Shadow Fall CHAPTER ONE
EAST TEXAS PINEY WOODS
THREE YEARS LATER
Evenings were the hardest, the time when everything unraveled. Catie’s mind overflowed, her chest felt empty, and the craving dug into her with razor-sharp claws.
Her shoulders tensed as she pulled into the park. All her life, she’d been addicted to work and approval and success. Now she was simply an addict.
Her high-performance tires glided over the ruts, absorbing the bumps as she eased along the drive. She turned into the gravel parking lot and swung into a space. Forty-six days.
Resting her head on the wheel, she squeezed her eyes shut. Her throat tightened, and she fought the burn of tears.
“One day at a time,” she whispered.
She sat up and gazed through the windshield. She’d never thought she’d be one of those people who gave themselves pep talks. She’d never thought she’d be a lot of things. Yet here she was.
Catie shoved open the door and popped the trunk. She tossed her purse inside, then rummaged through her gym bag, looking for her iPod. On second thought, no music. She slammed the trunk closed, locked the car, and tucked the key fob into the zipper pocket of her tracksuit. She leaned against a trail marker and stretched her quads. A few deep lunges and she was ready to go.
She set off at a brisk pace, quickly passing the dog walkers and bird enthusiasts who frequented the trail. Her muscles warmed. Her breathing steadied. She passed the first quarter-mile marker and felt the tension start to loosen.
The routine had become her lifeline. She registered the familiar scent of loblolly pines, the spongy carpet of pine needles under her feet. She put her body through the paces, then her mind.
It was Wednesday. She was halfway through the week, another daunting chain of days that started with paralyzing mornings in which she had to drag herself out of bed and force herself to shower, dress, and stand in front of the mirror to conceal the evidence of a fitful night. Then she faced the endless cycle of conference calls and meetings and inane conversations as the secret yearning built and built, culminating in the dreaded hour when it was time to go. Time to pack it in and head home to her perfectly located, gorgeously decorated, soul-crushingly empty house.
But first, a run. Or a spin class. Or both. Anything to postpone the sight of that vacant driveway.
Catie focused her attention on the narrow trail. Thirst stung her throat, but she tried to clear her mind. Rounding a bend, she noted the half-mile marker. She was making good time. Another curve in the path, and she came upon a couple jogging in easy lockstep. Twenty-somethings. At the end of the trail, and still they had a bounce in their stride. The woman smiled as they passed, and Catie felt a sharp pang of jealousy that drew her up short.
She caught herself against a tree and bent over, gasping. Shame and regret formed a lump in her throat. She dug her nails into the bark and closed her eyes against the clammy onset of panic.
Don’t think, Catie, Liam’s voice echoed in her head. Be in the moment.
God, she missed him. Liam was way too smart and way too intense, and he didn’t know how to turn it off. And she liked that about him. So different from David.
Liam never belittled her.
He knew evil lurked in the world, and he faced it head-on, refusing to look away, even relishing the fight.
Catie’s head jerked up. She swung her gaze toward the darkening woods as awareness prickled to life inside her.
The forest had gone quiet.
No people, no dogs. Even the bird chatter had ceased. She glanced behind her, and a chill swept over her skin.
Look, Catie. Feel what’s around you.
She did feel it. Cold and predatory and watching her.
David would tell her she was paranoid. Delusional, even. But her senses were screaming.
She glanced around, trying to orient herself on the trail. She wasn’t that far in yet. She could still go back. She turned around and walked briskly, keeping her chin high and her gaze alert. Strong. Confident. She tried to look powerful and think powerful thoughts, but fear squished around inside her stomach, and she could feel it—something sinister moving with her through the forest, watching her from deep within the woods. She’d felt it before, and now it was back again, making her pulse quicken along with her strides.
I am not crazy. I am not crazy. I am not crazy.
But . . . what if David was right? And if he was right about this, could he be right about everything else, too?
