The aroma of sweat and coconut shampoo filled the room, bringing to mind a tropical sweat lodge. I paced the outside of the rubber mat, casting wary looks at my opponent.
He was roughly ten inches taller than me—putting him at an even six feet—and he had a lean muscular build that made my runner’s physique pale by comparison. His eyes, which reminded me of a clear blue sky, sparkled with amusement as he watched me.
“You actually have to get close to me to hit me, Holly,” he pointed out.
My hands were sheathed in fingerless purple boxing gloves, and I twisted my fingers together anxiously over my stomach. I reached the end of the mat and spun on my heel to pace back in the other direction.
Up until this point, our training had been entirely nonphysical. I had mirrored his movements, albeit less gracefully, from a safe distance. We had touched on the possibility of sparring during our last lesson, but I wasn’t ready to plunge into it.
“I’m not sure—”
“Jordan’s not gonna hurt you, Holly,” a smooth voice with a touch of Southern said from the back of the room.
I glanced at Marx, who leaned against the wall by the door, arms folded and ankles crossed in a relaxed position. He was wearing jeans and a black T-shirt—his casual wear for when he wasn’t on duty—but as an NYPD detective, he was never truly off duty. He always carried his gun and badge in case he was called away unexpectedly to a crime scene.
I doubted I would ever truly feel safe with a man, but I trusted Marx more than any other man. He knew my secrets and my fears, and he was always mindful of them. He understood that I wasn’t comfortable being alone with Jordan yet, and he made it a point always to be here with me.
“I’m not gonna grab you,” Jordan assured me. “We’re not there yet. We’ll work on breaking out of holds when you’re more comfortable with it.”
When I was more comfortable with it . . . right. So, never? Yep, I was comfortable with never.
“I’m gonna stand perfectly still.” He held out his hands shoulder-width apart in front of him.
I sighed and walked across the mat in my workout toe socks. I stopped four feet from him. We had an agreement: he remained at least four feet from me at all times except in an emergency, and we didn’t touch one another. He was asking me to break that agreement . . . and then punch him.
“Can we just go back to mirroring the movements? I like that better,” I said.
“I can teach you the punches, kicks, and blocks until you can do them in your sleep, but it doesn’t teach you how to connect them or how to recover if you miss. It also doesn’t teach you how to dodge if someone is trying to hit you.”
The last time someone had taken a swing at me, I had curled into a ball on the floor and covered my head with my arms. That sort of counted as dodging, right?
“This is important, Holly,” Marx said. I met his eyes and saw worry swirling in their green depths.
He knew as well as I did that Collin hadn’t decided to pack up and leave; he would view the cops surrounding me as a challenge, and he savored a challenge.
Collin was my foster brother, the only biological child of the foster family who took me in when I was fourteen, and he had developed an unhealthy fascination with me.
I had spent the past ten years in hiding—moving from city to city, working odd jobs under the table, never drawing attention to myself—in the hopes that he wouldn’t find me.
I had managed to hide from him for two years in New York City, but then I made a mistake: I gave a statement to the police after two men attacked me in the park, all but lighting up a blinking neon sign that read, “Holly is here.”
The statement I gave to the cops, which was logged into a “secure” police database, was accessed by an outside source. I didn’t doubt for a moment my foster brother was behind the breach of their system.
He hadn’t made an appearance yet, but he had called me on my birthday a month ago just to let me know he was watching.
I knew what he would do to me if he got his hands on me again, and I couldn’t let that happen. I had decided not to run this time, which meant my only hope was learning how to fight.
I tapped my fingers on my hips nervously as I looked at Jordan. “What if I hurt you?”
His lips twitched in amusement. “You’re not gonna hurt me. You’re not gonna hurt anyone from that far away.” He motioned me closer with his fingers. “Come on. Across the border.”
When we first met—or rather, re-met—in Kansas this past November, he had jokingly dubbed the invisible personal bubble around me “the border.”
