Sneak Peek

Get a sneak peek of THE SACRIFICE

 October 29, 2022

By  Lorhainne Eckhart

The Sacrifice

The Sacrifice

Chief Mark Friessen is about to be a family man, with a baby on the way. However, he faces a choice: Either he breaks his word to his wife by taking on a job that will put him in danger, or he stays silent, which would haunt him forever.

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Chapter 1

There was something about the fall, the cool mornings, the days becoming shorter. It seemed everything was preparing for the cold that would soon be upon them. Mark listened to the crackle of wood as he started the early-morning fire in the woodstove to take the chill out of the air. 

Still barefoot after pulling on blue jeans and a navy sweatshirt, he heard the familiar sound of Billy Jo’s three-legged cat, Harley, munching on kibble. Lucky, his mutt, and Sarge, a light lab, appeared at the sliding glass door, evidently ready to come in, too. He walked over to the door and opened it, taking in the quiet. He’d left his wife sound asleep. 

“That was quick this morning,” he said to his dogs. The wind was cold, and the rain was just holding off. A light frost, the first of the season, covered the grass. 

 A door downstairs clicked, and footsteps came up the stairs just as the coffeemaker beeped. “Good morning, Mark,” Gail said, pulling at the tie of her pale green robe, wearing slippers and flannel pajama pants. She leaned down and gave Lucky and Sarge a good petting as Mark filled two dog bowls with kibble. 

“Good morning, Gail,” he said. “Coffee’s ready.” 

“Oh, I see you started the fire,” she said. “Think I’ll park myself in front of it with coffee this morning. You know, I feel spoiled, Mark. I get up in the morning and you have coffee ready and the house warm. But I’ve been thinking I can’t live here forever. There’s a point where I’ll need to go home.” She turned over one of the four matching green floral mugs that Billy Jo loved, which were sitting beside the coffeemaker, clean and ready. That was just something his wife did. “You get a coffee yet?” Gail asked as she poured hers in the mug. 

“No, not yet,” he said. “Pour me one, too, please.” 

Mark put both dog dishes down on the other side of the island, away from the cat, as Gail filled another mug and set it down there for him. “I take it Billy Jo is still asleep,” she said. 

“No, I’m awake, and I can smell the coffee. Please pour me one, too,” Billy Jo said, emerging from the bedroom. She was in a long nightshirt and wool socks, her blue fluffy housecoat pulled on but wide open over her swollen six-month belly. It appeared for a moment as if the baby had grown overnight. Damn, she was a beautiful sight. 

“You sleep okay?” he said. 

She was still yawning as Gail walked over to her and handed her a coffee. Mark let his gaze linger as he waited for her to take a swallow and answer him. 

“Only had to get up once to go to the bathroom,” she said, “but I have to say we can add the spaghetti to the list of meals we’ll skip until after the baby is born. Too heavy, and it left me with a lingering heartburn. Oh, and I got a text from Lisa just now, which is what woke me after I finally settled into a deep sleep, a dream I now can’t remember.” She pulled her cellphone from the pocket of her housecoat and handed it to him, something he hadn’t expected. 

“You need to tell her to stop texting so early, or I will,” he said. 

She only rolled her eyes and walked to the living room, from which he could already feel the heat of the woodstove. “Just read it, Mark, and stop nagging. Important is important.” 

Mark took a swallow of the steaming coffee and typed in his wife’s passcode, then took in the text from Lisa: 

Just checked messages at the office about the Palmer kid, Mila. DCFS returned her to her mother last night, but Mom wants to know what happened to her daughter, as she has a red medical incision on her abdomen, left side. I pulled up the file, but nothing shows. 

Another text dinged: Scratch that. Mom is on the warpath. She’s at the ER right now. Got a call from the ER doc because Mom has threatened half the staff after they discovered her daughter’s left kidney was removed. They want us to go down and take daughter from her. Do I go? 

Mark just stared. He could feel Billy Jo watching him as he squeezed the phone, and he flicked his gaze to her. She lifted her brows, blowing on her mug of steaming coffee, and said nothing. At what point would he need to yank his wife from this cesspool of the DCFS? Stress was stress, and he still couldn’t believe she wasn’t all over this. 

Mark let his gaze linger on Gail and Billy Jo in the living room, his wife now in the leather recliner and Gail adding another piece of wood to the fire. A knock at the door had them both looking his way, and he took in the clock on the stove, which read 7:15 a.m. 

“Yeah, I’ll get it,” was all he said. He put his coffee down beside Billy Jo’s phone and strode to the front door, feeling that unease that seemed to build every day and never leave. He flicked the deadbolt, and Lucky was already right beside him, letting out a woof. Sarge quickly followed, barking more. 

“Quiet down,” Mark said before he pulled open the door and took in two tall men, one in a dark coat, the other a light brown. Something about them screamed Fed, and he spotted the familiar bulge of a sidearm under each of their coats. No badges, but everything about them, the way they stood, the way they stared at him, said enough. He let his gaze linger on their clean-shaven faces and two black SUVs parked behind his Jeep. There were three more men in his driveway, one by the side of the house, wearing dark clothes, and one in military fatigues, watching, standing guard. 

What the hell? His heart thudded, and he thought of his gun tucked inside his gun safe in the bedroom. Sloppy. “Can I help you?” 

“Are you Mark Friessen?” 

He didn’t turn around even when he heard footsteps behind him. “Mark, who is it?” Billy Jo said. Damn, why couldn’t she stay put? There was the cold fear he recognized and never wanted to feel again. 

“Billy Jo, take Lucky and Sarge. Stay in the house.” He knew it had come out rather sharply, and he glanced only once to Billy Jo and his baby growing inside her, seeing the moment she understood. 

“Come on, you two.” She reached for Sarge’s collar, then Lucky’s, and pulled them back down the hall. 

Mark stepped out of the house, barefoot, feeling the chill in the air. He pulled the door closed and wished again that he had his gun. He didn’t like being caught off guard. “Who are you, military? Why are you at my house?” 

The one at his door, dark hair, close cropped, about Mark’s height and build, gestured to him. “Would like to have a word with you,” he said. “Wondering if we could talk over here.” 

He realized it wasn’t a question, as the other guy was already down the stairs. Mark took in the security camera outside, which still had to be hooked up, and followed them both down to the side of the house. They walked as if they knew exactly where they were going, and the hair rising at the back of his neck was just another warning about how vulnerable he and his family were. Everything in him was screaming, What the fuck? 

“Okay, you have me here at the side of my house,” he said. “Who the hell are you?” He couldn’t make out the other two guys by the vehicle, but he had a feeling they were special forces, maybe. It was just something about the way they stood, the way they were positioned to the side, as if each had a job. 

“We’re with the military,” the dark-haired man said. “We’ve been following you, Chief Friessen, and we’ve put together a special unit going after human traffickers, child traffickers. We’d like you to join our team.” 