A sound, directly left. Catie halted. Her heart hammered. She peered into the gloom and sensed more than saw the shifting shadow.
Recognition flickered as the shape materialized. With a rush of relief, she stepped forward. “Hey, you—”
She noticed his hand.
Her stomach plummeted. All her self-doubt vanished, replaced by a single electrifying impulse.
SPECIAL AGENT TARA Rushing drove with the windows down, hoping the cold night air would snap her out of her funk. She felt wrung out. Like a dishrag that had been used to sop up filth, then squeezed and tossed aside.
Usually, she loved the adrenaline rush. Kicking in a door, storming a room, taking down a bad guy—anyone who’d done it for real knew nothing compared. The high could last for hours, even through the paperwork, which was inevitably a lot.
Typically, after a successful raid everyone was wired. The single agents would head out for a beer or three, sometimes going home together to burn off the energy. But tonight wasn’t typical.
After so many weeks of work and planning, she’d expected to feel euphoric. Or at the very least satisfied. Instead she felt . . . nothing, really. Her dominant thought as she sped toward home was that she needed a shower. Not just hot—volcanic. She’d stand under the spray and scrub her skin raw and maybe get rid of some of the sickness clinging to her.
Tara slowed her Explorer as the redbrick apartment building came into view. Her second-floor unit looked dark and lonely beside her neighbor’s, where a TV glowed in the window and swags of Christmas lights still decorated the balcony.
She rolled to a stop at the entrance and tapped in the access code. As the gate slid open, her phone vibrated in the cup holder. Tara eyed the screen: US GOV. She’d forgotten to fill out some paperwork or turn in a piece of gear, or maybe they needed her to view another video.
She felt the urge to throw her phone out the window. Instead she answered it.
If she put enough hostility into her voice, maybe they wouldn’t have the balls to call her back in.
“It’s Dean Jacobs.”
She didn’t respond. Because of shock and because she couldn’t think of a single intelligent thing to say.
“You make it home yet?” he asked.
Jacobs was her SAC. She’d had maybe four conversations with him in the three years since she’d joined the Houston field office.
“They were just filling me in on the raid,” he said. “Good work tonight.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The gate slid shut again as she stared through the windshield.
“I understand you live north,” he said.
“There’s a matter I could use your help on.”
Something stirred inside her. Curiosity. Or maybe ambition. Whatever it was, she’d take it. Anything was better than feeling numb.
“I need you to drive up to Cypress County. They’ve got a ten-fifty off of Fifty-nine.”
His words surprised her even more than the midnight phone call. Tara knew all the 10-codes from her cop days, but dispatch had switched to plain language, and nobody used them anymore. A 10-50 was a deceased person.
She cleared her throat. “Okay. Any particular reason—”
“Take Martinez with you. She’s got the location and she’s on her way to your house, ETA ten minutes.”
Tara checked her sports watch.
“Stay off your phone,” he added. “You understand? I need complete discretion on this.”
“And one more thing, Rushing.”
“Don’t let the yokels jerk you around.”
TARA DROVE NORTH on the highway hemmed in by towering trees. Barely an hour out of the city, she could already feel the change as they passed through the Pine Curtain. The night seemed thicker here, darker. She leaned forward, peering through the windshield at the moonless sky.
“Next exit,” M.J. said, consulting the map on her phone. “We’re looking for Dunn’s Road.”
Tara glanced at the agent beside her. M. J. Martinez was a rookie, not even a year on the job.
“You know, it’s after one,” M.J. said, looking at Tara. “I can’t believe I’m even awake right now. I’ve had about three hours’ sleep in the past three days.”
Tara took the exit ramp. “At least you got a shower. I smell like gym socks.”
M.J. didn’t deny it. She’d been involved in the raid, too, but from a planning perspective. In her former life, Martinez had been a tax attorney. She was smart and organized but green when it came to fieldwork. Tara had her HPD experience plus SWAT training under her belt, so she tended to be more hands-on.
