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Epub ISBN: 9781473553033

Version 1.0

Published by Century 2018

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Copyright © James Patterson 2018

Excerpt from Private Princess © James Patterson 2018

Cover photography © Trevillion/Arcangel/Alamy Stock Photo

James Patterson has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and descriptions of events are the products of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons is entirely coincidental

First published by Century in 2018

Century
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www.penguin.co.uk

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Century is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 9781780898322

Contents

About the Book
About the Authors
Also by James Patterson
Title Page
Dedication
Part One
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Part Two
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50
Chapter 51
Chapter 52
Chapter 53
Chapter 54
Chapter 55
Chapter 56
Chapter 57
Chapter 58
Chapter 59
Chapter 60
Chapter 61
Chapter 62
Chapter 63
Chapter 64
Chapter 65
Chapter 66
Chapter 67
Chapter 68
Chapter 69
Chapter 70
Chapter 71
Chapter 72
Chapter 73
Chapter 74
Chapter 75
Chapter 76
Chapter 77
Chapter 78
Chapter 79
Chapter 80
Chapter 81
Chapter 82
Chapter 83
Chapter 84
Chapter 85
Chapter 86
Chapter 87
Acknowledgments
Read on for an extract from Private Princess

Also by James Patterson

STAND-ALONE THRILLERS

The Thomas Berryman Number

Hide and Seek

Black Market

The Midnight Club

Sail (with Howard Roughan)

Swimsuit (with Maxine Paetro)

Don’t Blink (with Howard Roughan)

Postcard Killers (with Liza Marklund)

Toys (with Neil McMahon)

Now You See Her (with Michael Ledwidge)

Kill Me If You Can (with Marshall Karp)

Guilty Wives (with David Ellis)

Zoo (with Michael Ledwidge)

Second Honeymoon (with Howard Roughan)

Mistress (with David Ellis)

Invisible (with David Ellis)

Truth or Die (with Howard Roughan)

Murder House (with David Ellis)

Woman of God (with Maxine Paetro)

Humans, Bow Down (with Emily Raymond)

The Black Book (with David Ellis)

Murder Games (with Howard Roughan)

The Store (with Richard DiLallo)

The Moores are Missing (with Loren D. Estleman,

Sam Hawken and Ed Chatterton)

The Family Lawyer (with Robert Rotstein,

Christopher Charles and Rachel Howzell Hall)

A list of more titles by James Patterson can be found at the back of this book

For Tiffany

PART ONE

CHAPTER 1

I PUSH MY boot against the gas pedal, and the needle on the speedometer surges past one hundred miles an hour. The Ford’s lights are flashing and sirens are howling, but I’m going so fast that I’m on top of the pickup in front of me before the driver even knows I’m there. I make a move to pass him, pulling into the oncoming lane, but there’s a semi headed toward me like a freight train. I don’t back down. I jam on the gas and yank my F-150 back into my lane, missing the semi and the pickup by inches. Horns blare and brakes screech behind me. I’m sure the two drivers are having heart attacks.

Right now, I can’t let myself care. My heart is thumping like a bass drum. But I keep my hands steady.

I grab my radio and call the local dispatcher.

“This is Rory Yates of the Texas Ranger Division,” I say. “I need backup.”

I give the dispatcher my badge number and the address where I’m headed. She says she has no patrol cars in the vicinity. The closest one is twenty minutes out.

That’s bad news because I’ll be there in two.

The whole reason I’ve been working down in McAllen, a border town on the southern tip of Texas, is that I had to rush into another situation with no backup. When it’s your word against a dead man’s, there’s always a lot of controversy and scrutiny—and media attention.

My division chief sent me to a hotbed of drug and human trafficking.

If this situation also goes south without any witnesses to corroborate my story, that won’t help my chances of returning to my old post.

But I can’t wait. There’s a woman who might be dead by the time backup arrives.

Hell, she might be dead before I even get there.

I slow at an approaching intersection and take the turn as fast as the Ford’s tires will let me. The rubber squeals against the pavement. As soon as I’m around the corner, my foot is back on the gas.

