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Authors: Shelley Coriell

The Blind

BOOK: The Blind
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To Darlene Taylor

A world of thanks to those who've enriched my life and this story: Liz Munoz for sharing your language and culture; Bev Pettersen for your horse smarts; Stacey Goitia for your artistic eye; Erin Jade Lange for a peek into the newsroom; and especially Colonel Jim Smith, public safety director, Cottonwood Department of Public Safety, for technical and tactical expertise on explosive situations. Any mistakes are a product of my imagination—and a main character—gone wild.

Some books require a bit more birthing assistance than others. A heart full of gratitude for the extraordinary midwifery of editor Lauren Plude on this one. Continued thanks to the Forever team at Grand Central for not giving up on, and “getting,” my Apostles, particularly publicist Marissa Sangiacomo and cover designer Elizabeth Turner.

Finally, to my aunt Darlene. Thanks for letting me borrow all those mystery and suspense books from the bookcase in your spare bedroom during my summer vacations and igniting my love for all things dark and twisty.

Tuesday, October 6
10:42 a.m.

W
ake up, sleeping beauty.” Carter Vandemere kissed the smooth, warm curve of the woman's shoulder. “The clock is ticking.”

Tick tock, like a clock, ready, set, go!

Maria moaned but didn't open her eyes. He didn't know her name, but he called her Maria. Mary. The Madonna. Beautiful. His lips brushed the two-inch square of raw, rippled flesh on the back of her shoulder. So, so beautiful. His lips trailed along her throat. Soft. The tip of his tongue slid along her jaw. Sweet. His cheek brushed hers. Warm. Like heated cream. He nibbled her ear, then bit. Hard.

Her eyes flew open, and she tried to scream. The duct tape held, a scream-catcher of sorts.

He gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Don't worry, Maria. Soon the entire world will hear you.” With a grin, he settled onto the edge of the futon that reeked of body fluid stew. His fingers sifted through the thick fall of honey-colored hair, and his nails dug into the raw flesh on the back of her shoulder. Her eyes bulged and cheeks flushed. So much color and texture. She was his finest work yet.

“So here's the deal, Maria.” An electrified heat pulsed through his fingers as he picked up an eighteen-gauge wire. “Tiny little thing, isn't it? But with it you have the power to live or die.” He attached the wire to the mercury switch secured to the fanny pack he'd belted around her exquisite hips. The pack disrupted composition and led the eye astray. Definitely not beautiful, but necessary, the final brushstroke
.
Hot sparks shot down his arms and across his chest.

His fingers lingered over the corner of the duct tape at her mouth. Pain was part of art, part of the artist.

Riiiiiiip!

“You son of a bitch. You sadistic, fu—”

Smack!
How dare she ruin his work with such crudeness? He pulled in a breath, cooling the electric firestorm. In his art, timing was everything.

“Such ugly words from such a beautiful mouth,” he said with a soft cluck as he taped the wire to her bottom lip. “Now let's talk about that beautiful mouth. From this moment on, if you open your mouth, the wire will trip the anti-movement switch. After a thirty-second delay, enough time for me to get away, an electric loop will close, setting off the initiator and starting the firing train. The train will activate the primary explosive, which will detonate the main charge. And boom!” His fisted fingers fanned out, but he didn't see the paint-smudged digits. He saw the spark, the gritty puff of air, the exquisite shattering and scattering of metal and Maria. Breathtaking.

“Bottom line, Maria. You open your mouth, you die. Understand?”

She sat before him, a still life. There was beauty in everyday, inanimate objects, but masterful art lived and breathed. And in his case, died.

“Blink once for yes. Twice for no.”

Maria gave him one blink, one terrified, beautiful blink.

*  *  *

11:27 a.m.

Freddy Ortiz loved the ponies, fast ones that could win a race with the wind. Unfortunately, he hadn't found many winners lately.

Bang, bang, bang!
Which was why Skip Folsum was banging the shit out of the front door of his West Hollywood studio apartment.