He just stared. For a second, he couldn’t come up with a reasonable response. “What?” He glanced between the two men. The other was chewing a piece of gum and glancing everywhere but at Mark. He had a mustache, light brown hair, and was a few inches shorter. These men were not desk jockeys, judging by how pumped they appeared, from weights and training or something. “I’m not clear,” he said. “You’re with the US military?” 

“No, not entirely US,” said the dark-haired one, jumping in, and Mark picked up something in his accent that said he wasn’t from around there. 

“Look, boys, I need a little more than what you’re giving me,” he said. “I’m not entirely comfortable with you showing up at my door, either. My family is here. You say you’re not entirely US, so what does that mean, exactly?” 

The shorter one with light-brown hair and a mustache dragged his gaze over Mark. His eyes were brown, and the edge in them gave nothing away. “We can’t disclose too much,” he said. “Let’s just say we’re a team comprising some former military, some current military, former law enforcement, and former intelligence from the US and a few other countries. What we’re doing is putting together a team to put an end to trafficking on a worldwide scale. Right now, I’m sure you’re aware human trafficking was once surpassed by guns and drugs, but there’s more to it, and we can’t say too much unless we get a commitment from you to join our team. We operate under the radar, but we’re tackling head-on something that has remained untouchable.” 

Mark let out a rough laugh, which, he realized, was likely not what they’d expected. He jammed his hands through his thick red hair. He didn’t know what to think, and he wondered for a second whether this was a joke. 

“I understand you may be a little thrown,” the man said. “This is highly unusual, but we’re in a different world now, Chief. Let me ask you something. You feel as if your hands are tied at times? We’ve been following you. We know about the trafficking ring you discovered on the island, the one the old chief was a part of, and the church minister who was a staple of the island. For how many decades have children been moved through here, under the radar? One of your cops was even part of it, and a prominent paediatrician, and how many on the town council were aware? This is only one island. You brought it down single-handedly, but you’ve found yourself in a constant political battle ever since. You’ve been looking into every resident of the island because you have a feeling this is bigger than you can imagine. You’ve battled constant red tape, district attorneys refusing to prosecute, working against you. You’re up against a line of predators who can operate unscathed because of who they are and the power they hold. Then there was the social worker before your wife. How many kids disappeared, were trafficked and sold?” 

“If I recall,” Mark said, knowing he sounded pissed, “you guys showed up and took all the case files, shutting down my investigation into the kids the caseworker was responsible for, who basically disappeared. The missing money and all the evidence is gone.” 

The dark-haired one had the same expression as the other guy, a hardness that gave nothing away. “Not us,” he said. 

“It was the military.” Mark leaned in, hearing the asshole tone of his voice. He didn’t like being blown off. 

“Chief, you can’t be that naïve,” the man said. “You know there are multiple branches within the military. Units follow the orders they’re given and don’t even realize that the people whose orders they’re following aren’t the ones they swore allegiance to. You were over the target, getting too close, and have stepped on toes. Others are watching you, too, not just us.” 

He thought his ears were ringing. “What? Who’s watching me?” He found himself looking over his shoulder. The chill that went up his back bothered him in ways he couldn’t have explained to anyone. 

“Those whose toes you’re stepping on. You don’t want to be on their radar. Leaves you with that nice, tingly feeling, doesn’t it? Maybe you want to sit with this for a minute. And that camera you have at the front door? You should get it hooked up.” 

Then both men turned and started walking back to the front. 

“Wait,” Mark called out. “I don’t even know who you are, your names, how to get a hold of you. You just show up here and drop this bomb on me?” 

The mustached man looked back to him, and Mark figured he was the one in charge. “You can call me Kief, but understand we didn’t have this conversation. We’ll give you a bit to think about what we’re offering, what it is we’re asking of you. Just know that it’s best you don’t share this with anyone. This isn’t a job, Mark Friessen. We’re asking you to join the team. There will be training. We’re going after these traffickers, after the children. Some we can save, but many we can’t. Think about it, Mark. How many children go missing every minute, never to be found again? Who’s taking them? This is bigger than you think. We’ll give you the morning.” 

“Wait,” Mark said. “I have a wife and a baby on the way.” 

Kief didn’t pull his gaze, which, for the first time, held something that resembled emotion. “Maybe that’s another reason we’re asking. Again, Mark, we’ve done our homework on you and your wife, the social worker. Billy Jo, is it?” 

He liked this even less, these men he didn’t know anything about bringing up his wife. “Who do you work for, then? Who funds you? Who do you report to? I kind of need to know more than what you’ve told me, just showing up here and asking me to join some task force. I’m the chief on this island. You’re asking me to walk away from my job. Who is going to watch over the people here, keep things safe? The former chief wasn’t part of it by choice, so you evidently know somebody got to him. My question, are those same somebodies watching me? I won’t keep this from my wife. We have no secrets.” 

Kief gestured to him, standing at the front of the house now. There was no window at that side, and three tall, thick fir trees also sheltered them. They were out of view of everything. “You’ll be briefed in full detail when you decide to join the team. You’ll sign a military NDA. What you learn will be classified, and you can share only what isn’t. You’ll have to explain it to your wife. We have our own families, too, who understand that what we’re doing is important. You can share the general gist, just not ops. Those details don’t get released to anyone outside the team. I shouldn’t have to explain why. Your chief was gotten to because the people responsible, who have you in their sight now, operate in the shadows and compromise those they can’t buy, those like your former chief, among others.” 

How much did Mark really know about the intelligence community? Less than he should. For a second, as he stood there, he couldn’t get his brain to come up with anything he knew he should be asking. “How do I get a hold of you?” 

Kief only shook his head, then started walking, “We’ll contact you,” he called out over his shoulder. 

Mark followed, stepping over the pinecones on the grass, and watched as five men climbed in two SUVs, backed out, and drove away. He took a second, standing in the cool morning air, unable to shake the feeling that he was now at a crossroads, and whatever choice he made would forever change his life. 

It was unsettling. His wife was pregnant, but what was the thing he’d always promised her? Kids and animals, he’d sworn to protect them. 

Chapter 2

Lucky had let out a soft woof as Mark headed out the front door, and he still sat there, waiting, whereas Sarge was already eating his kibble again. 

“Lucky, come here, boy. Lie down,” Billy Jo said, gesturing sharply to the dog bed in the corner of the living room. 

Gail gave the dog a rub as he walked past her and over to his bed, but instead of lying, he sat. “He’s just worried,” she said. “Doesn’t like it when he can’t do his job, looking after Mark.” 

“Yeah, well, the feeling is mutual,” Billy Jo said. “You see him out there?” 

Gail shook her head, then walked over to the living room to look out the front window. “No, he’s out of sight, and that’s not a good thing. What do you think they want? Does Mark know them?” She was looking out into the back yard now. 

