Authors: Maggie Shayne
Jax stretched her arms, folded the file and got up from the sofa. She was letting her imagination take hold, and that was totally unlike her. Maybe she'd better call it a night. She turned for the stairs, but stopped in midmotion at a soundâa real one this time. It sounded like something dropping to the floor.
Frowning, she turned her head in the direction from which the sound had come, the kitchen. “Yeah. It's probably a whole troop of ghosts,” she taunted herself. “Who you gonna call, Jax?” Sighing, she moved slowly. Because while she didn't believe in spooks, despite her new colleague's tales, she
believe in escaped mental patients. Her gun was hanging with her coat in the living room closetânot her choice of a permanent spot to keep it; just where she'd happened to hang it when she came home. Her mother hated seeing it on her. Jax supposed it was a reminder of how dangerous her job could
be, and the thought of her only remaining daughter at risk was a little too much for her to handle.
Mariah was delicate. More so than she let on. There had been far more of her in Carrie than there had ever been in Jax.
Jax took the shoulder holster and pulled it on. She didn't need to check the gun to know it was loaded with a full clip, but there was no bullet in the chamber and the safety was on. She knew her weapon as well as she knew her own body. She kept her hand on the butt as she moved through the house into the kitchen, where she flipped on the light and then stood still, watching, listening.
The room was spotless. The dishes done, leftovers put away, the white ceramic-tiled counters gleaming. The back door was closed and still locked, its new windowpane still in place. Nothing seemed unusual or alarming.
So, then, what was the noise? It didn't make itself.
And I was awake, so I know it wasn't a leftover part of that screwed-up dream.
She moved her gaze slowly to the cellar door, and knew the sound had come from down there. She knew it with the instinct cops developed over time. Exercising any muscle made it stronger, and cops exercised their intuitive muscles constantly. There was something in her basement. She felt it right to her bones.
Drawing a breath, along with her gun, Jax moved to the cellar door, closed her hand on the knob, turned it and pulled the door open. Reaching inside, she flipped the light switch. But there was no response. Her father had replaced every bulb in the houseâexcept this one. Great. She backed off and took her flashlight from the top of the fridge, where she'd left it.
Then she returned to the cellar stairs, putting a round into the chamber of her .45, and keeping her finger close to the safety. She held the flashlight in her left hand, in an overhand grip, and clicked it on.
The staircase was solid. Unfinished boards, not yet dark with age, had been built to replace whatever had been there before. She started down, brushing cobwebs aside with her gun hand when they stuck to her face.
Then she stopped on the third step at another sound.
She tried to console herself with the idea that if there were anyone at all in her basement, it had to be the man from last night. And then she asked herself why that notion should console her. The man from last night was either a cold-blooded killer or a criminally insane one. Either way spelled danger with a capital
Not that she was worriedâshe could handle him.
And yet part of her still insisted he was neither of those things. Part of her, that same part that had told her where the noise had come from, believed he was what she had seen last night, before she'd known his history. A cop in trouble. On the run and on the edge. Wounded and alone.
Damn, why did that image make her belly tie up in knots?
She continued down the stairs, shining her light around the cellar's concrete floor. The furnace stood in a corner, water tank and hot water heater in another. There were pipes on the walls ending in unused spigots that would probably hook to a washing machine, should she decide to put one down here. A dryer would fit beside it.
The breathing came again, from behind her this time!
She swung the light, her body and her gun, as her gut tensed. Eyes gleamed back at her. “Hold it right there,” she said, lifting the gun and shifting the light.
The dog was peering down at her from outside a missing window high in the basement wall. His tongue hung out as he breathed happily, watching her every move. He wasn't growling, just apparently curious.
She closed her eyes and released her breath in a rush. “Damn, dog, you scared the life out of me.” Smiling at her own panic, she realized the missing window looked out on the underside of her front porch, where the dog's bed was stashed.
Okay. So it was probably not the most heat-efficient situation. She wondered if her father would mind installing one more window for her, and knew he wouldn't. Then she took a better look around the basement, and located a bulb in the ceiling, with a chain hanging down. For the hell of it, she pulled the chain and the light came on, filling the basement with a dim glow, just enough to chase the shadows into the farthest corners.
“That's better,” she said, turning off her flashlight and sliding it into her belt. She holstered her gun, too, then moved closer to the dog. “So are you thinking about coming inside? Hmm? Is that why you're snooping around the window like that?” She held out a hand.
He sniffed a little, then pulled back abruptly and vanished from the window hole.
Jax sighed. “Well, hell, you'll trust me sooner or later, I guess.” Turning, she started back for the stairs, and then paused at the pile of items she saw stacked on a shelf to the left. A stack of clothing, an orange and a Tupperware container.
A chill chased its tail along her spine. She moved closer, picking up the articles of clothing, examining the container, which had chicken inside. Fresh food, not spoiled. “Straight out of Mom's cooler, I'll bet,” she muttered. She lifted her light again and shone it on the shelf, the better to see what else might be there. Its beam picked out a long, rag-wrapped shape.
Jax reached for it, and knew what it was as soon as she picked it up, both by its weight and its form. But she unwound the rag, anyway.
The hunting knife had a wooden handle and a four-inch blade, razor sharp on one side, blunt with an inward curve near
the top on its backside. She held it in her palm, the rag still cradling it in her hand.
“Put it down.”
Jax spun around, to see the man standing two feet from her. She had the blade in one hand, the light in the other. No free hand to reach for her gun. No problem; she could bean him with the Maglite and put him down for the count.
