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June 8, 2005

“Nick. Nick-ee. Are you there? I’m in trouble. Real bad trouble.”

Special Agent Nick Houston, FBI, stood in the kitchen of his small house in Alexandria, Virginia, head bowed, rubbing the back of his neck as he listened to the answering machine message. It was a little after eleven p.m. on a muggy Wednesday night, and he was dead beat. He ’d already had the day from hell, testifying at the sentencing hearing for a man who had acted as his informant for more than a year, and then watching the guy’s daughter practically collapse in the courtroom as the tough-on-crime judge handed her father ten years in federal prison, despite Nick’s promises and the old guy’s cooperation. Then he ’d spent what was left of the day sparring with high-priced lawyers who were trying to paint him as a whack job as he ’d testified in a related case, giving depositions, filling out the mountains of paperwork that followed the conclusion of every case like a tail follows a dog, and then, finally, on his way home, getting called in as an adviser to a hostage situation that had resulted in one of the hostages, a woman, being killed.

Just another day in the life of one of America’s overworked, underpaid ersatz national police force, he knew. But still, the last thing he needed was to come in and hear his sister’s voice on his answering machine.

“Some man called me tonight and said Keith’s going to lose his job because of me. He said if I don’t bring him copies of everything Keith has on some federal judge you guys are investigating, he ’ll tell the people in charge of security clearances that I’m a”—and here his sister’s voice broke—“druggie.”

“Oh, shit,” Nick said, and dropped his hand to frown at the phone. That was their dirty little family secret, the one that he and Allison and her husband, Keith Clark—who also happened to be Nick’s boss, head of the FBI’s White Collar Crime Program—guarded like a leprechaun’s pot of gold. If word of his sister’s proclivities—she was an alcoholic who never met a drug she didn’t like, although her high of choice was cocaine—got out, Keith would probably be fired. Can’t have a federal law enforcement officer whose wife made him vulnerable to blackmail, after all.

Oh, wait, here was the blackmail.

“Can you come? As soon as you get this message. I need you so much. I don’t know what to do. I know I shouldn’t be so weak about . . . about things, but . . . you know, I can’t help it. I’m scared, Nick. I’m so scared.”

The beep ending the message interrupted the sound of her quietly weeping into the phone.

“Goddamn it, Allie.” Nick slammed his hand down on the fake butcherblock counter. The counter wasn’t all that sturdy—he ’d been meaning to redo the kitchen since he ’d bought the house five years earlier, but so far had never found the time—and everything on it jumped, including the water in the fishbowl. His two goldfish, Bill and Ted, gave him reproachful looks. Of course, the reproach in their little bulbous eyes could be because the box of fish food was sitting right there beside his hand, and he hadn’t yet made a move to feed them. Bill and Ted—who were still on the excellent adventure that had begun two years ago, when he had met them at a carnival where he ’d very misguidedly taken a woman and her six- year-old son on a date, only to have the kid beg for the fish, which Nick had won after spending about forty dollars on Ping-Pong balls to throw at their bowl, after which his date (the mother) had said she wasn’t having nasty, smelly fish in her house and given them back to him, his lucky day— were sticklers like that. They wanted their two squares and a clean fishbowl. Other than that, they were dream roommates. They were quiet, they never had a bad day, and when he needed a listening ear, they were there.

As a reward for their patience, he pinched off some fish food, sprinkled it on top of the water, and as they greedily attacked the white flakes, he went back to the problem of his sister.

The first thing he did was try her cell phone. No answer. He considered calling her house, or his brother-in-law’s cell, but if Allie hadn’t worked up the nerve to tell Keith yet, that could be problematic. The message was less than half an hour old, which was about right because his cell had fallen out of his pocket and gotten crushed in the surge to subdue the hostage taker about an hour ago. A night owl, Allie never went to bed before one at the earliest, which meant she was almost certainly still up— somewhere. Doing something. The possibilities sent a shiver down his spine.


“You are a pain in my ass,” he said to the absent Allie, and turned on his heel, heading back out of the house and getting into his car. He would drive to her house in Arlington, some fifteen minutes away, and if she hadn’t yet broken the bad news to Keith, he would stand by her while she did. If she had, if Keith was as livid as he was pretty sure Keith was going to be, he would stand by her through that, too.

Whatever it took. She was his sister.

Blood’s thicker than water. He could almost hear his mother saying it as she stood swaying from too much booze in the doorway of one of the succession of trailers that had been their home when he and Allie were growing up. Usually when she said it she was sending him out after Allie, his beautiful, unstable, four-years-older sister whose own weakness for all kinds of chemical highs had manifested itself as early as middle school. He had been the stable one of the trio, the one who took a good, hard look at his hardscrabble life and vowed to do better, to circumvent an apparent family weakness for drugs and alcohol by not drinking, not getting high, not doing anything but working really hard, first for grades and later for money, so they could all have a better life. Unfortunately, his mother died while he was in college. But when he graduated, he kept his promise to himself: He took Allie, who’d already been through one husband, away from the squalid Georgia town in which they’d grown up, and moved her with him to Virginia, where he was just starting his career with the FBI.

For a while, things had been good for both of them. Buoyed by this opportunity for a new start, Allie had gotten a job and—as far as Nick knew, anyway—stayed clean. The thing about Allie was, when she wasn’t high, she was a joy to be around, with a bright, effervescent personality that drew people to her like metal shavings to a magnet. She was also beautiful, a tall, slender, blue-eyed blonde with the delicate, elegant features of a model.

It was through Nick that Allie had met Keith, a fellow agent some years above Nick in the Bureau hierarchy. Nick had really, really hoped that their romance would be the saving of her. That because of her love for Keith, she would be able to leave her weaknesses behind. To his everlasting shame, he hadn’t told Keith a word about her problems. How could he? She was his sister.

That was some fifteen years ago. Keith was family now, and to his credit had never once said to Nick, “Why didn’t you tell me?” Because of course Allie, beautiful, fragile Allie, had worn down over the years. She had not been able to take the stresses of everyday life without what she called “a little help.” Sometimes she went on an alcohol binge, sometimes she went on a drug binge, sometimes she did both. But between them, Nick and Keith had always managed to get her straightened out, to keep things hushed up.

