IN THE NAME OF (EBOOK)
IN THE NAME OF (EBOOK)
Book 2 in the Hidden Valor Military Veteran/K-9 Suspense Series
Spoiler Alert: The synopsis and sample chapter contain spoilers for Book 1. New to Kate & Ruger's Hidden Valor Series? Start Here
He'll do anything for his country...even murder.
Former Army detective Kate Holland finally remembers what happened during her eleven hours as a POW in Afghanistan. She wishes she didn't.
Her PTSD raging, Kate's ready to turn in her badge with the Braxton PD, but she can't. The wife of a Muslim US Army soldier has been found stabbed and left to burn in a field, and Kate's boss has turned to her. Again.
Kate suspects an honor killing...until the wife of another soldier is found in the next town over, also stabbed and burned. When a third military 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.
This time, she might not make it home.
*In the Name Of is a 2022 Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Finalist for Best Investigator.
Written by a former US Navy Lt., In the Name Of features 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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He woke to screaming.
He flung the quilt from his body as he jumped off the bed, only to trip over the skateboard sticking out from beneath and crash into the wooden chair at his desk. Confusion overrode the sleep still fogging his brain as he gained his balance—for another piercing scream had rent the air. His sister was definitely in danger.
He could hear his uncle shouting in Persian as he stumbled out of his bedroom and down the hall toward the main part of the house.
The garage. The bellows and screams—and now his sister's violent sobbing—they were all coming from out there.
Why would his uncle—
He reached the door to the garage. Through the embedded square of glass, he saw his uncle's thick fist swing up, then down, smashing into his sister's cheek, the heavy ring on Amoo's middle finger splitting the flesh wide as she fell to her knees.
"Azizah!" He wrenched the door open and vaulted out onto the icy cement, sliding to a halt as the soles of his feet landed amid a slick of old oil.
Before he could right himself, his uncle's fist had bashed into his sister's bruised and bloodied face again.
"Amoo, no!" He lunged at his uncle, only to come to a jarring halt as another determined hand gripped his arm from behind and jerked him around.
Like his uncle, his father's face was nearly purple with rage as he spat onto the concrete near the chest freezer beside them. "Azizah has brought dishonor upon the family. She must suffer the consequences."
Dishonor? His sweet, gentle, always subservient sister? What could she have possibly done to invite this horror upon herself?
Oh, no. He grabbed at his father's shirt. "Baba, no! Reza wishes to marry—"
His father's knuckles cracked into his jaw, knocking the rest of his words back down his throat before they could escape. "You knew she was shaming us with that boy? And you told me nothing?"
Another crack to his jaw. This blow carried such force, it spun him around and sent him stumbling into the echoing garage. He lurched into his sister's kneeling body. Her arms lashed about his waist, her frantic fingers digging into his back, her face pressed into his front as she buried her sobs in the gray sweats she'd given him from her new college.
His uncle closed in on them. The man raised his thickened fist yet again—only this time, the ivory handle of his grandfather's cherished dagger was clenched within, the curved blade slicing ominously down.
He gripped Azizah tighter, turning them both to shield her more fully as he flung himself over the top of her hijab, the pale blue silk of the headscarf already stained with the splatter of her blood. Amoo had struck her, yes. But surely he would not—
He grunted in stunned agony as the dagger plunged into his upper back.
A moment later, the dagger was slicing out, grinding against shrieking nerves and violated bone until it was free.
He was still clinging to Azizah, gasping for air as his father's fingers clamped about his arms to haul him off his sister. His father flipped him onto his spine and held him there as the blade sliced down once more, this time piercing his exposed belly.
His father ignored his scream, those hot, stunted breaths beating into his eyes and cheeks as the man pinned him to that ancient slick of oil amid the concrete.
Terror, pain and disbelief battered together, somehow enhancing his vision as time itself seemed to slow. He could see each curl and flourish carved into the curved steel of the blade that his uncle had smuggled out of Iran as it came down to slice into his flesh—again and again.