“This is it,” M.J. said. “Dunn’s Road. Hang a right.”
Tara slowed, squinting at a sign marking a narrow road. Her headlights swept across tree trunks. The thicket gave way to jagged stumps, and Tara switched to brights. She thought the stumps looked ominous until the houses came into view, ramshackle wooden structures with sagging porches. Rusted septic tanks and dismantled cars littered the yards. Some of the homes were strangled by kudzu and had plywood covering the windows. None had seen a coat of paint in decades, unless you counted graffiti.
They passed the charred carcass of a house, and M.J. looked at her. “Meth lab?”
The houses petered out, and so did the pavement. M.J. consulted her phone again because Tara’s ancient Ford didn’t have a GPS. The Blue Beast barely had a working heater. But the tires were new, and the four-wheel drive could handle anything. Tara changed the oil religiously so it wouldn’t crap out on her.
“Looks like we’re getting close,” M.J. said, studying her screen. Instead of an address, Jacobs had provided her with GPS coordinates, along with the interesting factoid that FBI participation in this matter—whatever it was—had come at the request of the Honorable Wyatt H. Mooring, a federal judge.
“Veer left,” M.J. instructed.
Tara buzzed down the windows, filling the SUV with cold, damp air that smelled faintly of rotten eggs. It was cloudy out but no rain in the forecast, although that was yet another aspect of tonight that might not turn out as planned.
“We should be veering left again,” M.J. said, “after what looks like maybe a creek?”
They dipped down over a low-water bridge and heard the rush of water.
“Logging route,” Tara said, noting the clear-cuts on either side. They pitched and bumped over the rutted road, passing a rickety cistern and another rusted septic tank. They rattled over a cattle guard and passed through a gap in a barbed-wire fence. Tara glanced around but didn’t see any livestock, or any other creature for that matter. Clear-cuts gave way to trees again, and a sense of foreboding settled in her stomach as they moved deeper into the woods. The road narrowed until the tree trunks felt like they were closing in.
She looked at M.J., wide-eyed and tense in the seat beside her.
“What the hell are we doing here?” M.J. asked, voicing the question in Tara’s mind.
“I think Judge Mooring’s from around here. Grew up in Dunn’s Landing.”
As if that explained why their boss had sent them scrambling into the forest in the dead of the night.
M.J. looked at her. “What’s the difference between God and a federal judge?”
“I don’t know.”
“God doesn’t think he’s a federal judge.”
Tara smiled, for what seemed like the first time in days.
A flicker of light caught her eye, a flash of white through the tree trunks. Her smile dropped.
“Whatever this is, I think we found it.”
EMERGENCY VEHICLES LINED the side of the road—sheriff’s units, an ambulance, a red pickup truck with the emblem of a local fire department on the door. A khaki-clad deputy in a ten-gallon hat waved them down.
Tara handed her ID through the window. “Special Agent Tara Rushing, FBI.”
He examined her creds, then ducked his head down and peered into the window as M.J. held up her badge.
He hesitated and then passed Tara’s ID back. “Pull around to the right there. Watch the barricades.”
Tara pulled around as instructed and parked beside a white crime-scene van.
M.J. got out first, attracting immediate notice from the huddle of lawmen milling beside the red pickup. They looked her up and down, taking in her tailored gray slacks and crisp white button-down. Then again, maybe it was her curves they were noticing or the lush dark hair that cascaded down her back.
Tara pushed open her door. Tall and willowy, she attracted stares, too, but for a different reason. She was still geared up from the raid in tactical pants and Oakley assault boots, with handcuffs tucked into her waistband and her Glock snug against her hip. Her curly brown hair was pulled back in a no-nonsense ponytail. She grabbed her FBI windbreaker from the backseat, and the men eyed her coolly as she zipped into it.
Another deputy hustled over.
“Who’s in charge of this crime scene?” Tara asked, flashing her creds.