I check my cell phone again and study the message my informant sent me, the text that set me off on this high-speed race.

Four words: he knows about you.

The text message is from the girlfriend of an ex-con who’s been working with Mexican coyotes, moving illegal immigrants over the border. The boyfriend, whose name is Kevin Jones but who goes by Rip, keeps those illegals locked in a storage shed somewhere until their families fork over more money. Sometimes the families can’t come up with the money fast enough, and the illegals die of starvation, dehydration, heatstroke, or a combination of all three. Then Rip dumps the bodies in the Rio Grande.

I know all this. But I don’t know where the storage building is.

That’s where the informant comes in. Her name is Chelsea, and her daughter is in a state home. I promised her that if she helped the Texas Rangers, we’d get her visitation rights restored. And it was the truth. With her past, Chelsea will probably never get custody of her daughter again, but at least there’s a good chance she’ll get to see the girl again.

Chelsea said she could find out the secret location of Rip’s storage building, except now it seems like it’s Rip who found out Chelsea’s secret.

And though Chelsea is an ex–meth user with terrible taste in men, she’s not a bad person. She loves her daughter.

If Chelsea’s dead, the blood is on my hands.

When I’m close, I kill the lights and the siren, and I roll into Chelsea’s gravel driveway as quietly as I can. She lives in a manufactured home with chipped paint and a yard full of overgrown weeds.

Chelsea’s car is parked there, and so is Rip’s jacked-up four-by-four.

I am about to step out of the car when my phone buzzes again. I go cold, thinking it’s a message from Chelsea. Worst-case scenarios roll through my head. I imagine Rip sending something from Chelsea’s phone: a photo of her dead body lying in the mud on the bank of the Rio Grande.

But when I grab my phone, there’s no message.

I hear the buzzing again and realize the call is coming from my other phone, my personal cell with a number that only my friends and family have.

There’s an incoming call from Anne, my ex-wife.

When she calls, I usually drop whatever I’m doing to answer. True, she’s not my wife anymore, but the two of us are still close friends. This time, Anne’s going to have to wait.

I step out of the car and take a deep breath, inhaling South Texas air as humid as a greenhouse.

I unbuckle the strap on my hip holster, freeing my SIG Sauer for quick access, and approach the front door.

I hear Chelsea crying inside.

I try to see through the front window, but the house is too dark and the sunlight outside is too bright.

“Come on in, Ranger,” a voice calls from inside. “But keep those hands where I can see them, or I’m gonna blow this lying bitch’s brains out.”

CHAPTER 2

I OPEN THE door and step inside. The room is dark, but I can make out the TV—a muted Dr. Phil talking to a guest—and then a chair, a couch, and the two people sitting in them.

Chelsea is frozen on the couch, plastered up against the armrest, as far away from Rip as she can get while staying seated. Rip is in a recliner, holding a long-barreled shotgun with one muscular arm. The barrel is aimed at Chelsea, dead center of her chest, and at the range of only a few feet, it wouldn’t matter if it was loaded with bird shot or double-ought buck: the shot would open her up like a sardine can.

There’s blood on Chelsea’s lip, and one of her eyes is swelling and beginning to turn blue. She can’t seem to stop crying, and she looks at me with pleading, apologetic eyes.

She shouldn’t be apologizing to me. I should be apologizing to her.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” I say to Rip, holding my hands away from my body.

“Chelsea’s the one that’s gone and done something stupid,” Rip says. “She caused this shitstorm of a mess, telling you a bunch of lies about me.”

Rip’s file said he was six four, but he looks even bigger than that because he’s so broad and burly, built like an NFL tight end. He’s wearing a wifebeater that has long since faded from white to the color of urine, and his exposed arms are muscular and veiny, painted here and there with amateur jailhouse tattoos. The shotgun he’s holding—a single-shot 12-gauge with an extra-long barrel—would probably be hard for a normal person to keep steady with two hands, yet he’s doing just fine with only one.

My strategy is simple: keep Rip from doing anything crazy until backup arrives.

There’s a pile of paperback books next to Rip’s chair, each one torn in half as if it were an envelope full of junk mail.

