thinking of retiring — maybe I should leave. Let them rebuild the team from scratch.
“There she is,” I hear Alan say.
I start to catalogue the various reactions to my face and then let it go. Take it or leave it, boys.
One of the men steps forward, putting a hand out to shake mine. The other hand, I note, grips an MP 5 submachine gun. He’s dressed in full SWAT regalia — body armor, helmet, boots. “Luke Dawes,” he says. “SWAT commander. Thanks for coming.”
“No problem,” I reply. I point to Alan. “Do you mind if I have my guy fill me in? No offense intended.”
I turn to Alan and push aside all my own internal chatter, letting the simplicity of action and command take over. “Hit me,” I say.
“A call came into 911 about an hour and a half ago from the next door neighbor. Widower by the name of Jenkins. Jenkins says that the girl — Sarah Kingsley — had stumbled into his front yard, dressed in a nightgown, covered in blood.”
“How did he know she was in the front yard?”
“His living room is in the front of the house and he keeps his drapes open until he goes to bed. He was watching TV, saw her out of the corner of his eye.”
“He’s shook, but he musters up enough courage to go out and see what the problem is. Said she was unfocused — his word — and mumbling something about her family being murdered. He tries to get her to come into his house, but she screams and runs off, re-enters her own home.”
“I take it he was wise enough not to follow her?”
“Yeah, the heroics only went as far as his own front yard. He ran back inside, made the call. A patrol car happens to be nearby, so they come over to check it out. The officers–” he checks his notepad again, “Sims and Butler, arrive, poke their heads in the front door — which was wide open — and try and get her to come back out. She’s unresponsive. After talking it over, they decide to go in and get her. Dangerous maybe, but neither of them are rookies, and they’re worried about the girl.”
“Understandable,” I murmur. “Are Sims and Butler still here?”
“They enter the home and it’s a fucking bloodbath from the get-go.”
“Have you been inside?” I interrupt.
“No. No one’s been in there since she got hold of a weapon. So they go in, and it’s obvious that something bad happened, and that it happened recently. Lucky for us, Sims and Butler have dealt with murder scenes before, so they don’t lose their heads. They give anything that looks like evidence a wide berth.”
“Good,” I say.
“Yeah. They hear noise on the second floor, and call out for the girl. No answer. They proceed up the stairs, and find her in the master bedroom, along with three dead bodies. She’s got a gun.” He consults his notes. “A 9mm of some kind, per the officers. Things change fast at that point. Now, they’re nervous. They’re thinking maybe she’s responsible for whatever happened here, and they point their weapons at her, tell her to drop the gun, etc, etc. That’s when she puts it to her own head.”
“And things change again.”
“Right. She’s crying, and starts screaming at them. Saying, quote, ‘I want to talk to Smoky Barrett or I’ll kill myself!’ End quote. They try and talk her down, but give it up after she points the gun at them a few times. They call it in and –” he opens his arms to indicate the overwhelming presence of law enforcement around us “ — here we are.” He nods his head towards the SWAT Commander. “Lieutenant Dawes knew your name and got someone to get a hold of me. I came here, checked things out, called you.”
I turn to Dawes, study him. I see a fit, alert, hard-eyed professional policeman with calm hands and brunette-hair in a crewcut. He’s on the short side, about 5’9”, but he’s lean and coiled and ready. He radiates calm confidence. He’s a SWAT stereotype, something I always find comforting whenever I encounter it. “What do you think, Lieutenant?”
He studies me for a few seconds. Then shrugs. “She’s sixteen, ma’am. A gun’s a gun, but . . .” he shrugs again. “She’s sixteen.”
She’s too young to die, he’s saying. Definitely too young for me to kill without it ruining my day.
“Do you have a negotiator on site?” I ask.
I’m asking about a hostage negotiator. Someone trained in talking to unbalanced people carrying guns. Negotiator is a bit of misnomer, actually; they usually operate in three man teams.
“Nope,” Dawes replies. “We currently have three negotiating teams in LA. Some guy decided today was the day he was going to jump off the top of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood — that’s one. There’s a Dad about to lose custody of his kids who decided to put a shotgun to his head — that’s two. The last team got T-boned in an intersection this morning on their way to a training seminar, if you can believe that.” He shakes his head in disgust. “It was a truck that hit them. They’ll live, but they’re all in the hospital. We’re on our own.” He pauses. “I could handle this all kinds of ways, Agent Barrett. Tear gas, non-lethal ammo. But tear gas is going to fuck up what sounds like a murder scene. And non-lethal ammo, well . . . she could still shoot herself even after getting hit with a bean bag.” He smiles without humor. “Seems like the best plan involves you going in there and talking to a crazy teenager holding a gun.”
