Authors: Sarah Varland
He was mad. And she got that. She’d be mad, too, in his shoes, but she had to investigate everyone who seemed like a reasonable suspect. So far, Matt’s background seemed more than a little suspicious. Unfortunately.
But she’d watched the anger on Will’s face morph into fear due to the message Luke had sent, and then into concern, presumably for her.
“So I guess your theory might not be as crazy as I thought,” she offered lamely, hoping he’d be able to move past the fact that she’d unintentionally offended him.
“Sounds like it.” His voice was gruff. When he didn’t add anything else, she turned back to look out the window again. They were approaching her house.
“Thanks for today,” she said quietly as she unbuckled her seat belt and eased the passenger-side door open. “For the most part, I enjoyed it. And as for the less enjoyable parts...thank you for protecting me.”
She stepped out of the car, hoping Will would say something, anything, to bridge the awkward distance that had sprung up between them.
“I’ll unload your four-wheeler for you.”
At least he still cared, at least a little, if he was willing to do that. McKenna nodded. “Thanks. Need some help?”
“Nah. Go ahead inside. I’m sure you’re tired.”
She was, but she had a feeling he was more interested in getting her to leave him alone than in the rest she might need. Will was the kind of guy who’d need time to process if he was going to get over the bomb she’d apparently dropped when she’d mentioned Matt’s name. She’d anticipated he’d be upset, but hadn’t realized how personally he’d take it.
Of course, she realized as she climbed the steps to the front door, that was how Will was. He was a loyal friend. She knew from watching him grow up that he didn’t let that many people too close to him, but once he did, he was invested in that relationship.
She hated that she’d hurt him.
McKenna eased the front door open. It wasn’t locked, so Anna must be home. She was careful to reach an arm down and be ready to block one or both of the dogs from escaping. They’d gotten it into their heads lately that they should try to run out every time the door was open.
But neither dog greeted her at the door. McKenna tensed and raised her gun, hoping she didn’t scare Anna, but feeling uneasy enough that she felt she should investigate the silent house with it out and ready. She looked back outside to where Will was still working but decided against bothering him. He was already irritated with her, there was no sense in playing damsel-in-distress and drafting him to be her unwilling knight-in-shining-armor yet again.
She dropped her backpack next to the door and left the door open, so that if something was wrong, Will could at least hear her scream for help. Though she was hoping it wouldn’t come to that.
Then she heard Mollie whimper from somewhere in the back of the house. McKenna’s stomach clenched as she hurried down the hallway to where she’d heard the noise. She prepared herself for the worst, hating the idea that something could have happened to her faithful four-legged friend.
But when she turned the corner into her bedroom, she found that Mollie was physically fine. So was Checkers.
It was Anna, lying on the bloodstained carpet, who wasn’t fine.
McKenna was overwhelmed by dizziness at the violence in front of her. She swallowed hard, every feeling she’d had at earlier crime scenes washing over her again, magnified because this wasn’t just a victim. It was someone she knew. A friend.
McKenna moved toward her, not wanting to check for a pulse because she feared, judging by the amount of blood, that she wouldn’t find one. And if Anna was dead, it was all her fault. She’d brought this danger here. Guilt and desperation to do something to help churned in her stomach as she tried to take deep breaths to keep herself from passing out.
As she reached for Anna’s wrist, she took in the evidence she could see. Anna had been shot low on her left shoulder. It looked as if someone had been aiming for her heart and missed. At least, McKenna hoped they’d missed. She didn’t know how many inches were between the gunshot wound and the heart, and the best-qualified person to answer that question was bleeding on the floor.
“Hang on, Anna. I’m going to do the best I can.” McKenna winced as she reached for Anna’s hand, praying it wouldn’t be cold. Closing her eyes against the scene, she moved her fingers along her wrist, feeling for a pulse.
It was there. It was weak, but it was there. And that was all that mattered.
“Will!” she yelled as she got to her feet and headed for the door. “Help!”
The dogs, who’d been faithfully keeping watch over Anna, were in a panic now, not sure if they should follow McKenna out or stay.
“You stay,” she told them, motioning with her hand so they’d obey. “I’ll be right back, Anna,” she promised her friend. “I’m going to get help.” She pulled her phone out of her pocket, dialing for emergency help as she ran. Gasping for breath between words, she explained the situation to the best of her ability to the dispatcher on the other end, who assured her they’d send paramedics immediately.
