Thin Ice (Book 2--Men of Valor)
Revell, ©2016, ISBN 978-0800724535
After losing her parents and her sister, Christy Reed has been mired in grief. Now, life is finally starting to feel normal again—until an envelope addressed in her sister’s handwriting arrives in the mail. And the note inside claims she is still alive. FBI Special Agent Lance McGregor, a former Delta Force operator, is assigned to reopen the case…but he’s coming up with more questions than answers. Is Christy a pawn in a twisted cat-and-mouse game—or the target of a sinister plot? As Lance digs deeper, one thing becomes clear: someone in the shadows has a deadly agenda.
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“A stunning masterpiece."
“A griping mystery bound to keep readers up until the wee hours of the night.”
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“Hannon is a master at her craft, and her unique way of handling suspense makes her a cut above other writers in the genre.”
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“Unforeseen turns maintain the suspense…the utterly unsympathetic antagonist is the epitome of sheer evil.”
“Readers will be pulled into Hannon’s story.”
What was that odd shimmer in the night sky?
Christy Reed crested the hill on the undulating rural road and peered at the eerie dome of light above the trees in the distance. On a chilly, clear November evening, the heavens should be pitch black save for the stars strewn across the inky firmament, not tainted by unnatural illumination.
The road dived again, the woods snuffing out her view of the mysterious glow. But the twinge of unease that had compelled her to head to her sister’s tonight instead of waiting until tomorrow intensified.
Pressing on the accelerator, she swooped through the dip in the road and shot up again.
At the peak of the next hill, her twinge of apprehension morphed to panic.
Flames were strafing the night sky—in the vicinity of her sister’s house.
Please, God, no! Not again! We can’t take any more trauma!
Smashing the gas pedal to the floor, she plunged down the hill.
Only then did she notice the police cruiser at the bottom, angled sideways, blocking access to the narrow road that led to the Missouri farmhouse her sister called home.
She flinched as the harsh, flashing lights strobed across her retinas. They screamed emergency. Disaster. Tragedy.
All the things that had changed her world forever six months ago.
Fingers clenched around the wheel, she sped toward the vehicle, screeching to a stop beside it.
As a uniformed officer emerged from the shadows and circled around to her side of the car, she fumbled for the auto window opener. Lowered the insulating sheet of glass. Inhaled the smoke-fouled air that leached into the car.
The coil of fear in the pit of her stomach tightened.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
“I need to get down that road.” Her last word hitched.
“Do you live that way?”
“No. My s-sister does.”
Twin furrows dented the man’s brow. “What’s her name?”
“Hold on a minute.” He pulled his radio off his belt and melted back into the shadows.
Christy closed her eyes and clung to the wheel, shudders coursing through her.
Please, Lord, let there be some simple reason Ginny wasn’t answering her phones or returning calls all evening! A dead cell. An emergency at work. Anything that’s not connected to this fire.
She jerked her eyelids open.
“There’s a fire at your sister’s house. I’ll move my vehicle so you can get through. One of the officers at the scene will meet you.”
Her knuckles whitened as she struggled to suck in air. “Is she okay?”
He shifted from one foot to the other, the leather of his belt squeaking as he rested one hand on his gun. “I don’t know. But they’re doing everything they can to contain the fire so they can get inside.”
“You mean she’s still in the house!” Hysteria goosed the pitch of her voice.
“They aren’t certain of that. Give me a minute.”
Before she could respond, he jogged toward his car—putting as much distance between him and her questions as possible.
Because he didn’t have the answers . . . or because he didn’t want to deliver more bad news?
Please, God, let it be the former!
The instant the cruiser moved aside, she yanked her wheel to the right and accelerated down the woods-rimmed road.
The glow grew brighter as she approached, and fingers of fire stabbed the night sky above parched leaves not yet willing to relinquish their tenuous hold on life.
Her lungs locked.
This was bad.
Though she tried to prepare for the worst, her first full look at Ginny’s small, two-story clapboard farmhouse across a field of shriveled cornstalks destroyed the fragile hold she had on her composure.
The whole structure was engulfed in flames.
No, no, no, no, no!
Another uniformed officer appeared in her headlights, waving her to the shoulder before she could turn in to her sister’s driveway.
