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CHAPTER ONE
Focus

Blood.

She woke with the taste of blood in her mouth.

The metallic ichor caused her to gag, and spray rufous. After a few exerted gulps of air, Caroline realized she had bitten her tongue. As the dark shadows of catatonia faded, she realized two things...

The air smells like blood. She drew it in through her nose, and her face pinched in protest. The urge to purge was strong, but she overcame it.

The blood isn’t mine. Nowhere did she feel the telltale signs of an open wound. There was definitely pain, just not that kind of pain.

I don’t know where I am. Well, that was three things...

Caroline gazed at the ceiling overhead. Ornate features came into focus. She knew the names of the delineations sculpted into the plaster form surrounding the base of the chandelier, but they escaped her given her current state of confusion. No, it wasn’t just confusion, she just ached all over. Her head housed a jackhammer; her body felt heavy and sluggish as if she had been working hard for hours. All over her body, she felt spots of warm pain. Bruises, she thought, clinging to remnants of her training. It was as if this body was not hers. She focused on the thought for a moment. No, this was definitely her body. She turned her head, her vision clouding. The area behind her eyes exploded white hot, and she was forced to clamp them shut. She felt soft cotton on her cheek. It was of a good quality, but a lower thread count. It was designed to look expensive, but the thread used was rough, almost scratchy.

She eased her eyes open and took in the scene to her left. It was a murky space. The room was large; it had to be to warrant such an ornate chandelier. The space was also empty. No furniture greeted her darting eyes, and there were spots on the walls where the sun damage was not uniform. Wall hangings and missing furniture had blocked the destructive ultraviolet. A rough-hewn wooden table dominated the view, and she thought that it was out of place. A door stood agape beyond the table to reveal a washroom, and mirrored doors to a large walk-in closet.

She turned her head to the right and saw... a corpse.

Her body was wracked with a sharp pain, and her hip cried out in protest. She’d fallen to the floor. Painfully crossing her legs, Caroline forced herself to sit up. She sat there, heart thundering in her chest, a chest rising and falling in horror as she stared at the gruesome scene on the bed. A duvet that was once white peeked from under the quilted blankets. It was easy to see it on the squat bed. Eyes stared back at her. Lifeless eyes. For some reason, only one of his eyes was bloodshot. The corpse was turned toward Caroline, mouth open, as if it had been frozen mid-sentence, like a ghastly Hallowe’en scene. A white button-down Oxford, like the duvet, was stained with streaks of carmine that had gushed from a single slash across the throat. Caroline cringed at the clichéd thought that the man had a macabre grin from ear to ear. His ashen face was devoid of life.

Caroline let out the breath she didn’t know she was holding. She closed her eyes and forced herself to breath in through her nose, and out through her mouth. Her training was kicking in, and it took several iterations of the breathing exercise before her thundering pulse returned to something resembling normal. She stared at the remains and realized that she didn’t know the man. It wasn’t as if knowing him would’ve changed anything, but the mind focused on odd things when working overtime to discern a shocking situation.

Why is there a body here? she had thought before another equally obvious introspection replaced it: Why am I here?

The realization of the juxtaposition of the living lying next to the dead was not lost on Caroline. She felt as if the bed she had occupied was one of Joseph Cornell’s surreal shadow boxes. A crooked smile flashed on her lips. Surreal was the perfect description of her situation.

Tupper, Caroline thought, I need to call Tupper.

Caroline slowly rose to her knees, careful not to touch anything. She ran her hands over her body. Her suit jacket was missing, and her pockets were ripped and turned out. She didn’t expect to find her cell phone, but she was in survival mode, processing everything one step at a time. She glanced around the gloom and spotted a cell phone on a nightstand she hadn’t initially noticed. It was unfamiliar, and the cerise splatter that covered it had already faded to a sticky brown. She grabbed the cell phone with shaky hands, her first attempt to dial unsuccessful. It took considerable concentration, but on the second try, the call connected.

The ringing centered her focus and energized her mind. She rested her tired head against the side of the bed, reconsidered, and flopped against the nightstand. She couldn’t flee, and she could barely hold herself upright. Somehow, even on the floor, Caroline could feel the empty, accusatory stare from the bed. She made a concerted effort to look away, instead staring at the threadbare carpet.