“Is that where you get your nickname?” I ask, nodding at the stack of torn-in-half books.

Rip tries to hold back a grin. “It’s what I do when I get antsy,” he says. “I’ll rip anything I get my hands on: books, magazines, aluminum siding. I ain’t never ripped the arms off a Texas Ranger before, but I bet I could.”

I try to imagine how strong someone must be to tear a four-hundred-page book as if it were only a few sheets of paper. I feel a wrench of pity for Chelsea—she’s lucky to be conscious.

I gesture toward Chelsea and her battered face. “Is that what you do when you run out of things to rip? Punch women?”

Rip fixes me with cold black eyes.

As earnestly as I can, I say, “How do you think this is going to play out, Rip? My backup will be here any minute. And you’ve only got one shot in that gun of yours. If you pull the trigger, you’ll be dead one second later.”

Rip grins, showing a gold cap on one of his teeth.

“If I pull this trigger,” he says, “then you won’t do anything. You’ll be shooting an unarmed man. I know who you are. I heard about what happened in Waco. You don’t want to get in any more trouble.”

“I could always tell the police that I tried to shoot you before you pulled the trigger,” I say, trying to match Rip’s defiant grin with my own. “In Waco, there were no witnesses, but we’ve got one here. Your best bet here is keeping Chelsea alive.”

Rip’s grin falters.

“I’ll ask you again,” I say. “How do you see this playing out?”

In the distance, I can just make out the sound of a siren. It is a long way off. Sound carries far on the flat plains of Texas.

“This is what’s going to happen,” Rip says. “When the cops get here, you’re going to tell them this was all a big misunderstanding.”

Rip gestures with the gun to Chelsea.

“Chelsea’s gonna tell the cops she made up every damn thing she said. She would do anything to get her daughter back, so what she done was lie to y’all. Ain’t that right, Chelsea?”

Chelsea bows her head, saying nothing. Her listless hair hangs over her eyes.

“How about I make an alternate proposal?” I say. “You put the gun down. I cuff you and take you in. Then you tell me every damn thing you know about these coyotes you’re working for. I’ll get the DA to recommend leniency because you’ve been so cooperative. Don’t that sound reasonable?”

Rip looks contemplative. He doesn’t seem like he’s seriously considering my offer, more like he’s thinking about his next move. I don’t think I’m going to be able to stall him until the backup gets here. The sirens hardly sound any closer.

“You don’t get it, do you?” Rip says.

“Enlighten me.”

“There’s six illegals in a storage building only I know about,” Rip says. “You take me in—or shoot me—and they die. They ain’t got no food. No water. There’s a tin roof on that building, and sitting in there is like sitting in an oven. You think I’m just bargaining with Chelsea’s life? I ain’t. It’s those other six lives that are depending on what happens here.”

I stare at him, saying nothing, thinking. The sirens sound like they’re five minutes away. Not close enough.

I need a new tactic.

“Looks like we got ourselves a stalemate,” Rip says, grinning with genuine pleasure.

“I don’t see it that way.”

“Yeah?” Rip says. “How come?”

“Because I’m calling the shots here,” I say. “And I’m giving you until the count of three to drop that gun.”

CHAPTER 3

RIP’S GRIN DISAPPEARS, and I steel myself for what’s next.

My hand is eight inches from my gun, hovering there like a coiled snake ready to bite.

“You go for that gun,” Rip says, “and I’ll squeeze this trigger before you get it out of the holster.”

Chelsea begins to weep again. I don’t take my eyes off Rip.

When I was a boy and my daddy was teaching me to shoot, he said to think of a gun as an extension of my arm. When you’re good enough, he said, you can hit what you’re aiming at just as easily as reaching out with your hand and striking it right in front of you.

Through all my practice growing up and all my training in law enforcement, it’s a lesson I learned and never forgot.

“You heard about what happened in Waco?” I say, keeping my voice cool despite the blood pounding in my veins. “It was a lot like a standoff in an old Western. He went for his gun, and I went for mine. I got him before he got me. Simple as that. All the hubbub happened because the investigators said my story didn’t add up. He wasn’t even touching his gun. They said I must have shot him without provocation.”

