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Tucker opened his desk drawer. He poured two tumblers of scotch from his stash. He handed one across the desk to Grant and waited until Grant had tossed his back before speaking. “I got a call from the States.”

Grant stiffened, bracing himself. Had his father finally succumbed to his physical and mental afflictions? The retired army colonel had held out far longer than anyone would have predicted. Grant had been expecting a call about his death since he’d been deployed ten months ago. “What happened? Is it my father?”

“No. I’m sorry, Grant. It isn’t your father.” Tucker’s eyes went hard, and his words were the last thing Grant expected to hear. “Your brother and his wife were killed.”

Grant’s ears were still ringing from the battle. He couldn’t have heard that right. He only had one married brother. Grant usually spent part of his leave with Lee’s family. Lee was the family touchstone. There was nothing remotely dangerous about his life. “Excuse me, sir?”

“Your brother Lee and his wife, Kate, were killed last night.”

Liquor and grief numbed a path through Grant’s gut. This was impossible. “How? Car accident?”

Tucker shook his head. Sympathy softened his voice. “It seems as if they were robbed.”

Once Grant digested the initial shock, his next thought was of the children. Carson and Faith were alone. Orphans.

He stared at the floor. “I have to go home.”

“Pack your bag. Emergency leave paperwork is already being processed. Sergeant Stevens is arranging transport.” Tucker returned to his desk. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you, sir.” Grant stood, willing the wobble from his legs. He faced loss of life on a daily basis. But the death of his quiet suburban lawyer brother was different. Grant wasn’t prepared for the emotional hit to his flank. He’d been ambushed all over again.

He checked in with Sergeant Stevens. He’d gotten Grant a spot on an outbound troop transport helicopter. Grant had a few hours to prepare. He packed, showered, and donned fresh ACUs on automatic pilot. It wasn’t until he was seated in the Chinook, watching the dirt cloud churned up by the tandem rotors, that it sank all the way in. Pain bored through Grant’s soul like a bullet.

Lee and Kate were dead.

Chapter Three

Monday night

Grant wiped a layer of mist from his face. The temperature in his hometown of Scarlet Falls, New York, was similar to the aching cold he’d left behind, but he appreciated both the moisture in the air and the absence of moon dust, the dirt powder that coated everything, including lungs, in Afghanistan.

Taking a deep, pine-scented breath, he followed Detective Brody McNamara up the concrete steps and into the side door of the municipal building. From the outside, the Colonial-style structure blended into the quaint small-town image, with blue clapboards and barn-red shutters. Inside, it was all tired office building. But since the detective had agreed to meet Grant at twenty-two hundred hours, he wasn’t complaining about the lack of interior design.

The police station shared the two-story structure with township administration. Just inside the doorway, a freestanding sign directed visitors upstairs to the tax collector, zoning office, and township clerk on the second floor. The cops had the ground level all to themselves.

He followed the cop through a gray tiled lobby. They passed the elevator and a reception counter, then walked down a short hall into a dark, open room. Detective McNamara flipped a switch on the wall. Overhead fluorescents illuminated a cluster of cubicles and a row of metal filing cabinets. A few closed doors banked the far wall.

“Sorry, we’re a small force. Night staff is skeletal, just patrol and dispatch.” The detective skirted the cubicles and unlocked the center door. McNamara was a year or two older than Grant’s thirty-five, with the ruddy, windburned complexion of a skier. Jeans and a navy-blue jacket with an SFPD patch on the sleeve hung on a rangy body. He led the way into a cramped but neat office. Two plastic guest chairs fronted an old metal desk. McNamara rounded the desk and dropped into his chair.

Restless, Grant stood. “I appreciate you meeting me here this late.” He’d called the cop from I-87 an hour before he hit town.

“Glad to help, Major. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Grant’s throat constricted. He’d been shot once and nearly blown up twice by IEDs. He had enough shrapnel buried under the skin of his leg to set off a metal detector. Keeping people like Lee and Kate safe was the reason he fought. How could his little brother, secure back here in the States, be dead?

Suddenly exhausted, Grant eased into a hard-backed chair. “Where are the children?”

