Lethal Lies – Rebecca Zanetti

Twenty years ago The car smelled like leather and something fake. Heath had never been in a new car before, but he’d seen advertisements for “new car smell” fresheners on television a couple of times. Last month, he would’ve liked exploring the car. Now, who cared? Why bother? His head hurt, and his chest ached. The doctors had just finished poking at him, real doctors, which was weird. “Why did I have to get a physical?” he asked the driver. She looked at him in the mirror, her blue eyes sharp. “We like to have a complete medical history at the boys home.” Boys home. Yeah. What a shithole. Heath had arrived there yesterday, tried to save a mangy kitten, and then had taken a beating from the owner of the place. Ned Cobb was an asshole. But hey, Heath had saved the cat. It had been his first day, and it had sucked.

Then this lady had shown up early in the morning to take him for a routine physical. The doctors had believed him about falling on his bike to get the bruises. Like he’d ever had a bike. “How long do I have to stay at this place?” “Until you’re an adult.” That sucked. His mom’s boyfriend had killed her and then disappeared more than a week ago. Heath had been trying to find him, but the police had caught his ass, putting him into the system. At just eleven years old, he didn’t know much about the system except he didn’t want to be there. The car smell was kind of cool, but he’d give anything to smell his mom’s lotion again. Her scent had been soft and sweet, kind of like he imagined pink roses would smell.

If he’d been stronger, smarter . he could’ve saved her. Tears pricked the back of his eyes, and he ruthlessly shoved them away. It hurt, but he kept his gaze blank, especially since the lady driving the car kept watching him. She had really sharp blue eyes and too-red lips, and she’d known his name. “Do you work at the boys home?” he asked, shifting on the leather seat. “No. I just consult,” she said, her eyebrows rising as she looked at him in the mirror. Her voice sounded like the ex-lawyer who’d lived next to Heath at one time. The guy had swum constantly in a vodka bottle but had been all right and even helpful with geometry homework.

This lady probably had a bunch of degrees, too. Heath didn’t have words, so he nodded at her, not really giving a shit about a home or whatever a consultant did. Without his mom to take care of, he didn’t have anything to do, since Spyder, the fucking killer, was long gone. His mom had been sweet but so lost with the meth. Sometimes she’d loved the dangerous crystals more than him, but he got it. Drugs sucked. He rubbed his chest, picturing her pretty bluish green eyes when they’d been clear. Drug free, she’d loved him a lot. That was more than most kids got. She had always chosen losers to live with, and Heath had been getting just big enough to protect her.

But he hadn’t gotten there fast enough and she’d died. He clenched his fingers into a fist and fought not to cry in front of the lady driving the car. “You’ll like it at the home,” the woman said. “And we’ll get to know each other.” Why would the lady want to know him? “Humph.” She smiled, and her teeth were really straight. “Do you remember my name?” He scratched a scab on his elbow. “Sylvia Daniels.” He never forgot anything and could even recite the first page of a book he’d read years ago. “You’re a social worker studying smart kids.

” At least that’s what she’d said when she’d picked him up to take him to the doctor. Something told him she wasn’t giving him the full truth, but grown-ups usually didn’t. So long as they left him alone, he didn’t really care. But she probably wasn’t going to leave him alone. “Did your mother tell you anything about your father or family?” Sylvia asked. “No.” Heath picked the scab off, and his elbow bled a little. His mom had seemed afraid of somebody—maybe family—and was always looking over her shoulder. “Do you know anything about them?” “I do not,” Sylvia said, her voice changing in pitch. He leaned his head back on the seat.

Grown-ups always fucking lied. He’d gotten the feeling more than once that he and his mom were running from something. Maybe his dad was a total asshole who wanted to kill them. Made sense, considering the men his mom had ended up loving. Well, except him. She’d loved him. Maybe he was an asshole, too. He frowned. Even if he came from a jerk of a father, his mom had been a good person. Maybe he was half good.

