HIDDEN VALOR: BOOKS 1-3 COLLECTION (PAPERBACK)
HIDDEN VALOR: BOOKS 1-3 COLLECTION (PAPERBACK)
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THE GARBAGE MAN - Book 1
Former Army detective Kate Holland spent years hiding from the world—and herself. Now a small-town cop, the past catches up when a fellow vet is left along a backroad...in pieces. Years earlier, Kate spent eleven hours as a POW. Her Silver Star write-up says she killed eleven terrorists to avoid staying longer. But Kate has no memory of the deaths. And now, bizarre clues are cropping up. Is Kate finally losing her grip on reality? As the murders multiply, Kate must confront her demons...even as she finds herself in the killer's crosshairs. *The Garbage Man is a 2021 Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Finalist for Best Investigator.
IN THE NAME OF - Book 2
Kate Holland finally remembers her eleven hours as a POW in Afghanistan. She wishes she didn't. PTSD raging, Kate's ready to turn in her badge with the Braxton PD. But the wife of a Muslim US Army soldier was stabbed and left to burn in a field, and Kate's boss has turned to her. Kate suspects an honor killing...until another soldier’s wife is found in the next town, also stabbed and burned. When a third wife is murdered, Kate uncovers a connection to a local doctor. But the doc is not all she appears to be. Worse, Kate's nightmares and her case have begun to clash. The fallout is deadly as Kate's lured back to where it all began. *IN THE NAME OF is a 2022 Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Finalist for Best Investigator.
BENEATH THE BONES - Book 3
When skeletal remains are unearthed on a sandbar amid the Arkansas River, Deputy Kate Holland's world is rocked again. The bones belong to a soldier once stationed at a nearby National Guard post. The more Kate digs into the murdered soldier's life, the more connections she discovers between the victim, an old family friend…and her own father. Fresh bodies are turning up too. Will the clues her father missed all those years ago lead to the deaths of every officer on the Braxton police force—including Kate's?
Written by a former US Navy Lt., The Hidden Valor Books feature Ruger—Kate's 3 yr old German Shepherd & self-appointed therapy dog.
Please Note: Graphic crime scenes abound throughout the Hidden Valor books. This series also contains an honest & raw portrayal of PTSD. If you like strong, female protagonists and seriously gritty, complex suspense that twists and turns all the way to The End, you'll love Candace Irving's Hidden Valor series.
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THE GARBAGE MAN: Book 1
Hidden Valor Series
Soft. Cold. Wet.
Kate jerked away from the insistent jabbing at her neck and jackknifed to her feet, instinctively reaching for the 9mm strapped to her thigh twenty-four/seven as she clawed through the sleep still clogging her brain.
The SIG Sauer was missing.
Along with its holster.
Confusion seared in, her pounding pulse skyrocketing as she spun around to search the tan, battle-worn canvas of her Army cot. Bright blue sheets greeted her instead.
Kate shook her head, fighting the fog. The growing panic. A muted whine filtered through her scrambled thoughts. Reality joined in.
The German Shepherd was on the far side of the bed—her bed. Her house. Seven thousand miles from that sweltering hell.
Evidently not far enough.
She pulled the crisp, early-morning Arkansas air deep into her lungs. It didn't help. Her heart continued to slam against her ribs. Worse, the gray Braxton Police tee she'd donned the night before was plastered to her torso, saturated with that distinctive blend of salt and fear.
Night terror. She hadn't had one in weeks. Before that, almost a year.
So much for progress.
Kate sank onto the clammy sheets, automatically reaching for the dive watch strapped to her wrist. Max's watch. It was like having a piece of him, still with her. Sometimes—if she was lucky—it was enough. She turned the oversized band around and around, drawing strength from the familiar friction as she attempted to drag the ghostly impressions into the cold light of day. It was no use; they'd evaporated. She had no idea which of her many demons had taken fresh delight in plaguing her nights. But for once, she knew why they'd appeared.
Grant. The man couldn't leave well enough alone, could he?
As much as she was loath to admit it, it was probably time to end things. She'd miss Grant's company, yes. The occasional, no-strings-attached sex they shared filled a void too. But no one—old friend and fellow combat vet or not—was worth the suffocating sludge that had been churned up from her gut.
Even now, less than five minutes into her spanking new, God-Bless-America day, it threatened to swamp her.
