Authors: Anne Laughlin
With her life as a private investigator in Chicago firmly established, Jan Roberts can often forget where she came from—a backwoods survivalist camp run by her paranoid, dictatorial father. After risking her life at sixteen to escape the camp, she finds it hard to understand the runaway teenager she's been hired to find. With each step on the trail to find her, Jan realizes the girl is running to the same part of Idaho she fled, a digital age version of her father's way of life.
Complicating her mission is the new owner of the security firm she works for, a former British agent who has her own secrets to hide. When the sparks fly between them, Jan finds Catherine wanting to share not only her bed, but also her quest to find the missing teen. The journey to the deep woods of Idaho is a voyage to the heart of darkness for Jan, where the reality of her past can no longer be contained, nor her feelings for Catherine denied.
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© 2012 By Anne Laughlin. All Rights Reserved.
ISBN 13: 978-1-60282-689-2
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First Edition: March 2012
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Editor: Cindy Cresap
Production Design: Susan Ramundo
Cover Design By Sheri ([email protected])
By the Author
With every book I’ve written, there comes a point about halfway through the process when I throw up my hands and wonder why I’m torturing myself. I imagine every writer has a crew to help pull her out of these pitiful periods, and mine is made up of: Linda Braasch, Joan Larkin, Liz Laughlin, Rita Balzotti, and Michelle Sandford.
Thanks also to Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith for insightful feedback. My editor, Cindy Cresap, helped me tuck in the corners and smooth the sheets.
I can’t thank Linda enough, but I’ll never stop trying. Learning to write and learning to love were made possible with her in my life. I really have no ambitions beyond that.
For Joan Larkin
It was her sixteenth birthday, but no one in camp mentioned it, not even her father. The birthday meant she was eligible to take guard duty on the perimeter of the camp. She waited all day for a sign from him that she’d been given a duty shift, but none came until eleven thirty, a half hour after she went to bed. He tossed a rifle onto her cot and ordered her to get ready. She was in uniform under the blanket, worrying he’d forgotten her altogether.
He led her into the vast woods that surrounded their camp, past the dozen shacks that held the camp’s families. Each shack had a tiny window and a door; otherwise you’d never know they were built for humans. She lived in a larger cabin with her father, the Colonel. All the windows in the shacks were now dark, for the Colonel strictly enforced eleven p.m. lights-out.
She kept her flashlight trained on his boots as she marched behind him. They were the same style of boots he wore in Vietnam. There he had been a colonel. Here he was God.
As they neared the camp’s western perimeter, she saw Trevor Martin snap to attention and shoulder his rifle. Trevor was a few years older than she was and a suck-up to her father. Trevor had announced to her last week he intended to ask the Colonel for permission to marry her. She wasn’t really surprised by his intentions. It was a move so transparent as to be laughable. The problem was the Colonel would probably approve the marriage, and she would have to comply. Even if her mother were alive, she wouldn’t have run interference for her. After treating her as a soldier her entire life, the Colonel seemed suddenly aware his daughter was female, something that clearly didn’t sit well with him. She wasn’t sure how it sat with her either.
The Colonel stopped in front of Trevor and stood with his hands on his hips, looking around the dark and dense woods. Then he stared straight at him.
“All quiet, sir. Electronic fencing is operational.”
“Very good, Corporal. You’re relieved.”
The Colonel turned to her. “Do you know what to do?”
She also stood at attention. “Yes, sir.”
She took the radio off her belt and called in to Douglas Anders over at the eastern perimeter.
“Hey, birthday girl,” he said. “Welcome to your first guard duty.”
She looked up at her father, nervous that Douglas said something so personal. Her father wore the same stony expression as always.
“Roger that,” she said, her voice a little creaky. “I’ll check back in at 0100.”
She put the radio back on her belt and resumed attention.
“Is there something going on between you and Anders?” the Colonel said.
He looked around the area, silent for a moment before looking back at her.
“Carry on. You’ll be relieved at 0800.” He turned and marched back the way he came, with Trevor trotting behind him.