“Please let her be okay, God.” McKenna whispered the desperate prayer on her way out the front door. Will was just climbing back into his truck, but stopped when he saw her, the puzzled look on his face evidence that he hadn’t heard her call for help.
“It’s Anna.” McKenna felt her hands start to shake, adrenaline starting to fade and give way to shock. “She’s been shot.”
“Get me some towels.”
She hurried to do so, cringing as she grabbed a stack of Anna’s fluffy towels from the bathroom and ran back to Will. She knew they might be what saved Anna’s life, but somehow ruining the towels seemed sad.
The entire scene was surreal.
Will said nothing for a minute, just applied pressure with the towels, keeping his eyes fixed on Anna’s face. He stayed there, seeming to remain calm, until the paramedics arrived and took over the scene.
“Is she going to make it?” McKenna finally found the courage to whisper as some of Anna’s coworkers carried her out on a stretcher. The gravity of the situation showed on their faces. McKenna had already known it was bad—the location of the wound and the amount of blood lost had testified to that. But she’d hoped people with medical training would view it as less critical than she feared it was.
Judging by the looks they’d given each other, it was incredibly serious.
Still, she looked to Will, hoping he could give her some kind of reassurance.
It was all the answer McKenna needed. She sank onto the floor, wrapped her arms around both dogs and cried until she’d soaked their fur with tears.
he hospital waiting room in Anchorage was exactly the same as it had been last time he’d set foot in it. The day he’d lost his wife.
Will swallowed hard and tried to focus on a point on the dingy tile floor as he blinked back the moisture building in his eyes.
He’d been alone that day. Just as scared as he was now, but worse since it had been someone he deeply loved whose life hung in the balance. While Anna was a dear friend, nothing was the same as losing your wife.
Someone squeezed his hand. He met McKenna’s eyes and tried to smile. Today he wasn’t alone. And someone else needed him to be the strong one. He tried again to come up with a more reassuring smile. “The doctors here are incredible. And they’ll do everything they can for her.”
McKenna nodded. “I know. And God is with her.”
Hours had passed since they’d discovered Anna. She’d initially been flown to the hospital in Fairbanks, but then transferred to Anchorage when the doctors realized the extensive amount of surgery she’d need.
Will studied McKenna. The tears she’d cried hours before in Barrow had left her eye makeup a little streaked, but as messy as she looked, she seemed more at peace now than she had then.
“When will we know something?” Will turned to ask Matt, who’d come with Lexi as soon as they’d heard.
“The doctor said they’d be out to tell us something as soon as they’ve finished with the surgery.”
Will nodded, looking at Lexi’s quiet form, curled up on the seat beside her husband. “Is she okay?” he mouthed, realizing what a stupid question it was as the words left his lips.
Matt’s expression said he understood. He looked down at Lexi and shrugged. “They were really close.”
“Are,” Lexi corrected him. “We
close. She isn’t... She’s not...” She choked back a sob and buried her face in her arms.
But she might be soon. The fact that no one spoke up to reassure Anna’s already-grieving sister confirmed that.
No one said anything for a long time.
“I hate hospitals,” Will heard himself mutter aloud, breaking the silence.
“Can’t say I blame you,” McKenna replied.
He wasn’t sure he’d meant to say the words aloud. But he was having a hard time keeping himself focused on the present, when memories from the past kept threatening from every corner of the building. “I spent a lot of time here,” he said, not sure why he was still talking.
Several minutes of silence passed. Will felt McKenna’s eyes on his face but didn’t turn to meet her gaze. Finally, she spoke. “It’s not your fault, you know.”
McKenna’s eyes were an even deeper green than usual, compassion pooling in their depths. As close as they’d once been, it made sense that she understood, even though no one else ever had. And he wasn’t sure if he wanted her to or not.
“What do you mean?” he asked, deciding maybe he’d rather play dumb.
“Rachael’s death. I read the article about it in Seward’s paper. From the description of where and when she was skiing, it looked like the perfect setup for an avalanche.” She paused. “You knew she was going, right?”
She asked it as if she already knew the answer. But he nodded anyway.
“I know you, Will. I know you would have tried to talk her out of it. But she was her own person. And trying to convince her was all you could do. In the end, it was her choice.” She said the next words deliberately, slowly, as if to emphasize how strongly she believed them. “It wasn’t your fault.”
His wife had always been independent, had never really
him. And the one time she did, he hadn’t managed to help her, to save her.
He couldn’t expect McKenna to get that. “I had a responsibility,” he said, his jaw tightening.