As if he sensed her thoughts, Ruger padded around the bed, his questioning whimper filling the room—her—as he tucked his muzzle into her lap. Kate released the watch and wrapped her arms around the dog, burying her face in Ruger's fur as she pulled him closer. There she remained, clinging to the German Shepherd's solid, familiar warmth until, finally, the band on her chest began to loosen...and the sludge began to ebb.
She stared into those soulful brown eyes as she straightened. "No, buddy; I'm not leaving you."
How could she?
Canine or not, Ruger was the only one who understood. He was there for her—had been there for her—for three years now. Strong. Steady. Best of all, silent. He didn't ask questions, much less demand answers. He simply loved. In a strange way, saving Ruger's life had given her own meaning. Purpose. There were days—weeks, even—when focusing on his needs was the only thing that got her through.
Ruger whined on cue.
She ruffled his ears. "I know—time to go outside."
His tail thumped against her old oak dresser as he backed away from the bed to give her room to stand.
"Just let me turn on the shower, okay?"
The thumping increased as Kate followed Ruger out of the room where she'd spent her high school years. She passed the sealed door to her father's room, still unable to use his bath, let alone commandeer the master bed. Perhaps if she'd come home sooner—if she'd had a chance to say goodbye—it would've been easier to fill his proverbial shoes, in and out of the police station. Or not.
Kate paused in the hall bathroom to turn on the shower, then headed for the kitchen to unlatch the dog door. She still couldn't sleep without securing it at night. Fortunately, Ruger didn't seem to mind. She waited for him to push through the flap, then headed for the shower, taking care to avoid that damning reflection in the bathroom mirror.
Twenty minutes later, she felt almost human. The fresh Braxton PD tee helped. Her hair was still damp, but the sweat had been scrubbed away. If only she'd succeeded in rinsing the lingering muck down the drain as well.
Unfortunately, she could still feel it, simmering low, ready to slosh up at a moment's notice.
Damn Grant Parish and his relentless slicing. Though he'd chosen a psychological scalpel, she'd have thought the surgeon in him would've operated with more patience and finesse.
Kate retrieved her coffee tin and scooped a generous serving of grounds into the filter of her machine. As breakfast began to perk, she scraped her shoulder-length hair into a ponytail, then headed out to the rustic porch her father had added to the house years earlier. Though Ruger wasn't prone to wandering, she wasn't taking chances. Not with deer season in full swing.
Ruger must've been of like mind, because he didn't disappoint. One short whistle and the dog bounded out from the mixed pine and hardwood forest that enveloped her split-log home, the slight hitch to his otherwise easy gait compliments of the bastard who'd somehow managed to mistake an abandoned Shepherd pup for a mature buck three years ago—then left him for dead.
If the screwed-up, military-turned-civilian cop in her hadn't been obsessed with seeking the source of that report on her private property, Ruger would've bled out behind the spare cabin her father had built.
Kate bent down to scratch the dog's ears as he reached her side. A split second later, Ruger tensed.
It took some moments for the distant crunch of gravel to register with her human ears. Several more passed before visual confirmation arrived in the form of a midnight-blue SUV flitting in and out of the trees that sheltered her drive. As the vehicle drew nearer, she caught the telling silhouette of a dark blond, closely cropped head.
Ruger's low growl echoed in her gut as the Bronco pulled up to the side of the house.
She didn't bother hushing the dog. Ruger had taken the same instant dislike to Grant that her sometime lover had taken to him. Then again, the Shepherd was wary of most human males save her boss and the retired animal doc who'd carefully fished a round from Ruger's weaponized namesake out of his pelvis.
Déjà vu struck as Grant climbed out of the SUV. He waved awkwardly before lowering his hand to push the sleeves of a white fisherman's sweater up his forearms. As Grant started up the stone walk, Kate had the distinct impression that once again she was being forced to mark time as a doctor attempted to salvage something that appeared all but unsalvageable.
Three years ago, it had been her budding relationship with Ruger. Today, it was her tenuous one with Grant.
Even more telling, this time around the urgency and prayers were missing...in her.
Grant took note of Ruger's presence—and fresh growl—and stopped several feet shy of the porch.
She returned his nod, letting her silence and stubbornness serve in lieu of reciprocating verbal manners.
Grant's sigh should've warmed the nip in the air, but it didn't. "I came to apologize. I never should've pushed it. Hell, I never should've pushed you. But I was worried. You don't talk about it. Not ever. It would be healthier if you did."