I chewed on my lower lip and then crossed over the invisible boundary. I pushed my red braid back over my shoulder and sank into the stance we’d practiced for the past three weeks.
“Make sure you don’t bend your wrist too much. And focus on the form of your punch rather than the strength of it for the first few swings. Here’s your target.” He waved his right hand.
I folded my fingers into a fist and planted it gently into his gloved palm. I repeated the movement a few more times, practicing until I felt confident I wouldn’t accidentally miss and punch him in the face.
“Okay, let’s see what you’ve got,” he said.
I exhaled heavily and then swatted his open palm with my fist. When he didn’t say anything, I hit his hand again.
“I think I just got high-fived by a gnat,” he commented, completely deadpan. “Put a little force behind it, Holly. Hit me like you mean it.”
I glared at him, and he gave me one of his trademark charming yet playful smiles. I smacked my fist into his hand again, and he arched a blond eyebrow at me, which apparently meant “punch harder.”
“I think he’s doubtin’ your abilities, Holly,” Marx said, and I glanced over at him. He inclined his head in a silent signal.
I darted forward, kicked Jordan in the back of his knee, and swept his legs out from under him while he was off balance. I scampered out of reach as his back slapped the mat.
He wheezed in surprise and then unexpectedly started to laugh. “Seriously?” He propped himself up on his elbows and looked at me. I grinned, and his gaze slid to Marx. “I did not teach her that.”
Marx smiled proudly. “I taught her that.”
He and Sam, his friend and fellow officer, had demonstrated that technique for me repeatedly until I was able to simulate it solo. Jordan was the first person I had tried it on. I hadn’t expected it to go so well.
Honestly, I thought I would trip myself.
Jordan sighed as he sat up on the mat. “I just got taken out by a 110-pound woman. That stings a bit.”
“As it should,” Marx informed him.
“Yeah, well, I’m ready this time.” Jordan climbed to his feet and made a show of brushing off his clothes before looking at me. “No more cheap shots.”
I hesitated at the edge of the mat, anxiety sparking in my stomach. “You’re not gonna retaliate, are you?” The last thing I wanted was to be body-slammed on the mat for taking his legs out from under him.
“Not if he wants to keep breathin’,” Marx muttered under his breath.
Mischief danced in Jordan’s eyes. “I’m not gonna retaliate. But I do think you owe me an ice cream cone for bruising my ego.”
My eyebrows crept up. “It’s twenty-three degrees out.”
“Then I guess we won’t have to worry about it melting.” He held up his hands again. “Left hook this time.”
Satisfied that he wasn’t going to tackle me or twist me into some sort of pretzel in retaliation, I walked across the mat to join him.
“Try putting your body behind it this time,” he suggested. “You’re not getting enough force by just using your arms.”
I shifted my stance a little, trying to figure out what he meant by putting my body behind it. I was pretty sure that if I was punching someone, my body was naturally behind my arm.
“Do what I do, okay?” He raised his fists and demonstrated a right hook. He moved as fluidly as water, and I pitied anyone who came in contact with the other end of that punch.
I tried to mirror him, but after watching his easy movements, I felt as inflexible as a stick. I wondered if I could even touch my toes without bending my knees. I glanced down at them, curious, and decided I would have to try that later.
“Twist with the punch,” he said.
“I am twisting!”
“No, you’re turning your whole body.”
“What’s the difference?” I demanded irritably.
I watched him a few more times, trying each time to make my body do what his did. Judging by the frown line between his blond eyebrows, I was failing.
“Don’t step forward. Keep your back foot behind you, and just move from the core up,” he explained.
I could throw a decent punch if I stood perfectly still. How was I supposed to concentrate on swinging without bending my wrist too much, not moving my feet, and twisting but not turning all at the same time?
“Why can’t I just use my fists?” I huffed in frustration.
He bit back a sigh and ran a hand through his hair. “Because you’ll be lucky to knock out a mosquito, let alone an actual person.”
I glared at him.
“Here, just let me . . .” He reached forward and his fingers grazed my waist before I danced back beyond his reach with a flutter of fear.