Rip stares at me, the fear in his eyes betraying the cool confidence he’s trying to project with his stony facial expression.

“But the truth,” I say, “is that I’m just that fast.”

A bead of sweat rolls down Rip’s temple.

“One,” I say.

“I’ll kill this bitch,” Rip says, trying to be threatening, but his voice cracks. I know he’s scared.

“Two.”

Rip doesn’t wait for three. He swings the shotgun toward me.

What happens next takes less than a second.

My gun is in my hand.

My gun fires.

Rip’s gun fires.

Then the second is over and the room is full of gun smoke and confusion.

Rip drops the shotgun to the floor and starts roaring in pain. He holds his hand in front of his face. His index finger dangles from the second knuckle, held on by a strip of flesh. Blood cascades down his hand and arm.

Chelsea is crouched in a ball at the end of the couch, her eyes closed and her hands over her head like she’s in a tornado drill.

Behind me, glass tinkles down from the front picture window where the buckshot hit it. I’m lucky it was a long-barreled shotgun, keeping the pattern tight. If it was sawed-off, I might have taken a pellet or two on the periphery of the spread.

“You shot me in my trigger finger?” Rip whimpers, looking at me in disbelief. “How the hell did you do that?”

“If I hit you anywhere else,” I say, “you might have been able to bring the gun around and get a shot off. I had to pull the trigger for you.”

He stares at me, dumbfounded, his mouth quivering like he’s fighting back tears.

The sirens sound very close now. I keep my gun on Rip.

“Chelsea,” I say, “why don’t you go on out there and meet the officers when they come rolling up the driveway?”

She doesn’t need further prompting. She jumps up and runs for the door. I lower my gun during the instant she runs in its line of sight. Then it’s back up and leveled on Rip.

“I figure my backup will be here in about thirty seconds,” I say, “which means you’ve got about ten to tell me the location of the storage shed where you’ve imprisoned the immigrants.”

Rip’s skin has gone pale, and I’m not sure if it’s from the blood loss or the fear of what might happen next.

“There aren’t any witnesses now,” I say. “Just your word against mine. I’ll tell them you tried to lunge at me.” I add, “I’m surgical with this thing,” and lower the gun so the barrel is pointed at Rip’s crotch.

Rip hesitates about as long as it took me to draw my gun. He spills the location, the names of the coyotes he’s been working for—everything he can think to tell.

When the first patrolman comes through the door a minute later, I tell him to radio for a couple squad cars to go out to the storage building and find the prisoners. Then he calls for an ambulance.

“I doubt they’re going to be able to reattach that finger,” I say to Rip. “I guess you won’t be ripping any books in half anytime soon.”

CHAPTER 4

THE SUN IS high in the sky, bleaching the landscape in a bright, oppressive glare. I lean against the fender of my pickup, squinting my eyes under the brim of my hat, and watch the aftermath of my encounter with Rip. Chelsea’s front lawn is crowded with police vehicles and ambulances. Rip is sitting in the back of one ambulance, with an EMT wrapping his hand in a bandage while two officers stand watch. A female officer is talking with Chelsea in the back of the other ambulance while a paramedic applies an ice pack to her swollen eye. There are officers taping the perimeter of the property with yellow police tape, another officer fending off questions from a local newspaper reporter. Chatter from police radios fills the air.

There isn’t much for me to do at this point but stand back and stay out of the way. I have already given a statement to the incident commander and called in a report to my company commander.

The local police chief showed up about ten minutes ago, and the incident commander took him inside the house to explain the situation. I figure that he’ll be out to talk to me any minute, and a few seconds later, I’m proved right. They appear at the doorway, and the incident commander points the chief my way.

“So you’re the one who got into trouble up in Waco?” he says. “I’ve heard about you.”

“That was a lawful shooting,” I say, unsure of whether I should be on the defensive or not. “Just like this one.”

The chief eyes me with an expression that’s hard to read. His name is Duncan Sandoval, and he’s of Mexican descent, probably in his midfifties, with silver beginning to show up in his mustache and close-cropped hair.