Just like he hoped—no, prayed—they would be able to do this time. When he reached the upscale Washington, D.C., bedroom community of Arlington, it was nearing midnight. His sister lived on a quiet street with big houses and well-kept yards, overhung with hundred-year-old oaks. When Allie and Keith had bought the house, they’d planned on filling it with children. The children hadn’t happened so far, but Allie, at fortyone, had not quite given up hope.

At that time of night, the whole area should have been quiet and dark. But as soon as he turned into Allie ’s street, he was struck by the lights, the sounds, the hubbub of activity that, he realized as he drove closer, was centered around his sister’s house.

“Oh, Jesus,” he breathed, as the lights resolved themselves into the flashing strobes of emergency vehicles—cop cars and an ambulance and even a fire truck parked with its wheels on the lawn, which his sister would consider a big no-no—and the sounds turned into sirens and the activity to emergency personnel and neighbors and God knew who else swarming in and around the house.

Which had every single light in the place on. His mouth went dry. His pulse raced. His heart started slamming in his chest.

He parked on the lawn because it was the only space available, and never mind that it would piss Allie off, then jogged toward the front door. Just the glass storm door was closed. The imposing carved-wood front door was wide open, allowing access to anyone who chose to enter.

Nick entered. Two swift strides down the entry hall, and he turned right into the spacious, tastefully decorated living room. There were a couple of uniformed cops standing around, a few people he took for neighbors huddled together, talking quietly, and some official-looking types in coats and ties that he was too agitated to even try to identify. His gaze immediately found Keith, who was talking to another uniform. This was a woman who was making notes on some pages on a clipboard as Keith spoke. A sweeping glance as he bore down on his forty-five-year-old brother-in-law told Nick that Keith was wearing the same suit pants and white shirt he had worn to work that day, although he had lost the coat and tie. His thinning medium-brown hair was rumpled. Something bad had happened, that much was obvious.

“Keith. Where ’s Allie?” Nick asked without preamble as he got within speaking distance. His voice was loud, sharp. Everyone looked at him— the cop with the clipboard, the official types, assorted neighbors, his brother-in-law. Nick saw that Keith’s snub-nosed, square-jawed, usually florid face had lost every bit of its color. His eyes were swollen and redrimmed. The tip of his nose was red.

“Ohmigod, Nick,” Keith groaned and covered his face with his hands. His shoulders heaved. With the sick feeling of just having taken a punch to the gut, Nick realized he was crying.

“Where ’s Allie?” It was a harsh demand. Panic flooded his system, making his fists clench, making him breathe too fast.

Keith sobbed. The cop with the clipboard and an official-looking type both moved toward Nick at the same time. From the expressions on their faces, he could feel bad news coming his way like a freight train.

But before they could get to him, he heard something else. The squeaksqueak-squeak of the wheels of a gurney. Nick pivoted and saw it being wheeled through the entry hall toward the door. There was a paramedic at either end maneuvering it. A white sheet covered it. Beneath the sheet, clearly, was a body.

A long, slender body.

Nick stopped breathing. He leaped for the gurney, ignoring Keith’s plea to him to stop, ignoring the voices and hands that reached out to stay him. Before anybody could react enough to prevent him from doing what he absolutely had to do, he was beside the gurney and twitching back a corner of the sheet.

Allie lay there, her blond hair falling back away from her face to puddle on the white sheet beneath her. Her eyes were wide and glassy and fixed, and so badly bloodshot that he could see the redness at a glance. Her skin was ashen, her parted lips purple. There was massive bruising on her neck....

A wave of cold sweat broke over him.

“Allie.” His voice was hoarse. He knew, of course, that she wouldn’t answer. It was clear at a glance that she was dead. “Allie.”

“Sir!” One of the paramedics, outraged, pulled the little bit of sheet Nick was clutching out of his suddenly nerveless hand, draping it back over Allie ’s face. Then Keith reached him, along with the clipboard cop, hands on his shoulders, on his arms, restraining him, as the gurney started to roll again toward the door. Nick didn’t move. He couldn’t. He simply stood there and watched in stone-cold shock as his sister’s body was wheeled out into the night.

It could have been a minute or it could have been an hour that he stood there. In the first aftermath of the terrible blow he had been dealt, time ceased to have any meaning. But finally he was able to face the unbelievable truth, finally he was able to think, to move, a little, and he turned to his weeping brother-in-law, whose hand still rested on his shoulder.

“Keith . . .” His voice was a croak. “What the hell—”

“She hanged herself.” Keith sobbed mightily, then caught himself. “I came home and—oh my God, there she was. There was nothing I could do. She was already d-dead.”

Nick felt his chest tighten as if a giant hand was gripping and squeezing his heart. It hurt. God, it hurt. He could scarcely breathe. His ears were ringing. His head felt like it was about to explode.

Allie ’s voice echoed through his mind: I’m in bad trouble....

He couldn’t tell Keith about it in front of a roomful of strangers.

“Come with me,” he said to Keith, and took him by the arm. There were people everywhere, the house was full of people, so he dragged his brother- in-law out the back door, out onto the stone patio with its built-in party kitchen where Allie had loved to entertain. Recalling that, his heart bled.

“She called me,” he said to Keith when they were alone, and told him what Allie had said. The soft beauty of the night offered no comfort at all as he spoke. It was like a slap in the face in a way. How could stars still shine, how could flowers still perfume the air, with Allie dead?

“That ’s why then.” Like himself, Keith seemed to be having trouble get- ting enough air. His shoulders were hunched, his head bowed. His voice was wheezy and thick. “God in heaven, Nick, that ’s why she did it. Because some creep threatened to blackmail her.” He sucked in air. “Whoever he is, he ’s not going to get away with it. We ’re going to get him. And when we get him, we ’re going to nail his ass to the wall.”

Nick pictured Allie ’s gray face on that gurney, and felt his gut clench. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’ll find him. You can count on it. Whatever it takes.”

It was a vow to his sister rather than a promise to Keith. Then the first sharp stab of true grief punched its way through the shock, and he walked away from Keith and the patio and into the dark, where he vomited in the grass.

