Chapter OneHOUSTON, TEXAS
10:00 A.M. WEDNESDAY
Twenty-three years ago, I survived a killer's brutal attempt on my life. My story must be told. Can you help me?
Amy Garrett, PhD
Freedom's Way Counseling
Finding suspense story ideas could be grueling, but the concept that just landed in Kariss's in-box could be her next bestseller. She'd been approached by enough eccentrics to recognize someone looking for big bucks and a sensational slice of life. She felt sorry for most of them but always wanted to help, no matter how ludicrous their stories. Still, none of those people had ever had PhD after their name or a business phone number listed with their signature.
The email lured Kariss to the place where words and emotion blended in a feverish dance. Kariss herself had survived an attempt on her life the previous summer and knew the courage it took to tell anyone about the horror. She reread the message. Why would this woman seek her out? Why would she choose to tell her true story in a novel? Only one way to find out.
Kariss pressed the number into her phone.
"Freedom's Way Counseling. How may I direct your call?"
Hurdle number onethis was a legitimate business. And Dr. Garrett's name did seem vaguely familiar. Then again, as a former Channel 5 news anchor, Kariss knew quite a few names and faces.
"I'd like to speak to Dr. Amy Garrett. This is Kariss Walker." She waited while the call was being transferred.
"Dr. Garrett here. Kariss Walker?"
"Yes. I just received your email. Curiosity got the best of me."
"Thanks for responding so quickly. Are you currently online?"
"Would you like to go to the website hyperlinked in my email? That will tell you a little about me."
Kariss clicked as instructed. Amy Garrett, founder of Freedom's Way, specialized in counseling women who'd been victims of violent crimes. She held doctorates in psychology and social science.
"Click on 'About Freedom's Way.' That says it best," Amy said.
The powerful words of the biography drew Kariss into Amy's world.
At the age of nine, I survived a brutal attempt on my life. I understand your pain and confusion, and I have felt the despair. Through caring counselors, I found healing. Now I want to offer you the same pathway to life.
Freedom's Way cares about you. We are committed to helping every woman who has ever been traumatized by a vicious crime. Your first step to healing is only a phone call away.
Don't let finances stop you from overcoming emotional pain, a sliding fee scale is available.
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."
Freedom's Way was a Christian counseling service.
"Why fiction?" Kariss said.
"Can we meet to discuss this? I'm booked until three thirty this afternoon, but I have an hour window then. Are you available at three thirty?"
Kariss's mind spun in a flurry as she considered whether she wanted to get involved. The woman seemed overly aggressive, but intrigue won out. "I'd be happy to talk to youto gather more information. I see your office isn't far from my home."
"I'd rather meet outside of my practice. How about the Starbucks across from Crystal Point Mall?"
"Miss Walker, it's important we keep our discussion confidential."
"I plan to come alone."
"Good. But please don't tell anyone about this. I'll explain later."
Strange request, but maybe Dr. Garrett had approached other writers as well as Kariss. "Okay. See you then."
Kariss stared at the phone before placing it on her desk, and then she reread the doctor's email. Why had the woman contacted her? The answer would have to wait until three thirty. If Kariss could keep her inquisitive impulses at a manageable level until then.
She continued reading her other emails.
A writers' group wanted her to give a workshop on character and plot. They had no budget to pay a speaker, but she could bring books to sell. Kariss sighed and agreed.
Her nephew had sent his latest poem. At age ten, he was in love with a redheaded little girl who ignored him. Kariss took a peek at the poem and laughed.
Mom confirmed Sunday dinner after church.
Two spam messages. No one could use that much Viagra. She moved them to her Junk folder.
Kariss studied Dr. Garrett's words again. When she googled the woman's name, several sites popped up. Many churches and community organizations had hosted her as a keynote speaker. Kariss returned to Freedom's Way's website and continued reading.
There were testimonies from women who'd been given the tools to live again after being shaken by violence. Survivors. Warriors in their own right. By the third testimonial, Kariss had to reach for a tissue.
She moved on to Facebook. Amy Garrett's posts were faith based and compassionate. She recommended books and websites to help women achieve good emotional health. An upcoming Gulf Coast Christian Women's Conference, to be held at a large church in downtown Houston, featured Amy as the keynote speaker.
Dr. Amy Garrett was not only a survivor but a haven for abused women as well.
Unbidden memories about what had happened to Kariss while researching her previous novel surfaced in her mind. She'd made a few stupid decisions and nearly botched an FBI investigation. If not for her loving family, a good counselor, and her renewed faith, she'd probably be in need of Freedom's Way herself to work through her own nightmare of being a crime victim.
She'd meet with Dr. Garrett ... hear her story and ask questions.
* * *
11:00 A.M. WEDNESDAY
FBI Special Agent Santiago Harris, known as Tigo, realized he smelled like the thirteen-hour stakeout he was on. The pizza he'd eaten before dawn still lay sizzling in his stomach. But he was determined to help bring in the new self-proclaimed leader of the Houston gang called the Skulls, which had ties to a Mexican cartel.