The phone was answered after three rings. It took long enough that she was shaking again, but quick enough that she didn’t consider why she hadn’t gotten the hell out of there.

“Jones.” The clipped voice had barely registered when Caroline sagged on the floor, spent.

“Tupper?”

At the sound of Caroline’s voice, Tupper exploded into a tirade of force and fury. Missing for hours; unauthorized operation; and chain of command were just a few of the choice words she gleaned from the outpouring cell phone speaker. The anger surprised her, and she flinched at Tupper’s heated volley. His anger was out of place for the stodgy retired Colonel. Even when he was in the FBI, he never raised his voice at her. Caroline’s eyes wandered down her body and stopped on an open gash on her calf. An impotent sound escaped her lips and the cacophony in her ear ceased.

“Caroline?” The voice went from vitriolic to concerned.

“My tracker’s gone,” she blurted. She stared at the long tear in her pants, and the smattering of dried blood. The familiar lump was missing. Tupper had told her again and again that she was imagining the lump, but its absence was more frightening than its presence - real or not. The exponential shaking was making it hard to grip the cell phone.

“I...” she began and swallowed. “I don’t have my...” Caroline blinked tears forming at the corners of her eyes. The carpet blurred and sharpened with each blink. She clutched the bloody cell phone closer to her face and gagged at the coppery smell, like the room. “I don’t know where...” she tried again but stopped when she gulped in more rancid air. “You can still find me without it.” She phrased it as a declaration, but the lilt in her voice betrayed it to be a question.

“Are you all right? What’s going on?” Tupper started edging back into another tirade, but his voice had shifted to something less livid, but not less frenzied.

Caroline squeezed her eyes shut. “I don’t know. I... It’s gone. I...” She gripped the cellphone in her right hand and felt the expanding purple on her calf. Her skin felt clammy.

“What do you mean you don’t know?” Caroline held the cell phone away from her ear, and when Tupper’s tirade of swearing died down, he continued in a more even tone. “Your tracking information was lost within an hour or two of you leaving the office.” She imagined his face increasing in its shade of red. “What the hell happened?” he continued, and when she didn’t respond, the volume increased. “Caroline? Caroline!”

“My tracker,” she mumbled. Her hand squeezed the gash in her calf. Why doesn’t the Colonel get it, she thought. It reminded her of when they apprehended that ‘man’ in the park. Sometimes Tupper could be so dense.

“Caroline!” Tupper shouted, sounding frantic. “Are you hurt?”

No, I don’t think so... Caroline responded in her head. She removed her hand from her calf and played with the frayed thread that used to secure a button to her shirt. No, she wasn’t in pain, it was more of a numbness. Pain equated with hurt, so she was fine, right? Besides, is wasn’t her blood.

“Blood? What blood?”

Oh, she thought, I must’ve said that out loud. Caroline worked her neck first to the left, then to the right. Each resounding crack was oddly comforting even though it made her vision swim, but the action allowed her a modicum of familiarity. She hunched her shoulders and surveyed her ruined pants. They could be mended, but her missing suit jacket was a matched pair. She doubted that she could find exactly the right color. Her bare arms felt the chill of the room.

Knock it off, brain. Focus!

“I don’t know where I am,” she mumbled. She longed for her head to clear. The heaviness of her head led to a blank state of being. She was empty of all that she’d learned under Tupper’s reluctant tutelage. Her inability to flee the gruesome scene bothered her as much as her inability to remember how she’d gotten there. All she knew was that concentrating on the cell phone she held to her cheek, dried blood flaking off and sticking to her hair, was the only thing keeping her from losing her shit altogether.

Tupper had gone silent, and Caroline held her breath, straining to hear. Did she lose the connection? Did the battery die? She remembered charging her phone the night before in preparation for the operation today... She sighed heavily; she wasn’t using her phone. It belonged to the corpse on the bed. Maybe if she changed hands holding the phone? No, she admonished herself, why would that even make sense? She squeezed her eyes closed yet again, and spastically swallowed the growing lump in her throat. Nothing made any sense right now.

“You’ll find me, right?” Caroline whispered into the cellphone. She nearly dropped it when Tupper’s voice returned, just as quiet, but with the force of will, she came to appreciate from him.

“Damn right I will.”