Billy Jo couldn’t shake her unease. She knew when Mark was on edge, worried, scared in a way that had him going all alpha like he had a few minutes earlier. It was just a look, his voice, and the tension she could feel coming off him in waves. “I know nothing,” Billy Jo said. “That’s the problem. I don’t know who they are. I don’t think Mark does, either, by the way he acted. He just told me to take the dogs.” 

She heard the door open and put her coffee mug down as she heard Mark’s heavy footsteps. He appeared, his gaze intense, tension pulling across those broad shoulders and arms that held her every night. 

He said nothing as he walked over to the island, where her phone and his coffee mug were, but instead of reaching for it, he seemed lost in thought. 

“Mark, who was that?” she said. “Did you know them? What did they want?” 

His hands were now resting on the edge of the island, and he leaned heavily on them before stepping back. How quiet he was in that second really bothered her. 

“Mark, what’s going on?” 

He gave his head a shake. His red hair still had that bedhead look. “I don’t know who they are,” he said. “Some type of military unit. Special forces, from what I figure. Didn’t really say. Didn’t offer their names or where they’re from, only this cloak and dagger shit. No, I don’t know them, but they seem to know all about me.” 

Mark pushed away from the island, then reached for his mug and took a swallow of his coffee, but it was likely cold, as he walked over to the sink and dumped it out before reaching for the carafe to refill it. Billy Jo glanced over to Gail, who was still standing by the sliding glass door, wearing that motherly look as she watched Mark closely. Then she dragged her gaze to Billy Jo. Okay, so she had picked up on it, as well. 

Mark didn’t turn around, which had her suspecting that what he said next would be something she wouldn’t like. “You remember what happened here, what we found under the minister’s house, under the floor?” he said. “The cells, the rooms where he was keeping kids? And the things he was doing with them, selling them? It’s something no one wants in their head.” 

There it was again, that awful knot in her stomach. Mark turned around and let his gaze linger on her, and she could see in his amazing sky-blue eyes that there was way more. She could only nod as she pulled her lower lip between her teeth and instinctually rested her hands on her baby, the flutter of life that she felt throughout the day. Mark’s gaze went right to the baby she carried, then over to Gail. 

“They offered me a job,” he said. “Actually, I don’t think it’s really a job. It’s more that they want me to join a task force or something, considering what I found, that small pedophile ring hidden here. There appear to be many more. I don’t even know who those guys are, but if what one of them said is true, they’re former cops, military, intelligence…” Mark stopped talking, and she recognized the quiet place he went, seeming to hold on to things. He stared into his mug of coffee and then shook his head, making a face. “When I first became a deputy, I never expected to find what I did on this island. I’ve had my eyes opened in ways I never thought possible. I believed the world to be one way, but I’m starting to think everything I thought to be true was a lie. I knew deep down that the problem wasn’t isolated to this island.” He let his gaze linger, and she had an awful feeling of an impending change. 

“So what does this mean, exactly, Mark?” she said. She knew Gail hadn’t moved, just listening to everything. “You have a job as the chief on this island. This is our home.” 

Mark’s face told her everything he hadn’t said, and it really hit home. “I think you know what it means. From the little they said, if I join this team, I won’t be chief here anymore. That’s all I know. It’s military, but not what we think of. I don’t know all the details. Seems they operate under the radar, which is the only way to go after the kind of corruption we’re talking about. Drugs and illegal guns have been coming across our border, out of control, for so long, but human trafficking has exceeded everything. You know what I’m talking about—kids, babies, women. This is about taking them down, and that’s all I know. I’ll know the details only if I decide to join. Some things are classified, and no one outside the team can know. I think you already know that the people involved in trafficking are in positions of power. They have access to everything, and they have people everywhere.” 

Billy Jo put down her mug of coffee. “And why does it have to be you?” 

He walked over to her after setting his own mug down and rested his hands on her shoulders, then ran them down over her arms so tenderly, lovingly. “I didn’t say yes,” he said. “They want me to think about it. Only if I commit to joining them will I know more. I’m not taking on something without talking to you. I’m telling you what I know and what they want. For all I know, this could be someone messing with me.” 

“I don’t think you believe that, Mark,” Gail cut in. 

Billy Jo turned to her. Gail’s expression was tense and heavy, and from the face she made, Billy Jo wondered whether she was thinking again of what Tolly had done. She didn’t know how she’d feel if it had been Mark. 

“We’ve never talked about what happened,” Gail said, “not really. But think about it. Who has that kind of power, to have gotten to my husband through my son, having him agreeing to look the other way as innocent kids were preyed on? It wouldn’t just be here. How many others are involved? How deep does this go, how far up the chain of command? The low-hanging fruit, the working class, is doing the dirty work, but how many are pulling the strings, controlling this? They have the power and money to control the system, so who has that kind of power?” 

Billy Jo felt Mark squeeze her arm as if he needed to hold on to it. 

“I think you and I both know we’re talking at a level above governments,” he said. “But, as I said, I haven’t accepted anything, and I may not even hear from them again. Speaking of which, about that text from Lisa, I’ll call her and handle it. I’m going to grab a shower and head in to work.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Why don’t you stay home this morning, put your feet up and take it easy?” He let his fingers run gently down the side of her face. 

“No, I’m right behind you,” she said. “I have some files I need to clean up, calls to make, and I plan to be there when you have your chit-chat with Lisa. One thing I’ve learned about her is that she loves to go down the rabbit hole, finding things and digging in places the average person will never go, but it could be just another screwup.” 

He said nothing. For a second, she wondered whether he’d tell her no, but he just nodded and lingered there, and she pressed the flat of her hand to his chest. It was so instinctual to touch him. Then he was walking away, into the bedroom, and Billy Jo turned to Gail, who was shaking her head. 

“Who do you think those men work for?” Billy Jo said. “The military? What do you think he meant about a task force? Who’s overseeing it, funding it? I really don’t like this.” She pressed her hand to her own chest. 

Gail made another face and looked down at her coffee. “You know what, Billy Jo? Mark’s right about one thing: You should put your feet up and take it easy this morning.” She walked over to the coffeepot and refilled her mug. “I think I’m going to grab a quick shower, too.” 

Then Gail walked away and down the stairs, and Billy Jo realized that for all the questions she had, Gail likely had more. But she would tread only so far down that road back to the horror that had her living with them. 

Billy Jo listened to the water running, her husband still in the shower. Mark was holding back something. Whatever it was, she’d do her own digging and find out who had shown up on her doorstep and what kind of team, exactly, they wanted her husband to join. 

Chapter 3

Mark sat in his idling Jeep as he pulled up Lisa’s number and dialed. He slipped his cell phone in the dash mount before shifting the vehicle into reverse and backing out of the driveway. The trail of smoke rose from the chimney ahead, and he glanced into the empty back seat, missing Lucky, who had once gone everywhere with him. Then they had inherited Sarge, the light lab, and these days, knowing both dogs were always with Billy Jo let him breathe a little easier. 

“This is Lisa.” 

