Jolie thought about Chief Akers working the phone, trying to bring Kathy Westbrook and her kidnapper out safely. After hours of painstaking negotiations, two people still ended up dead.

She checked her watch. Seven a.m. She wanted to get to the Akers house early so that Akers’s widow, Maddy, would hear about her husband’s death before it made the news.

But Jolie’s guess? Maddy Akers already knew.



One minute Nick was ahead of the other car, and the next, the jogger crossed in front of him.

They’d dragged from the light and were coming off the curve by the park when the jogger trotted out onto the road. Three in the morning—and there was a jogger crossing the street! Nick hit the brakes, and the car slewed sideways and jounced against the curb.

Everything stopped.

First thing he realized—the airbag didn’t deploy.

Second thing he realized—he was unhurt. Maybe banged up a little. But unhurt. The seatbelt had saved him. His car was in the right lane but turned backwards—he’d done a complete one-eighty.

Nick put a hand up to touch his face and smelled the alcohol on his own breath.

Had to get out of here.

Because the airbag hadn’t deployed, he could drive away. There would be no drunk driving charge, if he could just get this thing straightened out and go, soon. But what about the other driver?

What about the jogger? Bemused—it must be the shock—he looked around. The other car was gone. The jogger was gone.

He got out, shakily, dread building. Peered under the car—no jogger.

Almost cried with relief. He looked around. The street was empty.

Just the six-lane road, the park on the right, the sodium arc lights staining everything orange.

Son of a bitch—lucky as usual.

Get the hell out of here. He forced himself to move. Got back in and turned the car around, worried that at any minute a speeding car would come around the curve and ram right into him. But his luck held. He took the back streets home. Driving like a little old lady.

Back inside his condo, he sat on his couch and stared out the window at the darkness. Thinking: How lucky can you get?

First, he’d survived the massacre at the Aspen house. And now, he’d driven away from an accident which could have killed him, the other driver, or the jogger. He’d even avoided a drunk driving charge.

I’ve been spared.

That was the bottom line. He’d been spared. And for what? His new thriller was dead in the water. He had to have a follow-up. Nick had a three-book deal, and this was the third book.

But he couldn’t get past chapter four.

A deadline was looming. It was his last thought before he fell asleep.

His cell woke him. A text from one of his more ardent fans.

The message said, “When can we meet?”

Never, he thought.

To be fair, this guy wasn’t hurting for money—Frank was some big muckety-muck in the government. He was just a pest—a glommer-on. He had a manuscript in his closet and wanted something for nothing, just because they were related—cousins, several times removed, if the guy was to be believed.

First e-mails, then phone messages, now text messages.

Get a life.

Outside, it was sunny. Another beautiful California day. Nick stared at the sky. Feeling better.

Much better.

Maybe it was the accident—the feeling he’d cheated death once again. But this morning he’d awakened full of purpose. Nick had been trying to come up with the idea for another book, but nothing had interested him—until now. This story was different. This story had been dropped in his lap.

The best ideas always came like this, on waking. Before he even got up to take a leak.

He felt excitement building, the sense of purpose, deep in his gut.

Nick had found his inspiration.


Chief Akers’s house sat on a street dead-ending at a small public park. The yard was dominated by a moss- draped oak and a fish pond. A boat was backed into the carport, which was otherwise empty.

Maddy Akers drove a GMC Yukon.

Jolie pressed the buzzer and waited. No one answered. She rang again. Then knocked. Mrs. Akers either wasn’t at home or she was in a deep sleep.

A car turned onto the street from the main drag. From the sound of the engine, it was a four-banger.

The car did a funny thing. It came to a stop three doors down, in the middle of the street. Jolie was a defensive driver and could read car body language—most good drivers can.

This car—an old Toyota Corolla—braked, then crawled forward to the next driveway. The driver executed an awkward turn, rushed and sloppy.

The driver’s head swiveled back in Jolie’s direction, long hair flipping with the motion. Either it was a female driver or a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan. The Corolla went back up to the road, blinker on, and turned right. Too far away to see the license plate.

Jolie’s own take-home vehicle was a Crown Vic with black-walls. It was supposed to look like a civilian’s car, but the jack-in-the-box clown on the antenna didn’t fool anybody. She’d been spotted.

She jogged to her car, started it up, and followed.

On Kelso, Jolie saw the Corolla up ahead, stopped at the light. She stayed in the other lane and to the left, behind an old truck. The Corolla only went a city block before turning in at Bizzy’s Diner. The parking lot was already full. Jolie cruised by, parked at the convenience store next door, and watched in her rearview as the woman got out. The woman was slight and pale. Lackluster red hair fell straight from a middle part. Low-riding jeans. The woman held a ratty shoulder bag close as she jabbered on the cell phone held to her ear. She snapped the phone shut, dumped it in her purse, and walked across the parking lot as if someone might jump out at her at any minute.

Jolie ran the plate: 1989 blue Toyota Corolla, belonging to one Amy Perdue.

Luke Perdue, the hostage-taker at the Starliner Motel, had a sister.

It was in the paper and on the news.

Bizzy’s: pebbled gold water glasses, rabbit-warren rooms, mismatched tablecloths, Friday night catfish buffets. Jolie parked herself at a table in one room where she could look through the doorway and see Amy Perdue in the other.

The woman was still on the phone. She looked more than nervous; she looked scared.

Jolie ordered a big breakfast. The waitress, Eileen, had big platinum curls. Eileen’s son, a Marine lance corporal, came back from Afghanistan with a severe head injury. On Eileen’s days off, she drove three hours to the VA hospital in Biloxi, and three hours back, to visit her son, even though he would never recognize her again.

Eileen never mentioned her son, but she’d been quick to offer Jolie her condolences when her husband died. With Danny, most people pretended it never happened. Even people Jolie worked with and saw every day, people who had worked with him, too. Ignore it and it will go away.

Eileen came by with Jolie’s breakfast and a smaller plate piled up with Bizzy’s world-famous hush puppies. “Heard what happened. You need to stoke up. Nothing like hush puppies to give you a foundation for the day you’re

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