Eventually, the dagger that both Amoo and Baba treasured ceased those excruciating arcs. But he still couldn't move, or even look away from the satisfaction hardening his father's face, as he felt the warmth of his blood spilling out from his abdomen. The fabric of Azizah's final Eid al-Fitr gift to him was soaked with it.
He grew cold. More confused.
Why stab him? And why had his uncle stopped?
He caught his sister's shallow gasp and found the strength to turn his head.
Azizah's split and swollen lips moved ever so slightly as she whispered his name. Their grandfather's blade. He knew why it wasn't slicing into him anymore. It was buried to its now tainted ivory hilt—in Azizah's chest. Her lashes fluttered once, then stilled. Those beautiful dark eyes he adored were now sightless and glassy.
The only person who had ever truly loved him was dead.
In the past week, how much were you bothered by: repeated, disturbing and unwanted memories of the stressful experience?
Kate Holland shifted her focus to the columns at the right of the post-traumatic stress assessment attached to the clipboard on her lap. The numerical ratings on the PTSD symptoms checklist spanned from 0 to 4, with the corresponding qualifiers at the top ranging from Not at all; to A little bit; Moderately; Quite a bit; and Extremely.
So...getting sucked so deeply into the memory of Max losing his head that she could see, hear and smell the bastard wielding that gleaming sword four years later and seven thousand miles away? And remaining trapped within the horror for so long that all three of her remaining fellow Braxton PD deputies—and the sheriff—had not only noticed, but had crowded in around her desk at the police station before she'd found the strength and presence of mind to snap out of it?
Yeah, that definitely fell under Extremely.
She circled the 4 in the column beneath and moved on to the second question on the sheet. Was she bothered by: repeated, disturbing dreams of the stressful experience?
Let's see...being woken from a sweat-soaked nightmare at least twice a night this past week by an increasingly worried and seriously stressed-out German Shepherd jabbing his nose into her neck so frantically that he'd begun to leave bruises?
Yet another shoo-in for the Extremely column.
Kate circled her second 4 out of a possible 4 and moved on to the third question. By the time she'd pushed through all twenty queries—including Feeling distant or cut off from other people? and the ever-incriminating Feeling jumpy or easily startled?—she was contemplating dumping the clipboard on the waiting room's deserted check-in counter and escaping this emotional sinkhole of a dilapidated VA hospital tasked with juggling the state's surfeit of screwed-up veterans. Permanently.
The temptation to bolt intensified as Kate noted the succession of fours she'd circled down the front and back of the questionnaire.
When she'd signed the contract agreeing to attend no less than twelve weekly, soul-shredding sessions of cognitive processing therapy, Dr. Manning had informed her that a baseline total of thirty-three on this very assessment pointed to a probable PTSD diagnosis in all its raging glory. She didn't need a calculator to know she'd blown past that sum with the first ten questions alone; she could feel the reality of her deepening deficiencies ricocheting along every jagged line of her seriously cracked psyche.
It was barely noon on a lazy Saturday in early December. The parking lot outside the main doors to Fort Leaves had been all but deserted upon her arrival, leaving her to commandeer the first slot. If she bailed now, she could be back inside her Durango with the engine fired up and the bulk of Little Rock in her rearview mirror within two to three minutes. Less than thirty later, she'd be back in Braxton, pulling into the drive of the split-log home she'd inherited from her father, returning one of Ruger's humblingly ecstatic greetings and a slew of his more sedate, balming hugs as she and the Shepherd escaped to the couch for the remainder of the weekend.
Even better, she wouldn't have to explain the skyrocketing scores on her weekly questionnaire, let alone the reason behind them.
And what she planned to do about it.
Heck, she wouldn't even have to explain her decision to Liz. As a newly baptized shrink herself, not to mention her best friend from high school, Liz would definitely have had something to say about it, too. But Liz was out of town for training and wouldn't be back for two more weeks. Long enough for Kate to strengthen herself against the coming disappointment.
That decided it.