“Lisa, this is Chief Friessen,” Mark said. “You sent my wife a text this morning about a problem with a kid who was returned to her mother. I understand she’s at the hospital and there may be some trouble.” He took in the falling leaves as he turned onto the main road into town. 

“Right, okay.” She hesitated. “When Billy Jo didn’t answer, I kind of made a judgement call.” 

He wondered how often his wife still wanted to wring Lisa’s neck. “Billy Jo was sleeping,” he said. “You woke her up with your text, and she read it and gave it to me. So now I want to know what’s going on—and what, exactly, do you mean by a judgement call?” 

The sky was gray, but there was no rain. The wind was picking up here and there, and the trees rustled, the leaves blowing in a few spots across the gravel road. 

“Well, I’m at the ER,” Lisa said, “actually just pulling in, and I plan on having a word with Mila’s mom and the doctor who called. I suspect a clerical error in the file, but I’m sure there’s a logical explanation. With her showing up and going ballistic…” 

Mark shook his head, knowing nothing was that simple. “You know what? Don’t go in. Just wait outside until I get there. I’m only a few minutes away.” Instead of driving straight into town, he turned left at the hospital. 

“Okay,” Lisa said. “Chief, this really could be just a matter of someone forgetting to make a note in the file, or a report is still sitting on the desk of whoever updates everything online, or it could be lost or passed to a supervisor who misfiled it or added it to one of many piles.” She could go on and on sometimes. 

He took in the parking lot to the hospital as he pulled in. “I get it,” he said, “but now I’m here. I’ll meet you out front.” He pressed the end icon as he found a spot in one of the four rows and pulled in. For an island hospital, it was busier than expected. 

Mark stepped out of his Jeep and closed the door. Walking to the front, wearing his jean jacket, he felt the familiar weight of his sidearm fastened to his jeans, and he couldn’t have put into words how naked he felt without it. He spotted Lisa walking toward him from a row over, wearing dark-rimmed glasses, blue jeans, and a gray coat that went to her knees, her dark hair back in a ponytail. He noted the blue compact she’d just climbed out of. 

“Hi, Chief,” she said. “So is Billy Jo coming, as well? I didn’t hear back from her and was going to send another text to let her know where I am.” 

Mark only shook his head as Lisa fell in beside him. She was short, in flat boots. He gave her a passing glance as he took in the door to the emergency room. A man outside, in a blue coat, was smoking a cigarette. “No, she’s at home,” he said. “I’m handling this, so fill me in on everything that happened.” 

The doors slid open. Behind the security desk was a man in a white shirt, black pants, and a badge, with a walkie talkie at his side. In the waiting room to his left were about five people. 

Lisa headed for the window of the nurses’ station and tapped on it. “Mila Palmer was returned to her mother, Irene Palmer,” she began, then leaned on the counter as the window slid open. 

A nurse was behind the plexiglass. “Just wait your turn,” she said. 

“I’m Lisa Jenkins, with the DCFS. I was called about Mila Palmer. This is Chief Friessen.” She was holding up her ID, and the nurse was already nodding. Then there was a buzz—the door to the ER, which was apparently kept locked. 

“Come on in,” was all the nurse said before she rose and pushed open the door. She had short dark hair and was older, with at least four inches on Lisa. “That girl’s mama is carrying on. I’ll take you back to Doctor Collins.” 

Mark held the door as Lisa walked through, and he took in the busy ER, with curtained-off areas, the phone ringing, people on gurneys. A security guard was standing at the last curtained-off area, where the nurse was leading them. 

“I was checking messages early this morning,” Lisa told him, continuing, “and Irene Palmer called sometime last night after discovering an incision on her daughter’s abdomen. She said it was still red, as if stitches had been removed. She’s demanding to know what happened. I checked the file online, and there’s nothing about a medical emergency or surgery. The ER doc on call here said she showed up, issuing threats to half the staff.” 

Mark glanced away from her to see that a short man with neat dark hair was walking their way, in blue scrubs. 

“Doctor Collins, this is the social worker and the chief of police about the Palmer woman,” the nurse said, gesturing to Mark and Lisa. 

“Marshall Collins,” he said. “I’m the ER doctor on call right now.” He held his hand out to Mark. He was maybe five foot three, not much taller than Lisa and a lot shorter than Mark, but he appeared to work out, with an ultra-conservative clean-cut vibe. 

“Chief Friessen,” Mark said, “and this is Lisa Jenkins, from the DCFS.” He shook the man’s hand, and so did Lisa. “You want to fill me in on what’s going on? Where are the Palmers, the mom and daughter?” 

The ER doctor gestured to the corner. “Over here,” he said. “I called security when she tried to leave. I have to tell you, Chief, she’s evidently unhinged. She came in here and threatened the staff, pounded on the glass at the front, and was hostile to the nurses, yelling and screaming expletives. She refused to hear reason, instead rambling off accusations and demands about what happened to her daughter, saying we did something to her. I’m recommending she be held until a psychiatric assessment can be carried out. I called family services to take Mila.” 

Mark could see the security guard, but the doctor was standing in front of them, his arms crossed, glancing from him to Lisa and back. He was soft spoken. 

“Mila was just returned to her mom yesterday,” Lisa said. “She left a message at the office saying there was a surgical incision on her daughter. Is that true?” 

Mark watched as the doctor shook his head and made a face, then said, “I haven’t even looked at her. Her mom was too irate. When I asked to have a look, she started in on me, so that was when I called family services. This is upsetting Mila, and the mother can’t be reasoned with.” 

“Now that we’re here, let’s go have a talk with the Palmers,” Mark said. “I know I want to hear what she has to say.” He gestured behind the doctor, who, for a second, appeared confused. Maybe he’d just expected them to take Mila. However, the doctor soon led them to the curtained-off area, and as he fell in beside him, Mark said, “So how does this psych assessment happen? Do you just decide to lock her up?” 

“It’s based on my recommendation, and yes, security and staff from Psychiatry will come down and get her. She’ll be put on a forty-eight-hour hold, and then the head of Psychiatry will decide further. Thanks, Jerry,” he said to the security guard. “This is the social worker and Chief Friessen. She say anything to you?” 

Mark took in the doctor, unable to shake the impression of arrogance. 

“Some nasty four-letter words,” the guard said. “Tried to leave, but I told her to knock it off or it would go worse for her.” He stepped aside. 

Mark said nothing, only brushed the curtain open to see a woman with dark hair, shoulder length, a mass of messy waves, sitting in a chair by the foot of the bed. Her face was round, her brown eyes wide, and she was holding a little girl who wore a red coat, sneakers, and blue pants. 

“Hi, are you Irene?” he said. “And you must be Mila. I’m Chief Friessen. I understand you got your daughter back last night and there was a problem?” He knew Lisa was right behind him by the way Irene’s eyes tracked her and the doctor, who had also walked in and was standing at the other side of the bed. 

“I’m not talking to him,” Irene said, tilting her head to the doctor, who had set his hands on the bed. “He’s trying to take my daughter from me.” 