Freddy tore off the covers and groped under his bed for jeans until he found a pair that wasn't too crusty. He knew the drill. Kind of hard not to when you spent the past ten years swimming with sharks.

“Dammit, Freddy, I know you're in there. I want my money.”

He thrust his legs into the jeans and threw on an L.A. Kings T-shirt. Essentials only. He grabbed his camera. On second thought, he scooped up his boots.

“Open this damn door!” The door handle rattled, and the wooden frame shook as if terrified. Smart door. Skip carried a .38 Special. Freddy'd seen it last week.

With sweat-slickened palms, Freddy threw open the window and squeezed out onto the landing. He half-climbed, half-free-fell down three flights of fire escapes until he landed with a thud in an alley that smelled of cat piss. Above him, Skip poked his head—and .38—out the window.

Crack!
A chunk of alley exploded.

Freddy ducked a hailstorm of asphalt and hauled ass to the car lot at the end of the alley and his late-model Ford Mustang. He fumbled with his key fob.

Crack!
The right taillight shattered.

He dove into the car, gunned the pony, and squealed out of Cat Piss Alley. His hand shaking, he dug into his shirt pocket. Shit. Nothing but lint and the hammering of his heart. He took three quick turns and checked the mirror. No Skip. One hand on the wheel, he dug through the glove box. Shit,
shit
. No cigarettes. He groped under the driver's seat and found one bent stick of gum. He was a gambling man, but today was not his lucky day.

With another check of his rearview, he popped the gum in his mouth. Skip needed money, which meant
Freddy
needed money. He could head to LAX or the Brentwood Country Mart, good places to shoot Hollywood stars coming and going, but with Skip's .38 now aimed at his not-so-small ass, he needed more than Hollywood ho-hum. A few deadly sins would be nice. He'd always been a big fan of lust and greed. Again he checked the rearview. He was also a big fan of staying alive.

Lately, downtown L.A. had been his honey hole. Last month he snagged some photos of a soap opera actor shelling out money to a prostitute for a bit of dirty, and prior to that he shot a pro ball player getting hauled into the downtown station for disorderly conduct following a game at the Staples Center.

Ca-ching
.

As usual, downtown traffic was a bear. He crawled through the snarl of cars toward the police station. Near the library, a scream split the sunshine cutting at sharp angles through the high-rises. The library was hardly a paparazzo's playground, but he grabbed a parking spot because in his business, screams usually meant money.

Looping his camera around his neck, he bulldozed through a cluster of gawkers near a grassy area and found a woman in a shiny white robe reclining at the base of a thick tree. He let out a soft whistle. A real beauty. Creamy skin, waves of golden hair, big, brown eyes. Not an actress, at least not one he recognized. Too bad. The rags paid big for Hollywood hotties doing dumb shit. He snapped off a series of wide-angle shots and elbowed his way to the front.

Up close he could see her body shook and lips trembled. Was she drunk? Cranking? Or was this some kind of reality TV show or B movie publicity stunt? The woman shifted, the front of her robe opening and framing a pair of
tetas
. Niiiiice.

He fired off another round. Damn, she was a beauty. Especially those lips. He zoomed in and spotted a wire snaking from her mouth. A mic? His viewfinder followed the wire to her waist circled by a piece of nylon webbing attached to a bulging pack. He zoomed tighter, focusing in on a metal prong at the end of the wire. His fingers froze. His blood, too.

“Holy shit,” Freddy said on a strangled cry. “This is one of them Angel Bombings.”

En masse, the crowd lunged back. Some ran. Others pushed. The guy at his right was punching 911 into the face of his cell phone. Freddy backed away. No one could save her. And even if there was a way, he wasn't a hero, not by a long shot. But that didn't mean he was without a weapon. His fingers shaking, he aimed his camera back on the woman.

Click. Click. Click
.

His work was all about the story, and in this moment, Freddy knew that was all he could do for this woman. Tell the story. A siren wailed. Tears streamed down the woman's face. Her body jerked in silent sobs. Then one escaped, high-pitched and fast, like an animal caged too long. Her cry clawed at his chest.