July 29, 2006

As last thoughts before dying went, it lacked something, and Katharine Lawrence knew it. Still, there it was: Her kitchen floor was filthy.

Lying on her stomach on the hard, cold tiles with her wrists duct-taped together behind her back, she was up close and personal with the slick, smooth expanse of glazed twelve-inch terra-cotta squares in a way she had never been before. That meant there was no missing the greasy smears on the surface, as if something oily had been recently spilled and not so carefully wiped up. Plus, there were small, muddy paw prints—the flat, round face of her Himalayan cat, Muffy, flashed into her mind—along with some dried blackish droplets that smelled like barbecue sauce, and a random assortment of unidentifiable scuffs, stains, and dirt.

For God ’s sake, didn’t she own a mop?

“I’m going to ask you one more time: Where is it?”

The question was growled with cold menace some three feet above her

head by a tall, muscular man in a black ski mask who leaned over her prone form. It was punctuated by a ham-like fist twisting hurtfully in her hair. The resulting yank on her scalp was nothing compared to the shaft of pain that shot down her neck as he brutally jerked her head back so that he could see her face, which, when it was not contorted with fear as it was just at that moment, was considered just a slightly crooked nose shy of beautiful. His gun—a big silver pistol—jammed hard against her temple. The impact of metal on fragile bone made her wince. The mouth of the gun was hard and cold, like death itself.

His eyes—hazel, close-set, with thick, black lashes that told her he was almost certainly dark-haired beneath the mask—were harder and colder.

As she met them, terror skittered down her spine like icy little mice feet. Her breathing quickened. Her heart, already thudding, accelerated until the pounding of her own pulse drowned out background sounds like the hum of the refrigerator, the soft hiss of the air-conditioning—and the quick footsteps of this guy’s partner, who was searching the place room by room.

“I told you: There isn’t one. It doesn’t exist, okay? Whatever you may have heard, it ’s wrong.”

There was nothing else she could say, even though she knew already that he wasn’t going to believe her. He hadn’t believed her before; he wouldn’t believe her now. World without end.

His eyes darkened. His mouth, visible through a slit in the knit mask, thinned. Her stomach knotted with fear.

Would they kill her if they didn’t get what they wanted? The thought made her want to throw up.

Yes was the despairing conclusion she reached as she considered the carefully calculated ferocity of the attack so far. There was a coldness to it, a purposefulness that told its own tale. She was as sure as it was possible to be that they—this man and his partner, both big, athletic guys dressed with eerie similarity in black T-shirts and sweatpants—had no intention whatsoever of letting her live.

Or Lisa either.

Lisa Abbott, her dear friend and former sorority sister, had, in the un- luckiest of coincidences, selected this weekend to visit Washington, D.C., for the first time in the seven years since Katharine had moved there right out of college, armed with her spanking-new degree in political science and a head full of change-the-world ideals. Katharine had taken Muffy to a friend ’s for the weekend—Lisa was allergic to cats—then picked Lisa up at Dulles just after five. They had been excited to be together again after so long, gabbing away a mile a minute as they filled each other in on what was going on in their lives. They had stopped for drinks at Le Bar in Georgetown, had dinner around the corner at Angelo’s, then gone clubbing. By the time they arrived back here, at her elegant two-story town house in the historic Old Town section of the D.C. bedroom community of Alexandria, Virginia, it was after midnight and they both had been more than a little sloshed. They had toasted their reunion with one more glass of wine, then gone to bed, not so much totally exhausted as totally wasted.

That was then.

Now Katharine at least was stone-cold sober, and Lisa lay about three feet away, facedown on the embarrassingly dirty floor with her wrists and ankles bound with tape just as Katharine ’s were. More duct tape covered Lisa’s mouth. The airy, wrought-iron base of the granite-topped kitchen island separated them, but they could still see each other because of the structure ’s open design. Lisa’s shoulder-length auburn hair spilled over her face so that all Katharine had been able to see of her expression since she ’d been flung there was the terrified glint of her brown eyes. Lisa’s silky yellow ankle-length nightgown was hiked to her knees, revealing the delicate trio of intertwined butterflies tattooed just above her left ankle. The ruffled hem fanned out around her tanned legs like the petals of some exotic flower. But at least the garment provided more coverage than Katharine ’s own night attire of tiny pink satin boxers and a matching knit tank. Lisa was an inch taller at five-foot-eight. Katharine was the more slender of the two, but Lisa was just as sexy with her well-toned, athletic physique. As Kappa Delts, the two of them had cut quite a swath through the Ohio State University frat boys once upon a time.

Even as Katharine stared fearfully into the cold, hazel eyes boring into her own, she was conscious of the sobbing rasp of Lisa’s terrified breathing.

For four years we did practically everything together, and now that we’re finally back together again, we’re probably going to die together was the mournful thought that slid through Katharine ’s mind. Oh, God, I don’t want to die. Not like this. We’re so young. Lisa just turned thirty, and I’m only twenty-nine....

They had everything to live for. Everything.

“Last chance: Where is the damned safe?”

Katharine cleared her throat desperately. “Look, I told you. There is no safe. The jewelry isn’t here. It isn’t mine. It was borrow—”

Katharine swallowed the rest of what she was going to say as he let go of her hair, took a step back, thrust his gun in the back waistband of his pants, and kicked her in the ribs. The action was carefully calibrated: hard enough to hurt but not hard enough to do any real damage.

Still, pain exploded through the right side of her chest, expanding outward in an instant from where the toe of his black sneaker connected with her bones. Katharine would have screamed if the pain had allowed it. Instead, she gasped, then writhed. Tears stung her eyes, overflowed to spill down her cheeks. She could feel their hot, wet tracks against her skin.

It hurt so bad—bad enough to stop her breath and cause a cold sweat to break out on her forehead. Jagged splinters of pain shot like superheated arrows into her organs, her muscles, her bones.

“So how’s about we get real now?” His tone was still more conversational than threatening as he loomed darkly over her. Nevertheless, it was the most chill-inducing sound she had ever heard. After a single terrified glance up at him, she scrunched her eyes shut and went very still. “Where ’s the safe?”

