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Kovac and Liska take on multiple twisted cases as #1 New York Times bestselling author Tami Hoag explores a murder from the past, a murder from the present, and a life that was never meant to be.
As the bitter weather of late fall descends on Minneapolis, Detective Nikki Liska is restless, already bored with her new assignment to the cold case squad. She misses the rush of pulling an all-nighter and the sense of urgency of hunting a killer on the loose. Most of all she misses her old partner, Sam Kovac. Kovac is having an even harder time adjusting to Liska’s absence but is distracted from his troubles by an especially brutal double homicide: a prominent university professor and his wife, bludgeoned and hacked to death in their home with a ceremonial Japanese samurai sword. Liska’s case—the unsolved murder of a decorated sex crimes detective—is less of a distraction: Twenty-five years later, there is little hope for finding the killer who got away.
Meanwhile, Minneapolis resident Evi Burke has a life she only dreamed of as a kid in and out of foster care: a beautiful home, a loving family, a fulfilling job. But a danger from her past is stalking her idyllic present, bent on destroying the perfect life she was never meant to have.
As the trails of two crimes a quarter of a century apart twist and cross, Kovac and Liska race to find answers before a killer strikes again.
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TAMI HOAG is the #1 international bestselling author of more than thirty books. There are more than forty million copies of her books in print in more than thirty languages. Renowned for combining thrilling plots with character-driven suspense, Hoag first hit the New York Times bestseller list with Night Sins, and each of her books since has been a bestseller. She lives in California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Twenty-five years ago
Ted Duffy loved to swing the axe. He loved the motion—pulling back, stretching his body taut like a crossbow then releasing the power in his muscles. He probably put more into it than was necessary to get the job done. He didn’t care. This was his workout, his therapy, his outlet for the toxic emotions that built up inside him all week.
Swing, crack! Swing, crack!
There was a rhythm to it he found soothing, and a violence he found satisfying.
Day in and day out he dealt with people he would sooner have sent to hell: the dregs of society, sickos and perverts. The things he’d seen would make the average citizen vomit and give them nightmares. He lived in a horror story, fighting a losing battle with no end in sight.
He’d been working Sex Crimes for seven years now. His initial efforts to remain detached from the grime of it had gradually worn him out. His plan to do a brief turn in the unit then use it as a springboard to a more prestigious position in another department had eventually crumbled and collapsed in on itself.
Turned out he was damned good at the job that sucked him into the filthy gutter of human depravity. And the longer he did it, the better he became. And the better he became, the harder it was to escape. The harder it was to escape, the bigger the stain on the very fabric of his soul. The deeper the stain soaked in, the greater his understanding of the minds of the predators he hunted. The greater his understanding, the more his idealistic self chipped away, the more the filth soaked into him until the only thing he recognized of his original self was the face in the mirror every morning—and even that was eroding.
He had always been a good-looking guy, with chiseled features and smooth skin and a thick head of jet-black hair. The face that stared back at him these days as he shaved had aged twice as fast in half as much time as his twin brother’s. Every day the lines seemed deeper, the eyes emptier, the hair thinner and grayer. He was becoming something he didn’t want to recognize, inside and out.
And so he chopped wood on the stump of an elm tree out behind his house.
Swing, crack! Swing, crack!
He lived in an older neighborhood of square two-story clapboard houses with front porches that had mostly been closed in against the brutal Minnesota winters, and backyards separated by tall, weathered privacy fences. His property backed onto a large, rambling park that surrounded one the city’s many lakes. The park let him have the illusion of living in the woods.
Mr. Lumberjack, living in the woods, swinging his axe.
Swing, crack! Swing, crack!
Despite the cold wet weather, he was sweating inside the layers of clothing he wore—thermal underwear, a flannel shirt, a down-filled vest. He hated this time of year. Every day was shorter than the last. Night began to fall in late afternoon. Winter could arrive on any given day, and stay until April. They had had an ice storm on Halloween and a blizzard on Veteran’s Day, followed by three days of rain that had caused flash flooding in low-lying areas. The odd day of stunning, electric blue skies and a paltry few lingering fall colors couldn’t make up for the stretches of bleak gray or the damp cold that knifed to the bone. It buried its blade between his shoulders as he wiped the moisture from his face on the sleeve of his shirt, and hoisted the axe again.
The temperature was dropping quickly. The intermittent spitting rain that had been falling off and on all afternoon was giving way to a pelting snow that cut like tiny shards of glass, stinging his ruddy cheeks.
Every winter he bitched about the Minnesota weather and vowed to move to Florida the day he retired from the police department. But if he moved to Florida, he wouldn’t have any reason to split wood. What would he do for his sanity then?