Pop
.

The world as seen through his lens exploded. The ground rocked. A roar tore through his head. Bits of twisted metal and earth rained from the cloudless blue sky. He ducked a flaming tree branch and stumbled toward the street, his chest curved around his camera.

A little girl with pigtails swatted at the ashy air, screaming, “Daaaaaddy, where are youuuuuu?”

Somewhere glass shattered. Freddy looped his arm around the screaming kid and dove behind a car. His head low, he hauled in deep breaths but froze when he spotted a gelatinous, veiny glob on the toe of his right boot. The world spun a second time, something hard and heavy churning in his gut. The kid whimpered. He cradled her pigtails and turned her face away from his boot. Then he forced down chunks of horror clawing up his throat.

Freddy had some killer shots, literally, which might help track down a serial bomber. But he also had a little change in luck. One hand resting on the pigtails, he steadied his other hand on his camera. Then he aimed the lens at his foot, zooming in on the chunk of the beauty's brain.

Click
.

Sick bastard.

Ca-ching
.

Wednesday, October 28
7:55 a.m.

E
vie Jimenez hauled her emergency response duffel from the back of her truck and hoisted sixty pounds of Kevlar and ceramic plates onto her back. Despite the load, she felt she could fly.

Her helmet cradled under her right arm, she pushed her way through the bodies gathered in the high school parking lot, her zigzag gaze canvassing the crowd. So far no one triggered her internal radar. No loner high school boy with mischief or a mission on his mind. No disgruntled or disenfranchised type showing too much glee. Although there was the ginger in the nice suit leaning against a white sedan. Too relaxed to be a parent or teacher. Too well dressed to be a media parasite. Her arm tightened around her helmet as she jogged past the section roped off for camera crews and news reporters.

“Look! Isn't that Agent Jimenez?” a man with a handheld mic called out.

Evie blinked off a salvo of blinding flashes and kept her pace steady.

A woman from a news station in Bangor thrust a microphone in her direction. “Agent Jimenez, has your suspension following the debacle in Houston been lifted?”

Keep walking.

“Agent Jimenez, is it true that the president of the United States asked for your resignation?”

No talking.

“How do you feel about putting a dark mark on the arguably miraculous record of Parker Lord's Apostles?”

No punching anyone in the face.

“One more question, Agent Jimenez. Since you're back in the field, do you plan to go to L.A. and work the Angel Bomber case?”

Her boots slowed for a fraction of a second.
That was the
plan.

But right now a clock was ticking. She ducked under the crime scene tape.

As she rounded the hazardous devices truck, a uniformed officer grabbed her arm. “Hold up, young lady. You can't go back there. We have a bomb on the premises.”

Evie reached for her creds, but the officer snapped back her arm. Having long ago resigned herself to life at five-foot-two, she craned her neck so he could see every inch of her face. “I'm not young, and right now I'm not feeling very ladylike, so get your fucking hands off me so I can defuse that bomb.” The officer dropped her arm as if she were on fire.

At the inner perimeter she found the lieutenant in charge of the scene, a grandfatherly type who scrubbed a thumb across his chin after she introduced herself. “You're Parker Lord's guy?” the lieutenant asked.

They could talk about the difference between male and female later. “Yes sir. Has the bomb robot been unloaded?”

“Five minutes ago.”

“Excellent.” Evie slipped off her pack. “Has the area been evacuated and perimeter set?” Preservation of life was key. It was the first tenet in her manual, and in her world, it was the beginning, end, and everything in between.

The lieutenant gave her a grave nod. “Teachers are currently getting a head count to make sure all students are accounted for, and the homes on the street behind the gym have been evacuated.”

Because at this point she was working with unknowns. Unknown charge. Unknown material. Unknown ticking clock. Pulling her hair into a knot on top of her head, she secured it with a rubber band. In the hazardous devices truck, she took a seat behind the monitors and reached for the control panel that guided a one-armed robot with an orange body. “What's his name?”

“The bomb squad boys call him Lobster Claw,” the lieutenant said.