# # #

The address the tech team provided didn’t make much sense. How did she end up ‘upstate’ when her tracker relay ceased not far from her apartment? Then again, Caroline wasn’t making much sense lately, he thought.

Tupper lifted his arms through his shoulder holster. He had a small team, but the group decked out in Kevlar awaiting Tupper’s orders dwarfed his usual operatives. Tupper gestured with his right hand: a circular motion, and pointed to the windowless panel van in the parking lot.

“East,” the nondescript Special Weapons And Tactics officer said from the passenger seat; a global positioning unit gripped in his left hand. He grabbed the oh shit handle, and the knuckles of the hand holding the GPS pushed against the roof of the van to steady himself as Tupper made a U-turn, driving through a bicycle lane, and cutting in front of a cherry luxury car. He ignored the gestures flung out of the window.

“Watch for...” The SWAT officer swallowed the rest of what he was going to say as Tupper stomped on the brakes, then the accelerator and cut off an aging wood-paneled station wagon. The armored SWAT team in the back of the van shifted and lurched with each zany maneuver, but their eyes, the only visible facial features, revealed only a professional disinterest in what was going on around them. Tupper had the accelerator pressed to the floor, his brows knitted in frustration. He wasn’t going fast enough.

Traffic signals were ignored, and cars braked and honked in response. Even the advance notice of rolling with lights and sirens, civilians seemed to have a hard time figuring out how to get out of his way.

Caroline made tiny, hitched noises in his earpiece.

“Caroline, we’re five minutes out,” Tupper spoke into his throat mic. The SWAT officer shook his head and turned the GPS screen toward him. The estimated time until arrival read twelve minutes.

“Five minutes, Caroline,” Tupper repeated when she didn’t respond. He could hear her labored breathing. He wasn’t used to hearing this from her. After all, she was the one that stormed into his office and demanded to be part of this operation.

“Tupper...”

“We’re almost there, Caroline, just hold on.”

“Someone’s coming.”

Tupper felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. The pain in his gut stole his voice for a moment. He swore silently and tried to make the accelerator push through the floor as if that was something at all possible.

“Caroline, hide, we’re gonna find you.”

The line was quiet, followed by a scraping sound and a gasp.

Click.

“Caroline? Caroline!”

Silence replied mournfully in his earpiece.


CHAPTER TWO
Sanguine Tears

At first, she thought the body had moved. Then she realized it was shuddering in response to her contact with it. Her stomach hitched at the thought, and she clenched her hands together, fingers intertwined to staunch the shaking. The jackhammer in her head had moved to her chest, and her heart was racing. She heard the flow of blood in her ears, the constant pounding surging through her body, causing a throbbing pain in her head. She willed her ears to behave, but the staccato thundering was still distracting her.

The sound of encroaching footfalls is getting louder, and thus closer, her addled brain told her. There was a slight squeak as the tread reacted with the smooth bare floor. Each step sounded purposeful, perhaps confident. She could discern two distinct step patterns. There are two of them; her brain fired off again.

The presence of the cell phone still pressed against her ear dragged her out of the chaotic thoughts swirling around her like the tide. Pieces of instruction and training floated on the surface like flotsam and jetsam. Her urgent goals were rocks eroded by the constant bombardment of foam. She knew that she needed to do something. What is wrong with me? she thought.

She scanned the room and the floor beneath her spun like a carnival ride. So did her stomach. She waited for the floor to drop out from under her. As a child, she anticipated the exhilaration. Maybe it was through that lens of the carnival experience, but everything looked warped, far away, and impossible to reach. She could hear voices now, sharp, gruff, and rapid. Whoever they were, they were arguing. What were they arguing about? Caroline strained to make out the heated exchange. She still couldn’t understand the words, whether from the distance or the fog that had settled in her head. Are they going to kill me? A glance at the body on the bed told her she shouldn’t wait to find out if they were returning to finish the job. She knew that she needed to do something.

Hide.

She couldn’t figure out if she had heard the word, or if her subconscious was screaming, echoing the notion against her skull. Regardless, Caroline found herself nodding in acquiescence before a wave of nausea caused her throat to burn with the effort not to vomit. She struggled to get up.

