In the backseat of the Parker Agency’s neutral-colored surveillance sedan, Miranda Steele shifted her butt uncomfortably.
They were on Freedom Parkway heading toward Scottdale, Georgia, about nine miles from the office and she was crammed in the backseat between her team members Janelle Wesson and Dave Becker.
Short, stocky, thick-browed Becker had been her buddy since the day she started on the job. Tall, thin, flame-haired Wesson was—well, until recently Wesson had pretty much been a bitch. But she’d mellowed some since Miranda beat her in a martial arts competition.
She could call Wesson a coworker. One who just now had her elbow digging into Miranda’s ribs.
“You’d think we could take two cars,” she muttered under her breath, nudging Wesson’s elbow aside.
In the front seat her other buddy and Becker’s sidekick, tall and lanky Curt Holloway, turned and gave her a cocky smirk. “You’re just spoiled because you’re married to the boss.”
At that remark, she twisted her lips and scratched at her dark, unruly shoulder-length hair.
Yeah, she was married to the boss all right, she thought, her heart fluttering embarrassingly. She was married to Wade Russell Parker the Third. The super handsome, super sexy CEO of the super successful Parker Investigative Agency in Atlanta—where they were all employed.
She didn’t quite know how that had happened, but Miranda had had to endure a lot of ribbing from her co-workers since she got back from her honeymoon. Most of it good-natured. Besides Becker and Holloway worshiped the ground Parker sauntered across.
A tease in her voice, she curled a lip at Holloway. “And you used the excuse of your long legs to sit up front next to Detective Tan.”
At the wheel, Parker’s chief assistant, Noreen Tan, turned off the highway onto a side street, glanced over her shoulder with a groan and arched a black brow. “Knock it off, you two. Remember you’re on duty.”
Tan had been as tough on them as a drill sergeant with hemorrhoids when they were trainees. Now that she was their supervisor, she’d mellowed into a drill sergeant with gas pains.
The four of them had graduated from the Agency’s training program almost two months ago and had been selected for field work. They worked together since they were still learning and not billable yet, so Tan was in charge. There hadn’t been any big cases for a few weeks, so Tan kept the team busy with assignments like insurance fraud surveillance and serving subpoenas.
Today was a subpoena and their current target was a slippery one.
The team had been tracking him for a week now but had only ended up traipsing all over town to a string of fake addresses. This morning they had a hot lead and were following it.
As they cruised down a shady street just off East Ponce De Leon, Miranda scanned the small frame houses. A swing set stood in one yard, a gazebo in the next, beside another house a lone woman gardened. Miranda’s stomach tightened, her mood turning gloomy.
Her daughter could be growing up in any one of those homes—or none of them. For all she knew, Amy could be in Bora Bora. She had searched for her daughter for over thirteen years now and come up with zip. Parker had searched for months and come up with zip. She had no idea where Amy was or who was raising her.
But she might find out soon.
Miranda rubbed her eyes. She’d had another nightmare last night. Fourth one in the past three weeks.
She dreamed her ex was coming at her with a bloody knife, just the way he’d done the last time she saw him. In her dream, she’d scrambled up the stairs of their old house to get away from him and ended up in Amy’s room.
Her baby was gone. Just like she’d been gone thirteen years ago when Leon stole her out of her crib and gave her up for adoption. But she could hear her calling out to her.
Which was crazy. Amy was only three weeks old when Leon took her. She wasn’t talking yet.
In the dream, Miranda had turned around to face Leon and he’d slashed at her with his knife. She’d kicked and punched, but she kept missing. He cut her arms, her face. Blood spurted everywhere. She woke up screaming and had bawled into Parker’s shoulder for an hour until they both fell asleep again. Sheesh.
Absently she touched the real life scars on her chest that Leon had given her. Why did she keep dreaming about him? He was lying in a coma in Brandywine-Summit Memorial Hospital. Four months after she’d put him there. Maybe her shrink could tell her. She was seeing Dr. Wingate that afternoon.
“We’re here,” Detective Tan announced, pulling the car over to the curb.