“And you did the best you could. You’re not God, Will. All you can do is your best.”
For once, Will had no desire to talk to McKenna. She hadn’t been through what he had. And there was no way she could understand.
* * *
“Lexi Dixon?” a man in scrubs asked as he entered the room from behind one of the closed doors.
Lexi sat up. “Yes?”
“Your sister is in very serious condition.”
McKenna held her breath.
“But the surgery went well and barring additional complications...I think she’s going to be okay.”
McKenna’s relief was instantly replaced by the fear that whoever had taken a shot at Anna would return to finish the job. As she tried to banish the unpleasant thought from her mind, more questions surfaced.
Was it possible that whoever was after McKenna would kill someone just for helping her, as Anna had done? That seemed extreme, especially since Anna’s biggest contribution had been giving McKenna a place to stay—something that didn’t connect her to the case at all. Did logic really say that there was more to Anna’s attack? Or was McKenna’s desire to avoid adding more guilt to her conscience than she already felt clouding her vision from seeing things as they really were?
“Thank you so much.” Lexi’s thankful words, muffled by the sounds of her tears, finally registered in McKenna’s distracted mind. She looked at her roommate’s sister and found that the expression that had been so crushed and hopeless not long ago was now filled with peace and the expectation that everything was going to be okay.
McKenna could only hope that was true. But the more time she spent trying to figure out who wanted her dead and why, the more cynical she became. She wondered if Luke had that problem, too, if it was just a side effect of the job.
“I’m so glad she’s okay,” she whispered to Will, hoping his earlier mood had passed. McKenna hadn’t realized she’d crossed a line and said too much until it was already too late.
He nodded. “Me, too.”
McKenna exhaled, thankful he’d let it drop. She slid out of the plastic waiting-room chair and stood. “I’m afraid I have to be leaving.”
“It’s already dark,” Lexi protested. “Don’t try to find anyone to fly you up. I’ll just worry. You don’t want me to worry more than I already am about Anna, do you?”
“I’m not going to Barrow. Not yet. I’ll be back here in the morning to check on Anna’s progress and then I’ll fly up later.”
Will stood to follow her. McKenna didn’t see any point in telling him not to come with her since she knew he wouldn’t listen anyway.
“Where are you going, if you don’t mind my asking?” Matt spoke up, gaze darting between Will and McKenna.
“To work on the case,” she told him, feeling a little bad she’d ever suspected him of being behind everything. There was no way he’d ever hurt Anna, which meant he couldn’t have been responsible for the rest of it, either. “I’m going to do everything I can to make this stop.”
“Be careful,” Matt warned.
Her roommate was lying in the ICU of a hospital. Blood stained the floor of her bedroom in what was now a crime scene.
McKenna already had all the warning she needed.
She nodded, walking toward the exit door with Will trailing behind.
McKenna stepped out into the parking lot, pulling her light jacket tight around herself. She scanned her surroundings as she walked, hoping exhaustion wouldn’t cause her to miss anything she needed to see.
She checked the time on her cell phone and sent a quick text, hating the feeling of needing to ask for help but knowing it had to be done. Up until now, solving this case had been about McKenna, about keeping herself alive and proving her abilities as a trooper. And those goals had been good motivation to do the best she could to solve this case quickly. But now people around her were becoming targets. Her mind couldn’t even wrap itself around Will hurt—or worse—because of her. Tears stung her eyes as she thought again of Anna, of finding her bleeding on the carpet, of wondering if she was going to die.
No, the murderer had made the wrong choice when he decided to bring her friends into this. Her best hadn’t been good enough to solve this so far, so she’d have to try to do more than her best. If she had to eat, sleep and breathe this case until that man was behind bars, she’d do it.
And going to see Luke was step one on the way to that goal.
* * *
“Do you mind sharing the plan, here?” Will asked after he’d followed McKenna around the hospital parking lot for ten minutes while she texted.
He didn’t know who she was texting. Or why. But he knew she’d have a plan. McKenna always did. Maybe that’s what she was thinking so deeply about now—she’d gone utterly silent, closing him out from whatever thoughts she was having behind those too-serious eyes. More than anything else, that seriousness scared him.
She jumped about a foot in the air.
Then whirled around and glared. “Trying to scare a couple more years off my life? I think I’ve lost plenty already these past few weeks.”
So besides her unusual silence and seriousness, she wasn’t paying attention to her surroundings either. In normal circumstances, that was dangerous enough. These circumstances were far from normal and not being aware of her surrounds could get her killed.
