it was an ordinary day. Which made the phone call all the more extraordinary.
Jack King wasn’t in the best of moods to begin with. He’d been stuck inside since early morning and boredom had worn down his patience. Even on the rare instances when he found himself in between assignments, he could usually rustle up something that would keep him out of the office. No chore was too tedious so long as it put distance between him and his cluttered desk.
For the past five years, he’d been working for the Blackthorn Agency, a high-profile consultant and security organization headquartered in Houston, Texas. Jack worked in Black Watch, the division tasked with state and municipal government oversight, including police departments. His particular expertise was in exposing corruption in cities large and small where the rot started at the head and worked its way down through the ranks. It wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Cops were notoriously territorial and they knew how to circle the wagons. But Jack enjoyed the challenge and he’d learned a long time ago how to watch his back.
That morning, he’d arrived at headquarters with the expectation of a new briefing. Instead, a mountain of delinquent paperwork and a stern warning from the man upstairs had kept him chained to his desk as his gaze strayed every few minutes to the clock on the wall outside his office. The day had seemed interminable.
Finally at six, he filed his last report, stood, stretched and walked out of his office, wishing the division manager a nice weekend. He was just getting off the elevator when his phone rang. He started to ignore it. Wished a thousand times later that he had. He didn’t want to be called back upstairs because he’d dotted the wrong i or forgotten to cross a t. Whatever technicality needed his attention could damn well wait until Monday.
He slid the phone out of his pocket and checked the screen. No name, just a number. The area code and prefix pinged his alarm and he told himself again to ignore the call. He couldn’t, of course. Curiosity niggled. He’d had no contact with anyone in his hometown in over fifteen years. He’d left Pine Lake the day after his high school graduation and his folks had fled a month later. Only his Uncle Leon had remained to tough things out, but he’d passed away last spring. Jack hadn’t even gone back for the funeral.
No good could come of that phone call. He knew that. But he pressed the phone to his ear anyway as he strode across the lobby, nodding to the security guard behind the desk on his way out.
“Hello,” he said as he pushed open the glass door and stepped through into the early August heat.
“Jack? Jack King, right?”
Unease feathered along his spine. “Yes, this is Jack.”
“You don’t know who this is, do you? Little wonder. It’s been a long time. Fifteen years to be exact.” The caller fell silent. “Damn, this is a lot harder than I thought it would be. It’s Nathan, Jack. Nathan Bolt.”
Nathan Bolt. Now there was a name from his past. He and Jack and Tommy Driscoll had been best friends all through school. Blood brothers since kindergarten. Thick as thieves, Uncle Leon used to say. Until Nathan and Tommy had turned on Jack during their senior year. They’d given each other alibis for the night of Anna Grayson’s murder, leaving Jack alone in the crosshairs of a ruthless sheriff.
With little evidence and zero suspects, the authorities had gone hard after Jack. He was the boyfriend, after all, and unlike Tommy and Nathan, he hadn’t been able to produce an alibi. The harassment had continued for months, making him an outcast in the place where he’d lived his whole life. Even after an arrest had finally been made and an ex-con sent back to prison, the community had continued to shun him. In the ensuing years, Jack had done his best to forget about Pine Lake and everyone who lived there, but not a day went by that he didn’t think about Anna. Not a day went by that he didn’t wish for her the long and happy life she had deserved.
An image flashed through his head. Dark hair, dark eyes. A smile that could light up a stadium.
Sweat beaded on his brow. He wiped it away with the back of his hand.
“Hello? Jack? You there? Did I lose you?”
“I’m here,” he said, though his instinct still was to end the call without giving Nathan a chance to explain why he had decided to make contact after so many years of silence. Or how he had gotten Jack’s number in the first place. That probably wasn’t too hard to figure out. He’d been Uncle Leon’s attorney.
“You must be wondering why I’m calling,” Nathan said.
“Did Leon give you my number?”
“Yes. We discussed certain things before he died. He said I should give you a call.”
Another pause. “Did you get the letter I sent you about his estate?”
“I got it.”
“I wondered. I never heard back from you. Things have been left hanging, but that’s my fault. I should have followed up. And I should have called when it first happened. I’m sorry I didn’t. I’m sorry about a lot of things.” He sighed. “I don’t imagine that cuts much ice with you.”
“If this is about Leon’s estate, you should talk to my dad,” Jack said brusquely. “He’ll give you whatever you need.”
“If you read my letter, you know Leon left everything to you. The cabin, the little bit of cash he had in the bank. But this isn’t about your uncle.”
