Chapter 1

Warm, sticky fluid seeped into her clothing, saturating her upper chest. With a repulsed shudder, Rowan closed her eyes and willed herself to calm down, her breathing to return to normal. The man’s weight crushed her, creating the panicky sensation she could not get enough air into her lungs. But she didn’t have the energy to shove him away. Finally, she could stand it no more. She wormed her hands beneath his shoulders and pushed up. His large body moved slightly, then settled back over her, feeling heavier than before. She expelled a frustrated breath. If she didn’t get this guy off, he would surely suffocate her.

“Zeus,” Rowan croaked. She listened for a response, but couldn’t hear anything over the loud ringing in her ears. Perfect. If she didn’t pass out from lack of oxygen, she would probably stroke out. She gathered as much air into her lungs as she could but was only able to produce a weak, “Zeus.”  Although she needed his help, she was thankful she had put him in the back yard. He would be dead by now if she hadn’t. She craned her neck and could see a muddy snout pushing against the screen door in the kitchen.  He’d been digging underneath the shed again. That explained why he hadn’t heard all the commotion going on inside. “Come here, boy.”

The Weimaraner nudged the screen door open and bounded into the living room. He stopped short when he saw the man, baring his teeth in a fierce growl.

“Help me, Zeus.”

Zeus moved close and sniffed the side of Rowan’s face. As his nose tracked toward the man, Rowan pushed up with her arms, showing the dog what she wanted. “Pull him off, Zeus.” Zeus snagged the man’s jacket sleeve and tugged. The body barely budged. He dug his claws into the floor and pulled back. “Good boy,” she said, when the heavy torso shifted. She twisted her upper body as she jostled against the man and inhaled deeply after Zeus dragged him off her chest. It felt good to be able to breathe normally. She pushed the corpse off her lower abdomen and legs, then sat for a moment, eyes closed, body shaking.

Zeus positioned himself between Rowan and the man, and nudged her shoulder with his nose. She hugged the dog, saying into his fur, “You’re a good boy.”  Zeus solemnly licked her face.

Rowan scooted away from the body and lunged to her feet. The man lay on his stomach, his face turned to one side. A knife, pooled in blood, protruded from the back of his neck. She and the dog stared down at one open eye, looking blankly at nothing. She forced her gaze away and willed her mind to focus on the problem at hand, not what had just occurred.

Rowan hurried to the front windows and peeled back the edge of the curtain, searching for anyone who might be waiting for the man on the floor. The only thing out of order was a large, gold-colored Cadillac in front of her drive, its golden rims gleaming in the sun. She swore to herself. The damn vehicle blocked her in; she wouldn’t be able to take her car. She glanced back at the dead man and decided the glitzy Caddy probably belonged to him; those pretentious rims matched the bright suit he wore. She closed the curtain and crossed over to the other side, tugged the heavy cloth away from the window, and studied the street. No one appeared to be inside the vehicle or lurking about, something she found disconcerting. The guy on the floor looked the sort to have a driver, and in her experience, these people always traveled in pairs.

After Rowan locked the front door, she rushed to her bedroom closet, where she worked a couple of loose floor planks free. She withdrew her emergency backpack and took a moment to check inside, make sure her fake ID was there along with enough money to get her to another location.

She grabbed the dog’s leash and clipped it on. “Come on, Zeus. We’ve got to get out of here.”  At the door, she turned around and looked at the dead man. Tears welled in her eyes but she blinked them away. She had just killed her would-be killer.

She walked back to the man, pulled her foot back, and kicked him in the side. “You shit.”

#

Half a block away, Garrett Somersby slumped in his car, playing word games in his head. Damn, he hated stakeouts. A lot of time to do nothing but think, which put him in danger of some serious introspection. Something he didn’t want to engage in at this point in his life, afraid he’d find out how lonely he really was. He had been trailing Twinkle Toes Tommy — named this because the guy supposedly liked to dance, although Garrett suspected it was because he might be gay. He sure looked like a dandy, always dressed in flashy suits with a yellow carnation in his buttonhole. Garrett knew where he’d like to stuff that carnation.