That’d be okay. If he’d had a chance, he might’ve been all good and made her proud. Gotten her help somehow. Now he’d never get the chance. His bottom lip trembled, and he bit it. Hard. Sylvia pulled down a long dirt road by a sign that said lost springs home for boys on it. The name had an odd ring to it, and he shivered at seeing the sign again. They reached the main building, and she stopped the car. Heath slowly slid out and scanned the area.

He’d hadn’t had a chance to really look around the previous day. Now the place seemed busy. A bunch of bigger boys messed with a scruffy dog over by a stand of trees. Assholes. Some smaller kids played with a soccer ball in a dirt field a ways away. His gaze caught on a boy sitting on a log fence by himself just watching everyone. He was frowning at the big kids. Sylvia followed his gaze. “That’s Ryker. He’s another boy I study.

” Her voice had a low tone Heath couldn’t quite read, but a shiver wound down his back. He swallowed. Nothing in him wanted to be studied. Did he have a choice? Probably not. “Do you study a lot of kids?” “Only the two of you.” The shiver got bigger. What did “study” mean? He didn’t want to wonder, but he couldn’t help it. “Why the two of us?” She turned to face him full-on. “You’re special, Heath. Both of you are.

” He tried to smile for her and play the game, but his mouth wouldn’t work. Did she know all about him? About the way he could hear things other people couldn’t? His eyesight and memory were weirdly good, and he could move really fast if he had to. There was nowhere to hide from this woman, so he didn’t try. “How are we special?” “We’re going to find that out.” Maybe she didn’t know what he could do. He sure wasn’t going to tell her. Heath looked back at Ryker. There was something about the boy that called to him. Did Ryker have freaky skills, too? Why else would Sylvia study him? Heath’s heart beat faster. Sylvia smiled.

“I’ll go get Ned Cobb so we can discuss your plan here. I know you met him yesterday. Why don’t you introduce yourself to Ryker?” Heath didn’t move. What if Ryker punched him in the face? Then he’d punch back, and he’d be in a fight right off the bat. But maybe Ryker knew a way out of the boys home. Heath had known bad people during his life, and when the hair on the back of his neck rose, it was time to run. Was there anywhere to run? He rubbed the back of his neck. Sylvia disappeared into the building. Heath watched Ryker, and Ryker had turned his full attention on Heath. Then the older boy moved toward Heath, and he walked like a tiger Heath had seen on television one time.

Heath hunched his shoulders but didn’t back up. He planted his threadbare tennis shoes that were a size too big. Ryker had bluish green eyes and fresh bruises along his jaw. “I saw you save that cat yesterday.” Heath blinked. He hadn’t realized anybody had been watching. That was rare for him. “He was alone and scared.” The scruffy little thing had just wanted food, and Heath had peanuts. “Um, I’m Heath.

” Ryker eyed him. Heath cleared his voice. “Who hurt your face?” Ryker didn’t even twitch. Yeah. That’s what Heath had thought. How far did the woods go? He could run that way. “Sylvia said she studies you.” Ryker’s eyes flared and then shut down. Jumbled emotions came from him and bombarded Heath. “You her new pet?” Acid crawled through Heath’s stomach.

“I hope not,” he blurted. He shoved his hands into his pockets and looked around the perfectly clean place with no litter anywhere. The sun was too bright. Most of the clean in his life was just on the surface. This home . had dirty all over it. He could feel it. “Is this a good place?” His voice was too high, and he blanched. “No.” That’s what he’d figured.

One beating from Ned Cobb was all he was gonna take. “Then I’m outta here.” He turned for the road. “You won’t make it.” Ryker sighed. “Not today, anyway. Don’t try it.” Heath paused. “Sylvia said she wants to study me, too.” Ryker’s gaze narrowed.

“Did she say why?” “No.” Heath swallowed over a lump in his throat. The kid didn’t seem to want a friend. “Do you like being studied?” “Fuck no.” Ryker took a rock and threw it across the dirt. Heath’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah. I kinda figured that.” Ryker cocked his head. “I’m leaving as soon as I can.