He has a no-nonsense, take-no-shit reputation.

And I’ve got a hell of a reputation.

Sandoval’s poker face breaks into a wide, toothy grin. “You did good work here,” he says. “You got the bad guy and saved a bunch of people. And you didn’t kill anybody, which makes the paperwork a hell of a lot easier.”

Sandoval extends his hand, and I shake it, feeling relieved. There will be an investigation, of course—there is any time an officer of the law pulls a trigger—but it’s a good sign that the chief’s initial assessment is positive.

Sandoval explains that his officers found the storage building where Rip kept the immigrants locked up. “Some of them are in pretty bad shape,” he says. “Dehydrated and starving. But all of them are going to make it.”

I try to stifle my smile, but I can’t help but feel elated. Being a Texas Ranger is a hard job—and a dangerous one—but there are days when it’s rewarding. Days like these, when you save lives and don’t have to take any.

“They’ll have to be deported, of course,” the chief says, shrugging, “but at least they are not dead.”

Sandoval and I talk for a few more minutes, sweating under the late-summer sun. We talk about coordinating the investigation as we move forward, and then Sandoval says he better go give a statement to the press.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ll leave your name out of it for now.”

I climb into my truck and feel the exhaustion wash over me. I want to go to my apartment, take off my boots, and crack open a beer. I start the engine and remember the phone call from Anne. In the panic of the day, I’d completely forgotten about it.

There are four missed calls from her on my phone.

What the hell is going on?

I press Play on the message.

“Rory,” she says. Her breathing is fast and her voice is shaky. Immediately, I know that something is up. “I need help. I’m scared. Can you come home?”

CHAPTER 5

I GIVE MY phone a voice command to call Anne as I speed from the crime scene.

“Rory,” Anne says, her voice calmer. “I’m sorry to bother you. It’s probably nothing. I’m just a little freaked out.”

“What’s going on?”

“I’ve been getting threats,” she says, her voice trembling.

“Threats? What kind of threats?”

She hesitates, as if reluctant to say the words out loud. “Death threats.”

I try to process what she’s telling me. Anne is the nicest person I know. She teaches art and biology at the high school. She tutors struggling students on the side. She volunteers at the Humane Society’s animal shelter on Saturdays. Why would anyone threaten to kill her?

But then I remember there’s one person she knows who has a shady past.

“Where is Cal?” I ask, thinking about the asshole she’s been dating off and on since we split.

“Oh,” she says, her voice switching from scared to embarrassed. “We had a fight a couple weeks ago and I guess we broke up. I’ve been trying to reach him, but he must have a new phone because he hasn’t returned my calls.”

“Could it be him?” I ask. “Trying to freak you out?”

“No, Rory,” Anne says, as if I just suggested that the Pope was the one threatening her. “It’s not Cal.”

I never liked Cal. Back when I was working for the highway patrol in our hometown of Redbud, I busted Cal twice: once for selling marijuana and another time for a bar fight. Cal has spent a total of a year in jail because of my arrests.

Anne always claimed that Cal cleaned up his act. He started driving long-haul trucks, worked enough to buy his own rig, and quit drinking alcohol and smoking pot. She always wanted me to cut Cal some slack, but I could hardly be in the same room with him. The guy is scum. If I let my mind wander to the image of Cal making love to Anne, I start to feel sick with rage.

“Did the threats start before Cal left?”

“No,” Anne says. “They started after.”

“And you’re sure it’s not—”

“Damn it, Rory. I called you for help. It’s not Cal. Cal’s halfway across the country. It’s someone else. And I’m scared, Rory.”

I let it go, but it sounds just like the Cal I know to prank his ex-girlfriend to make her miss him. He is probably listening to her voice mails right now, laughing, making her sweat a little bit longer before he comes rushing home.

The only reason she called me is because she couldn’t get ahold of Cal. I’m her backup plan, the guy she turns to when her lover isn’t available. It makes me ill to know I come in a distant second in her life now. But I would do anything for her, including drive four hundred miles just to give her peace of mind.