Kate stood...only to hear the soft snick of the inner door across the waiting room as it opened.
Dr. Manning's deceptively placid blue stare eased into the waiting room, pinning her in place as the remainder of the shrink's lanky, sixty-something form followed. "Good afternoon, Deputy Holland. I see you found the PTSD assessment I left for you. Excellent." He opened the door wider and waved her into his lair. "Please, come in."
Trapped, Kate tightened her grip on the clipboard and abandoned the row of rust-colored chairs, taking care to keep her sights locked on the shrink's shoulder-length strands of silver—and not the collection of cobalt blue pottery looming along the floating shelf to her right as she moved deeper into the waiting room.
It took thirteen steps to clear her first landmine of the afternoon. Five more had her safely through the doorway, but flush with the second.
Unfortunately, short of closing her eyes, there was no escaping the three-by-five-foot, tattered Islamic flag on the wall above the faux leather couch as she paused between the matching armchairs located on her side of the coffee table.
Manning had offered to have the flag and pottery removed. At least until she'd gotten through her first few sessions. While she appreciated the gesture, she'd passed. What was the point? It wasn't as though she needed the sight of those bowls and jugs—or even that singed scrap of white on green—to trigger her own private hell anymore.
It was there. Twenty-four hours a day now.
Whether she closed her eyes or not.
"May I take your coat?"
"Thank you." Kate set the clipboard on the seat of her usual chair and slipped off her Braxton PD jacket. The jacket she'd deliberately donned before leaving her house, along with the long-sleeved department polo beneath, and her police utility belt and trousers—despite the fact that she didn't have duty until Monday.
What better way to obscure the real reason for her shoulder holster and the loaded 9mm inside? The 9mm she still couldn't leave the house without.
Where her clawing need to remain armed twenty-four/seven would leave her once her boss figured out the rest, she had no idea. But it would help now with the exceptionally sharp VA psychiatrist turning away from the brass coat tree beside his desk to approach the pair of wingback chairs.
That sharp blue stare hadn't zeroed in on her Glock. Or the clipboard she'd retrieved with her right hand. The stare was fused to her left—or, rather, her wrist.
Max's dive watch.
She'd meant to remove it before she bailed out of her SUV. If only because she and the shrink had agreed that she wouldn't wear it for the duration of her therapy.
Correction—Manning had pressed his position with that quiet, insidious logic of his. Something about how he'd noticed that she tended to use the watch she'd yanked off the wrist of the terrorist who'd beheaded Max as an instinctive grounding technique. And that, while grounding techniques were generally a good thing—and that he did encourage keeping the watch near so that she had something to touch when stressed—he'd also noticed that she tended to carry the twisting and scraping of the oversized band around her wrist to the point of self-harm and avoidance.
So she'd removed it.
She'd made it twelve days with the watch in her pocket—until the sheriff had stopped her on her way out of the station late Thursday afternoon. The moment Lou had dropped the governor's bombshell on her, her wrist had begun to itch worse than it had since she'd stumbled across Joe's betrayal four weeks earlier.
Hell, worse than it had itched since she'd woken up in that quiet room at the Craig Joint Theatre Hospital at Bagram, Afghanistan, four years ago.
Like it was itching now.
Somehow, she managed to ignore the sensation as she dumped the clipboard onto the chair next to the shrink. She turned her wrist, popped the stainless-steel clasp and slipped the oversized, orange-faced Doxa into the pocket of her uniform trousers—and sat.
The comforting bulk and weight at her upper right thigh should have helped to calm the itch as Manning retrieved the clipboard from the opposite armchair and settled himself within—but it didn't.
If anything, the itching increased.
He finished reading the assessment she'd filled out in the waiting room, then moved on to the homework he'd assigned the previous week. Flipping through the worksheets, he studied her comments. Even if she hadn't placed the sheets beneath the assessment in the order in which she'd completed them, she'd have known when he'd reached the one he was looking for.
Shrinks weren't the only ones adept at reading expressions. Cops could too.
Even shitty ones, like her.