He glanced at her ID, then her face. The man was short and stocky and smelled like vomit.
“That’d be Sheriff Ingram.” He cast a glance behind him, where the light show continued deep in the woods.
“I’d like a word with him.”
He looked at her.
He darted a glance at M.J., then traipsed off down a narrow trail marked with yellow scene tape.
The men continued to stare, but Tara ignored them and surveyed her surroundings. Someone had hooked a camping lantern to a nail on a nearby tree, illuminating a round clearing with a crude fire pit at the center. Old tires and tree stumps surrounded the pit, along with beer cans and cigarette butts. Someone had cordoned off the area with yellow tape and placed evidence markers near the cans and butts.
Tara studied the ground outside the tape, where an alarming number of tire tracks crisscrossed the loamy soil.
Another khaki uniform approached her, no hat this time. “Who are you?” he demanded.
A brisk nod.
“Special Agent Tara Rushing.” She showed her ID again, but he didn’t look. “And Special Agent Maria Jose Martinez.”
If he was surprised the FBI had shown up at his crime scene, he didn’t show it.
“We’re here at the request of Judge Wyatt Mooring,” M.J. added.
He glanced at her, then back at Tara.
With his brawny build and high-and-tight haircut, Sheriff Ingram looked like a Texas good old boy. But Tara didn’t want to underestimate him. His eyes telegraphed intelligence, and he seemed to be carefully weighing his options. He stepped closer and rested his hands on his gun belt.
“I got a homicide.” He nodded toward the woods. “Female victim. No ID, no clothes, no vehicle. Long story short, I don’t have a lot.”
His gaze settled on Tara, and her shoulders tensed. She could feel something coming.
“What I do have is an abandoned Lexus down at Silver Springs Park,” he said. “Registered to Catalina Reyes.”
“Catalina Reyes,” Tara repeated.
“That’s right. She was last seen there yesterday evening. Didn’t show up for work today.”
Tara glanced at M.J., communicating silently. Holy crap. She looked back at the sheriff. “How far’s this park?” she asked.
“Twenty miles due southa here.”
A deputy strode up to them. “Sheriff, you need to come see this.”
Ingram trudged off, leaving Tara and M.J. staring at each other in the glare of the lantern.
Catalina Reyes was a north Houston businesswoman who’d made a run for U.S. Congress in the last election. She’d been a lightning rod for controversy since the moment she announced her candidacy.
“She was getting death threats, wasn’t she?” M.J. said.
“I think so.”
Tara turned to look at the forest, where police had set up klieg lights around the inner crime scene. Workers in white Tyvek suits moved around, probably CSIs or ME’s assistants. Tara saw the strobe of a camera flash. She noted more deputies with flashlights combing a path deep within the woods. They must have assumed that the killer accessed the site from the east, and Tara hoped to hell they were right, because whatever evidence might have been recovered from the route Tara had used had been obliterated by boots and tires.
The Cypress County Sheriff’s Department didn’t see many homicides and probably had little to no experience handling anything this big.
If, in fact, the victim was Catalina Reyes.
Tara bit the inside of her lip, a habit she caved into when she was nervous. Why had Jacobs sent them? Not just agents but specifically her and M.J.? As experience went, Tara came up short and Martinez was green as grass.
M.J. muttered something beside her.
“What?” Tara asked.
She started to answer, but Ingram approached. Tara looked at him, and she knew—she knew—that how she handled the next few moments would affect everything.
“Sheriff, the Bureau would like to help here,” Tara said. “We can have an evidence response team on-site within an hour.”
He folded his arms over his chest. “I think we got a handle on it.”
Just what she’d thought he’d say. “I’d like to see the crime scene,” she told him.
He gave her a hard look that said, No you wouldn’t, little lady. But Tara stubbornly held his gaze. “Suit yourself,” he said, setting off.