“I’m down in McAllen,” I tell her, “but I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Are you sure you can?”

As a matter of fact, my division chief just placed me on a three-day paid leave pending an investigation of the shooting. This is common practice after a firearm is discharged in the line of duty. But I’m not about to tell her that.

“I can come,” I say. “I’m already on my way.”

“Thank you,” Anne says, her voice so saturated with relief that it sounds like she might start crying.

I want to keep her talking. That will calm her down. Otherwise, she’ll be pacing back and forth for the next five hours while I make my way from the southern tip of the state to its heart.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s happened?” I say. “Everything. From the beginning.”

CHAPTER 6

THE RANCHLANDS OF Texas roll past my windows as I listen to Anne. I am speeding, but I don’t have my lights and sirens on, and I don’t push the F-150 like I did earlier this morning. I don’t think Anne is in any real, pressing danger. It sounds more like kids playing pranks.

She explains that after Cal took off, she started getting phone calls. The voice was distorted by a disguiser app available for phones.

“Was the voice male?” I ask.

“I think so,” Anne says. “But those apps garble everything so much that it’s hard to tell.”

She says that as the prank calls continued, the caller started making disgusting comments.

“Like what?”

“I’m not going to repeat them, Rory.”

“Anne,” I say. “How am I supposed to help you if you don’t tell me?”

“They’re just lewd, gross comments,” she says. “That’s all you need to know.”

She didn’t think much of it at first. She got into the habit of not answering her phone unless she recognized the number. She listened to the messages at first, but then she stopped doing even that.

A few days ago, she came home and her mailbox was stuffed full of cow manure. Last night, someone threw a rock through her window. A message had been attached to it with a rubber band.

“What did it say?”

She hesitates and then reluctantly says, “‘Whores get what’s coming to them.’”

“Jesus,” I say. “Did you call the police?”

“I did, but they figured it was just kids.”

“What did the handwriting look like?”

“It was typed,” she says. “Any computer could have done it.”

I decide to let the rest of my questions wait until I get there. No point making her nervous when I’m not there.

Not only that, but the questions I ask are going to be tougher questions. Uncomfortable questions. I’ll need to ask her if she cheated on Cal, or if there’s another reason someone might want to call her a whore. I’ll have to press her on the “lewd, gross comments.” She might not think the exact words are important, but they could be.

I know she probably didn’t call me so I would actually investigate what is going on. She just wants someone close who can make her feel safe. But I don’t intend to simply sit back and be a bodyguard. That’s not what I do. I will get to the bottom of this.

“Anything else?” I ask.

“Well, the worst of it happened this morning,” she says. “That’s what prompted me to call you.”

I wait for it.

“When I was coming back from the animal shelter, my phone buzzed. I thought it was a friend. She and I were going to go shopping. So I picked up without even looking at the screen.”

I say nothing, letting the story unfold.

“It was the voice,” she says. “He said he was going to kill me.”

“What did he say, exactly?”

“He said, ‘I’m going to kill you, you fucking whore. I’m going to put a hole in that pretty little face of yours. I’m going to paint over your good looks with your own blood and brains.’”

A chill slithers up my spine. I catch myself accelerating my truck.

Anne says that she hung up and tried to shake it off. But the tone of the voice—the anger in it—really disturbed her. She canceled her shopping plans for the day and called me.

“Did you call the police again?”

“No,” she says. “They didn’t seem to care last time.”

I tell her that I’ll be there soon, and then, to take her mind off the threats, I ask her about what’s happening in town. She fills me in on the latest gossip, and the small talk seems to calm her down. When I hang up, I can see from the phone that we talked for an hour.

Outside the window, grassy meadows and cattle fields scroll by, and the sun makes its way toward the horizon. I stop once for gas and a sandwich at Whataburger, but otherwise, I drive nonstop. I call Anne every hour to check in, and each time she answers promptly. She seems to be in better spirits the closer I get.

As evening approaches, I watch as the sun hovers over the horizon, lighting up the clouds to the west in a spectacular fiery glow.

There’s nothing like a Texas sunset.