Miranda shook herself out of her thoughts. “So is this the real deal this time?” The house looked pretty much the same as the others they’d been to.
“This is the location Holloway and Becker dug up. I’ve got a hunch they got it right.”
Beside her, Becker blushed. “Thank you, ma’am.”
“Ellsworth Digby,” Wesson read from the file on her lap. “Divorced. Two young kids. A boy six and a girl four. Wife has custody. Five months behind in his child support.”
Nothing they didn’t already know. That was why Digby was being commanded to appear in court for a hearing. And why the Parker Agency had been hired by the wife’s law firm to serve him papers.
Miranda scrutinized the russet shingled, one-story house. Cozy brown shutters at the windows. One or two bedrooms at most. Small yard. Screened-in porch on the far side. Shades covering the windows.
“At least two entrances,” she said. “Cyclone fence in the front, cedar one in the back. Look over there.” She gestured to a shiny red Ford F150 sitting in the driveway. “Has enough scratch for a nice new toy for himself but not enough to pay for his kids to eat. Sonofabitch.”
“Nothing worse than a deadbeat dad,” Holloway agreed.
“Could be a drug dealer,” Becker said. “Income would be off the books.”
Wesson nodded. “I had an ex who dealt drugs. He was always buying sharp rides. When I found out, I dropped him fast.” Wesson seemed to have a past as rocky as Miranda’s, but she never talked much about it.
“Let’s check it out.” Tan opened her door.
They got out of the car and made their way across the sun-parched pavement.
Business attire in the office was required at the Parker Agency, as well as for some field work. Tan was all in herringbone gray, Becker and Holloway were in their standard dress shirts and ties, Wesson had on a white and peach colored thing, and Miranda was clad in a charcoal jacket with matching slacks that went with her dark, wiry hair. If Digby was peeking out his window, he might think he was about to get a visit from a church group.
They marched through the cyclone fence, up the drive and across the yard to the front door.
“Let’s split up,” Tan whispered as they reached the stoop. “Holloway, you take the entrance at the porch. Becker, go round the back. Steele, take the other side. Wesson, you’re with me. If Digby’s in there and he runs, whoever gets to him first, jump him.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Grinning like a schoolboy about to score a winning goal in his first hockey game, Holloway trotted off toward the porch. Miranda shoved her hands into her pockets and tried to look casual as she strolled with Becker to the opposite side of the house.
She planted herself behind a small shed under a shady oak while Becker crouched below a window at the back corner of the home.
As she scanned the backyard, she heard the doorbell ring. Silence.
After a minute or two, she heard Tan knock. “Ellsworth Digby?”
Tan knocked with more demand. “Mr. Digby. I’d like to speak with you about your insurance coverage.”
Still no response.
For a long moment there was more silence. Birds chirped happily in the branches overhead. The sun beat down on them. A dog barked in a neighboring yard. Then suddenly a back door banged and a figure shot out of the house and across the grass.
Becker ran after him. “He’s back here.”
Miranda took off and passed Becker in seconds.
Digby was tall and skinny as an anorexic fashion model—with tattoos. Dressed in jeans and a wife beater T-shirt, he streaked across the yard, his long, black hair streaming after him. He was fast. Miranda really had to hustle, but she caught up to him just before he reached the cedar fence.
With one big leap, she was on his back and they both tumbled to the ground. “You’re not getting away from us this time.”
“Who the hell are you?” Digby squirmed and struggled, dragging Miranda over the grass, skinning her knee through her slacks.
She held on. “Take it easy, Digby. We just want to talk to you for a minute.”
“Get the fuck off me, bitch.” He twisted again and turned his head, trying to get a look at her.
It couldn’t have been the name he’d called her. She was used to that. Her knee throbbed, but she’d had a lot worse. It must have been the look in his mean black eyes, the sneer on his narrow face. The way his greasy long hair fell over his forehead.
Somehow, it reminded her of Leon.
Before she could think, Miranda drew her fist back and popped Digby hard on his bony jaw.