“You said no grabbing!”
He froze where he stood, and realization flickered across his features. “I’m sorry.” He stepped back with his hands raised. “I didn’t mean to invade your space. I just forgot.”
I wrapped my arms protectively around my midsection and tried to ignore the anxiety crawling the walls of my stomach.
Jordan tried to respect my boundaries, but he had a difficult time remembering I wasn’t as free with touch as most people. What might be a casual or unconscious gesture for others could twist my nerves into knots.
Marx peeled away from the wall and said, “Okay, we’re done for the day.”
Jordan opened his mouth like he wanted to object, but then exhaled and dropped his arms in defeat. “Yeah, okay.”
His expression was a meld of confusion and regret. He didn’t understand my fear, and I didn’t think I could explain it to him.
“We’ll work on it more next time,” he said. He offered me a smile that was too thin to be reassuring and then left the room.
I dropped back against the wall and slid to the floor, frustration and disappointment clinging to me.
Marx sat down beside me and leaned back against the wall with his legs stretched out in front of him. He always gave me space without me having to ask.
“You did good today,” he said.
“I don’t think we’re remembering the same lesson, because that”—I gestured to the room—“was a disaster.”
He gave me a gentle smile. “No, it just feels that way because you’re frustrated with yourself.” He was quiet for a moment before saying, “It’s okay to be scared, Holly. It’s okay to need space. After everythin’ you’ve been through, nobody expects you to just get over it.”
I averted my eyes and rubbed at the palms of my gloves.
“You’ve made a lot of progress. It’s been what, four and a half months since you’ve considered slammin’ a door in my face?”
I smiled at the memory.
We had met in October when a serial killer was stalking me. I had vehemently disliked him due to the fact that he was a man, a cop, and imposing at five feet ten with a gun. When he’d shown up at my apartment the next day with more questions, I had very much wanted to slam my door in his face.
Now I considered him a friend.
“You never thought you could trust a cop, let alone a man. Now here I am sittin’ about two feet from you and you’re not even scared,” he observed.
I looked at the doorway Jordan had disappeared through. “It’s . . . harder with him than it is with you.”
I was trying to rekindle the friendship Jordan and I had as children, but there was an insurmountable barrier between us. And it wasn’t the eighteen years we had spent apart.
“It’s because you know he’s attracted to you,” Marx said after a thoughtful pause. At my surprised look, he gave me a sad, knowing smile. “You curl in on yourself whenever you think about intimacy, like you’re subconsciously tryin’ to protect yourself.”
I hadn’t realized I had wrapped my arms around my stomach and drawn my knees into my chest until he pointed it out. I tried to force my body to relax.
Marx was in no way attracted to me—maybe because he was forty-seven and I was twenty-eight—and it made me feel safer with him. But Jordan had made it clear that he was, and I was on guard every moment we were in the same room together.
“It’ll work itself out. You just have to be patient with yourself,” Marx said. “Now come on. Let’s go get a terribly unhealthy lunch before I drop you off at home. It’ll make you feel better.”
“If that’s what you want.”
“And sombrero-sized tortilla chips with cheese dip?” I asked hopefully.
He laughed. “Of course.” He stood and offered me his hand, but I ignored it as usual. One of these days I would let him help me up, just to see the look of surprise on his face.
I sighed contentedly in the passenger seat of Marx’s car and resisted the impulse to rub my overstuffed stomach like a pregnant woman.
He glanced at me, his lips curved in amusement. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat that much.”
“I love cheese dip.”
He chuckled. “Apparently.”
Something vibrated in the car, and I looked around curiously. Marx pulled his cell phone from his pocket. He frowned at the screen and then flipped it open.
“Marx,” he greeted crisply.
He was driving with one hand.
“Can I do that the next time we practice driving?” I asked, pointing to his lone hand on the wheel.
He gave me a look that clearly communicated, “No, absolutely not.”
I was going to try it. What was the worst that could happen?