What in God's name was healthy about slaughtering nine men and not really remembering it? Eleven if she counted the two bastards she did remember taking out that fateful day. Uncle Sam might've touted her actions across the entire radical Muslim world, but she knew better.
And so should this man.
Kate studied the tattoo on Grant's right forearm. The four-inch inking was mostly black and white, a variation on the standard physician's caduceus. Except that in Grant's insignia, the winged staff with its twin, winding serpents had been replaced with a snake-seducing sword, the blade of which was buried in the still-dripping meat of a blood-red heart.
The former US Army criminal investigator in her who'd survived six tours in hell understood that bastardized tattoo.
The POW who'd survived a mere eleven hours in captivity and taken down an equal number of terrorists to avoid staying longer, really understood it.
So why didn't the bearer of that tattoo understand?
Worse, why did she even care?
She and Grant had been screwing each other for six months and they'd yet to spend an entire night together.
What did that say about this? Them?
Kate stared at Grant's extended hand. Part of her wanted to take it. The rest knew better.
She shook her head. "I don't—"
"But I do. Trust me. It will get better. I'll get better. You've obviously showered, so you and Ruger have finished your morning run. Call Lou. Tell him you'll be in late. Let me take you to breakfast—explain. Please."
He wasn't going to make this easy, was he?
It was clear Grant needed to talk. But was he willing to listen? It wasn't as though they'd gone into this with their eyes closed, let alone clinging to hidden hopes. He might be the older brother to one of her many dead friends, but companionship and sex was all this was supposed to be. For a pair of ex-soldiers condemned to the backwoods of the Deep South by fate and their respective monsters, it should've been enough.
It had been for her. If Grant needed more, it was time to pull the pin on their quasi-relationship. Today.
Kate clipped a nod as Grant's hand finally fell down to his side. "Just let me feed Ruger." She should grab a jacket too. It was chilly this morning, even for early November in Arkansas.
Grant's smile was characteristically crooked, and more than a little relieved.
Kate forced herself to ignore the latter.
"Great. I'll wait out here while you grab your keys and lock up."
Given Ruger's still unwelcoming stance, that was probably for the best.
Kate turned to let the dog through the door. Fortunately, Ruger obeyed. There were times—moods—when he wouldn't. Truth be told, Ruger was a bit like her.
Guilt settled low in her belly as she poured an oversized scoop of kibbles into Ruger's dish and refreshed his water. If the thought of the coming conversation had her passing on the fresh coffee now scenting the kitchen, how was she going to manage eggs? Truth was, she never should've accepted that first invite to dinner. But Grant had just returned to town and they'd started reminiscing about his brother.
God, she still missed Dan.
And so many others. Too many others.
Max, most of all.
Kate pushed the ache aside as she slotted her Glock 9mm into her shoulder holster before grabbing her Braxton PD jacket and badge. As she reached for her phone, it rang.
"Good morning, Lou. I was about to call."
"Mornin' yourself, Kato. But it ain't good."
Damn. She knew that tone. "What happened? Some hunter manage to shoot himself in the foot again?" If so, they were a couple days ahead of last year's schedule.
And a massive stack of paperwork behind given the beer-fueled witness interviews that were bound to follow.
"Wish it was that simple. We got a body. Could be gunshot. Could be somethin' else. Either way, I'm willing to bet my pension it weren't accidental."
Foreboding locked in, along with the realization that she wouldn't be dining with Grant or anyone else that morning. "Why's that?"
"'Cause I'm standin' over the corpse. Or what's left of it. Cain't say for sure. What we got's in at least fifteen pieces."
Shit. She'd prefer a gut-wrenching, tear-stained breakup every morning of the week over this. "Where are you?"
"Off Taylor Hill Road. Halfway up Old Man Miller's drive. You cain't miss us."
"I'm leaving now."
Kate stowed her phone in her back pocket and headed for her desk in the den to retrieve an extra micro data card for her smartphone in case she needed it. She gave Ruger's ears a goodbye tweak and left the dog door unlatched on her way to the garage. Deer season or not, there was no telling when she'd be back to let Ruger out.
Kate climbed into her black Durango, donning the blue Braxton PD ball cap she'd left on the dash as the automatic door opener kicked in. Grant was standing in the drive by the time she eased the SUV out onto the pea gravel.
Kate lowered the passenger window as the garage door settled into place.
Grant took one look at her face and frowned. "Breakfast is off, isn't it?"