She powered up the camera and set the robot in motion. “Okay, Mr. Claw, it's time.”

Evie and the robot went to work with a surgeon's precision. X-rays. Infrared readings. Sensors checking for biological, chemical, and nuclear agents. All transmitted to her workstation. When the last of the vitals flashed on her screen, she pulled in a deep breath. They were down with an IED. It would be a simple blow and go, the type of stuff she could do in her sleep.

Approach with caution.

Clear debris.

Set charge.

Detonate.

She flexed her fingers, the knuckles popping as if charged with little bursts of electricity. Then she reached down and unzipped the duffel holding her bomb suit.

*  *  *

12:38 p.m.

“That was some mighty fine work, Agent Jimenez.” The lieutenant slapped her back.

Evie set her helmet on her duffel and gave her head a series of hard shakes, droplets of sweat flying across the high school's practice field. Damn, that felt good. And it
was
good. Textbook perfect. “Thank you, sir.”

“We're thrilled Agent Lord agreed to send you.”

The skin on the back of her neck cooled. Technically her boss hadn't. She was still on suspension following the botched IED disrupt in Houston, but when the assist call had come in from Bar Harbor PD, Parker had been on a flight to San Francisco and the Maine State Police Hazardous Devices Unit had been tied up with a threat at the airport. Her butt had been conveniently nearby, glued to her desk chair at The Box, home base for Parker Lord's Special Criminal Investigative Unit. “Glad to be of service, sir.”

“How about lunch at Max's to celebrate?” the lieutenant asked. “First beer's on me.”

“Make it a shot of Knob Creek Rye, and you're on.”

Lines crinkled the older man's eyes. “Need a ride?”

“I'll walk.” She plucked at her sweat-soaked tank. “I need a cooldown.” She always did after a disrupt. The three layers of protective materials ratcheted up her body heat, and of course there was the fire inside. Plus she needed to tell Parker about the high school job. The president would probably blow a fuse, but Parker would stand behind her, just like he had two months ago in Houston when the president had tried to make her the scapegoat.

Save the baby!

Her finger traced the new scar dissecting her right eyebrow. She'd done just that.

She took out her cell phone and texted Parker Lord two words:
Call me
.

Slipping on her shoulder rig and denim jacket, she ducked under the crime scene tape and darted between cars, keeping a wide berth between herself and the media slugs. Parker could deal with them. He was less likely to use swear words or hit something.

Her blood still amped with heat and adrenaline, she raised her face to the flurry-filled sky and caught a snowflake on her tongue. Damn, she loved being back in the field. Her stomach growled. She also loved lobster rolls.

One block into her walk, she spotted the tail. The ginger with the fancy suit. Evie took a quick right and headed down Main but slowed as she passed a shop selling frou-frou scarves. Within seconds, the ginger turned onto the street. He was five and a half feet and a buck thirty, tops. That suit screamed designer. She ambled to the other side of the window, pretending to be captivated by a display of bedazzled handbags, and got a full view
.
His face didn't match any of the FBI's most wanted posters or anyone in her personal gallery of bad boys who played with bombs, but he had slick shoes, too slick for coastal Maine.

Every cell in her body on heightened awareness, Evie ducked down an alley and slipped behind a Dumpster. Seconds later, along came the ginger. Like a tightly wound spring, she pounced. He shifted right and spun. She adjusted in midair and slammed into his midsection.

“Oomph!” Ginger down.

One hand around his neck, she jammed her knee into his groin. Ice crystals formed on the air between them as she lowered her face to his. “Would you like to lose one testicle today or two?” She expected a wince, groan, or a few well-chosen expletives.

His shoulders jiggled with a laugh. “They warned me about you, but I didn't believe them. Oh, God, this is going to be fun.”

Fun?
Who the hell was this bozo? More important, did he have anything to do with the IED planted at the high school? She hauled her service revolver from her shoulder holster. “You want fun?”

He stopped laughing.

“Who are you?” Evie asked. He reached for his pants pocket, and her knee dug deeper. This time he winced. “I said, who are you?”

