Carl walked to the end of the porch and looked in another window. “Same here.”
“Are you ready?” Stella asked.
Carl nodded. The uniform brought the battering ram and swung the heavy black rod by the handles. It hit the door next to the lock. The door burst in. Carl and Stella led the entry. The uniforms followed. They swept the house, clearing each room floor by floor. When the entire house was declared empty, they met on the front porch again.
“There’s a vehicle parked in front of the barn. Let’s check it out.” Stella moved off the porch. Their warrant included outbuildings. The rain beat on her shoulders and dripped down the back of her neck as she skirted a mud puddle. The barn doors were closed. The windows were high and boarded over. The two uniforms jogged across the yard.
Stella sniffed. Over the wash of rain, a faint but caustic odor lingered.
“Doesn’t smell like a body. Smells like cat piss.” One of the uniforms wiped his face.
Stella scanned the front of the building. High windows were covered with plywood. “Can you boost me up to the window? Maybe I can see through those boards.”
“Careful,” Carl warned as he moved under the opening.
But they both knew going in blind was dangerous. It was better to know what they were facing than to rush in.
Stella put a hand on his shoulder and stepped into his locked fingers. He boosted her a few feet into the air. She grabbed the sill and got a toehold on a loose board. She put her eye to the space between the boards. A distinct odor wafted through the tiny slit. She recognized the smell with one sniff. Ammonia.
“Can you see anyone?” Carl asked.
“Give me a minute.” She squinted into the dim, but all she could see was piles of junk and shadows. “It’s too dark inside.”
“I’m sorry.” He reached for her hand to help her down, then scanned the front of the barn.
“Can you see anything between the board over the other window?” Stella gestured to the other side of the door.
“Let’s just open the damned door.” Carl reached for the long, metal handle on the sliding door. “There’s probably nothing inside but fertilizer and old junk.” He pointed to the rusted hinges of the barn door. “This barn doesn’t see much action.”
His fingers closed around the handle.
Turning, Stella saw a thin metal wire running along the doorframe.
“Don’t!” Stella shouted.
But it was too late. He was already pulling.
“Get down!” Stella dove at him, looping an arm over his chest and taking him to the ground with her just as the front of the barn exploded.
Mac drove toward Stella’s house. His phone chimed with a text message. Stopping at an intersection, he checked the screen. It was from Gianna.
He pulled over to the shoulder and opened the message.
can’t find stella. can u pick me up?
Stella would have her phone off.
Mac typed back, yes. where r u?
Why would Gianna be sitting at the park where Dena Miller’s body had been found? As if she knew what he was asking, she texted, was thinking about jumping. Changed my mind. :)
Shit. He pictured her standing on the bridge in the rain, looking over the edge, the water rushing and swirling in the dark below. Gianna was depressed, sick, and suicidal. As Stella had pointed out, without constant intervention, the girl was always a few days from death.
He tried to call her, but she didn’t answer.
On my way, he answered, then he sent Stella a quick text. Gianna texted me. I’m going to pick her up at Bridge Park.
She’d want to know Gianna was alive the second she finished her op and turned on her phone. Should he call the station and have them call off the search for the girl? No. Not until he had eyes on her. If she was a no-show, Mac wanted the cops looking for her.
How the hell did she get out to the park? That was a long walk in the rain, but desperation could provide plenty of fuel.
The storm picked up as he stopped before the bridge. Mac squinted through the windshield. His headlights gleamed on wet pavement and driving rain. Gianna wasn’t on the bridge. Where was she? Her text had specified the park. He backed up and turned into the park entrance, drove down the embankment, and parked near the monument. Thunder cracked, and lightning slashed across the sky as the drizzle became a downpour. He didn’t see her, but the rain had increased considerably from when she’d texted him. She must have sought cover under the bridge. He parked the car as close to the stone foundation as possible.
Mac searched in the backseat of the sedan and found a jacket. Wind whipped the rain sideways. He tucked the jacket under his arm. Leaving his phone in the car, he found a flashlight in the glove box and stepped out into the rain. Water drenched his clothes in seconds. He splashed through a puddle, his mind conjuring images of the pale, thin girl under a heap of blankets in her sauna of an apartment. The night was muggy and warm, but if Gianna were wet, she would be freezing.