“No, you’re talking to me,” Mark said. He gestured to the doctor with his thumb. “Don’t look at him; look at me. This is just you and me talking. Can you tell me what happened?” 

He didn’t miss how tightly she held her daughter. The little girl, whose hood was down, was clutching her mother’s brown coat, and her eyes, the same brown, held a fear he didn’t like seeing in a child. 

“Hey there, Mila,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m Chief Friessen, but you can call me Mark.” He let his gaze linger on the little girl as she turned her head back to her mother, holding on tight. 

“Tell you what happened?” Irene said. “I’ve been fighting these people for two years to get my daughter back, being denied visitation, then being allowed supervised visits only. Last night, I was bathing her and saw a scar, a long one, on her left side. It’s still fresh and red. I know a surgical scar. I’m not an idiot. I want to know what you did to my daughter!” 

Mark made himself pull in a breath, feeling the accusation and anger in the bite of her words. This mother was out for blood. “Can I see?” he said. “I’m here to help, and I hear your anger. I get it, but let’s first get to the bottom of what happened.” 

She didn’t pull her gaze from him. From how rough her breathing was, he knew she was likely terrified of the corner she’d been backed into. Then she looked down to her daughter and said, “Mila, sit up. Come on.” She helped her daughter sit and turn. Her coat was unzipped, and she wore a faded pink shirt, which Irene lifted. The incision line, still red, went around her side. 

Mark stepped back and glanced over to the doctor. “Have you seen this? What is that from?” He gestured to the girl, then shoved his hand in his pocket. Lisa was staring, narrowing her eyes. 

“You’re not laying a hand on my daughter,” Irene snapped, as Doctor Collins had taken a step around the gurney and stopped just beside Mark. 

“Irene, look at me,” Mark said. “I’m not leaving, and I promise you Doctor Collins is just going to take a look so we can get to the bottom of this. That’s all.” He forced calmness into his voice. 

Irene considered what he’d said, still holding her daughter tight, then nodded and looked up at Mark. “He’s not giving her anything or taking her anywhere.” 

Mark shook his head. “You have my word, Irene. I’m staying here. The doctor is just looking.” 

Marshall Collins squatted down in front of Irene and lifted his hands. “I’m just going to touch it,” he said to the little girl, who was now standing between her mother’s legs. “Does that hurt?” 

Mila looked to her mother. He wondered, by the way she flinched, if the scar was tender still. “It’s sore,” she said to her mom. 

The doctor stood up and turned to Mark, rubbing his hand over his chin, his back to Irene. “Can I have a word with you, Chief?” was all he said. 

Mark glanced back to Lisa and then over to the distrust staring back at him from Irene. “Okay, Irene, I’ll be right back,” he said before pushing aside the curtain and stepping out. Lisa followed. 

They followed the doctor a few steps before he turned, one arm pulled over his chest, the other hand on his chin. His expression only added to Mark’s unease. 

“Well?” Mark said. 

“That’s an incision to remove a kidney,” Doctor Collins said in a low voice. 

Mark glanced over to Lisa, who, for the first time ever, was quiet. “You know anything about this?” 

She shook her head. “No, there was nothing in the file I pulled up.” 

Mark looked back to the doctor, who had walked over to a long desk with a computer and was typing something in. 

“Mila Palmer? There’s nothing on her at this hospital.” Doctor Collins looked over to him. 

Lisa stepped forward, right up to the desk. “Mila was in foster care off island,” she said. “She was moved a couple times, but her last placement was in Seattle.” 

Mark stared. He’d never understood everything about how the system worked. “That’s a ways. How often does that happen?” Maybe he needed to sit down and have Billy Jo brief him on why kids were sent so far from home. 

“It happens in special cases, special needs,” Lisa said. “I’m not really sure.” 

The doctor was typing again. 

“Ah, there you are. So what did you find out?” 

Mark turned to see his pregnant wife, wearing a long brown sweater, her new large fall coat, and blue jeans. “Hey,” he said. “I thought you were going to stay home and take it easy this morning?” 

She slid her hand in his as he leaned down and kissed her, linking his fingers with hers. She shrugged. “No, I made a couple calls and knew you were both here. So what did I miss?” 

“Okay, well, this is interesting,” Doctor Collins cut in. 

Mark dragged his gaze back to the doctor, who stared at the screen. “What is?” 

“You said Seattle. I interned at the children’s hospital in Seattle, and there’s a discharge record for a Mila Palmer after a kidney removal. Healthy kidney, from the report here, for donation.” The doctor only shook his head, his expression grim. 

“Excuse me, did you say a donation?” Mark said. 

The doctor made a face, still staring at the screen. “From what I can see.” 

Mark glanced back to his wife, who was staring up at him, watchful, and then over to Lisa, who opened her mouth to say something but pulled in a breath instead. 

“Let me get this straight,” Mark said. “That little girl in there donated a kidney while in the care of the state?” 

No one said anything. 

“The mother doesn’t know.” Mark found himself looking over to the curtained-off area and the security guard who still lingered close by. “Well, as I see it, this is a problem. Who authorized this?” He looked back to his wife, who gripped his hand. Lisa had looked over to Billy Jo for answers, and the doctor said nothing. 

“Come on, someone needs to give me some answers here,” Mark said. “Irene over there is out for blood, and as I see it, she’s got every right to demand answers and to be pissed.” 

Billy Jo pulled her hand from his and ran it over his arm, holding on to him. “Before anything else, someone needs to tell Irene.” 

He pictured the mother who had fought to get her daughter back. “You want me to do it?” 

Billy Jo made a face. “No, I think I’d better. Maybe you can do what you do best and find out who authorized the removal of her kidney. Who did it, and why, and who was it given to? Find that out, because a four-year-old girl isn’t old enough to decide, let alone understand what she’s given up.” 

Damn, he knew she was right, but he needed a minute to wrap his head around this shitshow. He turned back to the doctor, who was still behind the computer, as his wife and Lisa started back to the curtain-off area where the Palmers were. 

“Okay, Doc,” Mark said. “You pull up everything in there for me. I want the doctor’s name and all the medical staff who took that little girl’s kidney. Who signed for it? I need everything in the records, because someone is going to answer for this.” 

The doctor stepped back and pulled his arms over his chest. “I’ll see what I can dig up, but I’m going to need to examine the girl, as that incision is still fresh. Then there’s the issue with the mother. I’ve already ordered a psych hold on her.” 

Mark stared at the ER doctor and let out a rough laugh under his breath that should have been a warning. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he bit out, then gestured sharply to the curtained-off area. “That little girl’s kidney was taken out, no one bothered to tell the mother, and you’re still pushing this?” 

“She threatened the nurses and me. She was yelling, out of control, and couldn’t be reasoned with.” 

“And you don’t think she had a reason to be?” 

The doctor only pulled in a breath. “I agree this is troublesome, but this is for the safety of the child.” 