Afraid to answer, Katharine did her best to block him out. She shrank into herself, shivering with pain and fear but otherwise not moving at all, feeling the prickle of perspiration as it sprang to life over her entire body. The ache in her side was still sharp enough to impair her breathing. Tak ing in careful little sips of air, she did her best to gather her wits. She was cold now, an icy, bone-deep cold that had nothing to do with the frigid tiles beneath her or the air-conditioning wafting over her sweat-dampened skin.

It was the cold of mortal fear.

The thing was, she was pretty sure that nothing she could say or do was going to make any difference in the end. But still she sought desperately to come up with anything, anything at all, that might turn the tide....

“Answer me.”

His fist clenched in her hair again, and she opened her eyes and cried out. Sharp needles of distress stabbed into her scalp as he jerked her head back. Her neck felt as if it would break.

“Where ’s the damned safe?”

He was close, frighteningly close, bending over her as he kept her head tilted up toward his and glared down into her face.

Their eyes met. The unmistakable menace in his drove fresh terror deep into her soul.

Her lips trembled. “There isn’t one.”

His eyes narrowed, hardened, until she couldn’t take that brutal gaze a second longer. Pressing her lips together, swallowing convulsively, she closed her eyes again. For a moment, as she struggled to get her breath back, to move past the pain, she did nothing more than hang limply from the hand still locked into her hair. Her scalp tingled and burned from the pressure of his grip. Her neck ached. But even the most torturous physical sensation was nothing compared to the burgeoning panic that dried her mouth and made her pulse pound like she ’d just run for miles, and turned her breathing into ragged little gasps for air.

Please, God, send help....

Even with her eyes closed, she could feel his unrelenting gaze on her face.

“You know, I’m getting tired of playing around. If you don’t tell me what I want to know, right now, how about I take a knife to your girlfriend there? Say, cut off a finger, or maybe her ear?”

Katharine ’s eyes flew open and locked on Lisa, who had suddenly gone

stiff and still as a concrete statue. She didn’t even seem to be breathing any- more, and Katharine might have thought her friend had fainted—except for the frightened flicker of her eyes.

“You wanna watch that? You wanna see her bleed? Is that what it ’s going to take?”

Katharine sucked in air and found her voice again. Or at least a semblance of her voice. What emerged was low and shaky, sounding nothing at all like her usual brisk, Midwest-infused tone.

“No,” she whispered, sickened, her eyes never leaving Lisa. “Oh, no. Please. You’ve got to believe me, there isn’t anything. . . .” Her voice caught as she saw Lisa start to shake. Fresh tears welled into her own eyes. Katharine had to force the rest out past the growing lump in her throat. “If there was a safe here, or any jewelry, or anything else of value that I could give you to make you go away, I’d tell you. I swear it.”

His eyes glinted ominously. His mouth pursed. His gaze slid slowly and deliberately over her features.

Katharine trembled.

“You know, you’re a real pretty girl. Maybe I should just leave your girlfriend alone, and start by carving my initials in your face instead.”

Her stomach cramped like a giant fist had just closed around it.

“No.” Her plea sounded pitiful even to her own ears. “No.”

His threat was all the more horrifying because it was uttered in such a low, untroubled tone. Everything that had happened had been nightmarishly quiet. Except for the single scared scream that had escaped her throat when he had first grabbed her, when she had opened her eyes one split second before he leaped on top of her to find a man creeping toward her bed through her darkened bedroom, there had been almost no noise. At least, no noise loud enough so that it was even remotely possible to hope that someone beyond these four walls might have heard and called the police.

She and Lisa, who had been sleeping in the town house ’s second bedroom, had been dragged down the stairs into the kitchen, flung to the floor, and roughly bound. Rape had been Katharine ’s immediate fear, but it hadn’t happened. Sexual assault seemed to be the furthest thing from these men’s minds.

What they were after, as they had made abundantly clear, was the contents of a safe that was supposedly concealed somewhere on the premises.

In the safe, they seemed to expect to find hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry. The normal burglar booty, like the plasma TV in the living room and the laptop in the den, didn’t seem to interest them. Likewise, they’d left the jewelry that the women wore untouched. They had ignored Lisa’s modest diamond pendant, and even Katharine ’s far more valuable diamond ear studs and the big oval-cut sapphire ring she had given herself for her last birthday, which ranked right up there as one of her very favorite birthdays ever.

Since bringing them into the kitchen, they’d mostly left Lisa alone. It was Katharine whom they had terrorized, Katharine whom they had questioned, Katharine whom they had roughed up, all in an attempt to get her to reveal the location of that nonexistent (so far as she knew, anyway) safe.

The thing was, they had known her name from the beginning. After the first fog of blind panic had cleared enough to allow her to think, that had chilled her to the bone. Clearly this was no random home invasion; it had been targeted specifically at her and carefully planned, although she got the impression that Lisa’s presence had been a surprise to them. They had expected her to be alone.

From something else the thugs had said, she had gathered that they had seen the picture of her that had appeared last week in The Washington Post, the one that had caused her oceans of trouble even before this particular nightmare had begun, the one she hadn’t even been aware had been taken until it had shown up in the paper. In it, she was dressed in a slinky white Dior evening gown and weighted down with what was practically a king’s ransom’s worth of eye-popping jewels, on her way to a dinner party at the home of one of Washington’s top lobbyists. Apparently, the thug rumor network had it that those unbelievably valuable jewels, as well as other items of comparable worth, were kept in that mythical hidden safe in her town house.

As if.

The jewelry she ’d been wearing in the picture wasn’t even hers. It had been loaned to her for the occasion. Besides her ring and earrings, the only baubles she owned were the few little bits and pieces of nothing in the leather jewelry case on her dresser. Until late last fall, she had been living strictly on the salary of a federal government employee, which, if that needed translating, wasn’t much. Certainly not anywhere near enough to enable her to acquire the kind of bling they thought she had.

That was what she had tried to tell them. Unfortunately, they refused to believe her even though it was the absolute, gospel truth.

