Stella crossed the threshold. “Yes, ma’am.”

“What can I do for you?” Mrs. Green’s voice lifted with apprehension.

“Can we sit down?” Stella felt Brody’s steady presence behind her as Mrs. Green led them into the kitchen.

Mrs. Green’s eyes were worried as she eased into a chair.

Stella turned a chair to face her. “Did you see the news today?”

“No.” Mrs. Green’s smile was weak. “I just got home from work.”

Stella breathed. “The body of a woman was found at one of the township baseball fields today.”

Mrs. Green gasped. One hand covered her mouth then dropped into her lap.

Stella reached out to take her hands. “It’s Missy.”

“No.” Mrs. Green shook her head as if she was trying to shake out the thought. “That can’t be. I just saw her Thursday. I took her to lunch. She was fine.”

Stella squeezed her fingers. “I’m sorry.”

“No.” Mrs. Green wrenched them away. She jumped to her feet, knocking the chair over and backing up until she was trapped against the kitchen counter. “No.” She slid down the front of the cabinet to the floor. She pressed a fist to her mouth and rocked. In her eyes, shock and denial warred with the truth. “It has to be a mistake.”

Stella went to her. She dropped onto her knees beside Missy’s mother and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. The older woman’s grief seemed to flow into her.

A long minute later, Mrs. Green pushed away. “How?”

“We don’t know yet,” Stella said in a gentle tone. “I need to ask you a few questions.”

Nodding, Mrs. Green wiped tears from her face with her fingertips.

“Did Missy use drugs?”

Mrs. Green nodded. “Alcohol, too. When she was living in Los Angeles. She had some success writing screenplays, but threw away all her money on drugs. I warned her about that lifestyle. Too much money. Too many wild parties. It took me three years to convince her to come home and get straightened out.” She looked up, her gaze sharpening. “How did you know?”

“We found a needle at the scene,” Stella said gently.

Mrs. Green shuddered. A trembling breath left her body. “I can’t believe it. She promised me she’d never use again, and you know how stubborn she is.”

Stella thought of the bruises on Missy’s face. “Was there a man or other friends in her life?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Did she have any contact with her friends in California?” Stella asked.

“Not that I know of. She was determined to stay far away from everything that reminded her of that life. She wouldn’t even consider writing again.” Mrs. Green hugged her own waist. “What happened to her?”

“We’ll do everything we can to find out,” Stella reassured her. “How did she get clean?”

Mrs. Green sniffed and blotted her eyes with a tissue. “I borrowed money from my sister to put her in rehab.” Fresh tears overflowed Mrs. Green’s eyes. “She was doing so well, working two jobs to earn the money to pay back my sister. I was so proud of her.”

Sorrow filled Stella’s heart until she couldn’t draw a deep breath.

“Tell me you’ll find out what happened to my baby,” Mrs. Green pleaded. “I know she didn’t do this to herself. Missy wouldn’t lie to me.”

Stella put a hand on her forearm. “I’ll do my best.”

Images of a youthful Missy spun through her mind: sitting on the floor of Stella’s bedroom painting her toenails, floating in an inner tube on the river behind Stella’s house, tossing her cap at high school graduation.

And now she was dead.

Chapter Three

He pushed the Record button on his cable box as a Breaking News Report banner scrolled across the screen. A reporter stood in front of the baseball field, as close as she could get to the dugout without crossing the crime scene tape barrier.

Finally! They’d found her. He never thought it would take so long.

The reporters intercepted a beautiful brunette in a serious suit. He turned up the volume just in time to catch her name. She was a police detective?

“It’s too early to make assumptions,” Detective Dane said before she ducked the reporters.

Too early? Assumptions? How did they not understand? They just didn’t get it. No one appreciated the irony. His sigh was long, deep, and full of disappointment.

He’d left Missy at a baseball field with a hypodermic needle at her side, a junkie in the middle of America’s symbol of wholesomeness. He’d thought the contrast was interesting, even artistic. He’d positioned her carefully. Hell, he’d even wrapped a fucking bow around her neck. But apparently he’d been too subtle. Maybe if he’d left an apple pie in her lap, the police would have gotten the message.