“Then what’s it about?”
“I need to talk to you about Tommy.”
It had started to rain, a light drizzle that spiked the humidity and turned the oily streets to glass. As if traffic wasn’t bad enough on a Friday afternoon in downtown Houston. Jack pressed against the building to keep dry.
“Why would you need to talk to me about Tommy?”
“He’s the Caddo County sheriff. Going on three years now. Leon must have told you about the last election. The accusations of fraud and intimidation. The way that vote went down left a lot of bad blood in this town.”
“Leon and I didn’t talk politics.” They hadn’t talked much at all in the past few years and that was on Jack. He’d let himself get too caught up in work because it was easier to focus on the greed and corruption of others than to dwell on his own shortcomings, including a failed marriage. If a day didn’t go by without a thought of Anna, his ex-wife hardly ever crossed his mind. That undoubtedly said more about Jack than it did about her. Not her fault he had trust issues. Not for lack of trying could she breach his walls.
“I’ve done my research,” Nathan was saying. “I know what you do at the Blackthorn Agency. You investigate police departments, right? You expose government corruption.”
“Among other things.”
“Leon said you were the best at what you do.”
“Leon was biased.”
“Maybe, but you always were the best at everything you set your mind to.”
Was that an edge of the old jealousy rearing its ugly head? Jack and Tommy Driscoll had had a good-natured rivalry on the football field, but the competition with Nathan in the classroom hadn’t been so amiable. Nathan needed to be the best and the brightest in order to prove his worth to his father. Jack needed the grades for a scholarship. His early acceptance to a top-tier school had been a bitter pill for Nathan to swallow, but that offer and most of the others had been rescinded when Anna’s murder and the subsequent investigation had made the national news. And that had been a bitter pill for Jack to swallow.
“I know I’m catching you off guard,” Nathan said. “But I didn’t know who else to call. We’ve got a real problem up here, Jack. Drugs have taken over the whole damn county. Crack, meth, kush. And nobody has a mind to do anything about it. You can’t imagine how bad it’s gotten.”
“I’ve worked on the border,” Jack said. “I don’t have to imagine how bad things can get.”
“Well, sure. El Paso’s one thing, but we’re talking about Pine Lake. Last year alone, we had ten murders in Caddo County. Ten. Not a lot by big city standards, but you must remember how quiet this place once was.”
He remembered, all right.
“Something’s going on in our little town. Something bad. Used to be just a few random incidents, but now there’s organization. Muscle. And I think Tommy’s involved. In it up to his neck, is my guess.”
“That’s what I need you to find out.”
“If you’re looking to hire my firm, you’ll have to go through the proper channels. I don’t solicit work. I go where I’m told.”
“I was hoping we could do this off the books. I’ll pay you myself. Whatever you want.”
“Even if it could lead you to Anna’s murderer?”
Nathan’s words were like scissor points gouging a tender wound. “Her killer was sent to prison fifteen years ago.”
“What if they pinned it on the wrong man? Have you ever considered that?”
More times than Jack cared to remember. He’d even made a trip to the Texas State Penitentiary a few years back to interview Wayne Foukes for himself. He’d come away more convinced than ever that Foukes belonged behind bars. He was less certain the man had been sent up for the right reason.
“What if I told you Tommy lied about where he was that night?” Nathan said softly. “Would you come then?”
Jack stared out across the street. He could feel a pulse start to pound in his temple. “What you’re really saying is that you lied about that night.”
“I had to. He threatened to hurt someone I cared about if I didn’t.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Do you remember my cousin Olive? She and my aunt came to live with us after my uncle died.”
Jack skimmed his memory, summoning up a hazy image of a slight redhead with glasses. “Vaguely.”
“You probably didn’t even notice her, but she used to follow me around all the time. I think she just needed someone to pay attention to her. Tommy didn’t come right out and say it, but he let me know if I didn’t swear to the police he was at my house all night, something bad might happen to Olive.”
“I take it he wasn’t at your house.”
“He slept over just like we said, but I woke up during the night and found him gone.”
“And you never once thought about going to the police? Or to your father? He was a big shot in the county. He could have protected you from Tommy Driscoll or anyone else who threatened you.”
“I wasn’t worried about myself. My only concern was Olive.” Nathan’s voice dropped. “Poor kid was already a mess. She took her dad’s death hard and I wanted to protect her. She was so fragile that even an empty threat could have pushed her over the edge. But I didn’t think Tommy’s threat was empty. He had a cruel streak, Jack. You never saw it because he kept it hidden from you. But not from me. I was often the brunt of it.”
