A twig snapped. In his peripheral vision, Mac saw the second man enter the clearing, an AK-47 in his hands.

The bastard who’d shot Cheryl.

Anger surged hot through Mac’s veins. The muzzle of the AK arced toward him. He whirled around, swinging Machete Man between him and the gunman as a shield. Shots burst from the rifle muzzle with orange flashes. The man in Mac’s grip flailed as the bullets cut across his middle. Something hot stung Mac in the side.

The trigger clicked on an empty cartridge. The gunman snapped the magazine off the bottom of the rifle and reached for his pocket. Mac tossed Machete Man’s dead body aside and lunged toward the machete on the ground. He snatched it off the dirt as the gunman shoved a new magazine into the AK.

The muzzle lifted. Jumping forward, Mac swung the blade. The razor-thin tip sliced the gunman’s forearm to the bone. Mac jumped closer, too close for the man’s AK to be of any use. Turning the long blade, he brought the tool up and across the gunman’s body, slicing him open from thigh to shoulder. The AK dropped to the ground. The gunman fell on top of it.

Mac wiped the blood from the machete on the ground.

He’d always wished he hadn’t grown up with a borderline psychotic and highly trained military father obsessed with turning his four offspring into a tiny paramilitary force. But the Colonel—and all the batshit-crazy survival weekends, weapons training, and combat drills he’d forced on his children—had just saved his youngest son’s life.

Mac rolled the gunman to his back to make sure he was dead. No worries. Mac’s conditioning had ensured his strike would be deadly.

The surge of relief was cut short as a sudden wave of agony sliced through his side. He put a hand just below his ribs. Hot blood seeped red through his T-shirt.

Not good. He was Cheryl’s only hope of getting help.

He ducked into the supply tent. The sat phone was gone, and the first aid kit was in the missing SUV. Son-of-a-bitch Juan. He hadn’t taken everything, just the essentials.

The village was a mile-long hike through the jungle, the day was getting shorter, and Mac was leaking. He found a bottle of Juan’s tequila, opened his shirt, and assessed the wound. The bullet had grazed the fleshy part of his side. Hoping it hadn’t hit any vital organs on its journey, he dumped alcohol on the wound. Pain burst through him as bright as a flashbang, blinding him and buckling his legs. Panting, he dropped to his knees and waited for the dizziness to pass.

When his vision cleared, he made a makeshift bandage from a bandana, filled his canteen with water, and fashioned a litter from a camp cot. The daily downpour continued. In the driving rain, it took him a few minutes to find Cheryl.

But only a second to realize she was dead.

No!

He dropped to his knees beside her body. He didn’t give a damn if the caiman ate those two drug traffickers, but he couldn’t leave Cheryl here.

Don’t leave me!

But he had, and she’d died alone.

White hot pain sliced him in two as he secured her to the cot. Dragging the litter behind him, he stumbled down the rutted trail. Each step sent sharp agony through his body. Good. Mac held on to the pain like a lifeline. Maybe it would keep him conscious long enough to make it to the village before he bled out. He pressed a hand to his side. At the moment, his survival seemed like a big maybe.

As he staggered through the jungle, he sent his family a mental apology. It didn’t seem likely that he’d make it home after all. The irony wasn’t lost on him. He’d been prepared to go home to see his father pass. Now it looked like Mac might be the first one to die.

Chapter Five

Wednesday, June 22, 2:00 p.m., Scarlet Falls, NY

Stella walked into the firing range. The muffled crack of gunshots bled through her earplugs.

And sweat pooled between her breasts.

This shouldn’t be hard. She was a good shot. Before November, her weekly practice session had been no more exciting than a trip to the gym, just one more thing she did to stay in shape as a cop. But now, every time she stared down the sights on her pistol, she thought of the shot she’d missed and the two cops who’d died as a result.

She set her bag on the wooden platform at the front of her assigned stall and removed her safety glasses and a box of bullets. Her heartbeat thudded over the steady pop pop of gunfire as she readied her stance. Discomfort flooded her body as she lined up her sights with the paper target. Her position felt all wrong, as if she’d never shot a gun before. She rolled a shoulder, cracked her neck, and stretched her arm, but there was no convincing her body that she’d done this a million times.