Pablo Martinez had entered an apartment on the southeast side of town shortly after ten o'clock the night before with his girlfriend and another gang member. An informant had said that Martinez had stashed stolen assault rifles, handguns, and explosives at the apartment and would be using them on a rival gang. Although Martinez had slipped by the authorities in the past by way of the legal system, that was about to end. So Tigo and his team waited. All the FBI needed to make the arrest was for Martinez to set foot outside the apartment with the stolen arms. Of course, if they'd known how long this would take, they could have obtained a search warrant.
"Something about this bothers me." Tigo lifted his binoculars to the curtain-covered windows. "Are we the ones being set up?"
Ryan Steadman, his partner, yawned. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear they'd already left."
Tigo handed him the binoculars. "You have tomato sauce on your pasty-white cheek."
Ryan frowned and brushed his face.
"Makes me wonder what they're doing in there," Tigo said. "Building a compound? I'm going in."
"Are you crazy?"
"Do you have a better idea?"
"What are you going to do, deliver a pizza?"
Tigo reached for the empty box that lay on the truck floor by Ryan's feet. "Who can refuse pepperoni and extra cheese?"
"I've got things to do, and nailing Martinez is in my way." Tigo picked up his radio.
"A shower is at the top of my list," Ryan said.
"Mine too. Along with arresting anyone I can find who's involved with gangs. You know my personal war." Tigo smoothed out the dent in the empty pizza box caused by Ryan's size 11 foot. "This gang business has me in a bad mood."
"Or maybe it's because Kariss hasn't returned your phone calls."
Tigo scowled. "She has her life, and I have mine. We're over. And that's not what I'm talking about. I have an arrest to make."
"Then explain why you can't say her name."
"Cover me. Martinez is mine."
"I'll be sure to write that on your epitaph." Ryan gestured toward the second-story apartment. "Nothing is stirring. Maybe they got high and are sleeping it off."
Tigo chuckled. "That would make our job easier." He opened the door to his pickup and radioed backup of his intent.
"Hold on." Ryan pointed to three small children who were playing at the other end of the walkway near Martinez's apartment. "Let's get those kids out of there." He spoke into his own radio, and seconds later, the kids disappeared.
Stealing up the exterior metal steps to the apartment gave Tigo a few moments to scan the area. Martinez could have men posted inside another apartment. His fingers rested on his Glock, which was positioned under the pizza box. Uneasiness dripped into his brain. Thirteen hours in a one-bedroom apartment didn't make sense. No one in or out. No gunfire. No visitors. Only quiet.
Ryan covered Tigo from the bottom of the steps, and two other agents stood on opposite ends of the building.
Tigo knocked on the door. "Pizza delivery." He counted to ten and repeated the knock and announcement. He dropped the pizza box on the landing.
Ryan joined him, and they nodded the go-ahead to each other.
"FBI! Open up!" Tigo turned the doorknob. Unlocked. A chill swept up his arms. Glock raised, he swung open the door. Three mutilated bodies lay across a sofa and chair. Their throats slit.
Chapter Two3:25 P.M. WEDNESDAY
Kariss scanned the coffee shop for a woman who resembled the photo of Dr. Amy Garrett she'd seen on the website. This first meeting would help Kariss decide if the writing project was a good fit and if the two women could work together. Skepticism had wiggled into her thoughts since the call. The more she researched the story online, the more the project looked like a nonfiction book. And Kariss was a novelist.
At the sound of her name, Kariss turned toward a corner café table, where the owner of Freedom's Way waved. She was an attractive blonde and wore a gray suit with a vivid green scarf. Excitement bubbled through Kariss at the thought of writing another suspense novel, but it warred with her feelings about working with a psychologist. What if the famed doctor saw a crack in Kariss's character? Or pointed out some weird aspect of Kariss's personality that indicated she needed to be on medication or hospitalized? As if Kariss didn't already recognize a few quirks. Creative people always had them.
Amy rose from her chair and shook Kariss's hand. She was a good six inches shorter than Kariss. The petite woman's wide-set blue eyes brimmed with intelligence and something else, possibly curiosity. Good, they were on even ground.
"Shall we order and then chat?" Dr. Garrett said. "I'll buy since I suggested the meeting."
A take-charge woman. Kariss relaxed just enough to smile and agreethis one time at least. As long as a latte didn't obligate her to spend four hundred pages with a story that didn't work.
"Dr. Garrett, I've looked forward to meeting you all day. I'm flattered to be in the company of a woman who has helped so many other women achieve emotional independence."
Amy shrugged. "It's who I am, but thank you. I've been excited too. Please, call me Amy."
"And I'm Kariss."
"I hope this is the beginning of something grand. This project is special, actually a dream. I wish we had more than an hour to talk, but I have a heavy client load today." She glanced around. "Is this table okay? I prefer facing the door."
