Take the Key and Lock Her Up - A Deadly Games Thriller (Book#4) - August 2014
Publisher – Avon Impulse (Harper Collins)
Availability – ebook or paperback, must order online
Lena Diaz returns with another sexy, thrilling Deadly Games novel and the darkest question of all: What do you do when your freedom could cost you your life?
Detective Emily O'Malley just stumbled upon a killer's lair—and the remains of a woman he kept locked away for years. But this killer isn't done yet. More women are missing, and all clues point to Devlin Buchanan—the man who seems to know just a little too much. Emily's instincts are rarely wrong, and now they're telling her this sexy, mysterious man is hiding something big …
As a trained assassin for EXIT Inc—a top-secret mercenary group posing as an international tour company—Devlin "Devil" Buchanan isn't afraid to take justice into his own hands. But when the hot new detective on his trail gets too close to the organization and a contract is placed on her life, Devlin does the only thing he can: he turns rogue agent and kidnaps her to save her life.
With EXIT Inc closing in and passions running hot between them, Emily and Devlin must work together to find the missing women and clear both their names before time runs out … and the key to freedom is thrown away.
Read Reviews | Read Excerpt
Arresting Developments is a finalist in the Greater Detroit RWA 2016 Booksellers Best Award!
A crimson flake of peeling paint stubbornly clung to the closed basement door, fluttering in the hot breeze like a red flag, warning Detective Emily O’Malley not to follow the suspect inside the house. Ghostly echoes of the victim’s terrified screams still slammed against the inside of Emily’s skull, jagged bursts of sound that eroded her courage and shattered her resolve.
The Glock seventeen clutched in her right hand was slippery with sweat and shook so hard the heavy gun dipped precariously toward the ground. She grasped the gun tighter, steadying it. A two-handed hold would have been better, but she was using her left hand to hold her cell phone, keeping the line open between her and the police dispatcher.
God help me, I don’t know what to do.
And she never had. That was the problem. In her brief stint as a beat cop, she’d fooled most of her peers, her boss—and her family—into thinking she was just as qualified and competent as the rest of the cops she worked with. And most days, she was. But give her a domestic violence situation or a traffic stop where something unexpected happened—like the driver pulling a gun on her—and everything inside her froze up.
Tuck, her partner back then and fellow detective now, had been brutally honest, telling her she had slow reaction times, lousy instincts, and poor judgment under pressure. But he’d never shared those opinions with anyone else. Instead, he had her back and he’d helped her study for the detective’s exam with him, joking that he wanted to get her off the streets to keep the public safe.
His plan had worked. Six months ago she and Tuck had both aced their exams and were promoted to detective. Since then, she’d solved and closed twice as many cases as any other detective in Georgia. For the first time in her twenty-six years of life, she excelled at something. She’d finally found her niche. And yet, here she was, once again forced to do what she did not do best—make life and death decisions under pressure.
Of all the highly-qualified beat cops in the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department the suspect could have driven past, Emily was the anointed one. She was the one on her way home from work who’d recognized the pale, terrified looking woman in the passenger seat of the white pickup truck as the young mother of two who’d been missing for four days.
Sometimes irony was a bitch.
So Emily had turned around in the middle of the nearly deserted, two-lane rural highway and tailed the suspect to this ramshackle, ivy-choked house with nothing but Spanish-moss dripping oak trees and soybean fields for neighbors.
“Where’s my backup?” she whispered into the phone.
“Detectives Tuck and Jones are the closest, about eighteen minutes out, with patrol officers a few minutes behind them.”
Eighteen minutes? Virginia Hawley was behind that door, in the hands of a man who was cornered and probably feeling desperate. Hawley didn’t have eighteen minutes.
She might not even have one.
Assuming Emily could even somehow get through that solid, locked, exterior door, odds were high Hawley might get hurt or killed when Emily busted inside. Those gloomy, well-documented statistics about high casualties in armed entry situations were the main reasons they were always a last resort. But standing around with her phone to her ear wasn’t increasing Hawley’s odds of survival either. Or at least, Emily didn’t think so.
Negotiate. She had to get the suspect talking, draw his attention away from his victim. Emily desperately wished she could remember what she’d learned in the one class she’d taken on hostage negotiation. Three years ago. At the police academy.
She banged her fist on the door.
“Police. Open up. Let Mrs. Hawley go and we won’t force our way inside. No one has to get hurt.”