Twinkle Toes was aide to Roland Metzner, the biggest kingpin in their part of the state, and sooner or later Twinkie was going to do something stupid, get caught, and turn over for them. At least that was what the Sarge thought. Sure.

Garrett clicked the ignition to battery and powered his window down. Cool air tinted with lilac flowed into the vehicle. He closed his eyes and breathed in. Spring was probably the best season in East Tennessee, with dogwoods, redbuds and Bradford pears blooming, the town filled with colorful tulips and daffodils and a plethora of other flora he couldn’t name. Well, no. It had to be fall, when the Tennessee Volunteers took to the field most every week and the mountains sported a vibrant collage of dying leaves. On the other hand, early spring brought March madness and the Lady Vols. Winter wasn’t bad either, with skiing or snowboarding in Gatlinburg only an hour’s drive away. And summer hailed boating season on any one of the seven lakes surrounding Knoxville or the Tennessee River winding its way through the center of town. Hell, when you really got down to it, Knoxville was the place to be no matter what season.

Garrett glanced toward the small, white rancher Tommy had gone into. The dwelling sat among a row of houses, each identical to the other. From this vantage point, they seemed to blend into one long, monochromatic line in an area that had seen its day at least a quarter of a century earlier. Lilac bushes sprinkled throughout the small yards added a bit of color to a scene that looked as if it had rested in a photo album a little too long.

Garrett powered his other window down to create a cross-breeze. The scent of lilac increased, reminding him of the perfume his grandmother wore. A woman weaving her way down the sidewalk drew his gaze. Dressed in a short skirt, with stiletto heels, her black hair hung limp and lifeless. A hooker, no doubt about that. Her eyes told the story as they searched the street, hungry for a john who would give her enough for her next fix.

Was this a romantic liaison he was sitting out? Twinkie usually grazed in greener pastures than this dump. But that was just Garrett’s luck. A fat slob like Twinkle Toes had girlfriends in every corner of the city, and here Garrett sat, no woman in his life for so long he couldn’t remember the last time he had been with one. Well, no wonder. He spent more time on the streets than in his own home.

He stretched his long legs, his body craving activity. He’d rather do just about anything than wait for the fat man to get laid. Movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention and Garrett focused on the house. Someone had opened the storm door from inside, the glass catching a sunbeam and bouncing a bright light straight into Garrett’s eyes. He tilted his head out the window for a better view and watched a woman dash onto the small front porch, a large dog on a leash beside her. Damn, he’d never seen a dog so big in his life. Big mother, that one, with a weird bluish hue to his coat, floppy ears, and odd eyes that belonged in a horror movie. The woman hesitated when she drew near Twinkie’s large Cadillac, which blocked her short driveway. Garrett’s eyes traveled her long, shapely legs to her short denim skirt, and upward, then froze. A large, red blotch covered her upper chest. Was that blood? He hurried out of his SUV.

“Are you all right? Do you need help?” he said as he ran toward her.

She drew up when he stepped in front of her. Her eyes held a frightened cast as they focused on his face. “Yes. No. I mean, yes, please.” She glanced past him, at the open door of his SUV. “Is that your car?”

He nodded toward his dark-green Suburban. “Yes, it is. Do you need me to take you to the hospital?”

“I need to go now.”

He cupped her elbow in his hand and guided her to his vehicle, the dog trailing behind.

At the car, she drew back. “Do you have the keys?”

“They’re in the SUV.  Get in and I’ll take you to the nearest emergency room.”

She glanced inside the SUV, then turned back to him.  “I’m going to have to take your car.”

What?”

“I’m sorry but I need to use your car.”

Was the woman addled, had she been hit in the head, lost too much blood? “It’s okay. Wherever you need to go, I can take you.”

She stepped away from him. “That won’t do. I need your car, and I don’t need you getting in my way.”