While the thug who now had his fist in her hair had done his best to pound information she didn’t have out of her, the other had gone on a rampage through her home. She had been beaten up to the sound of muffled thumps and thuds and crashes as the other man had torn the town house apart, flinging books from the shelves, snatching paintings from the walls, upending furniture, flipping over the expensive Oriental carpets that covered the highly polished hardwood floors. If her next-door neighbor, a doctor whose name escaped her mind at present, had been home, he might have heard something. But when she and Lisa had gotten home, the windows of his town house had been dark, and she knew that he was frequently away for the weekend. As for the junior congresswoman who lived in the town house on her other side, she was definitely back home in Minnesota until the end of August. There was a possibility that the lawyer couple who lived in the last of the row of four town houses might be at home—if they’d gone somewhere, they hadn’t told her, but then again, why would they?—but even if they were there, it didn’t seem to be doing anyone any good: So far, there had been no ringing telephone as a curious neighbor called to ask what was up with the middle-of-the-night commotion. Likewise, there had been no wailing sirens, no banging on the front door, no shouts to open up. As far as neighborly intervention was concerned, there was, in a word, nothing. If the doctor or the lawyers were indeed at home, they were clearly as oblivious to what was happen ing as the night-dark Potomac, which flowed sleepily past just across the cobbled street.

According to the clock on the black-fronted microwave, which was built into one of the exposed brick walls that were a feature of the recently redone kitchen, the time was one-oh-seven a.m. It was Saturday, July 29. Washington—at least, official Washington—was all but closed down for the summer. That meant that Old Town was thin of company just at present. Katharine ’s street, home to a number of the less important factotums of government, was at least half-empty. Her town house—the lovely historic one that had been totally remodeled, the one that came with a supposedly state-of-the-art security system, the one that was so pricey because it was in a good section of town, the one that up until about twenty minutes ago she had considered profoundly safe—was, on this steamy summer’s night, as isolated as a cabin in the middle of a forest.

In other words, she and Lisa—poor, innocent Lisa, who had simply picked the wrong weekend to visit a friend—were on their own.

“Katharine. I don’t want to hurt you or your friend.” His tone was almost gentle. His eyes were not.

She took a shaky breath. Her voice, when it emerged, was stronger than before. “Then don’t.”

He blinked, slowly, like a sleepy turtle. Then, with deliberate movements that she couldn’t miss, he reached into his pocket and drew out a knife. A silver knife, slim and innocuous-looking, about six inches long. No sharp edges visible, but she knew what it was at a glance: a switchblade.

Horror filled her. Her throat tightened as her gaze stayed glued to the knife. He had only to push a button....

“You’re leaving me no choice, Katharine, so this is on your own head. If you don’t tell me where that safe is, I’m going to start carving that pretty face of yours up like a jack-o’-lantern.”

Fearing what would happen next, Katharine ’s body tensed. Her mouth went dry. Her heart knocked against her rib cage. But there was only one answer she could give: the same one she ’d been giving all along.

She shook her head in despair, indicating wordlessly what she then said aloud, “There . . . is . . . no . . . safe. Please, please believe that. Like I keep telling you, you’re making a mistake.”

There was a heartbeat ’s worth of dead silence.

“Stupid bitch,” he said, and the very absence of emotion in his voice made it all the more terrifying.

“I’m telling the truth.” Desperation made her voice shake. “I really am. This is just an ordinary rented town house. Why would there be a hidden safe?”

She heard the tiny click of the knife a fraction of a second before she saw the blade spring free of its casing. Light from the recessed fixtures overhead caused its honed edge to glint with wicked menace. It was, she could see, surgically sharp. Eyes glued to it, she drew in a deep, ragged breath.

“Using that won’t help,” she said. “I can’t tell you what I don’t know.”

He leaned closer. His face was just inches above hers now, so close that she could see that his eyes were bloodshot and smell the faint scent of gar- lic on his breath. Then he smiled. A small, evil, terrifying smile. Suddenly light-headed, she was conscious of a strange rushing sound and realized that what she was hearing was her own blood roaring like a waterfall in her ears.

“There ’s a hidden safe here because your boyfriend put it here,” he said.

Her boyfriend. Edward Barnes. A fit, distinguished-looking, soon-tobe-divorced forty-seven-year-old, who was in Amsterdam until Tuesday. They’d been seeing each other for the past thirteen months. He ’d been her boss for the last four years. And—oh, yeah—he ’d been the DDO—Deputy Director of Operations—of the CIA for two of those, taking her, his executive assistant, right up through the ranks with him, until now, when to all intents and purposes she, Katharine Marie Lawrence, former notorious party girl, was one of the most powerful people in the CIA. 

Because she had Ed ’s ear. And now that his wife of twenty years, Sharon, had moved out of their Embassy Row mansion in the wake of that damned Washington Post photo, she had pretty much most of the rest of him, too.

Given that Ed owned the town house in which she lived—rent-free, a perk of their relationship—a hidden safe suddenly seemed no longer completely beyond the realm of possibility.

Katharine ’s blood ran cold at the thought.

“I don’t know anything about that. I just live here.”

“Yeah.” Sarcasm dripped from the syllable.

Almost gently, he pressed the blade to her cheek. As she felt the cold metal against her face, Katharine ’s breathing suspended. Her heart lurched. For a frozen instant horror paralyzed her. Then she realized that what she was feeling was just the smallest degree of pressure, no sting, no pain at all, and it hit her: only the dull edge touched her skin. He wasn’t cutting her—yet.

“Please,” she said. Her throat was so tight, it was difficult to get even that much out. Her heart thudded. Her stomach knotted. She could feel Lisa watching, see the frightened glint of her wide eyes. Her friend ’s horror was almost palpable. Then, despairingly because she knew it was useless, Katharine added, “Don’t do this. Please don’t.”

“Where ’s the safe?”

Why wouldn’t he believe her? What else could she say? Sticking with the truth—that she didn’t know, that as far as she was aware there wasn’t one—would get her hurt. Panic twisted through her insides like a coiling snake. Could she lie? she wondered desperately. But if she lied—if, say, she pretended to know the location of the supposed safe, just picked a site off the top of her head and said it was there—he would go look, and in just a matter of minutes, he would discover that she was lying. The thought of what he might do to her then made her dizzy.