Manning finished the final worksheet and looked up.
She nearly squirmed in her chair. That laser focus of his she could deal with. But the insidious compassion that replaced it?
It was so much worse.
The itching had become so intense, her forearm shook with the force of resisting it—until she couldn't. Against her will, the fingers of her right hand slipped across her lap to rub at the bracelet of scratches and older, fine white scars that she'd been adding to since Thursday afternoon.
The uppermost layer of skin had darkened from an irritated pink to livid scarlet a mere hour earlier, shortly before she'd left the house.
Right around the time she'd screwed up the courage to fill out the trio of blocks on that final worksheet.
But instead of addressing the content of those blocks, the shrink shifted his attention to her wrist. She was still rubbing it. He didn't need to repeat his earlier, clinical assessment. It was thrumming through the air between them.
Avoidance. She was practicing it again. Without the watch this time.
She tugged her fingers from her wrist—and anchored them beneath her right thigh. "Sorry."
Manning's soft sigh filled the room. "Kate?"
"You were in a relatively good place when you left this office last Saturday. You had accepted that PTSD is normal after a severe trauma. We spoke about natural emotions like anger and fear, and manufactured emotions like guilt. We also talked about the importance of allowing yourself to experience the natural emotions connected to the trauma you experienced in Afghanistan, and the importance of not—" That insidious compassion shifted to the band of raw flesh. "—avoiding them. We even discussed the likelihood that your scores, and the symptoms behind them, would increase over the next few weeks—because you now remember your trauma in its entirety. But that embracing these connected emotions is what will allow their intensity to lessen and burn out, much like a fire that's lost its source of fuel."
He waited for her guilty nod, then flipped through the stack of papers on the clipboard to remove that final, damning worksheet and set it on top. "Last week, you also composed a statement on why you believe your trauma occurred and how it has affected your life. In it, you admitted that you hated the Silver Star that was awarded as a result of your POW experience and the eleven terrorists you were forced to kill during your escape—and that you felt responsible for the beheading of your friend, Max."
She had. But since he'd begun last week's session with a similar review of their initial one, she bit her tongue and waited for the rest.
Not to mention an actual question for her to respond to.
The shrink glanced at the sheaf of papers. "Last Saturday, we discussed the concept of stuck points as well. That is—problem areas in thinking that interfere with the recovery process, thereby keeping a person 'stuck' in PTSD. We found several of yours and began with the one regarding the beheading: I should have protected Max. We worked through this stuck point together with your first ABC worksheet and discussed it at length. You agreed that the crime scene investigation conducted by your former Army CID colleagues proved there was nothing you could have done to save Max. You told me you were going to reread the reports and review the video recording that the terrorists made of the beheading this past week. Were you able to do that?"
Though it had damned near killed her to read and watch and listen to it all again, "Yes."
"And do you still agree that, given the circumstances that day, there was nothing you could have done to save Max's life?"
That she could have done? "Yes."
He must have been satisfied with the honesty behind that silently split hair, because he nodded. "Then perhaps we should discuss this." Manning tapped his index finger over the initial block of the worksheet she'd forced herself to fill out that morning. The one that spelled out the first—and final—task that she'd be performing as Deputy Holland when she reached the police station come Monday morning.
Kate shrugged. "It's right there." She tipped her head toward the label above that first block, the one that read: Something happens. "I'm turning in my badge."
Well, hell, that answer was right there on the worksheet too. Scratched out in the next square over, directly beneath: I tell myself something. She pushed forth another shrug as she gave voice to the supposed stuck point she'd written in the block—though, admittedly, this shrug was stiffer than her first. "My judgment can't be trusted."
Manning nodded as he retrieved the pen from its slot at the top of the clipboard. "My judgment can't be trusted is a stuck point. However, while turning in my badge may be what is about to happen—and we'll discuss that possibility in a moment—it is not the activating event. So..." He used the pen to cross out I'm turning in my badge and sat back, once again trapping her within that cloying web of compassion. "Let's start with the real activating event, shall we? What happened this week that led you to fill out this sheet?"