He opened his folder. Eight-by-ten color glossies of Missy lying on the bench, arms folded across her midsection Sleeping Beauty-style, hypodermic needle tucked beneath her overlapping fingers. He’d positioned her late Saturday night. Since then, an entire day of severe storms had raged through the area. Maybe the weather or time had affected the precise positioning of Missy’s body.

Next time he’d be more careful. He’d make sure his message was delivered on time.

On the TV, behind the reporters, two men in coveralls rolled a gurney toward a white and red van. Missy had been zipped into a black body bag.

Too bad.

The public should see what happened to the fallen. She’d deserved what she’d gotten. He’d performed a public service: judgment, punishment, and execution of the depraved.

Missy had claimed to be redeemed, but none of them were. She’d been dirty. Weak. Pathetic. And now she was gone, plucked from society like a dandelion ripped from a lush, green lawn. The grass would fill in, healthier, stronger without her tainted roots.

The news segued to a traffic report. He stopped recording.

How could he make his message clear? Some people were unworthy of life. There were consequences for bad decisions. People should be punished for their sins. What would it take for the world to understand?

He replayed the news clip. When Detective Dane entered the frame, he paused the recording. She was in charge. Therefore, she was the one he needed to convince.

Chapter Four

Monday, June 20, near Tabatinga, Brazil

The booming growl of a howler monkey echoed across the forest. Mac froze. He lowered his binoculars, his survival instincts quivering as the rain forest around him went on alert. Something was wrong.

June was past the official rainy season, but this part of the jungle didn’t really have a dry one. The Amazon River flowed fat and fast past him, sunlight glimmering on its rippled surface. Twenty yards away, a male giant river otter poked its head above the water and stared downstream. Mac followed the weasel’s focus, looking for the snout of the black caiman that had been hanging around the day before.

A pair of scarlet macaws burst from the forest and winged out over the river. Mac shifted his binoculars from the water to the canopy. A hundred feet above, the reddish brown body of a howler monkey poised on a thick branch. The air smelled like rain was coming, but torrential downpours were daily events and wouldn’t bother the monkeys. The big male sounded another throaty warning. Something—or someone—was invading the primate’s territory.

Mac lowered his binoculars. His three-member team had been camped near a small village ten miles from Tabatinga, Brazil, for weeks. The monkeys had become accustomed to their presence. Another group of primates could be encroaching on the home turf of the resident troop. Or it could be something else entirely, maybe a jaguar. The monkeys scattered, the canopy shifting, branches and foliage swaying, as the creatures took flight. If another group of primates were muscling in on their territory, the howlers would have stood their ground, at least for a time. There would have been a vocal protest, posturing, possibly even a physical altercation. The animals’ quick abandonment of their domain meant one thing: predator.

He scanned the river. The young otters had stopped playing and had scurried into the shallows. Three adults swam in circles, agitation evident in their tense posture. Their cute, cuddly appearance and playful antics camouflaged their place at the top of the Amazon food chain. Nearly six feet long, giant river otters had few natural predators except black caimans or jaguars. If the otters were on alert, the threat was likely unnatural.

In the jungle, unnatural equaled human.

Sweat dripped into his eye. He yanked a bandana from the back pocket of his nylon cargo pants and tied it around his head.

“Mac!” Behind him, Cheryl bulldozed through the rain forest. How could a woman that small make that much noise? She moved with the grace of a miniature bison. Sweat soaked the armpits of her long-sleeve safari shirt and a camera bounced around her neck.

“Shh.” Mac raised a hand, tilted his head, and listened.

Cheryl stopped and waited. Her gaze roaming the riverbanks. “I don’t hear anything.”

Mac didn’t hear as much as feel the tension in the jungle. It rippled along his skin like a swarm of ants.

Cheryl tightened the band on her ponytail. “We’ve been here for weeks. The locals are friendly. All we’ve seen are fishing boats and ecotours.”

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