Okay, so the “we” bluff sounded pathetic, even to her. Especially since the suspect had seen her—alone, without backup—when she’d chased him to the basement entrance. Not surprisingly, the suspect didn’t respond to her bluff.
She banged on the door and repeated her plea. Again, nothing. She checked the digital display on her cell phone. One precious minute had passed. Seventeen more minutes until backup would arrive. What had the captor done to his victim during the last sixty seconds? What would he do to her in the next sixty seconds?
A high-pitched scream echoed from inside. Emily’s stomach tightened into a hard, cold, knot. “Where are Tuck and Jones?” she whispered into the phone again.
“You’re a good ways out of town, O’Malley. Hang tight. They’ll be there as soon as they can.”
The dispatcher’s patronizing tone had Emily gritting her teeth. That scream, it had sounded heart-wrenching, full of terror. Cradling her phone between her cheek and her shoulder, she tightened her right hand around the pistol and grabbed the doorknob with her other hand. Probably a waste of time. She already knew it was locked since she’d tried the door when she first got there. But she had to do something, even if it meant just going through the motions.
The knob turned. The door popped open several inches. She gasped and snatched her hand back, quickly retreating a good five feet. Wrapping both hands around her gun, she aimed at the intimidating dark sliver of black between the doorjamb and the open door.
“Detective,” the dispatcher said, “what’s happening?”
A trap. It has to be a trap.
That door had been locked earlier. Or had it? Had she been so nervous that she hadn’t turned the knob hard enough and only thought it was locked? No, no. She wasn’t so pathetic that she couldn’t tell the difference between a locked door and an unlocked one. Everything about this felt wrong. She had to wait for help.
“I’m okay,” she whispered. “I’m—”
Another agonized scream erupted from the basement. The deafening sound of a gunshot, then another, reverberated from somewhere behind the blood-red door.
That was it. She couldn’t wait any longer. “Shots fired. Repeat, shots fired. I’m going in. Tell Jones and Tuck to get their asses up here and save my ass.”
She ended the call and silenced her phone so the suspect wouldn’t hear anything if the dispatcher called her back. After shoving the phone into her pants pocket, she drew a deep breath, then flung the door open and ran inside sweeping her gun out in front of her.
Blinking furiously and crouching down to make herself less of a target, she waited a tense few seconds for her eyes to adjust from the brightness outside to the dark interior. She fully expected a bullet to rip into her and was vaguely shocked when it didn’t. If she were still a beat cop, she’d be wearing her Kevlar vest right now, to help protect her from the suspect’s bullets. But as a detective, she was rarely in a situation that called for Kevlar, so the vest was gathering dust at the office, leaving her completely vulnerable right now.
Her vision cleared, but it didn’t do her much good. Other than the patch of sunlight in the doorway, the rest of the basement was pitch black. Directly in front of her and to her right were concrete walls. There was only one way to go. Left.
A few short feet in she was forced to turn again, following the wall like a rat in a maze.
Or a police officer heading to her slaughter.
Fear reared its ugly head, pushing her back toward the door. No. She stopped. For once, Em, push past the fear. Hawley doesn’t have a chance if you don’t at least try. This is why you first became a cop, to help people. So do it!
She shuffled forward. The fear was still there, dragging her down, making her movements sluggish. But she kept going the only way she knew how—one step at a time.
The darkness was absolute. She trailed her fingers on the winding wall to guide her, listening intently for sounds that might give away the suspect’s location. But the only noise she heard was her own breathing, coming in short, choppy pants. She focused on taking deeper, even breaths, to make as little noise as possible.
A dim light came into view, about twenty feet away, high up toward the ceiling. Her muscles bunched and cramped, her body in survival mode, trying to slow her progress. But that last scream, and the gunshots, the thought of Hawley lying bleeding somewhere in need of help, spurred her on. If one of her sisters, or her mother were in here, Emily would pray someone helped them. She could do no less for Virginia Hawley.
The light turned out to be from a small, grimy window at the top of the wall. It did little to lighten the rest of the space. But even without that window, this part of the basement seemed less dark than the rest, a shade of gray instead of the inky black that consumed everything else. There must be a light up ahead, or another basement window, perhaps around a corner.
She crept forward, feeling along the bumpy surface of the wall, edging toward the patch of gray. The wall abruptly ended and she sensed more than saw that she was in a large open space. Exposed. Vulnerable. The heavy utility belt she’d hated wearing as a uniformed officer would have been a Godsend right now because it would have had a flashlight attached to it. Instead, all she had was her gun and her cell phone.