What the hell. "Have you heard of the Diamond Award?"
The slight uptick of the shrink's brows suggested yes.
She nodded and pushed deeper into the muck that had been simmering deep inside her gut for four-plus years now. "The governor's decided to hitch his tattered coat-tails to our lowly department. Lou and the rest of the guys are scheduled to get attaboys from the state police, and I'm supposed to get slapped with that."
Another uptick in that silvery brow. "From what I understand, the Diamond is the state's highest award. It's—"
"I was going to say natural. As in, following a heinous and high-profile case like the one you recently solved, it's natural for awards to follow. Expected even."
Yeah, well, she didn't need another award fêting her and her so-called skills. Let alone one with Joe's, Grant's and Burke's names attached to it.
And there was the rest.
She sighed. "According to Lou, the thing's supposed to be presented by the Secretary of State. But, no, Mr. 'Look At Me, And Not My Declining Poll Numbers' finagled a way to steal the stage—by dragging the battle-scarred war hero up onto the dais with him. The governor decided the entire farce should go down at the capitol after the legislature reopens. And then he expects me to trot over to the governor's mansion with him, arm in arm, for a black-tie reception. Be his grisly-faced guest of honor."
Sure, the rest of the department would be there. But so would the press. Taking photos. Adding to the fraud and spreading it around the entire state—and beyond.
She wasn't sure which was worse.
All she knew for certain was, "I can't do it."
"Can't? Or won't?"
She refused to touch that one.
Unfortunately, Manning was undeterred. The doc simply returned the pen to the top of the clipboard and settled into his chair. "What about the rest of the department? Do the sheriff and your fellow deputies share your feelings about the circumstances surrounding their respective awards and the reception to follow?"
Lou's beaming face slipped into view—along with Owen's and Drake's. She pushed all three aside. She had to.
"And what happens if you turn down the Diamond Award? Am I correct in assuming that the entire event would be canceled—including the awards for the other officers who worked the Garbage Man case?"
"Yes." Talk about blackmail.
Then again, they were dealing with a career politician. They didn't come any more self-serving than that in her book.
"Hence your decision to turn in your badge."
"Why not?" With her out of the way, Lou, Owen and Drake—and, yes, even Seth—would still get the recognition they deserved. The recognition she didn't.
"Are you certain—"
"Yes. I've made up my mind. I told you; I never should've accepted that Silver Star. I won't add to the lie."
"That I'm some super cop—military or civilian." The assessment was so far off it should've been funny. But it wasn't. Nothing about this was. "It's my fault Max is dead."
"Kate, should we review the circumstances surrounding Max's death again? And why you feel—"
She shook her head. "I'm not talking about that bastard with the sword. I agree with you there; there was nothing I could've done then that would've stopped Max from losing his head. But someone else could've. I told you last week. My dad was right; I wasn't cut out to be CID. If I hadn't enlisted, Max would've brought another agent along on that convoy, and he'd have confided his suspicions about Joe to that agent—a good agent. If he had, that ambush probably wouldn't have even happened."
"Because another agent would've realized Joe was dirty long before the ambush, and he or she would've taken Joe down."
"Because this other agent would have been a good agent?"
She ignored the renewed itching at her wrist and nodded. "Yes."
"And you are not a good agent—or cop?"
"And you believe this because of Joe Cordoba?"
"And Grant, and Burke."
The trifecta of fuck-ups. And they were all on her.
She hadn't realized that her former fellow CID agent and so-called buddy, Joe, was up to his lying lips in a monstrous scheme that had left countless soldiers and veterans alike dead and diced up, with their respective organs and body parts sold off to the highest bidder on the black market. And there was Grant, her former lover—who'd been performing the dicing. And last, but not least: Burke. The soldier who'd tipped Max off to the entire scheme four years earlier, leading Joe to arrange the ambush that had taken out their convoy and had led directly to Max's beheading.