Garrett hesitated, his hand reaching for the front passenger door. “What the hell? You’re not taking my SUV.”

In a quiet voice, she said, “Zeus.”

Next thing Garrett knew, he was on the ground. The dog straddled him, his muzzle at Garrett’s throat, growling softly. The animal’s four paws penned Garrett’s arms against his side. How in the world did the dog know to do that?

“Good boy, Zeus,” she cooed to the dog, then addressed Garrett. “Is the registration in the car?”

“Call your dog off, lady,” Garrett grunted.

“In a minute. Where’s the registration?”

Garrett stared into the dog’s amber eyes, which he thought more resembled a demon’s than a canine’s. “Shit. In the glove box.”

“Okay, good. I’ll mail the keys to you in the next day or two along with the location of your SUV.”

Where had everyone gone? A few minutes ago, the street hadn’t been crowded but cars had passed Garrett as he sat in his SUV, people walked by on the sidewalk. Now everyone had disappeared. It was as if they were in a sealed chamber, this little scenario playing out between the woman, Garrett, and the dog. When Garrett shifted in order to glance around, the dog deepened his growl and pressed his nose against his neck. Shit. If he could only get his arms free, he might have a chance with this four-legged gorilla.

Garrett tucked his chin into his neck as much as he was able, in case the dog got the bright idea to tear out his throat. “Dammit to hell. Get this mutt off!”

The woman’s face came into view, hovering just over the dog’s shoulder. She gave him an apologetic look. “Listen, I’m sorry I have to do this, but I need to get out of here and you’re not cooperating very well.”

“Cooperating? You’re stealing my car!” Wanting nothing more than to be up off the ground and away from those sharp teeth, Garrett took a moment to calm down. He forced his voice to a level tone. “Wherever you need to go, I’ll take you.”

“Believe me, that would not be good for you. Okay, I’m going to call off the dog, but if you get up before we leave, I’m going to sic him on you again and this time he won’t just threaten you. You understand?”

Garrett remained silent, rage blowing through his blood like steam through a furnace.

“Say you understand.”

“I understand,” he said between gritted teeth.

“Zeus.”

The dog lifted his head and looked at her.

“Come, boy.”

After giving Garrett a final growl, Zeus loped toward the car.

Garrett sat up, debating whether to go after her, but that damn dog looked like he could do some damage.

She opened the passenger side door and gestured for the dog to get inside. “I’m really sorry. I wouldn’t do this unless I had to.”

As he got to his feet, Garrett reached behind and pulled his gun free. “Sorry it has to come to this, but you’re not going anywhere.”

The dog was in midair before Garrett could swing his arm up. He clamped his jaw around Garrett’s hand, forcing his arm down. With a sharp hiss, Garrett dropped the gun. Zeus eased his mouth open so that it locked around Garrett’s wrist. But those teeth looked sharp enough to punch right through if he decided to.

The woman shook her head as she gave him a look. “Are you crazy?”  She walked over and picked up the gun. Backing up, her eyes on Garrett, she kept it pointed at him. “You misbehave one more time, you’re going to miss that hand. Zeus has a big appetite. He doesn’t mind fresh meat.”

Garrett debated punching the dog in the snout, but the way his luck was going, he’d probably lose his hand. “That’s only if he gets me first.”

“Do we have an understanding?” she said, enunciating each word.

“Okay. I got you. Just get him away from me.”

“Release.” The dog whined as if he had plans for what was in his mouth. “Now.”

With what seemed like a good bit of reluctance, Zeus let go of Garrett’s wrist. He ran his tongue around his lips and over his nose before returning to the car and jumping onto the front passenger seat.

Garrett watched her close the door behind the dog and cross in front of the vehicle. “Just tell me one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Is that your blood?”

She shook her head. “I just killed a man. His body’s inside.” She hopped into the vehicle, keyed the ignition, and drove off.

“Well, shit,” Garrett said as she drove away.

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