"Sure. It's fine." Odd that Amy appeared to be nervous.
"Do you have a watch so we can keep track of the time?" Amy said. "Oh, you're not wearing one. And I left mine on my desk."
Kariss shook her head. "I can't wear one. Too much electricity in me. The watch always goes wild." She pulled out her iPhone and set it on the table between them. "I'll keep track."
"Thanks," Amy said. "I've never met a real author."
Kariss laughed. "I've never had coffee with a woman who held two doctorates."
Amy used organic sugar in her soy latte, while Kariss sipped on a mocha latte with no whipped cream.
"I'd love an oatmeal-raisin cookie," Amy said after taking a drink.
"Yum. That sounds good. A warm oatmeal cookie. But they're huge."
"We could split it."
Kariss agreed. After purchasing the cookie, she bit into a juicy raisin while Amy reached for a small bottle of hand sanitizer and used it, twice. Time to get the show on the road. "I'm"
Amy raised her hand. "First of all, let me tell you I read lips. I'm going deaf. Not there yet, but it's inevitable."
Counseling, speaking events, conferences, and media appearances had to be difficult with a hearing impairment. Kariss's admiration for Amy grew. "How do you manage communication in so many different settings?"
"It's not a problem unless I can't see the person I'm talking to. For phone calls, I have a special tool that writes out the words for me, so that works pretty well. However, I prefer text or email rather than voice messages. Faster." She laughed. "So no clandestine meetings in the dead of night, okay? Seriously, I do appreciate your willingness to discuss a potential novel."
"I'm intrigued with your story, what little I know of it," Kariss said. "I have a number of questions. The first that springs to mind is why me for this project?"
"You're a bestselling author."
"I'm not the only one."
"But you're a bestselling author who's become a Christian. Nearly shipwrecked your career with that announcement last year."
Although Amy received a gold star for doing her homework, Kariss was a long way from accepting the task of writing the story or allowing accolades to affect her judgment. "I also changed genres from women's fiction to suspense. Have you talked to other writers?" Kariss said, turning the focus away from herself.
"Not yet. I very much admire how your research for your latest book eventually led to solving the child's murder."
"My impulsive nature nearly got me killed." Kariss's pulse raced as she was hit by a barrage of memoriesalways the blood. "I intend to never risk my life gathering research again."
"Are you doing okay with the trauma?"
Kariss felt the psychoanalysis to the tips of her hot-pink toes. The nightmares had lessened but were still there. "I'm good. Just wiser. Took a self-defense course. So tell me why your story should be told in a novel, using a character to experience your tragedy. In my opinion, nonfiction has the potential to help many suffering women take a positive step toward healing. They'd be impressed by knowing your full story."
"To inspire them." Amy leaned closer. "To show my clients they can be survivors. Fiction reaches a wider, even different, audience."
"I understand," Kariss said. Amy had put some thought into this project.
"And a novel is a nonthreatening environment," she said. "An abused woman would feel safe within the confines of a fictional story and hopefully feel inspired to change her current situation. But she may not read a nonfiction book for fear the wrong people would find out."
Kariss nodded. Point taken. "Biographies are fact, and novels are filled with emotion. That's why readers keep turning pages. They're involved with the characters. In your case, many could identify with the story line."
"Another reason for my story to be fiction. You and I have fought the demons of terror. We also care about those who've been victims of violent crimes." Amy smiled. "I researched you before I wrote the email."
"I guess you did."
"Your days of TV reporting proved your passion for helping others. And it shows in your novels as well." Amy appeared to study her. "Too many of my clients don't know how to escape their abuse or roll up their sleeves and get to work."
To Kariss, Amy's words sounded artificially noble, even rehearsed, but why? What motivated the woman? Kariss sat back in her chair and nibbled on her portion of the cookie.
"So you think a novel is a better choice to accomplish this?"
"I do." Amy's confident tone and subject change indicated the matter was settled. She took a bite of her cookie and smiled. "This is so much better warmed."
"It's been twenty-three years since your attack. How long have you been considering having your experience written into a novel?"
Amy took a sip of her latte, her fingers circling around the cup. "A few years."
"Why tell your story now?"
For a moment, pain flickered in the woman's face. "It's the only way."
"Only way for what?" It had to be more than a means to help her clients. "Is your assailant still in prison?"
Amy didn't even blink. "He wasn't apprehended. Understand that my attack occurred before it was popular to use DNA in investigations. In short, he got away with it. Kariss, I want my story written as a suspense novel."
"If a fictional book of your story is released, he could see similarities."
"I doubt he'd read it."
"But what if he does?"
"If he happens to pick it up, I'll be okay, because I don't want my name on it."
Did she not want her name on the project because she was afraid he'd see it? "You don't worry that he's been following your life?"
"Not in the least."
"Did your attack occur in the Houston area?"