Blood spurted out of his lip. Jeez, she hadn’t hit him that hard, had she? She should apologize. Ask him if he needed help or a band aid. Instead, she reared back again for another punch.
Someone caught her arm from behind, pulled her up and off the deadbeat. “That’s enough, Steele.” It was Tan. Miranda didn’t know the woman was that strong.
Digby scrambled to his feet. He spun around, about to take off.
Holloway stepped in front of him, blocking his move. “Are you Ellsworth Digby?”
“Who wants to know?” he drawled.
“The National Enquirer,” Miranda sneered and Tan gave her a glare.
Digby swiped at his cut lip with his bare, tattooed arm. “Yeah, that’s me. And who the hell are you? I want to tell the cops who to arrest for assaulting me.”
Unmoved, Holloway took Digby’s hand and slapped the papers into his palm. “Consider yourself served.”
“What the fuck?”
“You’re due in court on that date. Be there.”
“Oh yeah? I’ll be in court, all right. When I sue y’all’s asses. Now get off my yard before I call the cops.”
“Be happy to, sir.” Holloway gave the deadbeat a cocky salute and they all turned and tromped back across the yard to the Mazda. Their job was done here, though Miranda would have liked to get another lick in.
“Steele?” Tan called behind her.
“When we get back, I need to see you in my office.”
# # #
Miranda sat in the corner and watched Tan pace in front of the floor-to-ceiling window that formed the back wall of her office. She looked like she wanted to scream at her the way she used to in the gym when the trainees were running laps.
Instead she stopped and put a hand to her forehead. “What on earth possessed you to hit that guy, Steele?”
Miranda raised her palms. “Because he was a jerk?”
Tan rolled her eyes. “Of course a deadbeat dad is a jerk. Don’t you think I would have liked to sock him, too? But we can’t afford to let our emotions get out of hand. Not as employees of the Parker Agency.”
Miranda swallowed. She knew why she’d hit him. The way the guy had sneered at her reminded her of Leon. So now she was seeing her psycho ex in people she ran into, not just in her dreams? Great. She could hardly explain that to Tan.
It had been a stupid move. It would be even stupider to try to blame it on a bad dream or a—hallucination. She had no excuse. “I apologize, Detective Tan. I know I acted inappropriately.”
“Inappropriately? Do you realize the weight of what you did?”
Miranda rubbed at the grass stain on her slacks. There was a small tear. Her knee throbbed. “Weight?”
“What if Digby does press charges? What if he sues the Agency? Do you know what that might do to our reputation?”
She hadn’t even thought of that. Shame flushed over her. She wasn’t a rookie anymore. She’d solved four murders. Eight if you counted all the victims. She should have known better.
Had she really done it because he’d reminded her of her ex? Or she was worried about Amy? Or was it just from lack of sleep?
She nodded in agreement. “Again, I apologize. It won’t happen again.”
“It had better not.”
“I’m going to make sure it doesn’t.”
A chill went up Miranda’s spine. “What do you mean?”
“I’m taking you off field work.”
Miranda grabbed the arm of her chair. “What?”
“You’ll be on background checks for a week. After that, we’ll see if you can go back to the field.”
She felt sick. Dizzy. Miranda despised paperwork. The only reason she’d stayed in this job was to work on the street. “You can’t mean that.”
“Do you want me to make it two weeks?”
Miranda opened her mouth, shut it again. Not long ago, she would have walked out the door and never come back. Or she might have gone to Parker and pitched a fit. But now she was a professional. One week. It would be hell, but she could handle it.
She rose, straightened her shoulders, and looked her supervisor straight in the eye. “All right, Detective Tan. I’ll be ready for field work in one week.” And with that, she turned and went back to her office.
A stack of folders had already been delivered to her desk when Miranda reached her cube. Just like when she was a trainee. Oh, goodie. A week of boredom and drudgery. She wanted to let out a string of cuss words.
Instead she sat down and got to work. By the time she looked up again, she saw it was after three and time for her appointment with her shrink. Man, did she ever need it.