Very slowly, she relaxed her stance and put her rifle butt on the ground. She listened as closely as she could. The woods were very dark, but there was noise all around—a constant rustling of leaves, droning insects, acorns and branches falling. She heard a plane overhead, a sound that made her heart pick up its pace as she peered into the dark sky hoping to see it. What did a plane look like up close? What would it be like to fly in one? The only place she’d been outside of camp was to the nearest Idaho town, and those trips were infrequent. She’d concentrate on taking in every detail, every person, place, and thing that existed outside the remote camp she lived in.
Once enough time had passed for her father and Trevor to be back in camp, she put her plan into place. With her rifle hanging from her shoulder, she climbed a tree twenty feet from her guard post and jumped over the electronic fence. The tree had been picked out some weeks before, during one of her many reconnaissance missions through the woods. There was usually some part of each day that allowed her to slip away from the center of camp when her duties were done, the Colonel occupied elsewhere, and the attentions of all the men, women, and children on their own concerns. She began to realize if she planned carefully, she had a decent chance of making her escape, and beyond that she couldn’t begin to imagine. She reasoned if she could make it out of camp alive, chances were she’d figure out what to do next.
She ran straight west as fast as she could, stumbling over and over again on the branches littering the forest floor. Along the way, she pulled a small knapsack from the hollow of a tree. It contained a change of underwear, a bit of food, and a loaded pistol she’d stolen from the armory. The Colonel had not trained his soldiers on side arms, those being the privilege of rank. But she understood the basics. She knew enough.
She checked her bearings on the small compass she’d found among her father’s things. It should be another mile or so to the county road that led into town. She couldn’t afford to walk along the road once she got there. She would be hunted, and if she were found, he’d try to kill her. She was sure of that. She had a better chance if she crossed the road and continued into the woods as far as she could get before she had to rest.
When she neared the road, she stepped forward as silently as she could, sensing rather than seeing the break in the trees. A steep embankment led from the edge of the trees to the roadbed, and as she broke through into the clear space, she heard a car coming, moving fast. She wondered for a moment whether she should run up and flag it down, plead with whoever was driving to help her, to save her from her father and all the adults in the camp who wouldn’t let her leave. She was a prisoner, she wanted to say. But she didn’t trust whomever it was she might flag down. They might take her to the authorities, and they would bring her back to the Colonel.
She crouched in the clearing just before the embankment, feeling exposed in the moonlight. Outside the deep forest the silence was nearly complete. Just as she reached for her canteen she heard someone scrambling down the embankment, hitting the bottom about fifty yards north and running full speed toward her—the figure indistinct, but instantly recognizable. She swung her rifle around and assumed a prone position, wondering if the gun held one of the Colonel’s tracking devices, then realizing with shame that of course it was the radio that had a tracking device, and how could she have been so stupid? Then her father began shooting. Two bullets hit just to her right. A third was on its way when her shot found its mark. She could see the look of shock in his mean eyes as he dropped to the ground. She’d always been a much better shot than him.
Jan Roberts stood in front of her bedroom mirror and smoothed the front of her high-collared, button-down shirt, tucking it into her charcoal trousers and zipping up. She knew she looked sharp. When she felt this good, the glow seemed to transfer out; her black hair was shinier, her cheekbones rosier, her athletic frame fluid and stronger. Behind her, the woman lying in her bed was up on one elbow, watching her every move. Jan returned to the bedside to kiss the soft curls springing every which way from the top of Gwen’s head.
“I’ll need to leave in a minute to make it to work on time,” Jan said. “You can relax and just lock the door behind you when you leave. Take as much time as you want.” Gwen didn’t respond.
Jan gathered her keys and wallet from the top of her dresser and put her Glock and its holster onto her belt. She turned toward the bed as she pulled her suit jacket on.
Gwen was now on her back, her hands laced together on her stomach. A stream of western light from the late afternoon sun fell across her naked body.
“Why don’t you just leave the money by my purse?” she said to the ceiling.
Jan stood still. “What?”
“That’s how people generally pay for a sex date, isn’t it?”
“This is not a sex date,” Jan said, trying not to sound defensive. “What are you talking about?”
“Let’s see. You called me at noon to ask whether I could come by before you left for work. I arrived at 3:00 and by 3:05, I was naked in your bed. It’s now 4:00 and you’re running out the door. What would you call it?”