"Sorry. Lou called first. Got a case."
She shrugged. "If this is as bad as I think, I'll be grabbing that on the run too."
"I can stop by to check on Ruger."
Kate shook her head. "He'll be fine. I'll call you as soon as I can."
Grant looked as convinced of that as she felt, but he nodded and she was off.
It took Kate a frustrating twenty minutes to weave her way through the maze of wooded and winding back roads—some paved and some not—before she reached the entrance to Miller's drive. The rotting two-bedroom shack at the far end of the narrow gravel lane had been abandoned since Jakob Miller died of a heart attack in the checkout line of the town's sole hardware store the day Kate graduated high school.
Despite her father's wishes, she'd blown off the old man's funeral. At the time, she'd been too intent on signing the papers that would secure her enlistment in the Army—and her subsequent escape from this dead end of a tobacco-spitting town.
Her dad had been livid. But then, so had she. Not only had he, once again, tried to dissuade her from following in his footsteps by becoming an Army detective, he'd actually admitted to her face that he just didn't think she could hack it.
The fight that followed had been ugly. Her departure the following month, even uglier.
Kate shoved the memories into the recesses of her heart as she spotted the trio of police cruisers where Lou had promised. She tucked her Durango behind his sheriff's sedan. Her boss' silver hair and terse frown met her as she climbed out.
"You made it in record time. Thanks, Kato."
Yeah, well, she might've violated a posted speed limit or two along the way, but who was counting? "What've we got?"
"Fifteen jumbo—as in yard-waste sized—brown paper bags, the tops all folded over and stapled. The first two were torn open by Scooter Ball. He and his son were headed to their deer stand when they spotted the sacks. Scooter decided to poke his nose in—and lost his breakfast for the effort. He was still heavin' on and off when he roused me outta bed. He and his son are at the station, scratchin' out a formal statement." Lou dipped shaking fingers into his ever-present tin of chewing tobacco as he finished. The size of the wad her boss shoved in his mouth attested to just how rattled he was.
Kate studied the overgrown thatch of trees crowding both sides of the gravel lane to give him time to collect himself. If the killer was still out there watching for his own warped gratification, he'd be long gone by the time she retrieved Ruger and his super sniffer. "You mentioned pieces on the phone—as in, an arm in one bag, a foot in another?"
Lou spat a stream of blackened spittle into the trees. "Based on the hand and forearm I saw, looks that way. Both parts look to be from a man. No idea if they're from the same one. I just verified Scooter's account, then backed off to call you. But here's the really weird part: the pieces were sliced up and shrink-wrapped like they was on display in the goddamned refrigerated meat counter at the local market. Not sure what that means, but I do know enough to know the twisted son-of-a-fuck that done it falls into your bailiwick, not mine."
Given the mass graves she'd processed in Iraq, not to mention the single kills she'd picked her way through before and after, Lou was probably right. Burglary and drug-related crimes were a dime a dozen in Braxton's neck of the woods. Premeditated murder, not so much. There'd been a grand total of two in the previous decade. Since Lou had leaned on her dad to solve both, she had a feeling he'd be looking to saddle her with the lead on this.
"So, ready to take a look? I just got off the horn with the state police. Have a couple more calls to make, includin' one to the governor's office to give 'em a heads up, just in case. I'll join you when I'm done."
Kate shot her frazzled boss a sympathetic smile, then stepped around his stocky girth to head for the makeshift crime scene barrier created by her two fellow deputies and the cruisers they'd angled across the lane.
"Morning, Owen; Seth."
"Back at ya, Kato. Figured Lou would hand this to you." Kate might've been offended by the senior deputy's comment—were it not for the palpable relief in Seth's stark gray stare.
Owen's mirrored it.
Kate accepted the pair of latex gloves and paper crime scene booties Owen offered and donned them. "How long before Tonga shows?"
"Dunno. Doc shoulda been here by now. Lives less'n half the distance away as you."
True. But the aging medical examiner was a stickler for the speed limit. No doubt a result of the plethora of so-called joyriders that had ended up on his slab over the years.
Seth's hulking bubba build swung toward the sound of fresh tires joining this particular party. "There's Tonga now."
Kate checked the remaining photo storage capacity on her cellphone as the ME parked his meat wagon. She had plenty of room. By the time Tonga had reached her side, she was ready to begin her initial canvass of the scene. Unfortunately, Owen had been so unsettled, he'd forgotten to brief the ME—at least, properly.