Her knees buckled, and she dropped the smart phone as she stuck out her arms to absorb the impact with the carpet that was still undulating. She heard a snap and felt a tearing pain in her wrist. The phone bounced, and clattered off the carpet and onto the bare floor. Loudly.

The advancing footfalls paused, and the voices stopped.

Caroline backed away on her uninjured hand and knees until the realization that she was still trapped in the barren room struck her. She couldn’t tell what made seeing an escape route more difficult, the haze she swam through or the damned bed blocking her field of view.

The bed.

Caroline focused on the low bed and saw her wadded up black two-button stretch wool jacket. It had been kicked under the bed like a cast-off slipper. A poor way to treat my Dolce and Gabbana, she thought, scowling. She stretched her body out in front of the bed, and winced each time she moved her shoulders, backside, and heels to work her way into the tight space, but she knew she’d been in tighter spots before - both literally and figuratively.

The smart phone screen had dimmed due to inactivity. Suddenly, the telltale brightness indicated an incoming call, and she nearly dropped the damn thing as she fumbled to silence the ringtone.

The footfalls resumed. This time, they were slower with caution, almost tentative. Had they heard her? she wondered.

Caroline pulled her jacket to her chin as she continued her descent into the small pane of darkness. Something soft skittered against her ribs, and a quartet of out-of-focus blobs scampered away. She ignored them. She could feel the bed frame against her chest, and the floor pressed against her shoulder blades. She could breathe in the dust as long as she didn’t try to do it deeply. Not that she wanted to, with the constant reminder that she was covered in bruises. She continued working her body inch by painful inch until she stubbed her toes on the headboard.

Never quite succeeding in catching her breath, Caroline wound her jacket around her body, concealing her face, and hands. She winced as her shoulder dug into a wooden slat, and she heard the crack of it giving way to her labored movements. She froze, listening for signs that the noise had betrayed her position. She shifted into a fetal position and hoped her dark jacket was enough to conceal her position, the smart phone flat against her chest, her body obscuring the bright screen.

Her ears perked up as she heard the doorknob squeak at its inevitable rotation.

Caroline drew in what breath she could and held it, wedged between the box springs and the dusty wooden floor. Her head lolled to the grimy surface, and she already felt a crick in her neck forming. What a pain in the neck, a dark pun surfaced. It was gallows humor, but she couldn’t laugh even if she wanted to perform the cathartic action; the door creaked open.

“Damn it.”

Caroline squeezed her eyes closed when she heard the unfamiliar voice and utterance.

“How the hell did she get away?” another voice responded.

“I dunno,” the first voice snapped. “You said that shit would keep her out for at least twelve hours.”

“We shoulda checked her.”

“Ya think she’s got it?”

The response was a harsh grating bark; a chuckle dragged through gravel. “He didn’t.” The laugh subsumed into a coughing fit. “Check the room,” the voice continued through wheezing gasps of breath.

“Should we make the call?”

“Not yet.”

Caroline strained to hear the fragments of conversation. It didn’t make any sense to her, but she knew it would be important later. She peered through the torn seam in her favorite jacket into the murk beyond her hiding spot. A strip of light marked the demarcation of the bed. Doors were opened and closed. A window painted shut was opened with a grunt, the tearing of latex paint and the scrape of metal against metal grated on her ears.

Caroline shuddered. No, she admonished herself, don’t move! She shoved her hands into her armpits. Her wrist screamed at the contortions, but she was afraid her exposed skin would glow like a beacon of a lighthouse warning her pursuers of her location. She exhaled shallow breaths against the stretch-silk lining.

A floorboard creaked, and Caroline held her breath as gleaming tips of polished leather broke the line of pale light. The light revealed scratches on the shiny toes, and she shrunk from the grunt she heard. She chewed on her bottom lip, the pain radiating heat to keep her focused. To keep her alive.

A pale face partially obscured in shadow appeared in her space. A narrow, unsmiling mouth pursed, reflected light highlighting a day or two of growth on a squared chin. Caroline clenched, commanding her limbs to freeze painfully in place. She squeezed her elbows into her chest to stop the thundering beating of her heart. She was sure he would hear it banging away against her ribs.

Something dribbled onto his cheek from above. The whiskers caused it to change direction again and again. Caroline bit the inside of her cheek, commanding herself not to react to the gore. Another drop landed - it was thick and viscous, slowly trailing the previous one.