“Gianna!” he shouted over the storm and jogged toward the bridge. Through the downpour, he saw a figure lean out of the shadow and wave, then duck back under. Thank God.
Hunching against the wind, Mac ran under the stone arch. Something hit him in the shoulder. A slice of pain, then a paralyzing jolt, rammed through his body. His muscles seized. He saw the ground coming toward his face but was unable to move a hand to catch himself. He hit the dirt like an oak struck by lightning. The flashlight landed next to him, its beam moving as it rolled down the slope toward the river.
Had he been struck by lightning?
The pain eased. Mac twitched. The figure stepped out of the dark.
Up close and out of the driving rain, he could see the person was too big to be Gianna.
Warning blasted through him. Not lightning. Taser.
Mac shook off his paralysis and planted a hand on the ground. He needed to get up. The muscles of his arms trembled as he forced his torso off the packed earth. A second jolt ripped through him. His body went stiff as stone, and his face smacked into the dirt.
A boot landed in the center of Mac’s spine. He struggled, his limbs still twitching, as his hands were yanked behind his back. A third jolt slammed his teeth together. But the most frightening sight was the needle aimed at Mac’s neck. The second his muscles relaxed, the needle bit into his flesh. His muscles went lax in an instant. He blinked. He could feel every inch of his body, but his muscles did not respond to commands. He wanted to protest, but he couldn’t make a sound.
Fear raced through his blood. His heart sprinted inside his chest.
A hood was drawn over his head. Blind and paralyzed, Mac felt his limbs being moved, his wrists and ankles bound. His body was rolled onto a tarp and dragged across the ground. Mac was rolled down the hill and into something metal and concave. His legs flopped uselessly over the edge.
He was in a fucking wheelbarrow.
Probably the same wheelbarrow that had been used to dispose of Dena Miller’s body.
“You have quite the tolerance for pain. We’re going to have an interesting night.”
Stella was airborne for a few long seconds then landed facedown in the mud, one arm still looped over Carl. The impact with the ground slammed her teeth together and knocked the breath from her lungs.
Ears ringing, she lifted her head. Carl lay on his back. His eyes were closed, and he wasn’t moving. Blood trickled from a gash on his temple.
A second blast blew the top of the barn into the sky. Stella belly crawled on top of him. Putting her arms over her head, she used her upper body to shield his face and head. Fire roared behind them. She put her fingers to his throat. Relief washed through her as she felt the steady throb of his pulse.
She turned. Twenty feet away, one of the uniforms lurched to his feet. His body swayed for a second before he ran toward his partner. The second uniform stirred in the center of the space, flat on his back. The blast had thrown him fifteen feet straight backward. He rolled over and crawled away from the blaze.
Stella got her feet under her body. Her legs trembled then steadied. She grabbed Carl by the ankles and leaned into the pull, but she couldn’t budge him. The two uniforms helped her drag him away from the fire and called for backup, fire trucks, and an ambulance.
Stella glanced at the uniforms. “Are you both all right?”
“Fine,” one coughed.
Carl stirred and pressed a hand to his head.
“Hold still.” Stella put a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t know how badly you’re hurt.”
He moved his arms and legs. “Just cracked my head.”
“Detective, the fire is spreading.”
Stella followed the uniform’s finger to an outbuilding behind the barn. Embers drifted through the air. Despite the rain, the barn was burning at flash speed.
“That’s one hell of a fire.” Carl nodded toward a nearby shed. “We’d better start clearing outbuildings.”
She lurched to her feet and ran toward the shed. Carl staggered behind her. They cleared the property shed by shed but found no one.
Fifteen minutes later, Stella sat on the bumper of her vehicle staring at the inferno of a barn. Where was Gianna? If she’d been inside the barn . . .
Stella refused to believe Gianna was dead. Needing to hear Mac’s voice, she turned on her cell phone to call him and saw that he’d sent her a text. As she read the message, she was lightheaded with relief. Gianna hadn’t been in the barn. Mac was picking her up at Bridge Park. Stella called him. The line rang five times before switching to voice mail. Stella left a message and then tried texting him. He didn’t respond.
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