Mark just stared at him. He knew that unless he convinced the doctor to see reason, the only avenue Irene had was to find a sympathetic judge who could and would override him. 

Chapter 4

“Hi, Irene,” Billy Jo said. “I’m Billy Jo McCabe. My husband is Chief Mark Friessen.” She rested her hand on her baby, a protective instinct that had come from nowhere one day. 

The woman staring up at her, who had been just a name in a file, had a spooked look. Her brown coat, faux fur, was fraying at the wrists, and she held her little girl tightly in her arms. Mila was resting her head against her mother’s chest. 

“He said he would be right back,” Irene said, “though I’m not sure I believe him. So why’d he send you in? I’m not letting you take her again.” She was looking right at Lisa now. 

Billy Jo shot her a sharp glance when she heard her pull in a breath, about to say something, and quickly said, “No one is taking anyone right now,” as much to Lisa as to Irene, who had flinched back the fear she was trying to hide. 

Irene lowered her gaze, taking in Billy Jo’s pregnant belly. “You and the chief are having a baby, so you understand,” she said. “Are you a cop, too?” 

What was she supposed to say to that? 

“No, I’m not a cop. I’m a social worker here—actually, the managing social worker on the island. I understand that you as a mother want answers, and I don’t know how I’d feel if I saw what you did. The doctor said the incision would have been to remove a kidney.” 

Irene’s expression was one of horror. She seemed to hold her daughter tighter, and tears filled her eyes. “What? Her kidney, what are you talking about? Her kidney was taken out? How is that possible?” 

Billy Jo squatted in front of her and touched Irene’s hand, the one that held her daughter. She reached for the foot of the hospital bed so she wouldn’t fall over. “I am so sorry,” she started, but Irene ripped her hand away as if she couldn’t stand her touch, and now the look staring back at her was filled with hatred. 

“You’re sorry!” she cried. “You took my baby away because a damn doctor told you to. Two years ago, I came into this emergency room because my girl was sick with a bad cough, congested. I expected something when they ran tests, but they found nothing, yet the doctor wanted to pump her full of powerful antibiotics for a few days, give her a bunch of drugs, hook her up to an IV because he thought it might help even though he said he didn’t know what the problem was. Then he said he also wanted to do a spinal tap. I said no, he wasn’t guessing on my daughter and pumping her full of drugs when he didn’t know what was wrong with her. I said no because I realized I was dealing with someone who wasn’t focused on figuring out the problem, just going right to heavy drugs. So I took her home so I could get a second opinion from a different doctor. You know what happened next? Two years of me fighting the damn system that stole my baby from me. I’ve got nothing, I’m broke, and now you’ve taken her kidney?” 

Billy Jo heard the curtain brush back and felt a hand on her arm as she struggled to stand. Mark was right there, looking down at her as he helped her up. He was so strong. She didn’t know how to tell Irene that it hadn’t been her. It had been before she arrived on the island. 

“Irene, the doctor is going to come in,” Mark said. “He has an ultrasound just to take a look.” 

Irene was shaking her head. Billy Jo recognized a woman ready to run out the door, and could she blame her? No. 

Mark was standing in front of her. “I get that you’re pissed,” he said, “and you have every right to be, but do not yell at my wife. She didn’t take your daughter. She’s only trying to help. Let the doctor have a look. No one seems to know what’s going on, but I’m damn sure going to find out. It’s just an ultrasound, Irene.” 

Billy Jo didn’t know how he did that. Behind her, a woman in blue scrubs with a brown sweater pulled overtop wheeled in an ultrasound machine. Lisa moved aside, and the doctor was there now too, making the small space overcrowded. Mark somehow had Irene moving Mila onto the bed. Billy Jo had to look up, her eyes burning. Damn, he was going to be such a great father. 

“You okay, babe?” Mark said to her. He was right there, his hand on her arm. The last thing she wanted was to cry in the middle of this shitshow. Maybe he knew, as he shielded her as she wiped a hand under her eye when a tear fell. 

“Yeah, just being pregnant,” she said. She wondered if he knew that was bullshit. He let his gaze linger, his hand on her, always touching her. She reached out and pressed the flat of her hand to his chest, and then he leaned in and pressed a kiss to her forehead, holding her for just a second. 

“Well, it’s as I thought,” the doctor said. “Right here, her left kidney was taken out. I’d guess by the looks of the incision that it happened two to three weeks ago. I’d like to run some tests.” 

Mark was standing beside Billy Jo, and she had her hand on his arm, over the heavy jean jacket. 

“You’re not putting another hand on my daughter or running any more tests,” Irene said. “I want to know why this happened. I should have been told if she was sick.” 

“You should have been told a lot of things, Irene,” Billy Jo said, taking in the little girl on the hospital bed. She appeared so scared, and her mother was holding her hand. “Lisa, was there anything in the file to give you an idea of the reason for this?” 

Lisa was unusually quiet. “Found nothing when I pulled it up online, but as I said to the chief, the information could be in a form or memo not filed or updated online. I don’t think the original file has come back yet. I can do some digging.” 

“Go do that.” 

Lisa hesitated only a second. “Okay, you mean now? What about Mila?” 

Billy Jo realized Irene was holding her daughter again, standing at the other side of the gurney. “I’m here,” she said. “I’ll handle this. You go and start digging.” 

As Lisa brushed back the curtain and stepped out, Billy Jo let her hand fall away from Mark. She caught a glimpse of the security guard and what looked like two orderlies just outside the curtain as if waiting, and she knew it was about the Palmers. 

“Doctor Collins, what kinds of tests are you wanting to run?” she said. She took in the mom and realized everything was going to be a fight. 

“Well, Mila had a kidney removed, and even though she’s young, recovery for that operation is long. But being a living donor also carries all kinds of complications. She has only one kidney now, which means it has to increase in size to compensate for the loss, and that comes with problems. Mainly, she needs to have a blood and urine test for her kidney function and blood pressure, because she now has a greater risk of problems, one being reduced kidney function. We need to monitor her closely.” 

The ultrasound was being packed up, and the technician, with her hair pinned back, was pushing it back out. One of the orderlies, both in off-white scrubs, held the curtain open for her and said, “Dr. Collins, we’re ready to bring her up.” At the look passing between him and the doctor, Billy Jo’s heart thudded. The two orderlies walked around her. 

“Dr. Collins, what is this?” she said. “Mark, what’s going on?” 

Mark’s expression was grim, and he had his arm around her, moving her out of the curtained-off area. Behind her, Irene was screaming, swearing, yelling, and Mila gave a cry as she was ripped from her mother. Another orderly came running over with a gurney. 

“Mark, what is this?” 

 “The ER doctor ordered Irene held for a psych evaluation,” he said. “I can’t do anything. My hands are tied on this, Billy Jo. She came in here on fire, shouting threats, angry, though I can’t blame her.” He gestured back with both hands, and she sensed his frustration. She listened to Mila crying and watched as Irene, now on a gurney, quiet and apparently sedated, was wheeled out. 