Swerving to the right, she bumped onto the uneven ground, flung open her door, and scrambled from the car. Despite the crisp chill of the late fall evening, the air was hot.
She tore her gaze away from the fire to focus on the officer. Flashes of light darted across the woman’s face, giving her a macabre appearance.
“Why don’t you wait over there?” She inclined her head toward an ambulance parked halfway up Ginny’s driveway, off to the side. The paramedics were standing idle and silent at the rear door, watching the blaze.
Waiting for a victim to treat.
Meaning no one had yet rescued Ginny.
Unless . . .
Was it possible she wasn’t here? Maybe she had been called in to work for an emergency.
Christy squinted toward the garage at the rear of the house . . . and her stomach bottomed out.
The door was open—and Ginny’s car was inside.
Her sister was here.
Lifting her head, she scrutinized Ginny’s second-floor bedroom. The window was cracked open, as usual. Even on the coldest nights, her sister liked fresh air. There was no movement from inside, but maybe . . .
She grabbed the woman’s arm and pointed. “That’s my sister’s bedroom! She might be in bed. Can’t you get a ladder up there and . . .”
“Clear the collapse zone. Now!”
At the sudden barked order, the firefighters who’d been struggling to quench the hungry flames dropped their hoses and scattered.
Seconds later, a shudder rippled through the house. The siding buckled. Then, spewing sparks high into the black sky, the second floor collapsed into the raging inferno below like an ancient Viking funeral pyre.
Christy stared in horror at the consuming flames, the world around her receding.
This wasn’t happening.
It couldn’t be.
But the roar of the voracious blaze and the surge of scorching heat against her face mocked her denial, searing the ghastly truth across her mind.
No one could survive a fire like this.
Ginny was dead.
Despite the waves of heat rolling off the collapsed house, a numbing cold gripped her. Tremors convulsed her body. Blackness nipped at the edges of her consciousness.
And somewhere in the distance, screams ripped through the air.
Christy squeezed her eyes shut and pushed her hands against her ears, trying to block them out.
But she couldn’t.
Because they were her own.
Two Months Later
“You settling in okay?”
At the question, Lance McGregor swiveled in his desk chair. Mark Sanders stood on the threshold of the cubicle, holding two disposable cups of coffee. His new FBI colleague held one out.
“Thanks.” Lance leaned forward and took it. “Still adjusting to St. Louis in the winter. When does the January thaw hit?”
“Don’t hold your breath. I was referring to the job.”
Lance took a sip of his brew and gestured to the warren of cubicles in the center of the St. Louis FBI office. “This bullpen arrangement will take some getting used to. Ditto for the suit and tie.”
“You’ll get there.”
“I appreciate the encouragement—especially in light of the source.” When Mark responded only with a raised eyebrow, Lance tipped his chair back and grinned. “Since you’re a former member of the Bureau’s Hostage Rescue Team and the current leader of this office’s SWAT team, I suspect you’d prefer to be in field dress chasing bad guys too.”
“You’ve done some homework.”
“I like to know the players.”
“A skill that would have served you well as a Delta Force operator.”
“I see you’ve been checking me out too.”
“SOP for new agents—especially ones fresh out of the academy. For the record, you came out rosy instead of green.”
“Nice to know.”
Mark took a sip of his own java. “If you’re interested in the SWAT team, let me know. It’s an ancillary duty, so don’t expect any perks for volunteering, but we can always use members with your background. The Delta Force operators I’ve met were the kind of guys I’d want watching backs when lives are on the line.”
Despite Lance’s valiant attempt to hold on to his grin, it slipped a hair. “Thanks. But my first priority is to get the lay of the land.”
“Makes sense.” Though Mark’s words were agreeable, the slight thinning of his eyes told Lance the man had picked up on his sudden discomfort. “If you want to consider it down the road, the door’s open.” Raising his cup in salute, he strolled off.
Lance waited until he disappeared, then pivoted back to his desk, mouth flattening. His new colleague’s offer was flattering, but the SWAT team wasn’t in his future. Sure, he’d handle trouble if any came his way as a special agent. But he was done seeking it out. Done having to watch people’s backs 24/7. Done trying to be Superman.
