an excerpt

Chapter One

I stood against the wall of the Tyler County Morgue's autopsy room not quite believing I was attending my second alligator dissection in three days. I'd gone my whole career as a U.S. marshal, my entire life, without witnessing such a thing. Now I was reprising my earlier, horrible experience of seeing Bibby Tanner opened up and revolting things being found in his innards.

And now his cousin, name unknown, had taken it upon himself to haul out of another pond on the Tanner property and raise havoc in the streets of Lone Trail. But not for long.

Sheriff Dillon DePriest took photos of the nine-hundred-pound gator for the kids on the little league team he coached, because he'd promised them.

"Jubilee, want me to email you a couple photos for the twins?" he asked. I glanced across the five men separating us and nodded, not because I was anxious for Philip and Andre to see them, but because I knew it would be all over the school. I would never hear the end of it if some of the other kids getting to see the photos, but not mine.

I was already in hot water with my nephews, whom I was raising with my sister. I'd gone and taken their new favorite person in the whole wide world--and mine, come to think of it--away from them. I glanced to my left and my heart did a two-step.

Kieran Fox, a hotshot Canadian cop and my new lover, had rescued Andre from a mad, bad, violent drug dealer who just happened to be his ex-lover. He'd left our bed to shoot the marauding gator on Main Street. When Dillon discovered who the mighty critter had belonged to, he deemed an autopsy a necessity. I'd hardly had time to get over the smell of the first one, but here I was, back again for er...sloppy seconds.

I caught Kieran's searing gaze. Just two hours ago he'd been showing me what was what in a motel in Tyler and my body could still feel him. I could still taste his kisses and his cock on my tongue. And I wanted more. So much more.

We were all wearing surgical gowns, double gloves, goggles and gum boots, but even with all that he was one hot mofo. I was sure I caught him grinning at me. His quick, sly wink told me I was right.

My cell phone vibrated. I fumbled for it and checked the readout. Darlene. My former fiancee. Back in town. I would have to deal with her sooner or later, but right now, we were knee-deep in dead bodies and a crime spree that had left even hardened locals surprised.

Bibby Tanner, the ex-family killing machine, had been autopsied and we'd found numerous bones in his system, including seventeen human finger bones. Not to mention the mangled remains of a penis belonging to a felon named Juan Ruiz.

We'd arrested a couple of the players, shot a couple more, but meanwhile a severe leak in the U.S. Marshals system too close to home for my personal comfort left me unsure of who to trust.

The medical examiner, Will Fortune, seemed to be having way too much fun cutting into the nameless gator, whom we'd decided to call Bubba in typical gallows-humor fashion. Like his cousin, Bibby, he had also, apparently, developed a penchant for human flesh.

"Three finger bones and a stopwatch," Will said after recording boring things like mud, leaves, and partly digested petals of swamp hibiscus. Bubba had also been nursing a bellyful of parasites. Will had joked about the flowers, saying Bubba must have wanted some fiber in his diet. But when Will came to the part about the finger bones and the damned stopwatch, the jokes stopped.

"Lemme look at the stopwatch," Dillon said, reaching a chubby hand over for it. Will shook his head.


"Evidence, my fat ass. That's my stopwatch." Will turned it over and we all leaned in for a closer look. Sure enough, it was inscribed, To Coach Dillon from the Lone Trail Stars.

"That's mine!" Dillon was all excited now. He obviously was so thrilled to see the watch he hadn't noticed nobody else said a word. We were all staring at him.

"I lost it two summers ago, Elsie--the wife, you know, she really ragged on me about it. Those kids never gave me another gift. I--I--"

His gaze flew from one face to another. He was slow, but not stupid. It had begun to sink into his brain that we had a leak in our system. Everybody thought it was the marshals, and yes, a couple, well, three so far, of my own team members had been responsible, but we had no idea how far the poison had spread.

Was Dillon involved? What the hell was his watch doing in the gator's gut, anyway?

"I can explain." He looked feverish, blinking and sweating behind his goggles. His voice became muffled as he tried to breathe and speak simultaneously.

"Dillon," Kieran said, his tone mild but steely enough to cut through the sheriff's insane prattle. Dillon stopped speaking, his head tilted at an odd angle. Kieran waited a beat before saying, "We all know you've been to the Tanner property numerous times over the years. You're constantly getting reports from neighbors. People complain about them all the time. You're always over there."

Joshua, who was, or had been, Dillon's second-in-command until Kieran showed up at Dillon's request to help him fight the intricately connected drugs-and-murder case, nodded.

"That's right," Joshua said.

"I've seen all the police reports. You're usually the one to handle them because the Tanners are fucking nuts." Kieran squeezed Dillon's shoulder.

Everyone in the room concurred.

"Yeah," Josh said. "You know...they ran us outta there more than once, Dill. Maybe you mighta dropped it."

Everyone was nodding. And then came the awful squelching sound and the stunning piece of evidence Will Fortune extracted with some difficulty.

Part of a human skull.

"Interesting," Will said. "Gentlemen, I'm excited to see that it still has some teeth attached. This is good news. I can check it against dental records."

We all nodded. I wanted to be sick. The smell was disgusting and really not doing much to stabilize my already unsettled gut.

"How fresh is it?" Josh asked as Will transferred the bloody skull to a metal dish. I'd never seen anything like it even in a horror movie. Long strands of black hair and bits of eye stuck to crevices, the mouth set open in a grimace. And yep, there were teeth. Some of them were gold.

I knew who it was. "Ruiz," I said. I felt the weight of Kieran's gaze as I said this.