I had intended to wait to learn to drive for fear Collin would use the license to find me, but considering he had already found me, I accepted Marx’s offer to teach me.
“I’m busy right now,” he said into the phone. He paused to listen to the voice on the other end of the line. I couldn’t understand the words, but I picked up on the notes of panic. Someone was terrified. “How urgent?”
He clenched his teeth and veered into a parking lot, circled around and pulled back out onto the road.
“I can be there in five minutes, but if I get there and you’re waistin’ my time . . .” He listened for another moment and then released a tight breath before snapping the phone shut.
“I’m gonna guess that wasn’t your mom.”
“No. If I ever accused my mother of waistin’ my time, she would smack me back to third grade.”
I laughed and slid down in my seat, propping my feet on the dashboard. I was pretty sure I would like his mom.
Marx frowned. “We had the conversation about your shoes on my dashboard, did we not?”
Wow, that had been months ago on the road trip to Kansas. “But it’s comfortable,” I protested.
He arched a single eyebrow that somehow managed to be both admonishing and mildly amused. He had a thing about his car.
Fine. I lifted one foot off the dash and pulled off my sneaker, dropping it on the floor. I repeated the process with my second foot and returned my toe-sock-clad feet to the dashboard. I wiggled my toes. “No more shoes on the dash.”
He sighed, but there was a hint of a smile on his lips. “You are a very dangerous young woman, you know that?”
I tilted my head quizzically. I didn’t really consider myself dangerous. Apparently I couldn’t even throw a punch properly, and the last time I used a gun, I had accidentally murdered my front steps. “How so?”
“Because you’re cute and you know it.” He gave me a stern look. “I expect you can get away with just about anythin’.”
“So I can put my shoes back on the dash?”
I grinned and looked out the window. I watched the buildings pass by in the opposite direction of my home. We turned onto a street that made me sit up a little straighter in my seat. There were some places in the city that sane people just didn’t go. “Um . . . where are we going exactly?”
“I just need to make a quick stop.”
“Here? In this neighborhood?”
This was where people were murdered in broad daylight and all five of the witnesses had permanent amnesia or they wound up permanently six feet under. This was also very active gang territory.
“I don’t have time to drop you off at home,” Marx said, changing lanes and pulling into an alleyway. “And I’m not riskin’ droppin’ you off somewhere else when we have no idea where Collin is.”
I looked at the rusted, run-down buildings around us as we drove deeper into the inner-city alley. The smell of trash, alcohol, and other odors I couldn’t place filtered into the car, and I crinkled my nose.
The alleyway spilled out into what appeared to have once been a parking lot but had since become a scrapyard for broken vehicles and apparently, refrigerators. Oh, and shopping carts.
“Are we making a drug deal?” I asked. “Because this looks like a great place to score some drugs before we die and our bodies are never found.”
He sighed. “We’re not gonna die. And drug deals are for Wednesdays. It’s only Monday.”
Ah, of course. What was I thinking? “So . . . we’re just vetting our drug dealer ahead of time, then?”
He gave me a look. “This has nothin’ to do with drugs, Holly. And where on earth did you come up with the word vettin’ anyway?”
“Isn’t that what you people say?”
He arched an eyebrow at me. “You people?”
He chuckled quietly and shook his head. “No, I don’t often use that word. Now, I need to meet with somebody and you people—by which I mean tiny women who are not cops—need to stay in the car.”
I lifted my chin. “You’re only eight inches taller than me. You’re not that tall.”
“Only,” he muttered, unhooking his seat belt and reaching across the car to the glove compartment.
I didn’t flinch away from him like I would’ve at one time, but I drew my feet onto the seat to put some much-needed space between us.
He pulled a radio from the compartment, turned a dial that made it buzz loudly, and then clipped it to his belt beside his badge and gun. He closed the glove compartment and said, “I’m done.”
I lowered my feet back to the floor and cast him a worried look. “You hardly ever take that with you. Is this dangerous?”
“I don’t expect trouble. But it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
“Can I come with you?”