I pick up the phone and call Anne to tell her that she should step outside to take a look.

But this time she doesn’t answer.

CHAPTER 7

THE TRUCK’S HEADLIGHTS cut through the growing darkness. I keep checking the clock, trying Anne again and again, but there’s no answer. She could be in the shower. She could be watching TV. She could be listening to music while she cooks dinner.

All of those options seem more probable than the one I’m afraid of: she could be dead.

Finally, after ten unanswered calls in fifteen minutes, I contact 911 and ask to be put through to the dispatcher in my hometown. I give the dispatcher Anne’s address—I know the address; it used to be my house—and I explain the situation as succinctly as I can.

“Just send a car out there to check on her,” I say. “Please.”

After I get off the line, I put more pressure on the gas pedal and the speedometer creeps higher. I’m still an hour away if I stick to this speed.

“Screw it,” I say.

I turn on the lights and siren, and I put the pedal down.

I start flying around cars like they’re standing still. When I get to the rural highway where Anne’s house is located, I can see red and blue strobes flashing in the distance. I let out a long breath and ease up on the gas.

But then I get closer and the scene looks all wrong. There are way too many flashing lights from multiple police cars and an ambulance. There are uniformed officers taping off the perimeter of the property, and parked out front is a van with POLICE CRIME SCENE UNIT stenciled on the side.

I skid to a halt on the gravel driveway and rush out of the car. Two patrolmen move to stop me, but I point to the badge on my shirt.

The house is crowded with uniformed officers, plain-clothes detectives, and forensic technicians. I shove past them all, and when I come to the threshold of the living room, my breathing stops. My body turns to ice.

I can’t believe all the blood.

Bright crimson splatters on the walls.

Dark Merlot puddles soaking into the carpet.

Dried rivulets running out of the wounds in Anne’s body.

She is lying on the carpet with bullet holes in her chest, her arms, her legs, and—as the phone caller had promised—her face.

I have seen a lot of murder victims in my life, but I’ve never seen this happen to someone I loved. Seeing Anne’s face—her eyes glassy and vacant, her skin streaked with congealing blood—is too much for me to bear. The ground beneath my feet is moving, like an earthquake no one else seems to feel. The food in my stomach climbs toward my throat.

I stagger out of the house and fall onto my hands and knees in the grass. I retch and my lunch comes up in an acidic, meaty heap.

I sit back on my haunches and try to breathe. I close my eyes. My skin is clammy with sweat.

A patrolman walks up next to me and says, very respectfully, “You okay, Ranger?”

I don’t answer. I just breathe in the fresh-cut grass and try to make sense of the world now that Anne is gone.

A voice barks an order from just inside the doorway.

“That’s her ex-husband,” the voice says to the patrolman. “Keep him out of here. He’s a suspect.”

CHAPTER 8

SOMEONE GIVES ME a bottle of water, so I swish the liquid around in my mouth and spit it out. I do this until the water is almost gone, but I can’t seem to get rid of the taste of vomit.

I lean against the tailgate of my truck. Unlike earlier today, when I could wait for the chief of police to come talk to me, I can’t be patient at all. I need answers now.

A patrolman seems to have been assigned the task of keeping his eyes on me. I ask him questions, but the kid doesn’t know a thing.

Several of the officers on the scene know me, and a few come up to express their condolences. Many look shaken. Redbud is a small town, and most of them knew Anne. Some of them went to high school with the two of us.

Finally, DeAndre Purvis, a local detective, steps out the front door and heads my way. Purvis didn’t grow up here like most of the men on the scene, but I know him from the years I worked in this jurisdiction.

“Hey, Rory,” Purvis says. His tone is compassionate and much different than the authoritative one he used earlier, when he said I was a suspect. “This is a hell of a thing. I’m so sorry.”

“I’m seriously a suspect?” I ask, making no effort to hide the contempt in my voice.

Purvis gives me a look that says, Of course you are. “You know how this works, Rory. Everyone she knew is a suspect until we rule them out.”