Like he stood any chance of getting away from here anyway, he thought, looking up at the house, where lights had come on in the kitchen and in one bedroom upstairs. His family all lived in Bloomington. Barbie The Ball Buster’s family was entrenched in the southern suburbs. The kids had all their cousins and friends here.
Maybe he should go alone. Maybe everyone would be happier if he did.
He sighed and picked up another chunk of wood, set it on end on the stump, stepped back and swung the axe.
Mr. Lumberjack. Mr. Sex Crimes Detective of the Year. Featured speaker at conferences all over the Midwest. Expert on the subject of human degradation.
Swing, crack! Swing, crack!
He tried to concentrate on the silence between the small explosions of the axe striking the wood. He sucked cold air into his smoke-blackened lungs. His heart pounded too hard from the effort. The muscles in his shoulders cramped. He felt like he might have a heart attack at any moment.
Barbie would revive him and kill him again with her bare hands, furious to be left with the kids and the mortgage and the Catholic school tuitions.
Theirs was a marriage in the way of many couples—a partnership of paychecks that didn’t stretch far enough, intimacy a thing of memory, the future a projected image at the far end of a treadmill that ran too fast.
Some days all he wanted was off.
They resented each other more days than not. His wife had ceased to think of him as a man. He was a paycheck, a roommate, a pain in the ass. He had sought validation elsewhere. It wasn’t hard to get. Consequently, it didn’t mean anything. And the spiral of his life went down and down. He didn’t like what his marriage had become. He didn’t like what he had become.
His grandmother had always warned him about purgatory. Hell’s waiting room, she used to call it. Purgatory had become his life.
Sometimes he wondered if death could be so much worse.
Swing, crack! Swing, crack!
The final two sounds seemed to come from far away, like an echo.
Ted Duffy was dead before he could wonder why.
The first bullet hit him between the shoulder blades as he held the axe high over his head. It shattered bone and deflated a lung, tearing through a major artery. The second bullet struck him in the head, entering above the right ear, exiting below the left eye.
He dropped face-first to the ground at the base of the tree stump, his eyes open but seeing nothing, blood pooling beneath his cheek and seeping into the new-fallen snow.
“Duffy was a great guy.”
“That’s not one of the criteria for picking a cold case,” Nikki Liska argued.
Gene Grider narrowed his eyes. He had a face like a bulldog, and breath to match. “What the hell is wrong with you? Do you need a Midol or something?”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “What decade did you crawl up out of, Grider? Smells like 1955.”
Grider had worked Homicide before her time, but not that long before her time. He had put in thirty years, doing stints in Homicide, Robbery, and Sex Crimes. His last few years on the job had been spent working special community initiatives—jobs Nikki would have thought required a lot more charm than Grider could scrape together on his best day.
“It’s twenty-five years since Duff was gunned down,” he said, slamming his hand down on the table. “Twenty-five years this month! It’s a disgrace that this case has never been solved. This is what I’m coming out of retirement for. We’re finally getting a dedicated cold case unit. This case should be front and center!”
“It’s not like nobody’s worked the case,” Liska said. “People have worked the case all along.”
“On the side, with no money,” Grider complained.
Which was exactly how the majority of cold cases were worked all over the country—piecemeal, if at all. Cold case units were far more common on television than in reality. In the real world, police departments operated on taxpayer dollars, funding that was continually being cut to the bone. Homicide detectives all had their old unsolved cases that they continued to chip away at when they could, and passed them on to other detectives when they transferred or retired. It was a wonder any of them got solved, considering.
“The same as all of these cases,” Nikki pointed out.
She had spent the last two months going half blind reviewing cold cases dating back to the mid-seventies. Of the two hundred cases she had evaluated, she had pulled sixty seven for the final round of reviews. Grider had looked through another two hundred and pulled fifty nine. They had whittled the list down to a hundred, and now had to prioritize. They would be lucky if the federal grant money being used to set up the unit got them through half the cases on their short list.
“This isn’t the same thing,” Grider snapped. “Duff was one of us. Where the hell is your loyalty?”
“This isn’t about loyalty,” Liska said. “It can’t matter that Duffy was a cop—”
“Nice to know what you think of your peers,” Grider sneered.
“Oh, get off your high horse,” she snapped. “It’s about solvability. We’ve got a limited budget. We have to go after the cases we have a hope in hell of closing. You couldn’t close Duffy’s case in twenty-five years for a reason—there’s jack shit to go on. He was shot from a distance. There were no witnesses, no fingerprints, no DNA, no trace evidence of any value,” she said, ticking the points off on her fingers.
“We’re supposed to spend money and man hours going back over a case not likely to ever be solved?” she asked. “What case doesn’t make the cut because we’re giving priority to an unsolvable crime? The serial rapes from 1997? The child murder from 1985? The hit-and-run death of a father of six? Which one do we leave out? All of those cases have forensic evidence that can be retested with better technology than before. All of them are potentially solvable.”