“You never said anything.
“I guess growing up with my old man, I got used to dealing with bullies.”
Don’t, Jack thought bitterly. Don’t let him get to you. None of this matters anymore.
So what if Nathan had lied about Tommy’s whereabouts? Jack had never been charged. He’d left town a free man and he’d put all that behind him. He was happy here in Houston. Or at least, content. He had friends, a good job. Why go digging up the past now?
Because a man had been sent to prison for a crime he may not have committed. Wayne Foukes was an arsonist, a drug dealer and a serial rapist who’d left a string of ruined lives in his wake. He deserved to be incarcerated, but so did Anna’s killer.
“Will you come?” Nathan pressed.
“What is it you expect me to do?”
“What you do in every other place with a corrupt police department. Expose the dirt so we can clean it up.”
“You don’t think people will question my presence in a town where I haven’t set foot in over fifteen years?”
“You have the perfect excuse for coming back. You need to settle your uncle’s estate. You can even stay in the cabin while you decide what you want to do with it. I’ll have someone go in and give it a good cleaning, stock the refrigerator. You might even enjoy a few days on the lake. All I’m asking is that you keep your eyes and ears open while you’re here. Ask a few discreet questions. You’ll know how best to handle the situation once you get here.”
“I’ll think about it,” Jack said.
“For how long?”
Irritation flared. “For as long as I need to. I have a job. I can’t pick up and leave whenever I want.”
“Don’t take too long,” Nathan warned. “Whatever you decide, I would appreciate you keeping this call between us. My life could depend on it.”
He knew how to end the conversation on a dramatic note. Jack would give him that.
Slipping the phone in his pocket, he leaned a shoulder against the building as he mulled over his options. He had vacation time coming. He was between assignments and he’d caught up on all his paperwork. There would never be a better time to take a few days off. Still, he wasn’t about to rush into anything. He needed to have a drink, relax, sleep on it. Then he’d talk things over with his boss on Monday.
He deliberately turned his thoughts to more pleasant options, like how to spend the rest of his Friday evening. He could go across the street to Lola’s and have a drink with the other Blackthorn employees who would already be congregating in the shadowy backroom for happy hour. Like Jack, they were mostly former law enforcement—cops, FBI, DEA. They all got on well except for the military contingent, the ex-Special Forces teams that were often deployed overseas as private security. Mercenaries. Those guys kept to themselves.
He decided he wasn’t in the mood for a raucous celebration so he thought about heading over to Ninfa’s on Navigation for solo margaritas and fajitas. But it was a popular eatery and on a Friday night with the Astros in town, chances were good he’d need a reservation. He chose a third option. Home.
His apartment was several blocks away, but he didn’t mind the rain. Dodging umbrellas, he merged with the pedestrians hurrying toward bus stops and parking garages. The theater crowd would soon converge, tying up traffic for blocks. He was glad to be on foot.
As he strode along the sidewalk, the back of his neck tingled. He could easily chalk up the sensation to imagination or the residue of an unsettling conversation, but Jack had learned a long time ago to listen to his instincts. To pay attention to the signs. He was being followed.
He searched the mirrored facade of the building across the street and turned very casually to observe the traffic. Nothing seemed amiss, but in the chaos of rush hour, a tail could be hard to spot.
Olive Belmont hurried along the shadowy streets, suppressing the desire to glance over her shoulder as she rounded the corner toward home. She’d had a funny feeling all day that something was wrong, though she tried to tell herself it was nerves.
School would start in another three weeks and this would be Olive’s first term as principal at Pine Lake High School. Just shy of thirty, she was the youngest to ever hold the position and she knew the school board would watch her every move, waiting to pounce on any misstep. With that kind of pressure, she was allowed a few jitters.
Her unease was more than first-day butterflies, though. Pine Lake wasn’t the town it once was. Maybe it had never been the idyllic hamlet she’d always thought it, but now the community seemed on the verge of losing itself to the same pandemic of drugs and malaise that affected hundreds of rural towns across the South.
The decline had been gradual in Pine Lake. So slow that only lately had Olive noticed the deterioration. But on a sultry evening like this, one could almost smell the rot. Even the beautiful old Queen Anne homes along Primrose Avenue had fallen into a sorry state and it seemed to Olive that every other week she saw at least one U-Haul heading out of town. She wondered if that was why she’d been offered the job as principal. Maybe no one else had wanted the position.