“I have no power here,” Mark said. “Damn, I never paid any attention to how doctors can just do this. You have any ideas? If you do, I’m all ears. I tried to talk the doctor down, and I thought I got him to see reason, but evidently, he had his mind made up and had already set the ball in motion.” He scratched his head. His red hair was wavy, kept shorter now than it once had been. 

“How long is the psych hold?” she said. 

Mark was pacing back and forth in front of her. There were times he carried everything. He gestured in the air. “Forty-eight hours is what he said.” 

Billy Jo pressed her lips together, hearing whimpers from Mila, who’d already been taken from her mother for so long. “She’ll get a hearing at some point. Only problem, Mark, is that now Mila is back in the system, and judges always lean toward the recommendations of doctors and social workers,” she said. If only it were that simple, she thought. 

“Not necessarily,” he said. “Judges are wild cards; you don’t know what they’re going to do.” 

“This needs to be flagged,” Billy Jo said. “I’ll put in my recommendation and fight the fight for her, but Irene needs a good lawyer. Like most kids in the system, Mila lives in poverty, and her mom not having anything is what will keep her in it.” 

Maybe Mark understood her frustration, as he reached over and ran his hand over her shoulder. “So will this be another two years that her daughter will be taken from her?” he said. “Was it really the fact that she wanted a second opinion from a different doctor that caused her to lose her kid? I can’t believe this. That four-year-old girl has had her kidney taken out and you don’t even know why? That is some pretty serious, underhanded, fucked-up shit.” 

What could she say to Mark? Billy Jo had counted it as a win the day before when she’d heard Mila had been returned to her mother on the island. “All I know, Mark, from my brief read of the file, is that a doctor called the social worker who was here before me, Link Stone, and his notes in the file said Mila was really sick. According to him, the tests came back showing nothing, so he wanted to run a heavy round of antibiotics to be on the safe side and then do a spinal tap. Mom said that sounded a little extreme, and she wasn’t keen on heavy antibiotics being pumped into a little girl, so the doctor made the call to Link, saying Irene was denying medical care to her daughter. 

“There’s nothing in the file to suggest she was going for a second opinion. The notes said only that there was possible neglect and the mom was refusing care. The doctor stalled her with paperwork until Link got there, even put a security guard by the door until Link could take custody of Mila. Two years later and many hearings, and Irene couldn’t afford a lawyer, so the judge relied solely on the doctor’s opinion and the testimony of the social worker, who was Link. But Irene didn’t give up. I know Mila’s last home was in Seattle.” She had so many questions. She couldn’t hear Mila crying anymore. “What do you want to do?” she asked, realizing she depended on Mark so much. 

“I’m going to find out what happened to that little girl’s kidney,” he said. “Maybe you can find out which social worker in Seattle made the decision, see if there are any clerical errors like Lisa said. A four-year-old in foster care donating a kidney? Sorry, but something smells here. I’m going to head in to the station. You want to walk out with me?” 

The curtain had been brushed back. Billy Jo ran her hand over his arm and shook her head. “No, you go. I need to take care of some things here with Mila. I’ll call you later?” 

Mark leaned in and kissed her. “Call me if there’s a problem,” he said. Then he walked away, her husband, a man she loved more than she had words to describe. 

She spotted the ER doctor as he walked back around the counter, and all she could think was that she was glad she’d decided to have her baby at home with a midwife. The only problem was that she hadn’t yet told Mark. 

Chapter 5

Mark pulled up in front of the police station to see a black SUV parked in his spot. Lacy’s tracker and Carmen’s cruiser were off to the side. His anxiety built at what felt like another thing coming out of left field. As soon as he walked through the door, both Lacy and Carmen stared his way from where they stood at Lacy’s desk. His gaze went right to his office, where Kief and another man he’d never seen before waited. 

“Mark,” was all Lacy got out as he closed the door. 

“Yeah, I see,” he said. “Listen, I just left the hospital. Carmen, I want you to follow up with Lisa Jenkins. She’s looking into a little girl, Mila Palmer, who was just returned to her mother from foster care yesterday. The problem is that she was returned without one of her kidneys. The incision is fresh.” 

He didn’t know who appeared more shocked, Lacy or Carmen. 

“This is a joke, right?” Lacy said. 

Mark was already shaking his head. “Nope, afraid not. Billy Jo is still at the hospital. Give her a call there. I think she’s sorting out things for the little girl. Long story, but the mom showed up there furious and lost it, threatening the staff, among other things, because she’d discovered the incision in her daughter’s side. The ER doc has ordered the mother, Irene, be held over for a psych evaluation because of how she went off. Nothing I can do there, but I want to know the who, what, and where of how a four-year-old in the care of the state donated a kidney. It was done at Seattle Children’s. Find out everyone involved, who signed off on it, who took her there, and what doctors, nurses, and orderlies were involved in the decision. And I mean everyone. Do not leave a stone unturned.” 

“Mark,” Lacy said again, gesturing behind him. Mark turned to see Kief standing in his doorway, in blue jeans, his stance all military. 

“Chief, if you have a moment,” he said, gesturing into the office. 

Mark realized it wasn’t a request. “I’ll be right there,” he snapped, feeling the weight of everything. Then he turned back to Lacy, not missing the empty dog bed, knowing both were at home with Gail. “Lacy, hold my calls…” 

“I know, Chief, unless it’s Billy Jo,” she cut in, evidently knowing his wife came first. 

Mark turned to take in the two men who’d invaded his small office, both standing as he strode in and closed the door. He stepped around Kief and then his desk, shrugging out of his jean jacket and tossing it over the hook on his coat tree. 

He took his time before turning to the men. “Well, I didn’t expect this,” he said. 

The other man, the one he didn’t remember from that morning, was older, his hair wavy and shoulder length, a mix of light and gray—not exactly military protocol, he thought. “We gave you time to consider our offer.” 

Mark realized they were serious. “I expected a little more than a couple hours. I’m kind of in the middle of something, and who the fuck are you?” He realized it had come out quite sharply. He let his gaze land on the guy, who appeared more like a bum than a military man. He was getting a feeling he didn’t like. 

The man, though, he realized, didn’t seem bothered in the least. He suspected he had to be around ten years older than he was, in a faded t-shirt with a leather jacket overtop and worn blue jeans. “We heard about that ‘something,’” he said, then held his hand over Mark’s desk between them. “Mike Smith.” 

Mark stared at his hand and hesitated only a second before he shook it. It was rough, strong. Mike’s eyes were a deeper blue than his, and it appeared as if he hadn’t shaved in a week. 

“You were saying something out there about a little girl missing a kidney,” Mike said. “She was in foster care. How old?” 

“Four.” He didn’t know why he’d answered. 

“Let me guess: There’s no record. Even though she was in the care of the state, and it happened at a children’s hospital, the records that should be there are missing.” 