” Heath’s knees wobbled. “Maybe I could come with you?” The two of them would be stronger together. The boy studied him as if he could peel Heath’s skin back and see all the way to his bones. Finally, Ryker nodded. “Are you a dickhead who tortures animals?” he asked, jerking his head toward the bigger boys. Heath breathed out, his lungs finally relaxing. “No. Like the kitten yesterday, I try to save ’em.” It seemed like Ryker needed to be saved a little. Maybe they could be friends.

If nothing else, they could cover each other’s backs. “You?” “I don’t torture, but saving seems a waste of time.” Ryker’s mouth turned down. Heath leaned against the shiny car. His chest puffed out. He could help Ryker get the hell out of this place. Maybe not be so alone. Then Ryker could help him find the dick who’d killed his mom. The bruises on Ryker made Heath’s stomach clench again. They would survive.

He’d make sure of it. “It’s gonna be okay, Ryker. I promise.” The dog yelped from a bigger boy throwing a rock at its legs. Heath’s body heated, and he pushed away from the vehicle. “Where are you going?” Ryker asked. “To save the dog.” CHAPTER 1 Present day Pictures of dead girls lined the east wall of the small home office, their eyes somehow accusatory. Anya Best paced the new carpet in the temporary apartment in Snowville, Washington, trying to avoid looking at the faces. On the west wall, a corkboard held the layout for an article she was writing on the criminal mind and how it related to social media.

Being on sabbatical from her job as a professor should have made it easy to write. The other wall held a murder board. Pictures of viciously killed redheads with neatly typed notes beneath each victim. She’d profiled their killer, but it was their faces that haunted her at night. They all looked a little like her. Red hair, youngish, bright eyed. Before they had been strangled to death. Her cell phone rang from the makeshift desk, and she jumped for it. “Hello?” she asked breathlessly. Was her sister finally checking in? A male voice cleared.

“Is this Anya?” She drew up, her breath heating. It wasn’t Loretta. Her temples thrummed. “Who is this?” “Heath Jones of Lost Bastards Investigative Services. We met briefly last week in Salt Lake when I, ah, collaborated on the Copper Killer case with Loretta.” His voice was low and authoritative. Smooth and deep. She exhaled. “Right. I remember.

” She and Loretta had been in Salt Lake with the serial killer task force, tracking down a lead. Another missing girl. “How did you get my number?” Heath had spent an hour with Loretta, who was a special agent with the FBI, and they’d compared notes. Anya had been working in the other room. “I’m a P.I. We get numbers,” he said, the tone lacking humor. “Oh.” Anya swallowed and turned away from the murder board. “Loretta isn’t here.

” Silence. “Ah, what do you mean?” he asked, his tone dropping. Tension slammed through the line. “She’s undercover and has been for nearly two days.” Anya should probably be watching her words, but Loretta had trusted the guy, at least a little. “Do you have any updates on the case? I’ve been profiling the killer and could use any new information.” She didn’t reveal the rest of her involvement. “You’re, ah, a profiler?” he asked, almost as if gathering his thoughts. She frowned. “Criminal psychologist.

” Sure, she just taught at the college, but she had the skills and knowledge. She’d been forced to use them. He was silent longer this time. “Mr. Jones?” What in the world was going on? She’d met Heath only once, very quickly, but she remembered him well. Tall with broad shoulders wide enough to play professional football. Stunning green eyes with gold flecks, and an intensity that had given her pause. Danger. Finally, he spoke. “I need to see Loretta’s files again.

Can you bring them to me?” Clearly Loretta hadn’t shared all of her files with him. “No,” Anya said. The agents guarding the entrance to the apartment building wouldn’t let her leave anyway. She was under lockdown until Loretta returned from making herself bait for the damn killer. “Sorry.” A sharp rap sounded on the door. “I have to go. Bye.” She clicked off and turned to run through the narrow living room for the door. Was there news on Loretta? She flung open the door.

Two men stood in the bright hallway. “Anya Best?” The first guy had brown eyes, wavy dark hair, and a charming smile. He stood like he could handle himself. A jacket covered his large frame, and a slight bulge showed at his waist. Gun. He had a gun at his waist. She gulped. All right. She stepped back. “Who are you?” The guy dug out a badge holder and flipped it open.