Should she use the flashlight app on her phone? At most, the tiny LED light would illuminate a few feet directly in front of her. That would just make her more of a target, like a neon “shoot me” sign. She reluctantly left her phone in her pocket and inched her way toward the promise of light up ahead.
No more screams met her as she made her way across the room. The air here seemed thicker, mustier, almost . . . rotten, much as she envisioned a crypt might be. She shuddered and sent up a quick prayer that this place wouldn’t become her crypt.
Where was the suspect? If this was a trap, why hadn’t he met her at the door? He was probably watching her right now, following her, training his gun on her from some unseen hiding place. Was he playing a deadly game? Enjoying her fear?
A scratching noise sounded off to her right.
She jerked toward the noise, her hands wrapped so tightly around the gun her fingers ached. What was that? A rat? A snake seeking cool relief from the late afternoon heat outside? Or something far more sinister?
Holding her breath, she squinted into the darkness. No shadows separated from the others. No footsteps echoed against the concrete floor. There was nothing but silence. Her lungs demanded oxygen. She allowed herself small breaths, fighting the urge to gulp in a huge lungful of air all at once. Her teeth began to chatter even though she wasn’t cold.
Don’t panic. Use your training. You don’t have a partner to lean on this time. You have to do this.
She inched forward again and abruptly collided with a wall, banging her forehead against the concrete block. She let out a low curse before she could stop herself. She tensed, listening, waiting, praying that the suspect hadn’t heard her.
Her pulse raced so hard she could hear each thump of her heartbeat rushing through her ears. When no one leaped out at her from the dark, she edged to her right, following the wall until she turned a corner. The darkness gave way to blessed light. A row of short, rectangular windows ran along the top of the wall, illuminating a long, narrow corridor.
Her fear of what lay behind her in the dark trumped her fear of what might lay ahead. She hurried forward. Half a dozen doors were built into the wall on her right at regular intervals. Each of them was solid, except for a small square glass inset near the top. She pressed her back against the wall between two of the doors, clutching her gun.
She tried to open the door closest to her. Locked. She turned, stood on her tiptoes, barely able to reach the bottom of the glass window in the door. Peering inside was as useless as staring down into a dark well. Continuing down the row of doors, she tried each knob. All locked, until she reached the last one. The knob turned easily in her hand. Determined not to give herself time to think—and freeze—she crouched down, flung the door open and ran inside, sweeping her gun back and forth.
As her eyes adjusted to the meager light from the hallway that filtered in, she inventoried the room. Approximately nine by nine, it was empty, except for a cot against the far wall. And there, huddled on that cot with a blanket thrown over her, was a woman. She lay facing away from Emily, her long brown hair draped over her shoulders.
Emily took a quick glance behind her and hurried forward, crouching down beside the cot.
“Mrs. Hawley,” she whispered. “I’m Detective O’Malley. I’m here to help you.”
When she gently touched the woman’s shoulder, what should have been warm flesh was soft and cool without the resistance she’d expected. Emily frowned and pulled the blanket back. Her breath caught in her throat. She hadn’t touched a shoulder. The blanket had been covering a pillow. But that wasn’t all it had covered.
Bile rose in her throat at the sour, musty smell of the blanket and cot. Lying on that cot beside the pillow was a pile of bones. What had once been connected with muscles and flesh had nothing left to hold them together, nothing to indicate whether the person they’d once belonged to had been young or old, male or female.
Except for the long, dark hair.
Fighting down nausea, Emily forced herself to stand and lean over the pillow to look at the woman’s face. As she’d expected from the condition of the rest of the corpse, there was nothing to see except a grinning skull. The hair draped across the pillow appeared to be human hair, but it was attached to the skull with some kind of cord. This poor woman had decomposed a long time ago. She wasn’t Virginia Hawley.
The realization of what Emily had stumbled into hit her like a hurricane, sweeping away her caution and what was left of her courage. The long row of doors. The damp, rotten smell that filled the air. The skeleton on the cot in front of her. This wasn’t a basement. It was a prison. How many victims were down here? How many were in the other rooms, the other cells? And where was Mrs. Hawley?
Coming in here without backup had been a mistake, a potentially fatal mistake. She had to get out. Now. She lunged to her feet. A faint shuffling noise sounded behind her. She whirled around just as the door slammed shut.