Despite the circumstances that'd brought them there, Kate smiled a greeting, then tipped her chin toward the thermometer Tonga had pulled from his bag. "You can re-stow that, Doc."
His ebony brow furrowed. "Why?"
"You'd need a body to sink it in. All we've got is bags with parts."
It wasn't until Kate stepped between the cruisers that she realized how accurate the assessment had been.
The paper sacks were as Lou had described—fifteen in all, each yard-waste sized and plain brown—but there was little else. As murder scenes went, this one was beyond odd. Definitely staged to create a particular effect. Not only were the sacks laid out in an eerily straight line up the right side of the road, each appeared equidistant to the next, with roughly ten feet between. The sacks looked new too, with a succession of crisp elementary school "lunch bag" folds across the tops.
Hell, even the staples were evenly spaced and dressed down, like a row of eager third-graders at their desks, awaiting a cherished teacher first thing Monday morn.
Kate took the stack of tented evidence markers from Seth, then headed for the first bag. The ME waited as she placed a marker beside the already opened sack and snapped a photo.
Tonga reached inside and retrieved a man's left hand, shrink-wrapped and hermetically sealed in clear plastic as Lou had stated. Kate carefully folded and flattened the sack, waiting for the ME to lay the appendage on top so she could take several close-ups. The flesh was eerily clean. But for a bit of seepage at the raw end, bloodless. There was no wedding ring, nor evidence suggesting one had been recently removed. But there were a number of reddened creases and thin cuts encircling the skin at the base of the severed hand.
The marks were distinctive. Definitive.
"The guy was bound before death—" Kate traced a gloved fingertip over the shrink wrap. "—with plastic flex cuffs."
"Are you certain?"
"Absolutely." She'd seen those marks during every terrorist roundup she'd participated in while in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here, now, those marks meant one thing—and it wasn't good. If their killer had drugged his victim to subdue and/or move him, the poor soul had come to long enough to realize whatever was about to happen and had fought for his very life...only to lose.
The weight of the coming investigation crushed in as Kate left the ME at the first sack to continue up the lane. She stopped at each subsequent bag, setting out markers and snapping exteriors of the sacks and surrounding gravel as she scanned for anything that appeared out of place. Not only did she come up empty, save for the faint boot impressions Lou and Scooter Ball had left around the first two bags, she couldn't find evidence anyone had even been there. It was as if the sacks had somehow materialized at the side of the road on their own.
Kate crouched low to study the area around the final bag. The gravel rocks were light gray from even weathering, with no discernible tire tracks, boot or shoe prints to be found. She couldn't even find depressions that suggested the wandering by of the massive eighteen point buck Scooter and his son claimed to have spotted in the area. It was as if nothing alive had made an appearance since Old Man Miller left to purchase that ball-peen hammer thirteen years ago.
Kate headed back to the ME. He was at the fifth sack, laying a shrink-wrapped upper arm out on the flattened paper.
"This bastard is evil and very, very sick." Tonga's tortured stare met Kate's as she crouched beside him, the man's warm South African accent at odds with the ice-cold fury carved into his leathery features.
"Worse—he's smart, Doc. Not only did the killer possess the forethought to cover his tracks, he's intelligent and capable enough to have drained the body of blood before severing the limbs somewhere far from here." Meaning whoever had done this could be at it again, carving up another body as she and Tonga spoke.
"He may have medical training." The doc tapped a latex-covered finger over the plastic at both ends of the sectioned limb. "See how he cuts cleanly and with confidence? He knows what lies beneath the flesh and how to separate the joints without nicking the bone."
"Or he could be a hunter experienced at dressing his kill."
Like the ME, Kate had noted the clean, steady lines. But, while they could've come from a scalpel, they could also be the result of a thin, razor-sharp boning blade. And there was the shrink wrap. The plastic was freezer-grade and lightly textured on one side, like the type used with one of those food vacuum-packing machines thrifty homemakers and hunters used.
Finally, there was the time of death and its potential significance.
Had some reformed Bambi-killer decided to make a statement against an unrepentant sinner by displaying the body here, all but on top of a deer stand at the height of hunting season?
It was worth considering.
The ME nodded. "I agree. He could be an experienced hunter."
She prayed so. The Bambi-lover theory might be the only thing standing between this crime scene and the discovery of a second, meticulously sectioned body. Unfortunately, given the particulars she and Tonga had noted, it was more likely they were on the verge of a timely repeat, no matter the motive, and they both knew it.