The new Homicide lieutenant, Joan Mascherino, looked from Liska to Grider and back like an impassive tennis umpire.
She was a neat and proper woman with auburn hair cut in a neat and proper style. Perfectly polished in her conservative gray suit and pearl earrings, she was Liska’s height—short. Kindred spirits in the world of the vertically challenged—or so Nikki hoped.
She had learned long ago to take any advantage she could get in this profession still dominated by men. She certainly wasn’t above playing the girls-gotta-stick-together card when she could do it subtly. But Joan Mascherino hadn’t gotten where she was by being a pushover. In her mid-fifties, she had come on the job when discrimination against women was a way of life, and still worked her way up the ranks to lieutenant. Running Homicide was just another feather in her cap on her way to bigger things. Rumor had it she would be on her way upstairs to rub elbows with the deputy chiefs in the not-too-distant future.
Homicide’s last boss, Kasselmann, had used the closing of the Doc Holiday murders as a springboard to being named Deputy Chief of the Investigations Bureau—as if he’d had anything to do with solving the serial killer’s crimes. He just happened to be sitting in the office at the time.
Mascherino had come over from Internal Affairs just in time to be handed the plum of putting together the cold case unit, which would—initially, at least—be high profile and put her in the media spotlight.
Gene Grider, retired for eighteen months, had come back to work this unit, offering himself at part-time pay, which made him very attractive to the number crunchers trying to squeeze every penny out of the grant money. But it also augmented Grider’s pension, and allowed him to bring his own agenda along with him. His agenda was Ted Duffy.
And so went the law enforcement food chain.
Nikki had her own agenda too. She had leveraged her role in closing the Doc Holiday cases to get Kasselmann to recommend her to this unit. When she caught a case in Homicide, it wasn’t unusual to be on for twenty-four hours or more, straight. In Cold Case, there was no urgency. There were regular hours, giving her more time with her boys.
She had spent the better part of a decade in Homicide. The unit was her home away from home, her family away from family. She loved the job, was very good at the job. But RJ and Kyle, at fourteen and sixteen, were growing into young men, struggling through the pitfalls of adolescence as they made the transition from boyhood to independence and maturity. They needed an adult available, and she was it. God knew their father didn’t qualify for the job.
It had been during the height of the Doc Holiday hunt that Nikki had realized she didn’t know enough about what was going on in the life of her oldest son, Kyle. The lives of teenagers were so much more complicated now than when she was a kid. They could be lost so easily while she was looking away—lost literally and figuratively. No matter how much she loved her job, she loved her boys a million times more.
News of the grant money coming in for a cold case unit had started circulating at the perfect time. She would still be investigating homicides, but the urgency and long hours of a fresh case would be removed. The challenges would be different, but she would still be fighting for a victim.
Except that at the moment she was fighting against a victim. Another detective, no less.
“If Ted Duffy’s murder isn’t on this agenda, I’m out of here,” Grider threatened.
Like he was some kind of super cop. Like he was Derek Jeter coming out of retirement to save the Yankees or something.
“And every cop in Minneapolis is going to be up in arms about it,” Grider said, cutting a hard look at Liska. “Except this one,” he muttered, then put his attention back on the people he wanted to sway. “Duffy’s is the only unsolved homicide on the books involving a police officer. It’s a black eye on the department. And I would think now—especially now—that would mean something.”
Liska sat up straighter, incredulous. “Is that a threat? Is that what you’re trying to so cleverly slip into that rant? You’ll set a fire amongst the rank and file if you don’t get your way?”
Grider shrugged. “I’m just saying people are already on edge.”
“You’re a fucking bully.”
Lieutenant Mascherino cut her a disapproving look. “We can do without the language, Sergeant.”
Nikki bit her tongue. Great. She had a mouth like a sailor on holiday, and a schoolmarm for a lieutenant.
They sat at a round white melamine table in a war room commandeered from Homicide. Round tables were supposed to foster feelings of equality and cooperation, according to the industrial and organizational psychology expert the department had wasted taxpayer dollars on during the last remodeling of the offices. The same expert had recommended painting the office walls mauve, and had told them they needed to remove the U bolts from the walls and floors in the interview rooms so they had nowhere to cuff violent offenders if the need arose, because the threat of physical restraint might be deemed “intimidating.”
Nikki could still see the look on her partner Kovac’s face as they listened to the presentation. Nobody had a better “Are you fucking kidding me?” face than Kovac.
Weeks later a suspect had yanked a useless decorative shelf off the wall of an interview room and cracked Kovac in the head with it. He still had a little scar. Nikki had kneecapped the suspect with her tactical baton before he could do worse. Kovac had a head like an o...
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