But could it be worse than what he was getting ready to do to her now? 

“Katharine?” His voice was so soft it was barely above a whisper. A silky, almost caressing whisper. He turned the knife over, resting the honed edge in the hollow beneath her cheekbone. Her breathing quickened. A scream bubbled up in her throat.

She dared not let it loose; he would cut her for sure then.

Fear tasted sour as vinegar in her mouth, but she forced the words through.

“If there was a safe, and I knew about it, don’t you think I’d tell you?” 

“Depends on how smart you are. For my money, you’re not very smart. After all, you’re fucking Ed Barnes.”

Terror made it difficult to think, she discovered. Whatever she said whatever she did, the end result was going to be the same. He—they— were not going to just go away. They were going to keep torturing her and Lisa until they either found what they were looking for or were finally convinced that it didn’t exist, by which time both women would probably be dead. Since it was Saturday, it was unlikely that anyone would even miss them until Monday, when Katharine didn’t show up for work. When she didn’t answer the inevitable phone calls that would be placed to her home, someone from the Agency would be dispatched to check on her. That someone would show up at her door and not be able to get in and would sooner or later call the police, and eventually her corpse and Lisa’s would be found right here on her grubby kitchen floor.

No. I’m not going to let that happen.

Determination stiffened her spine, had her gritting her teeth. She refused to just lie there and die.

There had to be a way out. She had to try.

Please, God, please... 

Wetting her lips, she glanced up at him. “Look, I have money in the bank. Lots of money.” His eyes darkened. He frowned. Oh, no. Already knowing he was going to refuse, she rushed on desperately. “Over a hundred thousand dollars. I’ll give it to you. All of it. My ATM card ’s in my purse. We can—”

“Yo, found it!” The exultant cry cut her off in mid-spiel. It came from, she judged, the small den that, with the living room/dining room combination, kitchen, entry hall, and half-bath, made up the town house ’s first floor. It, uttered in such a gleeful tone by the second bad guy, could only mean one thing: the hidden safe.

Apparently it did indeed exist, because he ’d found it. Who knew? was her first lightning-fast reaction, followed almost immediately by a devout Thank God.

Even as the thoughts formed in her mind, the knife fell away from her face. One second it was there, the next it was not. She let out a deep, relieved breath. “You’re a lucky girl, Katharine.” 

Lucky or not, Katharine knew that this wasn’t salvation. At best, it was only a brief reprieve. Her heart knocked against her ribs as her eyes locked with his for what seemed like an excruciatingly long moment. They were utterly cold; there was no pity for her there in those murky hazel depths. The hand that was still twisted in her hair shifted its grip.

He smiled at her.

Then, deliberately, with no warning at all, he slammed her head down. Her nose and forehead smashed into the tile with all the force of his arm behind it. The blow was so intense that she saw stars.

“Uh.” The pained cry came from her own throat, she realized fuzzily. Blood spurted from her nose; she could feel the warm, wet gush of it even through the whirlpool of dizziness sucking her down.

Letting go of her hair, he straightened to his full height.

“Be right back,” he said, and left the kitchen with a dozen quick footsteps that echoed faintly as he crossed the hard floor. When he reached the dining-room carpet, the sounds disappeared, muffled by thickly padded wool.

Except for the sound of it, Katharine barely registered his leaving through the haze of shock and pain. Eyes closed, drawing ragged breaths in through her mouth, she lay as he had left her, stunned, while blood continued to pour from her nose. Maybe she lost consciousness, maybe not, but for a brief period she was aware of little beyond the gray cloud that fogged her senses and her own struggle to breathe through the gore.

“Katharine.” It was the merest breath of sound. Something touched her, something warm that jostled her left shoulder and leg. When she didn’t respond, the touch came again, harder this time. There was something about it that felt urgent.

Not without a struggle, Katharine opened her eyes. Blood was in her mouth, salty and thick and warm, and the taste and oily sensation made her shudder. She lifted her head and spat it out. The kitchen swam in front of her, and she was immediately conscious of the crimson pool on the floor where her face had rested. Her nose . . . was it broken? It was still bleeding, she thought, but not as much now. 

It hurt. Oh, God, it hurt.


Her eyes had already begun to lose their focus again. Instinctively, she turned her head in the direction of that husky whisper. A flash of yellow snagged her peripheral vision, urging her on. Even as a new wave of dizziness washed over her and the rest of the kitchen went all blurry once more, her head completed that difficult quarter-turn and her eyes widened with surprise. Lisa was impossible to mistake. Her friend now lay next to her, turned on her side facing away, her yellow-nylon-sheathed back scant inches from Katharine ’s damaged face. It took a second—Katharine was still fuzzy—but then she realized that Lisa had rolled, scooted, wriggled, or by some other method propelled herself across the kitchen floor to her side.

Their eyes met over Lisa’s shoulder.

“Get my hands free.”

Lisa’s slim, tanned hands, her fingertips unnaturally pale now from having been so tightly bound for so long, wiggled vigorously below the wide band of gray duct tape that was wrapped tightly around both wrists. Katharine frowned a little, blinking uncomprehendingly down at them. Then Lisa scooted another inch or so backward, thrusting her bound hands forcefully toward Katharine ’s face.

“My hands,” Lisa hissed.

All of a sudden, it hit Katharine: Lisa was talking. Not easily, not well, but talking. The tape covering her mouth had come loose. How? Katharine considered, then realized that it didn’t matter. The rectangular patch of industrial gray strips was still there, still glued to her upper lips and cheeks, but she was able to move her lower lip enough to form intelligible words.

“Use your teeth.” It was an urgent whisper. 

Katharine blinked again.

“Use my teeth?” she repeated, befuddled.

“Shh. Yes.”

Katharine had forgotten to whisper. She realized that as soon as the words left her mouth, even before Lisa’s face contorted viciously and her heels smacked warningly into the side of her thigh. Even as Katharine winced, reflexively jerking her leg back out of the way, Lisa glared at her.

“To get the tape off. Use your teeth.”

This time Katharine remembered to whisper. “Oh. Okay.”