I turned in my seat to look at him. “This is not a safe neighborhood.” I didn’t like the idea of him meeting some random individual in this neighborhood without backup or witnesses.
“I’m aware of that, which is why you’re stayin’ in the car with the doors locked.”
“That’s not fair. You’re no safer in this neighborhood than I am, maybe even less so because you’re a cop.” There had been a rash of violence against inner-city cops lately, and it worried me.
“I’m much safer than you, trust me. Not only do I have a gun and trainin’, but I somehow doubt any of the gangs in this part of town are gonna want me to be their date for the afternoon.”
“Not really interested in dating?” I teased.
He gave me an unamused look. “Not at the moment, no.” He pulled a canister of pepper spray from the center console and handed it to me. “Please, Holly. Stay in the car.”
His tone was pleading, as if he expected me to do the exact opposite. Like I ever did that . . . okay, occasionally I did that. I silently accepted the canister.
“I’m gonna be right over there.” He pointed toward an abandoned factory about two hundred feet away. “And in the event that somethin’ does go wrong, call Sam. He’ll be here within five minutes.”
“Can you at least tell me who you’re meeting?” I wanted to know at least that in case something went wrong.
“He’s a confidential informant.”
“What’s his name?”
“I can’t tell you his name, Holly. That’s why it’s called a confidential informant.” He opened his door and then paused to look back at me. “Keep the doors locked. Do not open them for any reason. Understood?”
I chewed on my bottom lip as I considered it.
“Holly,” he prompted with a note of impatient warning.
“Yeah, I hear you.” I held up my phone and slumped down in my seat. I wasn’t promising anything because I had no intention of staying in the car if he needed help.
“I won’t be long.” He closed the door and locked it with his little black button, which Jordan had informed me was a key fob. What sort of ridiculous name was that? Key fob.
He weaved between the cars toward the factory. A slender man with almond skin paced in the opening, his mannerisms reflecting barely controlled anxiety.
I knew the way he moved; it was the way I had moved for years, and occasionally still did. He was afraid and on guard. When Marx approached him, he did so like a man approaching a wild deer that might disappear back into the brush at the snap of a twig.
He said something to him, but I couldn’t hear their voices through the closed doors of the car. The man hesitated and then removed his hands from the pouch on his hoodie, holding them out palms up.
Marx stepped up to him and patted him down. If a cop ever tried to do that to me, I would get arrested for assault, because I would resist—violently.
Apparently satisfied the man was carrying no weapons, Marx stepped back. The thread of trust between them must have been very thin if he was concerned the man might come to their meeting armed.
I was pretty sure I saw Marx’s lips form the word “talk.”
His informant flipped back his hood, revealing coal-black hair and a tattoo on the side of his neck that, as I squinted, resembled a Star of David. I quickly realized he was a hand talker, because he gestured with agitated emphasis as he spoke.
Curious about what they were discussing, I slid into the driver’s seat and cracked open the door. I heard a Hispanic voice say something about heroin.
Ha! And Marx said this had nothing to do with drugs.
I was too far away to hear more than the occasional word or two, but his informant mentioned something about three kids overdosing.
I wasn’t sure what the statistics surrounding drug-related deaths were, but three deaths sounded high to me, and the fact that there were children involved made it even worse.
Something metallic squeaked from somewhere to my left. I yanked the door shut and smacked the lock down. I was not about to be murdered by a gang just because I was disobediently snooping.
I wasn’t the only one startled.
The informant bolted back into the factory at the sound, and Marx swore; I couldn’t hear the swearing, but his lips were moving and he wore his I-wanna-slam-someone’s-head-off-the-hood-of-my-car expression.
A clattering sound echoed through the lot, and Marx drew his gun, eyes sweeping over the graveyard of cars. His gaze fixed on a single point, and I looked through the rear window to see what had captured his attention.
An older woman in a threadbare jacket was pushing a shopping cart between the cars and appliances, perusing the items like she was searching for the best pasta option on a grocery store shelf.