With all the added stress came the nightmares, those terrifying falling dreams from her early teens. The situation was always the same. She found herself on a bridge clinging to the edge for dear life. She could feel her fingers slip as her legs flailed helplessly. Then she was falling backward into a misty abyss as a shadowy figure peered down at her from the guardrail. Olive could never see a face, but she thought the watcher might be her dad. He’d been killed on a bridge when his car and another had collided head on.
Olive had gone years without having that dream, but for weeks now the recurring nightmare had plagued her sleep. She never hit the water, but on at least two occasions, the sensation of falling had been so real that she’d awakened to find herself on her knees in bed, clutching the headboard. The smell of pine needles and swamp had permeated her tiny bedroom, though she knew the scent was nothing more than a lingering effect from her dream.
She hoped the nightmares would go away once school started and she settled into her new position. Meanwhile, a chat with Mona Sutton might help. The guidance counselor had been a lifesaver when Olive had been a new student at Pine Lake High School fifteen years ago. Armed with a doctorate in psychology and a fierce determination to save the world, Mona Sutton had taken Olive under her wing, helping her through the pain and loneliness and seemingly insurmountable guilt over her father’s tragic death. Olive’s mother had been too lost in her own grief to notice that her fourteen-year-old daughter was quietly having a nervous breakdown. Mona had stepped in, then and years later when the pressure of college had caused the dreams to resurface. She would help again if need be, but their relationship might be trickier now that Olive was her boss.
Olive’s tiny bungalow was just ahead on the corner of Elm and Holly. As she approached the intersection, she finally gave into her premonition and glanced over her shoulder. It was still early, but not a soul stirred. Even the eateries along East Market Street had already closed their doors for the evening.
An abandoned air had settled over the town, deepening Olive’s unease. For a moment, she had the terrifying notion that everyone had packed up and left Pine Lake while she’d been working late, readying herself for the coming school year. But she wasn’t completely alone. A dog barked from a fenced backyard and she could hear the idle of a car engine somewhere nearby.
As she stepped off the curb, headlights flashed on, catching her in the face. She froze like a deer, staring wide-eyed into the bright beams until she heard the engine rev and then she instinctively retreated to the sidewalk. A split second later, a dark sedan sped past her. She didn’t recognize car or driver nor did she get a look at the license plate. The car was going too fast. Reckless driving wasn’t unusual in Pine Lake where drag racing down Main Street on a Friday night was still a popular pastime. But she wasn’t on Main Street and Olive could have sworn the car had deliberately swerved in her direction as it zoomed past her.
She stood underneath a streetlight, heart thudding as she tried to rationalize the incident. Someone had probably recognized her and decided to have a little fun at the expense of the new principal. She was a small woman and looked years younger than her age so there would be more of the same once school started. No doubt a steady stream of challenges to her authority. She’d better buck up and learn to hide her nerves if she had any hope of making it through the first semester, let alone the whole school year.
Wiping clammy hands down the sides of her pants, she looked both ways and then hurried across the street to her house. She let herself in and then turned the lock behind her. Dragging over a footstool, she shot home a bolt at top of the door, a precaution she hoped was unnecessary.
It was an unusual place for a lock. Designed to keep someone in rather than a dangerous element out.
Jack had decided to stop off at a corner bar where he could watch the street. One drink had somehow turned into three and by the time he left, traffic had thinned and darkness was falling. He headed for the shower as soon as he got home, standing for a long time under the steamy water as he tried to banish the barrage of unwanted memories that had kept him drinking at the bar.
Anna’s face swam up out of the back of his mind. He wanted to remember her the way she’d been the summer he fell in love with her, a gorgeous brunette with a killer smile and legs that went on forever. Instead, he kept seeing her dragged from the lake, lips blue, skin gray, eyes glazed and sightless.
Senior year was supposed to have been their time, a long goodbye before college took them in separate directions. Jack had been elected captain of the football team; Anna had been the head cheerleader. They were the all-American cliché. In hindsight, even her death seemed banal, the most beautiful girl in school meeting a violent and untimely demise. The news offered up similar tragedies on a daily basis, but for whatever reason, Anna’s story had captivated the national media.
For a while, Jack hadn’t been able to leave his house without cameras being shoved in his face. His picture had been splashed across tabloids and gossip-style news programs, making him the most hated seventeen-year-old in the country. And then one night, Wayne Foukes had been pulled over for a broken taillight. Among the cache of drugs in his trunk, the police had discovered Anna’s missing class ring.
Once Foukes was charged, the reporters disappeared, but the people Jack had known his whole life continued to avoid him. It was almost as if they needed to believe him guilty in order to justify their behavior. He’d left town vowing never to return, but now Nathan’s phone call had changed everything.