Because even Superman had his Achilles heel—and if you played the odds long enough, you were bound to lose. Mistakes happened.
And sometimes they were deadly.
A bead of sweat popped out on his forehead, and he scrubbed it away. Enough. He was past this. History couldn’t be rewritten. It was over. Finished. He’d made his peace with that and moved on.
But if that was true, why had a simple invitation to join the SWAT team twisted his gut and short-circuited his lungs?
Blowing out a breath, he raked his fingers through his hair. This was not a complication he needed three days into his new career as a special agent.
The phone on his desk rang, and he grabbed for it, checking the digital display. A call from the receptionist might not provide much of a distraction, but it would do a better job redirecting his thoughts than reviewing eye-glazing case files—his lot since reporting for duty.
“Hi, Sharon. What’s up?”
“Do you have anything urgent on your desk?”
“Not unless sifting through old 302s qualifies.”
A chuckle came over the line. “I figured Steve would give you a pile of evidentiary interviews to read. I think it’s his version of hazing for the new agents in the reactive squad. Kind of an endurance contest.”
“If it is, I’m failing.”
“Maybe I can rescue you. You ready for a real case?”
“Don’t be too anxious. I might be handing you a fruitcake.”
“Better a fruitcake than files. What have you got?”
“I have no idea. She won’t tell me. Won’t give me her name, either. Just said she needs to talk to an agent.”
“Okay. Go ahead and transfer her.”
“I jotted down her number from caller ID in case you need it. The fourth digit is a nine.”
Meaning there was a strong chance she was calling from a pay phone.
“Good luck.” The line clicked. “Ma’am, I’m putting you through to Agent McGregor.” Another click as Sharon exited the call.
Lance leaned back in his chair. “This is Agent McGregor. Who am I speaking with?”
A beat of silence passed. Two. Three. He heard an indrawn breath. “A situation has come up that merits FBI involvement—but I can’t discuss it by phone.”
Still no name.
“Would you like to come to our office?”
“No! That would be too dangerous.” She sounded agitated. Scared, even. But she was lucid. That was a plus. “I’d like to set up a meeting on neutral territory. I want it to look like friends getting together, in case anyone’s watching.”
He tapped the tip of his pen against the tablet in front of him. Paranoia—or valid caution? Too soon to tell. “Can you give me a clue what this is about?”
He waited her out.
“I think it . . . it could be kidnapping.”
He sat up straighter. “Have you called the police?”
“I can’t do that. Please . . . I’ll explain when I see you. Besides, this would fall under FBI jurisdiction.”
“Is a child involved?”
He doodled a series of concentric circles on the blank sheet of paper in front of him. The woman was articulate, and she sounded intelligent. Yes, she could be a nut—but the mere mention of kidnapping warranted further investigation.
“All right. Where would you like us to meet you?”
“Us?” He could hear the frown in her voice.
“I’d like to bring another agent along.” That was the usual protocol in a situation this filled with unknowns.
“No. Just you.”
The tension in her words told him she was getting ready to hang up. Better to agree to her terms than lose her. He could always call for support if he needed it.
“I was thinking a Panera. They’re busy, and the noise level should give us some privacy. But please wear casual clothes. A suit would draw too much attention.”
The lady had thought this through.
He put a dot in the middle of his circles to complete the bull’s-eye. “Which one?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Brentwood.” The central corridor was a reasonable choice. Besides, it was the only Panera he’d visited to date. Why not make this easy on himself?
“Fine. I get off work at five. I’m available after that.”
He’d have to bail on dinner with Mac, but his older sibling would understand. Police detectives didn’t keep regular hours, either.
“Let’s make it seven. I need to go home and change first. How will I recognize you?”
“I’ll be wearing jeans and a dark green sweater. I have longish auburn hair.”
“I’ll see you at seven.”
The instant the line went dead, he punched in Sharon’s extension and got the source number. A quick check of the crisscross directory confirmed what he’d suspected—the call had come from a pay phone.
The woman wasn’t taking any chances.
A ping of adrenaline prickled his nerve endings. At least his first case was intriguing.
And even if the meeting led nowhere, a clandestine rendezvous was a whole lot more exciting than reading old case files.