The thought chilled him to the core.
“We’re going to Luke’s,” she told him just as a car started toward them. The headlights cutting through the blackness obscured his vision. He was instantly aware of how easy a target they’d be.
He threw an arm in front of McKenna to stop her as she stepped toward the car. Had she completely abandoned common sense?
“Relax. It’s Luke. I texted him and told him where to pick us up.”
The car stopped in front of them, and as she’d said, it was Luke in the driver’s seat.
“Will! It’s been too long, man. You’ve got to come to the city more often,” Luke said as Will and McKenna climbed in.
“Yeah, you know how much I love cities.”
Luke eased the car back into traffic. “So give me the full story on what happened here.”
“Her roommate got shot—” Will began before feeling McKenna’s glare burning holes through him.
“I can tell it myself. It’s my case, remember?”
She’d seemed so out of it in the parking lot, he’d figured he’d step in. Apparently her independent streak objected.
She gave Luke a summary and by the time she’d finished they were pulling up in front of his apartment complex.
“I ordered Chinese. It should be here in a few minutes.” Luke glanced at his watch. “Yep. Five minutes or so.”
“Let’s go inside and wait,” Will urged both of them, not comfortable with McKenna being outside when her roommate had been a target such a short time before.
“I’m fine!” McKenna protested just as Luke said, “That was my plan—McKenna shouldn’t be out in the open.”
They headed toward the door. Will was pretty sure he saw McKenna roll her eyes at both of them as they fell into step near her, obviously keeping an eye on their surroundings.
McKenna might not agree, but clearly Will wasn’t the only one who thought she needed protection.
* * *
If she’d thought Luke and Will were overly worried about her safety when she was a kid, she doubly thought so now.
They’d stopped her just inside the front door to the apartment and made her wait while Luke cleared all the rooms and closets and Will made sure the blinds were closed.
She wasn’t ignoring the threat. It was hard to when it kept popping up everywhere. But they were overreacting.
“Anyone feel the need to test my food to make sure it’s okay? The deliveryman could be trying to poison me,” McKenna teased, holding out a forkful of General Tso’s chicken.
Will grabbed the chicken between two fingers and popped it into his mouth. “Mmm.”
“Seriously? You’re worried about the food?”
Will laughed. “Nah. I just like that kind of chicken.”
His laughter was contagious and she laughed along with him, swatting his hand. “No more food stealing.”
“Hey, you offered it.” Will shrugged and went back to his meal.
McKenna looked up. Luke was watching them, his eyebrows raised. She felt herself blush as she realized he’d seen their flirtatious exchange. Somehow she’d forgotten he was there.
She went back to eating and the guys eventually resumed the conversation they’d been having before the food arrived.
Her phone chirped just as she was finishing her meal. She glanced down at the screen and did a double take.
“It’s a text message.” McKenna blinked and swallowed hard. “From Anna’s phone.”
She saw Will tense as her thumb hovered over the button to bring it up and read it. Luke looked concerned, too, but his training allowed him to mask it better.
She clicked Open.
Your roommate learned her lesson about keeping her mouth shut. Next time, it’s your turn.
He had her phone. The chill that began the moment she’d found Anna turned to ice.
Anna’s near death hadn’t been unconnected to McKenna.
It had been a deliberate message to McKenna. The threat against Anna had just gone from bad to worse.
McKenna dropped the phone as though it had burned her. “Call the hospital,” she ordered Luke, Will, anyone listening. “Luke, don’t you have some pull you can use up there? Anna’s going to need a guard 24/7. Lexi and Matt, too.” Frantic thoughts fought for her attention. “What else?”
Will grabbed her hands. “You have to calm down. Anna’s going to be fine.”
“Did you read it, Will? She was targeted on purpose!”
He tightened his grip on her hands. “Did
read it? He’s focusing on you now. He’s done with Anna. Whatever he thought she’d say, he’s convinced she won’t.”
“Maybe because he thinks she’s dead.” They’d agreed it was best not to let anyone in Barrow know of Anna’s condition, and to let people assume what they would, at least for now. McKenna thought the plan was a smart move on Lexi’s part.
“For whatever reason, she’s no longer a target. Nothing has happened this entire time she’s been in the hospital. We’re back to him being after you.”
McKenna looked to Luke. He nodded, confirming what Will had said. “Besides, your roommate is Anna
Luke just stared. “You really didn’t know?”