Marx lowered his gun, clearly relieved. His gaze shifted to me, and he mouthed the word “stay” before following his informant into the building.
Irritation trickled through me. I didn’t appreciate being told to stay like a dog. I slumped down in my seat and tried not to pout.
I looked around the car for something interesting to do. I opened the glove compartment and rummaged through the contents, finding nothing more interesting than a road map, a registration card, and spare keys.
Men were boring.
I searched the compartment between the seats next. I pulled out an oblong-shaped object and turned it over with curiosity. My eyes widened when I realized it was full of bullets, and I dropped it.
Probably shouldn’t mess with that.
I fished out the pack of mint gum and pulled a piece out. I unwrapped it, popped it into my mouth, and chewed happily. I put the rest back and was just about to close the compartment lid when a sharp knock on the driver’s side window made me jump and nearly choke on my gum.
I looked up, expecting to see Marx, but it was the old woman. Her cloudy gray eyes looked at me from a lined, weathered face. She motioned for me to follow her before turning away.
Ummm . . .
I looked around for signs of danger, but everything was still. How dangerous could one old woman be? She motioned me forward with her fingers again.
Okay then. It couldn’t hurt to make sure everything was okay. I tugged my shoes back on, gripped the pepper spray tightly in my palm, and opened the door. “Do you need help with something?”
She nodded emphatically. “He’s dying.” Her voice was frail and cracked with age, but it wasn’t the sound of her voice that grabbed my attention.
I glanced at her cart behind her. It was filled with things most people discarded: old blankets, bottles, boxes, another pair of boots that looked no better than the holey pair she wore now.
She was homeless.
I had lived on the street from time to time while on the run from Collin, and it was a hard life. No place was truly safe, the winter was unbearably cold, there was never enough food, and most people regarded you as a nuisance or a leech on society.
She didn’t answer my question; she just wrapped her hands around her cart and started pushing it back down the cluttered aisle of the lot. I looked back at the factory, but there was no sign of Marx.
He’s gonna be so mad at me.
Maybe I could help her and be back before he realized I ever left. And if he didn’t ask, I wouldn’t need to tell him. I got out and closed the door soundlessly behind me.
“Wait,” I whispered, walking in the direction the old woman had gone.
I stifled a noise of surprise when my foot landed on something soft and it let out a warped, dying giggle. I looked down at the naked, armless baby doll lying on the ground. The giggle faded, and her single blue eye blinked lazily. Oh my word, that was creepy. I gave the doll a wary look as I tiptoed around it.
“Hello?” I whispered.
She was a seventyish-year-old woman with a squeaky shopping cart. She wasn’t a ninja. Where could she possibly have gone? I searched for her as I wandered deeper.
Male voices drifted across the scrap yard from somewhere to my left, and I froze. My eyes darted over the cars and heaping piles of trash in search of them.
Why had I left the relative safety of the car?
“You see his face?” one of them asked.
“You mean what was left of it?” another replied. “He ain’t gonna be runnin’ his mouth no mo’.”
Laughter reminiscent of a pack of cackling hyenas broke out, and I realized with a sinking feeling in my gut that the men were coming this way. I looked back in the direction of Marx’s car.
It was too far.
“Man, I could go for a line right now.”
“Not me, bro. I got a six pack and a smokin’ little blonde waitin’ for . . .”
I took a few steps back when I saw a dark head bobbing closer, and sucked in a sharp breath when I bumped into a pile of junk and something clattered to the ground.
“Sh!” one of the men said loudly, and the conversation died. “You hear dat?”
I looked around for a place to hide. I retreated between two cars and peered through the broken rear window of a purple-and-pink one. It was as good a place as any. With one final glance in the direction of the approaching voices, I climbed through the window into the backseat.
I hunkered down behind the passenger seat and tried not to think about the filth littering the floorboards. The sound of glass breaking just behind the car had me shrinking down.
God, please don’t let them see me.
Something shook and rattled, and one of the men taunted, “Out shoppin’?”