That constant knot in his stomach was back. “How would you know that?” he said, and the exchange between the two men bothered him more than anything. 

“What did I say to you this morning about the trafficking of kids, babies, women?” Mike said. “You know why they’re trafficked and for what? Organs are only a small part of it. The kids are used in ways that would leave you without a peaceful night’s sleep ever again. Not many can do this work, Mark. It takes something out of us, what we see, the horrors no one would believe are committed by people who are untouchable. 

“There are a lot of really bad people in this world. I’m sure you think it’s about cutting off the head of the snake, but once you do, a hundred more are waiting to take its place. Think about what it takes to run the world, because basically, this is what we’re talking about. The world is not what you were taught in school. Who do you think created the systems schools teach you to believe in? 

“You have one case of a little girl whose kidney was taken. Let me tell you how it will shake out: You’ll spend weeks on it, getting names, and some low-level social worker or government bureaucrat will take the fall. It’ll be blamed on paperwork, a clerical error. Dummy records will be produced. You’ll get a lot of ‘Oops, sorry, we don’t know how it happened,’ but the scapegoat will be fired or shuffled off to another state, maybe given a nice bonus to shut their fucking mouth. NDAs will be signed so no one talks. 

“And even if you try to pursue something, what it comes down to is that the state assumes all medical care for foster children and the right to make all medical decisions because that’s the law. Even though her kidney is gone, you won’t be able to go after anyone. It will be buried. There will be no news report, because even if you find a journalist who has the balls to investigate and write a story, it will never go to print because it won’t get past the gatekeeper’s desk. Your hands will be tied everywhere you turn.” 

Mark pulled his arms across his chest, wanting to swear under his breath. This Mike Smith had just summed up what was very likely going to happen. “How do you know all this?” 

“What’s the girl’s name?” 

“Mila Palmer.” 

Kief had his phone out already, texting something, but by the dynamics, it seemed as if Mike was in charge. “We’ll have someone look into it, but she’s one of too many. Organs, especially from babies and young children, are sought after. It’s noble, the way you’re looking even though you can’t do anything. We’re going to need your answer.” 

“And I’m going to need a little more from you,” Mark said, knowing he still sounded like an asshole. “I’m the chief on this island, and I can’t just quit. Then they’ll bring in someone else who’ll turn a blind eye when paid enough to look the other way.” 

“Look, Chief, we’re not here to twist your arm. We just need a yes or no. But maybe you should ask yourself about that little girl this morning. You won’t be able to do anything about her by playing whack-a-mole and not making a dent. We’re not going in and saving as many of these souls as we can; we’re taking down organizations from the middle all the way up. The son of former chief Tolly Shephard was kidnapped and tortured, among other things, to force his father into compliance. Yes, we know. We’ll leave you now, but here’s my number. It will be in service only until eight tonight. That’s all the time you have.” Mike Smith held out a piece of paper with a number on it. 

Mark reached for it and took in both men. “I need more from you both on the where, the how, the details. I have a wife and a baby on the way.” 

Mike tilted his head to the door, and Kief pulled it open and stepped out before pulling it closed behind him. “I can tell you this: You’ll be flown to our training base and meet the team. You’ll sign a nondisclosure and be given classified information on operations in key locations based on tips provided by a wide network, let’s just say. You heard about the massive cargo ship grounded just off the shore of Vancouver with those containers six months ago?” 

Mark cleared his throat. “Sure, vaguely.” 

Mike didn’t smile. “That was us. You know what we found?” 

There it was, that sick feeling again. “Sure, guns, drugs…” 

Mike’s expression gave nothing away. “Guns and drugs, sure, always a given. But of the eighteen thousand containers, do you want to know about the kids we found alive? And the ones who weren’t? Not everyone can handle the horrors these people are capable of. This takes its toll on everyone, Mark, and not everyone can do it. This is bigger than you and me. 

“We’d like you to join us. Talk to your wife. But if I can leave you with one thing, it’s that yes, you have a wife and a baby on the way, but these people we’re up against know everything about you now—what you eat for breakfast, the stray dog you named Lucky and the lab called Sarge that you took in when his owner mysteriously died or disappeared. They know your weakness for animals and how to get to you. As long as they’re out there, operating in the shadows, your wife and your unborn child will never be safe. If they got to Tolly Shepherd after what they did to his son, what do you think they would do to a baby to get your compliance?” 

Mike rested his hand on the door and pulled it open, then looked back just a second before stepping out. 

Mark stared at the number in his hand, hearing the outside door close as the two men left. The phone was ringing, and Lacy answered. He walked over to his office door and closed it, shutting his eyes for a second. If anyone ever laid a hand on Billy Jo or his baby, he knew with certainty he’d kill that person. 

He made himself pull in a breath and yanked his door open to see Carmen at her desk as she hung up her phone, too. “Carmen, you have the number for that home security company you referred me to?” 

“You mean the one that installed the camera at your house?” She pulled open her desk drawer. 

“No, the monitoring company to hook it up and put it online.” 

She pulled a card from her drawer and walked it over to Mark. “You said it was too expensive,” she said, and he saw the question in her eyes as he took the business card. He knew the company was one of the best. 

“I changed my mind. Thanks,” he said. Then, just as Lacy hung up the phone, he called out, “Lacy, call this security company and get them to hook up the system at my house, the cameras, the alarm, everything.” He handed the card to Lacy and then strode back to his office and reached for his jean jacket. 

“Sure,” she said, standing in the doorway, having followed him. “Do you have a day in mind to schedule with them?” 

Mark couldn’t shake his unease. “Now. Tell them I want it hooked up and running before the day is out.” He pulled his keys from his pocket and took in Lacy and Carmen’s wide-eyed expressions, then pulled his cell phone from his pocket and dialed Billy Jo’s number. It rang only once. 

“I’m just leaving the hospital,” she said. “Did you find out anything?” 

“Can you meet me at home?” He turned away from the door, knowing Lacy and Carmen were listening. 

“Well, I have to go in to the office. I want to talk to Lisa, and…” 

“This is important, Billy Jo.” 

She hesitated. “Okay. Is everything okay?” 

What the hell was he supposed to say to the woman he loved? “Everything is fine. I just need to talk to you, and it can’t be over the phone.” 

“I’m on my way,” she said, then hung up, and Mark shoved his phone in his pocket and started around his desk. In the bullpen, both women were staring at him as if they’d figured out something was wrong. 

“Lacy, I need you to call now,” he said. “Carmen, handle things here until I get back.” He walked to the door and pulled it open. 

“Chief, what did those men want?” Carmen said. 

Mark shook his head. “Nothing I can talk about right now,” he said. Then he stepped out of the sheriff’s office and pulled the door closed. 

For a moment, he just stood there on the sidewalk, taking in the people across the road, the cars driving by, the shops up the street, and the familiar hotel and restaurant across the road, trying to get a sense of anyone or anything that seemed out of place. 

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