Don’t move! Don’t move! Don’t move!

Caroline could feel the phone digging into her sternum. She was overwhelmed by the fear that the phone would somehow slip out from her camouflage, lighting up the space for her discovery. That fear was overshadowed by a new one: the face was slowly turned in her direction. She somehow tensed her already tense body. Had she been discovered?

Above her, the bed sagged and shifted as the other person climbed on it. Caroline could feel the eyes of the anonymous face attempting to stare into the darkness.

“You see anything?”

No, Caroline thought, willing the man to comply.

The pale face encroaching her hiding place dropped, but it was still peering at Caroline’s hidden form, like an ally cat waiting for a mouse to show itself from under a dumpster.

“Anything?” the gravelly voice demanded. Too many packs of Camels had ruined the rough voice to a harsh timbre.

Pale Face glanced over his shoulder, and the blood spatter changed direction before rising out of Caroline’s view.

“I need a flashlight.”

“I look like one o’ them clown twins on that HG fuckin’ N tee vee show?” Raspy Voice snapped back.

An exasperated sigh from Pale Face, followed by, “Gimmie your cell phone, man.”

A smoke-grated cough scoffed. “Use your own, dude.”

Caroline watched, frozen in fear, as a cellphone screen brightened. She swallowed hard as a thin rectangle of blue light slowly rotated from the opposite end and crept steadily toward her face. She couldn’t move, her joints burned with the effort of remaining still. She felt the strain of her limbs being bent at awkward angles, for far longer than anyone should have to endure. She could only watch, seeing the anemic beam of light pierce her like a laser, its heat crawling up her legs, to her knees, it was almost to her...

A dark mass dropped from the box springs, landed on her covered head, and darted out from the darkness. Pale Face’s eyes grew wide and disappeared. The cellphone dropped with a satisfying crack, and the light blinked before fading out. The spots on Caroline’s eyes remained.

“Holy shit!” The black shoes performed a rapid two-step away from Caroline. “Rats! God dammed disease-ridden...”

Caroline swallowed as she heard a squeak and the sound of something soft striking a distant wall.

“Did you see anything?” the other rasped, not sharing Pale Face’s scare.

“Ya mean other than that furry muthafucka?” A tattooed hand retrieved the dropped cell phone. “Fuck!” the voice continued. “You’d need to be frickin’ Houdini to fit under there.”

The bed above Caroline creaked, particulates of God knows what rained down on her. “You searched the body?”

Something else Caroline didn’t want to think about dripped on her exposed cheek and rolled slowly toward the corner of her mouth. She fought to not gag, bile rising in her throat.

“Twice, man. He doesn’t fuckin’ have it.”

“Search upstairs,” Raspy Voice ordered. “I’ll look downstairs. Lil’ miss thang couldn’t’ve gone very far, not with that much shit in her.”

Caroline heard leather shoes shuffle as Pale Face obeyed the command. She tensed and held her breath as both pairs of black leather stomped past the bed and out the door. The slam of the wood against the door frame echoed in her tired ears. She lay there in silence as the footfalls retreated down the hall, growing more and more faint until at last she couldn’t hear them.

But still, she was unable to move. They could easily return.

Caroline allowed her neck to slacken, and she felt the cold floor against her cheek. She shuddered, and the movement caused the wood to press against her jaw, forcing the stench of old decay and must into her nostrils. The odor was smothering, gagging, all encompassing. Her legs spasmed, her wrist ached dully, but still she couldn’t move.

Caroline hugged the jacket to her face, hoping the expensive cloth would filter out the stench. She fought the urge to just close her eyes and allow the sweet embrace of oblivion to envelop her. Passing out would solve nothing, and it could potentially lead to my capture, she thought, and a voice in the back of her head corrected her: again.

She maneuvered the silent cell phone between her ear and the floor, waiting for it to announce that help had arrived.

Hide. The thought echoed again.

Yes, she was hidden. Now she would wait. Caroline wracked her brain trying to remember what she was waiting for... no, who she was waiting for. Deep down, she knew if she waited long enough, everything would be okay.

It would.

Above her, the bed wept another thick, coppery tear on her cheek. She felt her eyes wet as the gruesome drop slowly rolled down her face.