Dragging on a pair of jeans, he ambled into the kitchen to scour the refrigerator for dinner. Pickings were slim. He settled on a beer. Later, he’d order in. Watch a movie, crash on the couch. Assuming he’d be able to sleep.
The night stretched before him, empty and endless. He turned on the Astros game to fill the quiet as he glanced aimlessly around his apartment. The small space, sleek and minimally furnished, boasted a view of the Houston skyline, but it had never felt much like home. Turning up the volume, he took his beer out to the balcony to enjoy the night air. The rain was coming down harder now and he held his hand over the railing to collect a fistful of water.
He could hear his cell ringing inside and he told himself to ignore it even as he flicked the water from his fingers and stepped back through the door. He picked up the phone from the counter and glanced at the screen. It was a Pine Lake prefix but the number wasn’t Nathan’s. Or at least not the number of the phone he’d called from before.
Jack carried the phone back out to the balcony with him. “Jack King.”
“Hello, Jack King. Tommy Driscoll calling.” He gave a low chuckle. “Man, oh, man. I wish I could see your face right now. I must be about the last person you expected to hear from tonight.”
Pretty damn close. What were the chances he’d hear from his two former best friends on the same night? Jack wasn’t a big believer in coincidences. Something was up. He tried to brace himself, but Tommy Driscoll’s voice took him aback. He sounded exactly the way Jack remembered—loud, jovial, a man always up for a good time. Except now the jollity sounded forced, but maybe Jack’s perception had been tainted by time and Nathan’s innuendoes. Or maybe Tommy Driscoll had never been the easygoing guy Jack had thought him.
“What can I do for you, Tommy? Or should I call you Sheriff Driscoll?”
“You heard about that, did you?” He sounded pleased. “Back in our glory days, who would have ever thought a pair of hell-raisers like us would turn out to be cops?”
“I’m not a cop.”
“You were, though. Houston PD. See? I’ve kept up with you through the years.” He paused as if expecting Jack to say the same about him. “Now you’re with that outfit I see on the news. The Blackthorn Agency. You guys go into some hairy places from what I hear. Must be exciting. Good money, too, I bet. You’ve done all right for yourself, seems like.”
In spite of everything, Jack thought. “Why are you calling, Tommy?”
“I need a favor, buddy. It’s about Nathan.”
Jack was instantly on alert. “What about him?”
“Have you heard from him lately?”
Something in Tommy’s voice prickled Jack’s scalp. “Why would you think I’d hear from Nathan? You guys cut me loose a long time ago.”
“You sound bitter,” Tommy said.
“No, just careful.”
“Can’t say as I blame you, considering the way you were treated. We were all just scared kids back then. I’m not making excuses, but it was a rough time for everyone. “
Sure sounded like he was making excuses. And the half-hearted apology was only now being extended because Tommy needed something from Jack. Just like Nathan did. He wasn’t about to make it easy on either of them.
“This is awkward as hell,” Tommy muttered into the loaded silence. “I can’t imagine how strange it must be for you.”
“No, you can’t.”
Tommy drew in a sharp breath as if his anger had been goaded. Then he said in a strained voice, “Look, man, I wouldn’t even be bothering you except I think Nathan may be in some trouble. Serious trouble. And now that it’s all coming home to roost, he’s looking for a way out.”
“What do you mean?”
Tommy hesitated. “I think he may be trying to set me up.”
“I haven’t figured that out yet.”
Jack stared out into the night, dotted with street lights spanning the misty cityscape, but his mind had already traveled deep into the piney woods of East Texas. “What is it you expect me to do about it?”
“Nothing, buddy. Not a damn thing. That’s the whole point of this call. If Nathan tries to get in touch, I’d appreciate a heads-up. Otherwise, go on about your business.”
“You still haven’t told me why you think he’d try to get in touch with me.”
“He’s desperate. And he and your uncle were tight. Maybe he thinks you still have a score to settle and he can somehow use it to his advantage. A word of advice from an old friend.” Any hint of joviality disappeared from Tommy Driscoll’s voice. “Don’t believe a word that comes out of his mouth. Nathan Bolt is a pathological liar. Always has been. Just like his old man.”
“What has he lied about?” Jack asked carefully.
Tommy hesitated. “Maybe it doesn’t even matter anymore.”
“Maybe it does,” Jack said. “What did Nathan lie about?”
Another pause. “He wasn’t home the night Anna was killed. He left before midnight and didn’t come back until nearly sunrise.”