"Shall we proceed?"
"Sure thing." Kate offered an arm to the aging ME as he stood.
"Thank you, young lady."
Kate held her tongue as she returned the doc's smile. At thirty, she doubted she passed as a kid anymore, even to a man on the verge of retirement. But there was no point in reminding Tonga, not when he'd come to know her as the teenage daughter of a local deputy who did her algebra outside the autopsy suite while waiting on her dad's "work".
Just as well. The doc's indulgent humor disintegrated with each subsequent unbagging. By the time they'd pulled the upper torso out and laid it on its slightly flayed-open front to photograph the reverse, Kate's mood had sunk deeper and darker than the ME's.
Like her, their victim was a combat vet.
She might not have had a chance to roll their mystery man's prints, but between the half-dozen bullet and shrapnel scars, the excellent level of physical conditioning of the chest and limbs, not to mention the detailed 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagle" tattoo that covered the entire upper back, they were most likely dealing with the remains of a former Army soldier between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five.
All they needed now was a face and name to go with it.
Tonga's sigh was heavy with dread. "I'll get the last one."
"No, you opened the previous three." He was the worse for wear for it, too. The endless string of drunk-driving, drug-related and natural-causes deaths hadn't prepared the ME for this. Pulling out coldly sectioned human limb after limb had taken its toll on the South African giant, each shrink-wrapped piece peeling off another layer of his surprisingly tender soul.
Kate knew the feeling. For her, the rude awakening had come at nineteen. She'd been a cherry military policeman on her first tour in Afghanistan. She could still close her eyes late at night and feel the scorching heat on her skin, smell the ripening muck that had once passed for human fluid and flesh invading her lungs as she canvassed the aftermath of her first IED explosion. A black plastic garbage bag in one hand, the damned-near unidentifiable remains of a squadmate in the other as she bent down, again and again, to pluck up the disjointed fragments of flesh and bone scattered about the road like the burnt and bloodied leavings of some twisted Mardi Gras parade.
The sludge that had been simmering in Kate's gut since before she'd woken that morning began to churn.
"Are you unwell?"
She dragged on a smile. "Not at all. Look—Seth's waving to us. Why don't you head over and see what he needs while I verify the contents of that last bag?"
Shame mixed with the gratitude in Tonga's eyes—but he took the escape as Kate headed for the final sack.
One missing head laid out on the road, and they were done with the worst of it. The eyes would be the hardest. They always were. God willing, they'd be closed.
Kate braced herself as she knelt to pop the final row of staples. But as she reached inside to carefully cradle the head that did indeed await her, a wave of nausea crashed in, damned near swamping her. Instinct merged with an unexpected riptide of terror and she jerked to her feet.
The nausea worsened.
For the first time in her career, she was a split second from heaving all over her evidence. Instinct kicked in again as Kate spun to the right and bolted into the trees lining the road. She was still sucking in huge gulps of blissfully cool air to combat the nausea that continued to threaten when she felt the palm on her back.
She kept her eyes on a spindly pine, desperately trying to focus on the fragmented lines in its bark and not the perfect, scarlet slash at the base of that shrink-wrapped head.
"Kato? What the devil was in there?"
"Nothing!" Scratch that—and calm down, damn it. "It's a head, Lou. Just a head."
So why did merely picturing it—a simple, solitary head attached to a face she'd never even seen before today—make her want to vomit all over again?
And her lungs. Why wouldn't they cooperate?
Kate clamped down on the dive watch wrapped loosely about her wrist and began to twist, forcing herself to draw her breath into her lungs, then push it out with each steady sweep. The exercise in tactical breathing helped. But it was the constant, scraping friction that gradually hauled her out of the past, slowly but surely anchoring her in the present.
Lou's hand pressed into her shoulder as she straightened, then disappeared as she edged away.
"You want me to call the doc?"
The irony of the ME having to hurry over to soothe her nerves almost caused Kate to smile. Almost.
She found the strength to face Lou. "I'm fine. Must've been the pancakes I had for breakfast."
It was a lie, and this man had known her long enough and well enough to call her on it.
Lou swallowed it anyway. He patted her smooth cheek for good measure. "S'okay, kiddo. This is my first freshly severed head too."
That was just it. When she'd stared into that bag, she'd had the distinct impression this wasn't hers.