She stared at him, her heart speeding up. Fight or flight was kicking in, and personally, she preferred fight. Her eyes raked him, head to toe. No weapon; that was the first piece of information she filed away in her mind. No weapon, and he was just standing there, none too steadily, arms at his sides, not making any aggressive moves toward her. His eyes were puffy and unfocused. His face unshaven, hair a mess. He wore jeans, no doubt taken from the box of clothes she'd left out for him, and a sweater over a T-shirt. She could see the white band of the collar at his neck.
“This yours?” she asked, lifting the knife, the handle of which was still wrapped in the rag. “What are you doing, breaking into my house with a knife on you, pal?”
He licked his lips. “Please put it down. Don't smear the prints.”
She frowned at that. “Tell me whose prints are on it, and maybe I'll oblige you.”
He hesitated, seeming to mull it over, then nodded once, weakly. “A man attacked me with it. Tried to kill me. I ducked, then I hit him and he went down hard. Smashed his head. It killed him. That knife is my only proof it was self-defense.”
For a crazed escapee from the looney bin, she thought, he was making a hell of a rational argument. “Okay. I'll be careful not to smear the prints.” She wrapped the blade cautiously in its rag, and tucked it between her belt and her jeans, in the back. “I think it's about time you told me who you are, don't you?”
“I can't.” His eyes closed slowly, but he forced them open again, even while swaying a little.
“Should I take a stab at it then?” she asked. “No pun intended, of course.”
His frown was confused. “My name's River. Iâ¦” He swayed again, and this time, he went all the way down, out cold on the floor.
“Hell.” Jax left him there and ran up the stairs to tuck her gun belt and the hunting knife both out of reach and out of sight. Then she dashed back down to lean over the fallen man. “You're in sorry shape, you know that?”
He moaned, but didn't respond. Jax knelt down, lifted his upper body, knew she ought to be on the phone right now turning his fugitive ass in. “Hey, wake up, will you?”
His eyes opened, met hers. “Someone'sâ¦trying to kill me.”
“So you said. You think you can get on your feet? Even as underweight as you are, I prefer not to have to drag you up the stairs.”
He gripped her hand. “If you turn me in, they'll find me, and I'll be dead. I need time. That's all. Just time.”
“Time to do what?”
He closed his eyes. “To find out the truth.”
Jax debated for a long moment, and then decided there was no point hiding what she knew from him. “The truth about what happened to your wife, the night your house burned? Is that the truth you're looking for, Michael?”
He closed his eyes. “How do you know?”
“I'm a cop.”
Anguish, that was the emotion that crossed his face. Sheer anguish. But then he met her eyes again. “So was I,” he told her.
Dammit, she'd never been so torn. Giving this man shelter went against everything she'd been trained to do. But she couldn't shake the feeling that there was more going on here
than met the eye, more to this man than what she'd read in his file. And a whole lot more to this case.
He'd saved her life. And that was only one of the reasons she wanted to help him. Hell, she didn't believe in the fate and destiny garbage the neo-hippies were spouting these days, but she couldn't help but wonder if this man had been dropped into her life for a reason.
A chance to make it up. To put things right.
She sighed. “And I'm fucking nuttier than he is.”
“Nothing. Let's just get you upstairs.”
“I can't stay here,” he muttered, even as she anchored him to her and helped him to his feet. “Just get me to the door. I'll goâ”
“You'll be dead by morning if you do.”
“If you're going to callâ”
“I'm not.” She said it before she was even aware she had made the decision. “Not yet, anyway. I need to puzzle this out for myself. And I suppose I owe you a favor, after you pulled me out of that frozen pond. Hell, you're burning up, Michael.”
“River,” he told her.
She closed her eyes. “Nickname?”
He nodded, then lifted his head. “Yours?”
“Lieutenant Cassandra Jackson, Syracuse Police Department. But you can call me Jax.”
“Nickname?” he asked.
She looked at him sharply, saw the barest hint of what might be humor in his eyes. It touched her. “Yeah.”
She moved him across the floor, toward the stairs, and they started up them.
“Syracuse?” he asked.
“Yeah, for the moment. I'm off for two weeks.”
“Whyâ” he grunted with effort as they took another step “âBlackberry?”
“Frankie Parker's retiring. I'm up for her job. Unless I get caught aiding and abetting a fugitive, that is.”
He closed his eyes. “Sorry.”
She shrugged. “Don't be. If I turn you in I plan to claim you broke in, and I found you here, then take credit for the collar.”
“Good. I owe you, too. The clothes. The food.”
Easing him into the kitchen, Jax helped him into a chair, then she went back to the cellar door and flipped the light switch, nodding in approval when the light downstairs went off. She closed the cellar door. “You manage to eat any of it?”
“Tried,” he said. “Itâ¦didn't go so well.” He leaned back in the chair, head tipping back, eyes falling closed.
He was a mess. Physically, emotionally and probably mentally a mess. A fellow cop in trouble. And if what he said was true, someone was trying to kill him. But if he'd truly killed his wifeâ¦his
“I just have to know,” he said. “If I didâ¦what they say I did.”
It was as if he could read her thoughts. Then again, they probably thought a lot alike. They were both cops. There was a bond there, unwritten, unspoken, but there. And yetâ¦
“Tell me one thing. The insanity pleaâwas that something you cooked up to get away with the crime, or was it for real?”