She followed him, with M.J. close behind. They moved through the trees along a path marked by LED traffic flares. The air smelled of damp pine, but as they neared the bright hive of activity, the sickly smell of death overtook everything. Ingram stepped aside, and Tara nearly tripped over a forensic photographer crouched on the ground aiming her camera at the body sprawled in the dirt.
Pale face, slack jaw. She looked almost peaceful . . . except for the horrific violence below her neck.
Tara’s throat burned.
M.J. lurched back, bumping into a tree. She turned and threw up.
Think, Tara ordered herself. She forced herself to step closer and study the scene.
A five-foot radius around the body had been marked off with metal stakes connected by orange twine. Only an ME’s assistant in white coveralls operated within the inner perimeter. He knelt beside the victim, jotting notes on a clipboard.
Tara’s heart pounded. Her mind whirled. She drew air into her lungs and forced herself to slow down. She felt Ingram’s gaze on her and tried to block it out.
Rigor mortis had passed. Even with the cool weather, she’d been dead at least twelve hours. No obvious bruising on her arms or legs. Her feet were spread apart. Damp leaves clung to her calves. Toenail polish—dark pink. Tara looked at her arms. No visible abrasions, but the left hand was bent at a strange angle.
And her body . . . Tara forced herself to look without flinching. The woman had been sliced open from her sternum to her navel and eviscerated. Her organs glistened in the klieg lights.
Tara walked around, careful not to get in the photographer’s way as she studied the victim’s face again. The right side was partly covered by a curtain of dark hair.
“Who called it in?” She glanced at Ingram.
“Couple of teenagers.” He nodded back toward the fire pit. “This whole area’s a hangout. Kids come out to smoke pot, have sex, whatever they want. They’re at the station house,” he added, answering her next question. “I got one of my deputies interviewing them.”
“He’s finished up.”
Tara glanced to her left, where the deputy she’d met earlier was slouched against a tree. He looked queasy, and she understood now why his breath smelled rancid.
“He got ’em on videotape,” the deputy said. “Interviewed both of them side by side.”
Tara looked at Ingram. “I’d like to talk to them.”
“Who, the kids?”
“The sooner the better.”
He gazed at her for a long moment, then stalked off.
Tara turned to M.J., who was standing off to the side looking shell-shocked. Tara arched her brows in a silent question, and M.J. answered with a nod.
The deputy turned and shot tobacco juice at the ground.
“Don’t spit on the crime scene,” Tara said, stepping around the photographer.
The deputy’s face flushed, and his nostrils flared.
“We’ll interview them separately,” Tara told M.J. “Although it may be too late to get a straight story.”
The photographer scrolled through her camera. “I have what I need here,” she told the ME’s people. “You guys are good to go.”
The one holding the stretcher stepped carefully over the orange twine and crouched down beside the corpse. His partner unfurled a body bag.
Tara watched uneasily. They were taking away the body now, processing the scene, for better or for worse. Whatever chance Tara had had to involve the Bureau at this critical point in the investigation was gone. If that had been her boss’s purpose in sending her here, then she’d already failed.
But she sensed there was more to it.
A knot of tension formed in her chest as she cast her gaze around the scene. The fire pit had been surrounded by evidence markers, but here near the body there were precious few.
Tara glanced at the deputy watching her sullenly from against the tree. She forced her attention back to the victim. An ME’s assistant tucked the hands into paper bags, and Tara felt a twinge of relief watching his skilled movements.
Tara checked her watch. Almost two. She turned her gaze toward the dense thicket and shivered, suddenly cold to her bones.
How the hell had she ended up at this backwoods horror show? She felt unwelcome. Unsure of herself. She was even less sure of the politics in play, only that they involved a right-leaning judge and a left-leaning politician, plus a territorial sheriff backed by hostile troops.
She glanced at M.J. and wondered if she was having similar thoughts. This case was a disaster, and they’d barely started. The circumstances could hardly be worse.
A flash of light above the treetops, followed by a low rumble. Tara tipped her gaze up to the sky.
It started to rain.