CHAPTER THREE
Darkness Abated

The first thing Tupper thought when he scrambled out of the van with one wheel encroaching on the curb was, what am I going to tell Tiffany? His wife, Tiffany, wasn’t a field agent or even a member of Tupper’s task force, but she and Caroline had grown quite close lately. The two of them and another woman by the name of Kimberly Smyth had all met at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The next thought was more of a promise about what he would do to those responsible for what happened to Caroline.

“I want this block locked down,” Tupper bellowed.

He seized the vest proffered by the SWAT commander turned navigator who was using it to bar Tupper from charging up the steps of a random building, or questioning people on the streets. Tupper was normally an even-keeled person, but the situation with Caroline had him going off “half-cocked” as they say. Tupper struggled into his vest one-handed, the other still clinging to the cellphone that had been his only link to Caroline. He didn’t know if her calling again would help, but the prospect of hearing her voice again filled him with hope.

“Which building, Colonel Jones?” one of the SWAT team members asked.

The row of buildings was daunting. Aging brownstones that had been condemned in an eminent domain proceeding. The project had been blocked on all fronts, as some of the wealthiest people in the city owned and lived in these buildings. Historical societies, action committees, petitioners, and even the local news caused the intended project for this block of buildings to be indefinitely postponed, the funds for completing it drained fighting multiple lawsuits. What was once an affluent neighborhood was now abandoned decay.

Somewhere in one of those languished and forgotten buildings, was Caroline.

Tupper ran his free hand down the front of his Kevlar vest, verifying the plates were positioned correctly. His eyes swept the row of five-story brownstones. Five or six rooms each floor, he thought. Six buildings times five floors times... “Shit,” he concluded out loud.

“Colonel?” The SWAT commander stood at his elbow. “Which one? Did your agent call back?”

“No,” Tupper replied, his jaw set, eyebrows furrowed. He opened a Velcro flap and inserted his cellphone into a pocket. He squared his shoulders and stepped forward.

“Stop!” a voice sounded out, “Federal agent!”

Tupper’s head snapped to the commotion to see two SWAT members giving chase to a pair figures materializing between two of the buildings. Like greyhounds chasing a rabbit, the seasoned professionals gave chase. Tupper tensed to join them, but he knew he was too far away to offer any meaningful assistance. Besides, his task was to find Caroline. He returned his attention to the pair of buildings straddling the alley the figures had emerged from.

“Commander,” Tupper said, “I want you to lead a team into the building on the left, and I’ll take the rest of the men to the building on the right.”

# # #

Tupper pressed his back against the wall next to the main entrance. A rat skittered from a hole in broken brown brick. Tupper made a face and jerked his foot away from the exposed nest. He stabbed his chest with two fingers extended, then into the air above his head. The SWAT officer beside him nodded, pointing a single finger to himself and then the floor.

“One,” Tupper mouthed silently.

The SWAT officer crouched, and bounced on the balls of his feet.

“Two.” Their arms tensed, Tupper tilted his head first to the right, then to the left with matching cracks.

“Three.”

In a fluid motion, they entered a long hallway, Tupper high, and the SWAT officer low. They led with their muzzles, and as silent as ghosts, they leap-frogged each other, nods and hand signals directing their movements. Resting in doorways, they systematically cleared each room as they moved deeper into the building. It was a textbook maneuver, but Tupper couldn’t keep the anxiety out of his step.

White patches adorned the paint on the wall. Tupper wondered what this hallway had looked like in its heyday. Now, peeling wallpaper and chipped paint were all he could see in the narrow beam of light his tactical weapon provided. Tupper eyed white lines that cut into the once pristine expensive carpet, disturbed the dust on either side obvious even without focusing his light on it.

Tupper froze, ice chilling his veins. Something was dragged down the hall, he thought, and he refused to acknowledge what the feeling in his gut revealed. The drag marks and disheveled carpet led to the last door, but procedure required all rooms be cleared in the proper order. It was a disturbing countdown, each man scanning the rooms on their side of the hallway. One by one the rooms were dismissed, their stride quick and efficient, until they reached the final door.

That’s when the permeating smell wafted from under a gap at the bottom of the door. Tupper wrinkled his nose, the coppery odor stinging his eyes. He set his jaw, reached out to the door, and looked at his partner. The SWAT officer nodded before he kicked down the door.