But she still couldn’t quite wrap her mind around what she needed to do. Her nose hurt so, like a tuning fork quivering with an agonizing sensation aimed directly at the pain centers in her brain. Her head throbbed, her ears rang, and every time she moved her head even the slightest bit, a new wave of dizziness assaulted her. Lisa wanted her to get the tape off with her teeth? That didn’t quite compute, but Katharine obediently ducked her head in the direction of Lisa’s hands. Big mistake. Pain exploded behind her eyes. Reality began to recede again. The ringing in her ears turned into an almost soothing buzzing sound. Suddenly the kitchen seemed to be shimmering around her like a mirage in the desert. There was nothing solid left in the world.... 


Except Lisa. Lisa, whose bound hands were bouncing up and down in the small of her back with unmistakable urgency. Lisa, whose bound heels were kicking her hard in the thigh. Lisa, who was directing a killer glare her way.

Lisa, who was doing her best to drag her back from the threatening mists of unconsciousness, even as Katharine longed to succumb.

“Katharine. You’ve got to do this, understand? Tear the duct tape around my wrists with your teeth.”

The fierceness of the whisper penetrated the fog that was clouding Katharine ’s mind, sapping her muscles of their strength, turning her limbs to lead. Lisa’s words finally registered, and Katharine deliberately widened her eyes and took a deep breath and fought for clarity. Then, before she could otherwise move or reply or do anything else at all, a loud thud from the direction of the den, followed by a string of vicious male curses, made her heart leap. 
“You dropped it!” The roar rose accusingly over the cursing.

“Well, shit, it was heavy!”

Lisa, who’d been in the act of kicking her again, froze with her heels scant inches from Katherine ’s thigh.

Katharine froze, too.

Fear shoved out the last of the fog as realization burst on her like a bomb: They didn’t have much time. The bad guys were still there, just a room away. They could be coming back for her and Lisa at any moment.

She really didn’t want to be here for that.

“Do it.” Lisa completed the kick.

Katharine still felt as if half her brain had turned into cotton candy, but now that she remembered what had happened and that both their lives were at stake, the other half of her brain, along with the rest of her, was definitely with the program.

If she and Lisa didn’t get out of there soon, they were going to die. It was as simple—and as galvanizing—as that.

“Yes, okay,” Katharine whispered.

Focusing required painful effort, but Katharine did it. She attacked the duct tape around Lisa’s wrists with her teeth, ignoring the shaft of fire that shot through her excruciatingly sensitive nose as she accidentally brushed it against the warm firmness of Lisa’s forearm. The pain was bad, bad enough to make her want to pull back and lie very still for a very long time, waiting for it to subside. However, death was worse. With that thought lodged at the forefront of her mind, Katharine ignored the pain and went after the tape with a ferocity born of desperation. Lisa kept her arms as stiff and still as possible, stretching them backward, straining against the tape with all her strength to take advantage of the tiniest rip.

There wasn’t one. Despite Katharine ’s best efforts, the tape remained intact. It was gummy and acidic-tasting and just plain nasty. Getting any kind of purchase with her teeth was difficult. She kept hitting her nose on Lisa’s arms. The resulting pain would have been disabling under any less dire circumstances. The appendage was as sensitive as an exposed nerve. It was so damaged that she couldn’t breathe through it; she had to gasp for air through her mouth. She was almost positive it was broken.

Not that the state of her nose mattered at all under the circumstances. They had only this brief window of time. . . .

“Hurry,” Lisa breathed.

It seemed like hours passed. Days. Weeks. Months. But when she caught a glimpse of the microwave ’s clock, she realized that she was wrong. It was only one-fourteen. Impossible to grasp that only seven minutes had passed since she had last looked at those glowing numbers.

No matter how it felt, she couldn’t have been chewing on the tape for longer than a minute or two.

“Don’t do that,” one of the bad guys snapped, loud enough so that Katharine jumped as if she had come into unexpected contact with a live wire.

“You got a better idea?” came the growled reply.

Heart pounding, Katharine quit with the tape for long enough to shoot a nervous glance over her shoulder toward the door. They sounded so close—terrifyingly close. Still, nothing more than the sliver of dining room that she ’d been able to see before met her gaze: a corner of the glasstopped dining table, part of an upended gray-and-chrome upholstered chair, the painting of the single lily in a vase lying where it had been flung on the carpet. There was no sign of the men, thank goodness. They were in all likelihood still in the den; obviously, they had no idea what was happening in the kitchen.

Oh, God, how long until one of them decided to check?

Fright flooded like ice water through her veins as she arrived at the unavoidable conclusion: probably not very long.

“Hurry,” Lisa breathed.

Oh, yeah. Recalled to herself, Katharine attacked the tape with renewed desperation. Her heart thumped. Her pulse raced. Her stomach twisted itself into a pretzel. At any moment—at any second—one of the men could come back into the kitchen. 
Then she had no doubt at all that she and Lisa would die. After all, the bad guys had found the safe. They didn’t need either of the women anymore.

Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. The word formed an urgent chorus in her brain. “Where you going?” The raised voice belonged to the bad guy who had slammed her face into the floor. Even as she nearly had a heart attack, Katharine recognized it without a doubt. There was a roughness to it, a hint of New York or New Jersey street in the accent. He was clearly talking to his partner, who was just as clearly no longer nearby.

Oh, God, where was he? Her heart thumped like a piston in her chest as her every sense strained to find out. She couldn’t tell; she could hear nothing, no footfalls, no sounds at all, to locate him.

Please, please, let him not be heading for the kitchen.

Panic gave her strength. She got a grip with her cuspids, ripped downward. Miracle of miracles, the tape tore. Yes. The moment was electric, and Lisa felt it, too, Katharine could tell by the triumphant clenching of her fingers. It was just the smallest rip, but it gave them hope, made success seem not so impossible after all. She kept at the tape like a terrier, the taste metallic in her mouth. Or maybe that metallic taste was blood. She didn’t know, didn’t care.

He could step into the kitchen at any second. . . .

Muscles straining, using short, sharp jerks that caused the tape to snap taut each time, Lisa tried to yank her hands apart as Katharine kept feverishly ripping at the layers of tape. Slowly, slowly, way too horribly slowly, it tore.... 