Her phone buzzed on her hip. She welcomed the distraction, until she read Frank’s name on her phone screen. She read his text: Done. Get over here.

She holstered her weapon, returned her gear to her bag, and drove to the medical examiner’s office. Stella took a deep breath of fresh air in the parking lot, as if it were her last, and pushed inside. In the antechamber, she donned a gown, cap, and plastic face shield. Bracing herself, she tugged on a pair of gloves and went into the autopsy suite. Frank was leaning over a sink, his back to Stella.

The metallic, sweet smell of blood and cold decay hit her through the face shield. The rubber-edged doors swished shut behind her as she focused on shallow breaths.

Frank glanced over his shoulder. “Stella, perfect timing.”

Perfect timing would be accidentally missing the whole thing.

“You said it was urgent,” Stella said, her face mask fogging up.

With a snort, Frank turned back to the sink. “We both know I wasn’t that polite.”

Frank stepped away from the sink. His face mask was tilted up onto his head. “You can come closer. I’ve finished with her.”

The sight of Missy, naked on the table, assaulted Stella’s senses, but she refused to turn away. The small surge of relief she’d felt that Frank had completed the autopsy faded almost as quickly as it hit.

“Oh, my God.”

Dozens of cuts lined Missy’s arms and legs. The lines were arranged in groups of five. Each had four vertical lines and one cross-wise cut, like tally marks.

Frank crossed his arms over his chest. “Each of these wounds is approximately two inches long and a quarter-inch deep.”

“How many are there?” Stella stared at the bloodless, raw-looking wounds.

“Forty.” Frank looked grim. “Plus this single stroke in the center of her belly.”

“Have you seen anything like this before?” Stella asked.

“Not quite. I’ve run into cutters before but nothing quite like this,” Frank said.

“Missy was a cutter?”

Frank pointed to a thin scar below the new wounds. “She has old scars on her forearms, so she probably cut herself at some point in the past.”

Stella could see healed track marks on Missy’s arms as well. All those old scars explained why she’d been wearing long sleeves in the heat of summer.

“But she didn’t do this to herself. Not this time.” Frank waved a hand over the body. “The directions and angles of the cuts aren’t consistent with self-inflicted wounds.” He pointed to a cluster of five lines. “A cut is deeper in the beginning or head of a knife wound because that’s where the pressure is the greatest. Toward the end or tail of the wound, the pressure is lighter and the cut becomes increasingly shallow. If she made these cuts herself, she would have cut toward herself. Instead the cuts run the opposite direction.”

“Someone was standing next to her,” Stella said.

“Also, she was restrained.” Frank pointed to deep bruises around Missy’s wrists and ankles.

“She was tied up and tortured.” Stunned and sickened, Stella scanned the body for other evidence. “Can you tell if the old cutting scars were self-inflicted?”

“No, but I doubt they were as deep.” Frank shook his head. “Are you thinking someone did this to her before?”

“I don’t know what to think. What else can you tell me?”

“She didn’t die at the scene. Estimated time of death is Saturday between four p.m. and midnight. There’s no sign of sexual assault. She presents as an overdose, and the syringe found at the scene contained traces of heroin, but I’ll need the toxicology report to confirm cause of death. I’ll let you know when that comes in. Even without the results, I’m calling this a homicide based on the use of restraints, the torture, and the fact that she was dumped at the scene. This was clearly not an accidental death or a suicide.”

“Thanks.” Stella bolted from the ME’s office and into the fresh air of the parking lot. As she walked to the crime scene investigators’ offices in the same complex, she dug a mint from her purse and chewed it to obliterate the smell of death from her nostrils. She stopped at the forensic lab in the same complex and signed Missy’s now-charged cell phone out on the evidence log. There were only a few recent calls and no texts. Missy likely kept the phone for emergency use only. Stella had already requested the call detail records from Missy’s cell service provider.

Neither of Missy’s employers had been surprised to hear of her death. The fact that she hadn’t shown up for work Friday or Saturday had been enough to worry them. She’d been a hard-working, exemplary employee. Stella hadn’t found so much as a single disgruntled coworker. Missy paid her bills on time and managed to save a small portion of her pay each week. Her background check was equally unremarkable. No arrests either here or in California.

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