“U.S. Marshal D. J. Smithers.” She blinked. “The FBI agent downstairs let you in?” “Of course,” he said smoothly. The other guy, much shorter than his buddy, nodded soberly. He had nearly black eyes, adult acne, and a slight paunch over his dress pants. “We just need a moment of your time.

” “Why?” If this was about the task force, the FBI would be present. “I don’t understand. Is this about the Copper Killer case?” She needed Loretta to be there. Where was her sister, damn it? “No.” Smithers tucked his badge back into his coat. “It’s about Heath Jones and the Lost Bastards detective agency.” Anya’s mouth dropped open, and the phone felt heavy in her hand. She’d just disconnected the call. Like, seconds ago. “Um.

” Smithers kept her gaze. “We have your phone bugged just in case. We’ve been watching the Lost Bastards, and we know that Heath met with your sister last week. When he just called—” Air burst out of Anya’s lungs. “Bugged? My phone?” Her mind spun. “This doesn’t make sense. I mean, what does this have to do with the Copper Killer case?” “Nothing,” Smithers said calmly. “This is about Lost Bastards.” Her lips trembled. “How—I mean, why—No, how are you here so fast?” “Oh.

” Smithers relaxed. “That. We were scouting the area when the call came in. Happy coincidence that we could get here so quickly.” There wasn’t any such thing as a happy coincidence. Anya’s stomach started to hurt. Something was off. She turned toward the other guy. “I didn’t see your identification.” He straightened and then solemnly drew out a badge.

Her body relaxed. The cops were the good guys. “I’m sorry to be so suspicious. This is just weird.” She looked closer at the badge. Her stomach dropped. It was a good fake, but a fake nonetheless. She’d seen the genuine thing just a week before. Why have a fake badge? There was no way he had made it past the FBI guard downstairs. Somehow they’d snuck in.

These guys wanted Heath Jones, and all she’d done was talk to him on the phone. If she screamed, would anybody hear? Most people were at work right now and not in their apartments, and the FBI agents only covered the entrances to the building. What kind of mess was Heath in? Did it have anything to do with Loretta’s case? God. What if it did? She had to get out of there. So she forced another smile. “I don’t really know Heath Jones or his business. What’s this really about?” Smithers didn’t miss a beat. “We’re concerned about them. It looks like they’ve gotten caught up in a dangerous case with Colombian drug cartels, and we’re concerned for their safety.” Colombian drug cartels? Seriously? Who was this guy? That was the biggest load of crap she’d ever heard.

At the moment, she had more important issues to deal with. Heath and his agency would have to handle their own problems, and if she had to throw him under a bus, she would. She moved closer to Smithers to show trust. “Do you have a card? I’m happy to call you if he contacts me again.” Smithers nodded. “Actually, we’re hoping you can arrange a meeting.” She glanced down at her phone and clicked a button. “His number didn’t come up when he called.” She turned the phone toward Smithers. “See?” His eyebrows drew down in the middle.

“That’s unfortunate.” “It sure is.” She reached for the door. “I’m sorry, but I have a case to work on right now. I’ll contact the Marshals Service if I hear from Heath again.” His body straightened, and he planted a hand over hers. She coughed, her body stiffening. Adrenaline shot through her veins. “I think we need to make a plan,” he said, his face lowering toward hers. She squinted.

Were those colored contacts? Looking closer, she could almost make out putty along his jawline. She tried to jerk free. The man was in disguise? Why? He held her in place. “Let go of me,” she gritted out, looking frantically around. “No,” he said easily, also scanning the area. “Quiet little apartment building, isn’t it?” His buddy laughed. Thunder rolled outside. “I have a feeling you’re the key to getting the Lost Bastards where we want them,” Smithers said, pivoting and tugging her down the hallway. “No.” Anya pulled back, setting her feet.