A female whimper drew me up from my hiding place, and I peered through the rear window at the old woman. Five men crowded around her, laughing and taunting her as they shoved her cart and tossed her belongings to the ground.
I could see her fear in the slump of her shoulders and the jerkiness of her movements, and I wanted to help her. She caught my eye and gave a subtle shake of her head.
She didn’t want me to help her?
“Whatcha got in here, Grandma?” one of the men asked. He overturned her cart completely, and all her belongings spilled onto the pavement. “Oops.”
They deliberately stomped all over everything, crushing the cans and bottles she had collected. Two of the men stretched out her blanket while a third shredded it with a knife.
Their cruelty sent anger scorching through me, and my fingers curled into fists. She had so little, and they were destroying it.
God, what do I do?
I knew what I wanted to do.
The man who had tipped over her cart shoved her, knocking her to the ground, and that solidified my decision. I wasn’t sure what I could do against five men and a knife, but I couldn’t sit by and watch them hurt her.
“Filthy old hag,” he spat.
The men laughed and kicked her things as they walked away. Were they leaving? I hesitated, watching them from my hiding place. Maybe I wouldn’t have to fight them to try to protect her.
They passed by the car, and I held my breath, praying silently that they would keep walking. The breath left me in a shaky rush when they disappeared from view.
I waited until their voices faded before I scrambled back out the window to help the old woman.
“Are you okay?” I asked, crouching beside her.
Tears left shining tracks down her grimy cheeks, and my heart ached for her. There was no reason for her to be treated with such disrespect.
I helped her to sit up and then began collecting what was left of her belongings. The bottles and the blanket were ruined, but everything else was just scattered.
“I’m Holly,” I said, handing her a boot. “What’s your name?”
“Agnes, why didn’t you want me to help you?”
I suppressed a flinch when she reached out a hand and touched my cheek. Her gray eyes that had seemed so distant and confused when she first approached me were suddenly full of awareness.
“Pretty girl,” she said, patting my cheek. “They would do worse to you.”
I swallowed uneasily. Those men had been looking for someone to torment purely for the fun of it, and if I had stepped in to help her . . .
Marx probably would’ve had to shoot people.
“Do they bother you a lot?” I asked.
“Sometimes.” She searched inside the shoe I had handed her and pulled out a picture. Joy filled her eyes as she showed it to me. It was a picture of a couple holding hands. She pointed to the woman. “Me.” And then at the man. “My husband.”
“Where is he?”
Sadness and grief overshadowed her momentary joy. “Gone.” She tucked the faded and cracked photo back into her boot for safekeeping. Her face darkened with renewed worry, and she looked back at me. “He’s dying.”
Confused, I asked, “Your husband?” But I thought she just said he was gone.
She shook her head and took my hand, trying to pull me to my feet with her. She didn’t have the strength, so I stood and helped her up instead.
“What about your things?” I asked.
“Just things. Come.”
“Agnes, I d—” I began to protest, but she pulled me along behind her.
I glanced over my shoulder in the direction of Marx’s car. I was worried those men might come back and catch both of us out in the open.
“Dying,” she reminded me, and I let her pull me along toward whomever or whatever she thought was dying.
We bypassed a few more stripped, graffiti-covered cars and . . . a bathtub . . . before she stopped and pointed. I stepped around her and inhaled sharply.
A German shepherd lay on the ground, his stomach rising and falling slowly, and his eyes glassy. A red stain spread through the fur on his side and spilled over onto the pavement.
I crouched cautiously beside him and looked him over. There was a shiny tag around his neck. I reached forward, pausing only when he let out a pained wheeze, and then caught it with my fingertips. The name engraved into it made my breath catch.
Could it be the same Riley?
Then I saw the snapped leash dangling from his collar, and I knew it had to be him. How many German shepherds named Riley had a habit of breaking their leashes?
This was the same dog who had saved me last autumn. I knew it hadn’t been chance that put Riley and his owner on that walking path in the park. I had prayed for help, and it had come in the shape of a former police dog.