The red and blue lights flash across Purvis’s dark skin. He’s about three inches shorter than me, putting him at about five ten or eleven, and a few years older than me, probably in his forties or at least close to it. Though an outsider might not be able to detect a difference between his New Orleans accent and my Texas drawl, to my fellow Texans, it makes him stick out like a sore thumb.

I always heard mixed reviews about him as a detective.

“You’re right,” I tell him. I swish more water in my mouth and spit. “So what can you tell me?”

“Let me ask you a few questions,” Purvis says. “Then I’ll tell you what I can.”

I agree, knowing I’ll get myself off the suspect list as fast as possible. It’ll be good to get some answers once that pesky bit of business is over.

“Where’ve you been for the past couple hours?”

I explain that I was driving up from McAllen after Anne called me. I can tell that Purvis is trying to do the math based on my timeline. Could I have made it here in time to commit the murder? Not unless I was driving 150 miles an hour the whole way.

“Anyone in McAllen who can verify you were there?”

“I shot a guy this morning,” I say. “There are a lot of people who can verify.”

“You shot a guy?” Purvis says. “Another one?”

“This one lived,” I say. “Not that it matters much. Both shootings were justified.”

Purvis says nothing, but his gaze is long and hard, and I can tell that he is skeptical.

I tell Purvis the specific exit where I stopped for gas and bought my hamburger, and I note the time I was there.

“They probably have security footage,” I say, “if no one remembers me.”

“Okay,” Purvis says, sounding satisfied. “I’ll have someone check this out. I’m going to have one of our techs swab your hand for gunshot residue.”

“I just told you I fired my gun this morning.”

“Come on, Rory. You know we have to do this. What if your alibi turns out to be bogus? We need to be thorough.”

“I understand.”

A weighted silence falls between us.

“Look,” I say. “I played nice. So what can you tell me? You’ve got to understand where I’m coming from here. Anne was my wife, and she called me about those prank calls she was getting. That’s why I asked someone to swing by her house in the first place.”

Purvis looks back at the house with a forlorn expression on his face and then pulls himself together with a curt nod. “Someone came in and killed Anne in cold blood,” he says. “We don’t know jack shit besides that.”

“Looks like a crime of passion to me,” I say.

Purvis nods, not necessarily in agreement. It’s more like acknowledgment.

“Anything stolen?”

“Not that we can tell.”

“Any sign of forced entry?”

“Nope.”

“So it was someone she knew?”

“Possibly,” Purvis says, reluctant to commit himself to any theory.

We both know that most murders are committed by people who know the victim.

“Have you located her ex-boyfriend?” I ask. “Calvin Richards.”

“Ex?” Purvis says.

“That’s what she told me. Said they broke up a couple weeks ago.”

“Interesting,” Purvis says. “We’re looking for him.”

Purvis puts a hand on my shoulder, a signal that he is about to walk away and get back to work.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ll get the guy.”

It’s the right thing to say, but Purvis’s delivery sounds flat, as if he doesn’t believe the words any more than he expects me to.

CHAPTER 9

I PULL MY Ford up the driveway of my parents’ ranch. Every light in the house is on, and both of my brothers’ trucks are in the driveway. The front door is open, so all Mom and Dad have to do is swing open the creaky screen door to step out on the porch to greet me. My brothers follow, and their wives, one with a baby in her arms, the other trailed by her two children, ages two and four.

It’s a large family homecoming that would have filled my heart with joy under any other circumstances.

“We heard,” Dad says, his voice shaky.

Mom comes down the porch steps and wraps me in a hug.

“I’m so sorry, honey,” she says.

My brother Jake hugs me next. He is the youngest and always loved Anne, saw her like a big sister. He’s the most emotional of the three of us. Quick-tempered. Hotheaded. But also sentimental. His wife, Holly, said she fell in love with him because he cried when they saw a cheesy Nicholas Sparks movie on their first date.

“I’m sorry, bro,” he says in my ear. “I’m so …”

His voice breaks and he can’t continue.

Chris is the middle brother and only two years younger than me. He puts an arm around my shoulder. Somehow, he turned out to be the steadiest of the three of us. Reliable. Modest. Never one to get into a fight.