She opened her mouth to scream just as Smithers turned and clamped a hand over it, easily dragging her toward the stairwell at the end of the hall. She fought hard, trying to yell into his hand. He lifted her and carried her down two flights of stairs to the basement. Unbelievable. It had been that easy to get into the building and avoid any guards? She struggled, but before she could harm him, they were on the back street next to a black sedan The FBI agents were out front, damn it. Snow smashed into her face, and the wind pierced her. She was about to be kidnapped because of a phone call? She shrugged back and shot her elbow into Smithers’s gut. He grunted and dropped her to her feet, still keeping a tight hold. Tears filled her eyes as she battled against his strength. Suddenly, an engine roared down the road, and a battered Chevy truck barreled close, smashing hard into the sedan.

The sedan collided with a parking meter and metal crumpled with a loud crunch. She yelped and jumped back, finally freeing herself. Her breath, heated, shot out of her in a loud exhale. Her heart thundered wildly. What in the world? The truck swung around, and the passenger door was thrown open. “Get in,” bellowed a low voice. She blinked at seeing Heath Jones, the detective from Lost Bastards. Her knees felt like jelly. D. J.

Smithers scrambled beneath his jacket, yanking out a shiny gun. She had about two seconds to go with her instincts, so she did. She ran across the snow, leaping through the passenger side of the truck and slamming the door. Heath punched the gas, and the truck fishtailed as it roared away from the sidewalk. Bullets struck the side of the truck with an odd pattering sound. She screamed, curling forward. “Get down.” Heath grabbed her neck and shoved her further down, sliding lower in the seat but not losing any speed. His hand was rough and his voice tense, but he didn’t hurt her. She blinked, her heart thundering.

The glove box fell open, and a gun dropped onto her knee. She grabbed it and held on tight. With a cop for a dad, guns weren’t foreign to her, but she’d never actually shot one. The truck fishtailed again, around a corner and then several more. Finally, Heath released her neck. “Are you okay?” “No,” she bellowed, shoving herself to the bench seat. Her ribs hurt from the rapid beating of her heart. “How?” She looked out the back window at an empty and snowy road. Heath glanced her way. “How what?” She swallowed and surveyed him.

At least six foot four, tightly muscled, definitely strong and fast. Brown hair waved over his collar, and his greenish gold eyes pierced right through her. While the fake marshals had been shooting guns, there was no doubt this guy was twice as dangerous. What had she done, leaping into his truck? “Um.” She fumbled for the door handle. “I’m driving too fast for you to jump out.” He kept his broad hands on the steering wheel. She blinked, and her shoulders trembled. “What is going on? Why were those guys bugging my phone? Why do they want you?” she yelled. His frown drew down his dark eyebrows. “That’s a very long story about a different case that has nothing to do with you, and I’m sorry. I had no clue they were getting close enough to start bugging phones of people I barely know.” “They shot at you,” she whispered, her mind reeling. Good guys usually didn’t have people shooting at them. Heath glanced her way once more. “Yeah. Again, sorry about that.” She leaned her head back. Somebody had just shot real bullets at her. Bile rose in her throat. God, this was getting too confusing, and she was having trouble breathing as her adrenaline ebbed. She hadn’t slept in two nights. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw an image of her sister, in danger and hunting a serial killer. What had Loretta been thinking to set herself up as bait for a murderer? Even though she was an FBI agent, she was still human. Still vulnerable. Anya yanked herself back to the moment. She had to think. “Why are those fake cops chasing you and now me?” He looked at her again, really looked this time. “How did you know they were fake?” Being his sole focus heated her whole body. Man, he was something to look at, but bad boys had never drawn her. “I met a real U.S. Marshal last week who’s a friend of my sister’s. Saw her badge.” Plus, her instincts were fairly decent at knowing when people were lying, considering her background as a criminal psychologist. “There was something not quite right about them.” Admiration glimmered in Heath’s stunning eyes. “Nicely done.” “I guess.” She shrugged back inside herself. Something about him made her feel feminine and yet strong. Must be the bad-boy lure. She knew better. She eyed the snowy trees flashing by outside. “Why are they after you, Heath?” “It’s a totally different case from the Copper Killer case. Don’t worry about it. They’ll leave you alone since I know they’ve been bugging your phone. As a lead to me, you’ve been blown.” She swallowed, cold clacking through her. That was weird, right? “Who are you?” she whispered. What had she been thinking to jump into his truck?

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