Lisa forced her arms apart and suddenly her wrists were free. As Katharine, panting, let her head sag down onto the tile, their eyes met in a single brief moment of triumph. Then Lisa, loose strips of tape dangling from one wrist, jackknifed into a sitting position, yanked the tape from her mouth, and bent to claw at the tape around her ankles.

The sound of a flushing toilet answered at least one urgent question: the location of the second bad guy. He was in the powder room off the entry hall. For about half a heartbeat, knowing where he was even made Katharine feel better.

Then she realized that the kitchen could be his next stop. All he had to do was turn left and walk about a dozen paces straight down the hall. The arched opening that led from the entry hall into the kitchen didn’t even have a door on it. He would be able to see them long before he reached it.

Lisa moved, and Katharine watched with her heart in her mouth as Lisa scooted on her butt across the kitchen floor. Katharine only realized her intended destination as Lisa grabbed the handle on the cutlery drawer and pulled it open. The soft slide of the roller mechanism sounded loud as thunder to Katharine ’s ears, and her heart pounded in answer as she shot a terrified glance at the door. The clinking of the cutlery as Lisa reached inside the drawer made her jump and brought her gaze flying back. A second later, Lisa’s hand, which was still lost in the depths of the drawer, reappeared, triumphantly clutching a serrated steak knife. She sliced down with it, sawing with fierce sweeps through the duct tape binding her ankles.

“You wanna give me a hand with this?” the first bad guy called out. Katharine almost swallowed her tongue as she glanced around again: nothing.

“Thought I’d go ahead and take care of the ladies,” his partner answered. Katharine ’s breathing suspended. She looked wildly back at Lisa in time to see her pull the tape off her ankles. “Get that out of the way.”

Oh my God. He’s coming to kill us. Right now.

From the sound of his voice, he was close. Way close. Steps away.

Panic broke over Katharine in an icy wave. Her whole body was suddenly bathed in a rush of cold sweat. Her heart kicked into triple time. Her stomach went into freefall. Her eyes locked with Lisa’s, then widened in horror as Lisa stood up and she realized that Lisa was free—but she was not.

She could hear his footsteps, hear him coming toward them.... 

Knife in hand, Lisa scrambled toward her, bent over her, sliced savagely at the tape around her ankles. 

“We got plenty of time for that.” The first bad guy sounded impatient. “Come here and help me with this first.”

The footsteps paused for what seemed an interminable amount of time, then resumed in a changed direction.

Phew. Katharine felt as if she might collapse from relief.

The knife went through the tape around her ankles like it was tissue paper. As the grip of the tape eased, Katharine frantically tried to pull her ankles apart, and suddenly she was free, too.

“Let’s go,” Lisa whispered. She grabbed Katharine ’s upper arm just above the elbow, propelling her to her feet, hacking at the tape around Katharine ’s wrists at the same time. The tape split, and Katharine tore her wrists lose from their sticky confinement. Coming upright so fast made her head feel as if it would explode. A knifelike pain from where she had been kicked shot through her side, making her fear that she had at least one cracked rib. Pins and needles attacked her blood-deprived arms as they moved. Sucking in air, she tried to run and discovered a terrible truth: Her legs did not want to work. Dizzy and weak, battling a sudden attack of nausea, Katharine forced herself into motion anyway, her legs heavy and her feet clumsy as she lurched crouching after Lisa, who was already darting away toward the far side of the kitchen. A small laundry room was located there, and in that laundry room was the back door.

Moonlight slanted through the not-quite-shut blinds on the two small double-hung windows behind the washer and dryer. The yellow glow of a streetlight in the alley beyond the small backyard and row of detached garages shone through the glass set into the top half of the door, making it fairly easy for them to see where they were going even though the laundry room light was off. Set into the wall just a few feet from the back door was the calculator-sized panel for the security system. The tiny light on it gleamed green, Katharine saw as she reached the door of the shadowy room seconds behind Lisa. Her thinking was slightly fuzzy, she knew, but that seemed to indicate that the system still worked. So why hadn’t the alarm sounded when the intruders had broken in? Had she forgotten to turn it on? Or had they somehow known the code? Then she realized that it didn’t matter. What mattered was that the panic button at the bottom of the control panel might still be functioning, too. 

It was connected directly to the police department. All she had to do was hit that button and cops would be on the scene within minutes. If it still worked, that is.

Flying across the room in Lisa’s wake, she detoured slightly and stabbed the button hard just as Lisa reached the back door.

What she heard next made her forget about everything except the need for immediate escape: the quick slap of footfalls walking into the kitchen. They sounded as loud as an alarm to her ears.

There was a split second in which her heart shot into overdrive. Her stomach clenched. Her blood turned to ice. Her eyes instinctively swiveled toward the rectangle of light that was the door to the kitchen.

For a terrible moment, nothing happened. Then... 

“Hey! Where are they?” At first the man sounded confused, as if he thought he might just be overlooking his captives. A second later he managed to put things together and yelled, “They’re gone!” ] Their escape had been discovered.

“Shit. Shit. Shit.”

The frantic breath of sound came from Lisa as she fought to open the back door, twisting the knob, tugging at it without result. Katharine heard it as she reached her friend, who cast a hunted look back over her shoulder.

“It won’t open.”

Frantic with terror, not understanding anything except the need to get out that door NOW, Katharine pushed Lisa’s hands aside, grabbed the cold metal knob, turned, and pulled, too.

To no effect. The knob turned, but the door didn’t budge.

Then Katharine understood.

The door was equipped with a dead-bolt lock that required a key to open. It had been designed that way to counteract the security risk pose by the window set into the top of the door. The key that fit the lock was at that moment hanging from a slender length of blue satin ribbon on the Peg-Board beside the dryer. Some six feet away.

Her eyes flew to it, and then she leaped for it just as a man’s tall silhouette appeared in the laundry-room doorway.

Excerpted from OBSESSION © Copyright 2011 by Karen Robards. Reprinted with permission by PUBLISHER. All rights reserved.

by by Karen Robards

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0399154167
  • ISBN-13: 9780399154164