I give him my best sucking-lemons sour-face. “Thanks.”
He gets serious. “You gotta wear body armor and have your weapon out and ready to fire.” He cocks a head at me, interest sparking in his gray eyes. “You’re some kind of super shooter, right?”
“Annie Oakley,” I reply.
He looks doubtful.
“She can put out candle flames and shoot holes through quarters, honey-love,” Callie says to him. “I’ve seen her do it.”
“Me, too,” Alan growls.
I’m not trying to brag, and this is not bravado. I have a unique relationship with handguns. I really can shoot out candle flames, and I really have shot holes through quarters thrown into the air. I don’t know where this gift came from — no one in my family even liked guns. Dad was gentle and easygoing. Mom had an Irish temper, but she still covered her eyes during the violent parts of movies.
When I was seven, a friend of my father’s took me and my Dad to a shooting range. I was able to hit what I wanted with minimal instruction, even then. I’d been in love with guns ever since.
“Okay, I believe you,” Dawes says, raising his unencumbered hand in a gesture of surrender. His face grows serious. His eyes get a little distant. “Targets are one thing. Have you ever shot a person?”
I’m not offended by him asking this. Since I have shot and killed another human being, I understand why he asks, and know that he’s right to ask. It is different, and you can’t know just how different until you’ve done it.
“Yes,” I respond.
I think the fact that I don’t offer any further details convinces him most. He’s killed, too, and knows it’s not something you feel like bragging about. Or talking about. Or thinking about if you can help it.
“Right. So — body armor, gun out, and if it comes down to a choice between you and her, do what you gotta do. Hopefully, you can talk her down.”
“Hopefully.” I turn to Alan. “Do we have any idea — at all — why she’s asked for me?”
He shakes his head. “Nope.”
“What about her — any details on who she is?”
“Not much. People here are into the ‘good fences make good neighbors’ philosophy. The old guy, Jenkins, did say that she was adopted.”
“Yeah. About a year ago. He’s not close with the family, but he and the dad talked to each other from their driveways every now and then. That’s how he knew who the girl was.
“Interesting. She could be the doer.”
“It’s possible. No one else had anything substantial to offer. The Kingsleys were good neighbors, meaning they were quiet and minded their own business.”
I sigh and look towards the house. What had started out as a beautiful day was turning into a bad one fast.
I turn to Dawes.
“If I’m acting as negotiator, that means I have command for now. Any problems with that?”
“I don’t want anyone getting trigger-happy, Dawes. No matter how long it takes. Don’t go behind my back and start rappelling from the roof or anything cute.”
Dawes smiles at me. He’s not offended. This is standard fare. “I’ve been to a few of these, Agent Barrett. Contrary to popular belief, my guys aren’t itching to shoot someone.”
“I’ve worked with our own SWAT, Lieutenant. I know all about getting pumped up for a call.”
I study him. Believe him. Nod.
“In that case — do you have some body armor I can borrow?”
“You don’t have your own?”
“I did, but it was recalled. Mine and four hundred others in the same lot — faulty composition resulting in them being overly brittle, or something like that. I’m waiting for a replacement.”
“Ouch. Good catch on their part then, I guess.”
“Except that I had reason to wear it three times before they figured out that it might not actually stop a bullet.”
He shrugs. “Vest won’t protect you from a head shot, anyway. It’s all a roll of the dice.”
With that encouraging observation, Dawes goes off to get my Kevlar.
“He seems calm enough,” Alan observes.
“Keep an eye on things anyway.”
“They’ll have to go through both of us,” Callie says. “I’ll flash them a little leg, Alan will terrify them, end of problem.”
“Just worry about what to do once you’re inside,” Alan says. “You ever done any negotiation?”
“I’ve taken the class. But no, I’ve never dealt with a ‘situation.’”
“Key is to listen. No lies unless you’re sure you can get away with them. It’s about rapport, so lies are a deal breaker. Watch for emotional triggers and give them a nice, wide berth.”
“Oh yeah, and don’t die.”
Dawes reappears with a vest. “I got this off a female detective.” He holds it up, looks at me, frowns. “It’s going to be big.”
“They all are unless I get them custom.”
He grins. “No height requirement, I take it, Agent Barrett?”
I grab the vest from him with a scowl. “That’s Special Agent Barrett to you, Dawes.”
The grin fades. “Well, be careful in there, Special Agent Barrett.”
“If I was going to be careful, I wouldn’t go in there at all.”
Even so, I think. What a great turn of phrase. Short and sweet, but fraught (another great word) with meaning.
You could die in there.