At first blush, all Tupper saw was a body. He flexed his knees to keep himself upright and forced himself to focus. Blonde hair, brown eyes, square jaw…

“It’s not Caroline,” Tupper whispered. He grimaced when his eyes fell on the bloody tableau.

Tupper pushed aside a bloody knife with the muzzle of his weapon. Caroline said it wasn’t her blood, he thought. He spied a blue scarf he had seen Caroline wearing earlier that day. The now stiff banner of silk was peeking out from beneath the dead body. Tupper averted his eyes with a slight shudder.

“Get a crime scene unit here,” he spoke to his SWAT partner, as the tension in his shoulders abated. He withdrew his cellphone, and the unique sound of Velcro separating jarred him from his state of shock. “We need more people to search this building.”

The SWAT officer nodded both to Tupper and to whoever was speaking in his ear. “Second SWAT team en route,” he declared, removing his fingers from his earpiece.

“Have the coroner give a preliminary on this,” he motioned toward the grim scene on the bed. “I want an update from the men that pursued those suspects.”

The SWAT member nodded and placed fingers against his throat mic, whispering - his fingers moving back and forth from mic to earpiece.

The SWAT member met Tupper’s eyes, holstered his weapon, and walked out of the room. Tupper removed his earpiece, ignoring the cacophony of traffic as the remaining floors were cleared. No sign of Caroline was found in these two buildings. Tupper scrolled to the top of the “recent” list on his cell phone and gritted his teeth as the call connected.

“Caroline,” he said urgently into his cellphone, “where are you?”

He surveyed the room. He was transfixed by the body. Vacant eyes stared out at him, and the mouth was agape as if it was about to reveal a secret.

“Tupper?”

He felt a tremble in his legs, and staggered back a step, but didn’t touch anything to steady himself, lest he contaminate the crime scene.

“What’s your status?” he demanded. He couldn’t figure out why his voice sounded sharper, especially since the numbness he felt in his chest had melted slightly at the sound of Caroline’s voice. “Where the hell are you?”

The silence caused his left eye to twitch. Then he heard shallow breathing and a terse swallow.

“Tupper?”

Not good, damn it, not good, he closed his eyes, forcing the mantra to stop. Caroline’s voice was fading.

He forced a smile, and replied, trying to keep the mood light. “You called me, Caroline, and now I’m here.” He swallowed, but the lump in his throat was a permanent resident. “I know I told you to hide, and you’re doing a helluva job, but I need to find you. I’ve got a reputation to maintain.”

The shallow breathing from the cellphone paused and slowed.

“Come on, Caroline,” Tupper coaxed. “Where...”

Tupper frowned and furrowed his brow. The sharpness in his voice was bordering on an odd echo. He held the cellphone out. Full bars, he thought, why... He took a step back and heard the floor creak under his foot. He shifted his weight, this time with the cellphone pressed against his ear. He heard the creak in the tiny speaker.

It wasn’t an echo.

He looked toward the open closet. There was nowhere to hide in there. Another room beyond was equally as bare.

Tupper returned to the squeaky floorboard again. The creak sounded in the room and over the phone again. His eyes wandered over the bed. He regarded the bed skirt and lifted it with his booted toe. A muffled gasp sounded in his ear.

Gingerly, Tupper stooped and looked into the narrow space below the bed.

How the hell


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Mark Gardner lives in northern Arizona with his wife, three children and a pair of spoiled dogs. Mark holds a degree in Computer Systems and Applications and is currently attending Northern Arizona University, enrolled in the undergraduate Applied Human Behavior program.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
Originally, this was supposed to be a sequel to my techno-thriller, Body Rentals. After about 25,000 words, I realized that no one had switched bodies! I rewrote it into a murder mystery, and this is it.
Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
James Patterson (there's even a nod to him in my story,) Lee Child, John Grisham, Janet Evanovich, Nora Roberts, Dick Francis, and JA Jance. Although humor is an important part of Caroline Collins' persona, I think that my story is just a little bit darker than some of my favorite mystery stories.
Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
Score of Silence is book one. I already have a completed rough draft of the second book, and some ideas and a brief outline for books three and four.

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Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
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