Dillon began scrolling through his cell phone. "You could be right. Mouthful a metal." He squinted at the image on his phone. "Except the skull has a gold front tooth. Ruiz doesn't."

Kieran spoke up. "That's our last known photo. Who knows how much work he had done lately."

That was true. We all stared at the skull on the tray. Will bent to it.

"The skull refuses to tell me how fresh he is. He's pleadin' the fifth, I guess."

A few of us laughed but I was anxious to leave.

"I don't know until I run some tests how long Bubba's been carrying this fella. I gotta get back to you," Will said, sliding the skull into a huge fridge. Like leftovers.

"Folks, I think that's about it." Will sounded disappointed. I was on shaky legs leaving the autopsy bay. I didn't think I would ever get that smell out of my mind. Josh and a couple of the others present had stuffed the torn-off butts of menthol cigarettes up their nostrils--an old cop's trick--but I'd found it uncomfortable, and I'd learned from the first autopsy that a smear of Vicks VapoRub under the nose didn't actually work, in spite of the scene in The Silence of the Lambs depicting otherwise.

Outside the bay, I retreated to the locker room. Once again I stripped off the surgical gear, dumping it into a hazmat unit, showered and changed into my street clothes.

Kieran was already outside the building, waiting for me. How he always managed to be a few minutes quicker than me constantly pissed me off. I detected a faint whiff of the morgue's almond soap on his skin and wanted to lick it off.

"Your sister called. We're expected at dinner." He looked quite excited. I was quite upset.

"Why is she calling you, and not me?"

He gave me one of his patented, shit-eating grins. His dark hair and bright eyes reawakened parts of me that were inappropriate at the moment, but I enjoyed the sensation all the same.

"She loves me. I rescued her son. The homo came to the rescue."

I relaxed then. Actually, I think I completely fell in love with him at that precise second. He'd been worried about my sister since he'd rebuffed her ham-fisted advances and now he had an elevated position in the family. I tried not to think of that in terms of him being on top of me, his cock driving deep inside me. I shook my head.

He squeezed my shoulder. "What?" His tone was gentle.

"Nothing. You charm the pants off everyone."

"Not everyone. I'm particular about whose pants I want on the ground."

I blushed like a schoolgirl.

Kieran laughed and did the thing I hated most. He flipped my marshal hat off my head.

Damned cheek.

We drove back home, Kieran at the wheel of his state-issue vehicle. He had figured his way around town very well. It was just after five, the heat of the day burning off, a touch of pink to the clouds on the horizon.

A whisper of blush, Earl, the local cross-dresser would have called it. Earl gave the women in Lone Pine makeup lessons and blow job classes. He'd also turned out to be a bit of a career criminal. A small one, but still...I wondered where he was at this moment. He and Reggie Jones, his lover who had been arrested for the murder of a local schoolboy, Petey Morrison. Kieran and I had tracked them down.

Gunfire had ensued and both men were in custody. I hadn't checked in with my squad leader, Steve, under the instruction of the U.S. Marshals district commander in Dallas. I was in limbo as to whom to report to.

Kieran reached across the seat, squeezing my knee as if he sensed my anguished thoughts. I was certain Steve was clean, but I would have said the same thing about my partners Garcia and Sims, who had both turned out to be dirty. As did Harrison, the man who'd worked for the marshals perfecting their surveillance techniques.

How far had the rot spread? The question wouldn't stop hammering the invisible nail in my brain.

"I think it looks bad for Dillon," Kieran suddenly said, surprising me.

The thought had occurred to me, too. I began to think aloud.

"He knew everything going on...but I don't know. I hate to say it, but I think it's one of my own."

"Yeah, but the leak doesn't have to be only in your group. I think he could have been giving information...maybe even innocently."


"I want to interview Garcia," Kieran said. "I have a feeling she's been putting it about a bit. She has ambitions. I can't imaging Sims was her only victim."

"Yeah. Steve." I leaned back against the car seat. She'd been officially dating Steve, but running around with Sims on the side. Kieran was right. What if she'd strayed to the sheriff's men, too?

"Hard to imagine her bumpin' uglies with Dillon though," I said. "He's not the most...attractive man."

"You think Sims is attractive?" Kieran asked.

"Well, he's not fat and ugly and bursting at the seams."

"So, you find him attractive."

"No. Just sayin'. Maybe she was getting it on with Joshua."

"That's a possibility but I think her thing is power."

"Then why didn't she go after you?"

Kieran grinned at me. "We didn't give her enough time. I think I should interview her alone."

I shrugged. Whatever.

"She's not my type," he teased.

I blew out a breath. "Not mine, either. I just wish the shocks would stop coming. This case is getting real freaky now."

He was quiet for a moment. "No news about Steve?"

I shook my head. I knew he was being interrogated. I knew it wouldn't involve thumbscrews and water boarding, but it would be awful. Steve's integrity and leadership would be called into question. All of it, all the web of lies, the depth of deception, were horrible.

As was my custom, I called the house when we were a couple of blocks away. The twins were waiting outside for us as we rounded the corner. Kieran parked and I opened my door. They greeted me with a rush of affection, but reserved their most unbridled attention for Kieran, who picked them up like sacks of sugar under his arms and carried them into the house.

The boys loved it. I got a kick out of seeing their simple joy, their laughter, when just a few hours ago terror had seeped into their lives once again.

It seeped right back into mine when I spotted Darlene striding toward me.

Holy cat! Why hadn't Pauline warned me?

My sister was right behind her. "Dinner won't be long," she called out, looking flustered. "We got chicken fried steak and waffles."

Waffles! I could deal with almost anything when waffles were involved.