Riley suffered from PTSD, and the sound of my screams that night had made him break his leash and rush to my aid.
“Riley,” I whispered, brushing my fingers through his coarse fur. The old woman was right: he was dying.
What had happened? Why was he here? Where was his owner? I looked around, half-afraid I would find a body, but I didn’t see any sign of the old man Riley belonged to.
I lifted my eyes to Agnes. “What happened? Who did this to him?”
Her mouth drew down at the corners. “Found him.”
“Holly!” Marx shouted, and I flinched in surprise. He must have returned to the car and realized I wasn’t there. So much for my plan to be back before he noticed I wasn’t where he’d told me to stay.
Agnes stilled, and I saw fear flicker through her eyes. She hugged the boot with the picture to her chest and stepped closer to me.
“It’s just my friend,” I assured her.
“Here!” I hollered back. “By the blue car with . . .” I leaned sideways to read the letters spray-painted across the doors. Oh, I didn’t use that word. “Past the bathtub!” I said instead.
I heard the creepy death giggle from the doll I’d stepped on earlier and knew he was on the right track. His expression was frosty with worry and anger when he finally arrived.
He looked me over to make sure I was in one piece and then holstered his gun as he snapped, “Are you tryin’ to give me a heart attack? I told you to stay in the car.” He spared a glance for Agnes and gave her a polite nod.
He would be even more furious if I told him about the troublemakers who had come through. Maybe it would be better to keep that detail to myself. “We have to help him.”
He crouched down alongside me and looked at the dog. He examined the wound and Riley let out a pained whimper. “Holly, this is a gunshot wound. A bad one. There’s nothin’ . . .”
It took a moment for the name to register. “The dog from the park? The one who saved you?”
I showed him the name tag. “We have to do something.”
He pursed his lips and looked at Riley. I knew that expression; he didn’t think there was anything we could do, but he didn’t want to tell me.
“Please,” I pleaded, and tears burned my eyes. “He’s suffering. Even if all we can do is take him to a vet so they can put an end to the pain. Please.”
“Holly . . .” He trailed off when he met my eyes, and whatever objection he was about to offer died in his throat. He sighed. “Okay. Get the rear car door, and I’ll carry him.”
We packed Riley into the backseat with his head in my lap, and I rubbed the fur between his ears as he whined. Marx climbed behind the wheel and glanced back at me.
His serious expression melted when I brushed at my damp cheeks and forced a smile. “You ready?”
I nodded, and we pulled out of the scrapyard. Marx called his captain to fill him in on the conversation with his informant as we drove to the nearest animal hospital.
“I realize it’s not much to go on, sir,” he said after a pause.
I heard his captain’s faint voice through the speaker say something about not wanting to waste one of his best detectives on a tip that provided so little information, and that he needed more to justify opening a case.
Marx exhaled. “I’ll see what I can do.” He hung up and tossed his phone into the passenger seat in irritation.
We pulled into the animal hospital, and Marx stayed in the waiting room with me for the next two hours while they operated on Riley. When a tall, dark-haired woman finally came out to talk to us, I nearly plowed into her.
“Is he okay? Can I see him?”
She offered me a patient smile. “Riley survived the surgery. He lost a lot of blood and he’s severely dehydrated, but I expect him to make a full recovery.”
Relieved, I asked again, “Can I see him?”
“He’s still unconscious, but you can see him for a minute. I would like to keep him for observation for a couple of days just to make sure there aren’t any complications.”
She took Marx and me back to visit with him. I petted him and kissed his head, and then we left him in the vet’s very capable hands.
I insisted we stop at a store to pick up a new blanket and a few boxes of granola bars for Agnes. I told Marx he could wait in the car while I tracked her down, and he gave me a flat stare before getting out. Apparently he didn’t like that suggestion.
It didn’t take us long to find her; she was rummaging through the scrapyard for anything interesting. I thanked her for finding Riley and told her he was going to be okay. She hugged me when I handed her the blanket and food and then, much to Marx’s discomfort, hugged him too before we left.