The cop reached behind him. A mini fridge sat on top of a credenza. He pulled out a bottle of water and offered it to Grant. “As I said on the phone, we were unable to reach any family members the night your brother and his wife were killed. Child services placed them in a foster home.”

Grant’s sister, Hannah, was in Jakarta on business, but the youngest of the four Barrett siblings, Mac, was local. Given Mac’s troubled past, the lack of response to Grant’s messages was concerning.

Grant accepted the bottle. His eyes burned. He squeezed them shut and rubbed his forehead. “Can I get you some coffee, Major?” the cop asked.

“No, thanks.” Grant twisted off the cap and drank, forcing icy water down his tight throat. He’d spent the last seventy-two hours in transport from Afghanistan to New York State. Layovers in Kabul, Kuwait City, and Germany had dragged out his return trip. His life had been normal, at least as normal as life on a forward operating base in Afghanistan could be. Now everything was different. His priorities—his entire life—had exploded like a roadside bomb. “I just want to find my niece and nephew.”

“I understand, but I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do until morning.” The cop brushed a hand over his buzzed head. “Look, I know you want to see them, but the kids are probably asleep by now. You don’t want to drag them out of bed in the dark. They’d be frightened.”

Which is exactly what had happened on Friday night when their parents had been murdered. The cop was right. Replaying that scenario wasn’t in their best interest, but Grant didn’t want to think of Carson or Faith spending another night in a strange house, with strange people, after losing their entire world. Of course, since he’d been deployed before Faith was born, Grant was a stranger to her too, and he hadn’t seen Carson in ten months. Would the boy even recognize him? “Are you sure?”

“I’m sorry.” The cop laid a pair of reading glasses on the desk. “There are a lot of rules and red tape involved. Middle-of-the-night calls are for crises only. Where can I reach you?”

The last thing he wanted to do was be alone in his brother’s house, surrounded by happy memories that would be no more, the house where he’d spent two weeks with Lee, a pregnant Kate, and Carson the previous May. He wanted to get a hotel room, with impersonal surroundings that wouldn’t remind him his brother was dead, but the children would no doubt feel more comfortable in their own home. Grant had better make sure the house was ready for them.

“I’ll be staying at my brother’s house.” Grant gave the cop the phone number for the house. “You have my cell number.”

The cop picked up a pen and wrote the information down.

“My father doesn’t know?” Grant asked.

“No.” McNamara shook his head. “As you requested, I’ll leave that to you.”

Grant’s breath hitched, the thought of telling the Colonel about Lee’s death driving the finality of the situation home. “Thank you. My father’s health is shaky. I’ll go out to the nursing home tomorrow.”

Lee had been just two years younger than Grant. Growing up, they’d been as close as two kids with polar opposite personalities could be. Grant saw everything in black and white, while his brother noticed every shade of gray. Had their dad known how different the brothers would be when he’d named them after opposing Civil War generals? The plastic water bottle crunched under his too-tight grip. Grant loosened his fingers.

“I’ll contact child services first thing tomorrow,” McNamara said. “I’ll call you as soon as I hear from them.”

Grant didn’t like the situation, but after thirteen years in the army, he knew all about rules and procedures and when to pick his battles. The next question hurt to ask. “Do the bodies need to be identified?”

“No. That won’t be necessary. The medical examiner used dental records.” The cop shook his head, his eyes going flat. “I know you want to see them, but ask yourself if you want that image in your head forever or if you want to remember your brother and sister-in-law as you saw them last.”

The statement was a solid kick to the chest. Were Lee and Kate even identifiable? Grant pictured the insurgent he’d shot in the ambush, layering the traitor’s ruined face over his brother’s. His fingertips trembled. He’d had no time to decompress after the ambush before being slammed with Lee’s death. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw his M-4 fire and that insurgent’s face blow apart. He knew he hadn’t had a choice. Either he pulled that trigger or the lieutenant died. This wasn’t his first combat kill. Taking a life, even in war, left an imprint, but he could hardly compare this situation to anything he’d ever experienced before. Everything was backward. If one of the Barretts were to die, it was supposed to be Grant.

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