“Brady Malloy of Elliott Enterprises. Card's in my pocket.”

She dug into his wallet and withdrew a California-issued driver's license. Home address in Los Angeles. Organ donor. Excellent. If he had anything to do with that backpack of C-4 in the high school gym, she could help him part with a few organs. She pulled out a fancy embossed business card. “Okay, Mr. Brady Malloy of Elliott Enterprises. Says here you're a public relations guy.”

“I'm good with people.”

Unlike her. She climbed off his midsection but did not holster her firearm. “So what the hell is a public relations specialist for a”—she checked the card—“an equity investment firm from Los Angeles doing at a bomb disruption at a high school in Bar Harbor, Maine?”

“Following you,” he said with wide-eyed sincerity.

Her fingers tightened around the card. The honesty surprised her. So did the fact that he got the jump on her. “And now that you've found me?”

He stood and dusted the snow tufts and dead leaves from his jacket. “I'm here on behalf of my employer, Mr. Jack Elliott. He'd like to hire you to deal with…an incendiary situation.”

This time Evie laughed. Clearly this guy had no idea who she was. “I'm no dick for hire.”

“Mr. Elliott doesn't want a private detective. He wants you. He wants an Apostle.”

She wasn't surprised he knew who she was. Thanks to the Houston job, anyone who watched the nightly news knew she was the bomb and weapons specialist for Parker's team, but like all of the Apostles, she was too busy catching this country's most vile criminals to take side jobs. Malloy's boss was probably one of those guys who threw money around and expected others to hop and skip. Too bad for Mr. Jack Elliott that as a kid, she never got the hang of girly games like hopscotch.

She holstered her sidearm. The rumble and tumble with the ginger had left her thirsty. “Wish I could say it's been a pleasure, Mr. Malloy, but frankly, this chitchat is keeping me from a much-needed shot of whiskey.” She headed for the mouth of the alley. “
Adiós
.”

Malloy cleared his throat. “Mr. Elliott has information on the next Angel Bombing.”

An invisible hand yanked Evie to a stop, and she spun toward Malloy. For three months investigators from LAPD, ATF, FBI, and an alphabet soup of other agencies had been hunting for the bomber responsible for a series of explosions that had killed seven, maimed or injured 105, and scared the hell out of 3.85 million residents of the City of Angels.

Thanks to her suspension, she wasn't officially on the case, but she'd been all over it, poring through case notes, collecting images, and keeping everything in a folder she took out every night and read like a bedtime storybook.

“What kind of information?” Despite her shackles, she couldn't back off from a lead.

Malloy once again settled that earnest gaze on her. “Mr. Elliott would prefer to tell you in person.”

She bowed, sweeping her hand through the alley. “Tell him to come into my office.”

“He's in Los Angeles.”

“Then get him on the phone.”

“He'd prefer to tell you in person.”

Evie pushed a wayward curl off her forehead. “And I prefer a little less bullshit.” The Angel Bomber had been consistent in creating chaos. His bombs went off the first week of every month for the past three months, and they were just days away from November first. “Exactly what does your boss know about the bombings?”

Malloy shuffled his feet, kicking at airy snowdrifts, before finally looking her squarely in the eye. “Mr. Elliott believes the next victims will be a brown-haired woman in a red dress and a baby with blond curls.”

The image slammed her like an M120 mortar.

“That's all I know,” Malloy continued. “He insists on telling you the rest in person. He has his private jet ready to fly you to L.A.”

And she had a presidentially mandated suspension hanging over her head like a two-ton anvil. She shifted from one boot to the other. In bomb investigations forensic evidence didn't solve cases, people did. This guy's boss could have a tip that could lead them to the deadliest bomber in the country, or hell, this guy's boss could
be
the bomber.

Again Malloy motioned to the alley. “Are you ready, Agent Jimenez?”

Mr. Elliott believes the next victims will be a brown-haired woman in a red dress and a baby with blond curls.

Save the baby!

“Hell, yes.”

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