Authors: Stone Wallace
MORE PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF STONE WALLACE
“The plotÂ .Â .Â . [has a] colorful, light feel to itâuntil the end. Recommend this one highly to Western readers.”
“Stone Wallace will become an institution to Western fans after they read this novelÂ .Â .Â . It's a page turner that you won't want to put down!”
âTommy Garrett, editor-in-chief, the
Ehron Lee attempted a smile, but Abigail's expression was cold and rigid. He was familiar with her odd moods, but this was a look that registered pure contempt.
“Murderer,” she said, her voice barely a whisper though heavy with intent.
Then her pitch rose as she spewed venom.
“Low-down filthy murderer! You never was no good, Ehron Lee Burrows. I saw it right from the start. You fooled everyone else but you could never fool meÂ .Â .Â .”
Ehron Lee recoiled at the accusation. He tried to speak. “Abigail, what are you sayâ”
She didn't let him finish. “I know the truth. You enjoyed killin', gettin' blood on your hands. The war was good for yuh, Ehron Lee, wasn't it? 'Cause it made yuh what you really are: a killer and a criminal.”
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
USA â¢ Canada â¢ UK â¢ Ireland â¢ Australia â¢ New Zealand â¢ India â¢ South Africa â¢ China
A Penguin Random House Company
A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright Â© 2014 by Stone Wallace.
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for having an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
The “B” design is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-61057-2
Berkley mass-market edition / January 2014
Cover illustration by Robert Hunt Â© James Daniels/Shutterstock.
Cover design by Diane Kolsky.
Interior text design by Kelly Lipovich.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For my agent Louise Fury:
With admiration, respect, and my deepest gratitude.
So glad to have you in my corner!
THE SIMPLE DEMAND
of the note, scrawled almost illegibly on a scrap of paper, could well have been written in blood:
A life for a life
And once the pounding in his chest settled and his head cleared sufficiently, he understood the meaning of the message. He didn't know who had sent it, for in his line of work there were many who could be responsible. It was understood that many men hated him, and many felt they owed him a debt. He might never discover this person's identity, but that was not as important to him as the five words scribbled in black ink on the paper.
For what the note presented him was a bargain. If the demand was ignored, it promised to be at a bitter cost.
A life was at stake. An innocent lifeâone dear to him, though he realized now, with shame and regret, that he had never before really considered her in that regard.
And likely, she looked upon him much the same. They had been little more than strangers to each other for so many years. He was the one to blame, not her. How could she be responsible? He was the one who through indifference and deliberate neglect had put the distance between them.
Yet now her life depended on his making a decision too terrible to contemplate.
Sitting next to the glass-shaded table lamp, where the soft yellow glow provided the only light in the darkened parlor, he found himself unable to release the note from his grip; he was clinging to it with a strange desperationâlowering the paper in his unsteady fingers, then drawing it back to his eyes, repeatedly, vainly trying to search out more.
A clue that was not there.
A trace of hope that was not offered.
Finally he sat back in his chair, exhaled a rattled breath, and fumbled for the snifter of brandy that rested next to him on the table, beside the ornate decanter from which it had been poured. Overwhelmed with despair and crippled by a feeling of hopelessness, he unconsciously clenched his fist, slowly crumpling the note. This reflexive gesture startled him, and he hurried to unfold the wrinkled paper, in his haste spilling his drink onto his lap.
He sat up with a start, oblivious to his action, conscious only of the result, the warm wetness that pooled at his crotch and streamed down his left thigh. His narrow face tightened with a suppressed rage, though not directed at the spilled drink. He was filled with a mixture of emotions: anger, stress, worry, dread. None of which he could seem to control.
And in a sudden, impulsive move, he gave vent by tossing the empty snifter into the stone fireplace set against the far wall, listening with grim satisfaction as it shattered into dozens of tiny shards.
For a man who prided himself on possessing a calm and reasonable temperament, this was an uncharacteristic aggression. But perhaps it was necessary as it provided a brief release from the tension that consumed him, the myriad of emotions that had coalesced into a whole.
A releaseÂ .Â .Â . but it relieved neither his anxietyÂ .Â .Â . nor his guilt.
Guilt? How often he had passed judgment on those so pronounced. And now he was the accused. A judgment and sentence had been thrust upon him.
Worse from his standpoint was the sudden eruption of tears that now clouded his eyes; another emotion far removed from his character as he had disciplined himself to remain impassive in all situations, under all circumstances.
He was distracted from his thoughts when he became aware of a slow shuffle of footsteps from the next room. DescendingÂ .Â .Â .
The shattering glass had awakened his wife. He listened as she walked down the stairs, her steps slow and labored. She'd been ill; her heart was weak. Because of this, he hadn't told her about the note and its demand. Fearing the consequences, he could
tell her the truth.
Yet soon, inevitably, she would know. One way or another, the reality of the situation would reach her.
In a day, perhaps a week if the intention was to prolong his uncertainty or the girl's fate, another message would be delivered, how and by whom he would not know. But surely it would come, this time detailing what he was expected to doÂ .Â .Â . where the “ransom” was to be paid.
And thenâhe would have to decide which course to take. The note made it clear: He had just the two choices.
A life for a life
If he wanted to save the girl, his daughter, from deathÂ .Â .Â . he would have to exchange his life for hers.
*Â *Â *
Unbeknownst to one, a note had been sent to another, though days earlier and some miles away. This message had been more bluntly delivered, found early one morning knifed to the door of his house. The wording, the terrible demand, was the same:
A life for a life
He, too, was a man who had made many enemies through his professional duties. Again, there could be any number of suspects.
The recipient of this paper responded with a somewhat different attitude. He likewise felt the fear and apprehension at the wording's intent, but because of who he was, the station of authority he held, he was also indignant at the threat, which he regarded as a blatant contempt for a position that demanded respect.
A respect he believed he had earned through uncompromising conduct and a strict adherence to his duty.
He stared at the simple wording with creased eyes, and then he crumpled the note and tossed it aside, cursing under his breath. He went over to the cabinet, opened a bottle of whiskey, and drank several straight mouthfuls. He felt the liquor trickle down the side of his chin and wiped it away with an angry flourish. He was a man given to action and reaction. Not one to necessarily choose what might be the wiser course. Not even when the life of someone dear to him was threatened.
There was no need to make a difficult decision where he was concerned.
He had a suspicion of who might be responsible. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more certain he became.
He could use that knowledge to his advantage, and by that means, he would have an edge in freeing his wife from her abductor.
He was prepared to do whatever must be done.
But he would not give in to the demand.
*Â *Â *
Two identical notes were delivered because two men shared a connection.
Neither had yet to recognize that their “bond,” the key to this mystery, had begun five years earlierÂ .Â .Â .