And, then, there was yours truly. Not only one of CID's supposed finest, but a glorified war hero.
Except she hadn't been able to wedge a single piece of the entire twisted puzzle into place until Burke had murdered four members of the organ harvesting racket—including Grant—and left their sectioned body parts in tidy rows of crisp brown paper bags along the backroads of Braxton...as a pointed get your shit together message to her.
Three other members of the racket had died as well, before she'd regained her memories of Max's final moments and figured out enough to track Burke down.
Damn it, she'd liked him.
Admittedly, the IED and traumatic brain injury that had stolen the staff sergeant's legs had also severely damaged the moral center of Burke's brain—but she should've noticed something, right? Especially since Burke had been using another soldier's identity?
She pointed to the clipboard on the doc's lap. "Like I wrote on that sheet, my judgment can't be trusted."
Manning retrieved the pen and circled the statement. "You are right in that my judgment can't be trusted is a stuck point. But the correct, corresponding activating event is...?"
They might not have been doing this for long, but she'd gotten the hang of what Manning wanted, so she gave it to him. "Joe, Grant and Burke were involved in the organ harvesting and those murders."
Manning passed the pen and clipboard to her.
What the hell. She added the statement she'd just voiced out loud to the first block, then stared at the trio of words blaring up at her from the final square. That morning, beneath I feel something, she'd written shame, disgust and fear.
She still did—and it was all directed at herself.
"Kate, let's go back to this hypothetical good agent of yours. How would he or she have known that Joe was involved with the organ harvesting?"
"He would've picked up on something that I didn't. Something I missed."
"I don't know."
"Is it possible that you didn't miss anything?"
"I must have. I was fooled, wasn't I? By all of them." The guilt she'd been battling for weeks burrowed in that much deeper. She dropped her attention to the band of scarlet on her wrist, fighting the urge to give in to the temptation to rub.
"As I was."
Surprised by the shrink's confession, she glanced up.
Manning nodded. "Grant was involved in my Thursday night therapy group. Burke volunteered here at the hospital. Burke's TBI notwithstanding, I, too, knew both men while they were doing what they were doing, and I didn't realize what was happening either. In fact, no one here at Fort Leaves knew that Grant and the other three VA employees were involved in murdering veterans for their organs. So...does that make the hospital's entire staff incompetent? Is our judgment untrustworthy, as well?"
"But we produced the same purportedly glaring fail as you."
She shook her head as she passed the clipboard back to Manning. "None of you are supposed to be trained investigators."
"But we did know Grant and the others. Worked with them. And many of us who did are therapists—hence, also trained observers of human behavior. Surely we should have realized that something was off."
"But you're not cops. You're doctors, nurses, caregivers. Most people who show up on a hospital doorstep want to be helped. Grant and the others didn't."
Hence, Grant and every one of his murdering cohorts would have done their damnedest to keep hints of the truth from bleeding through.
The shrink leaned closer. "Ah....then what about Joe? He spent time at the crime scenes and worked the investigation with your sheriff and your fellow Braxton deputies. Did your boss or the other officers in your department—or even the FBI/BAU agent who arrived with Joe to assist in the investigation—did any of them realize that Joe was dirty?"
She knew what Manning was doing. The same thing the doc had done the week before when he'd managed to chip away at her belief that there was something she could've done in that mud brick hovel back in Afghanistan to prevent Max from losing his head. Manning was employing his own charming brand of relentless Socratic questioning, flipping her arguments back onto herself and forcing her to pick them apart and think through them.
Lousy cop or not, she was still a seasoned interrogator. Did he think he could lead her through her own professional dance and not have her recognize the steps?
But damned if it wasn't working. Because she was beginning to doubt herself...again.
She knew what he wanted there too. The full statement. Spouting from her mouth, not his. Fine. "No. No one at the Braxton PD, much less Agent Walker, realized Joe was dirty until I figured it out and informed them."
But why would they?
She allowed her frustration to spill out as she raked her fingers through her hair, disturbing the short ponytail she'd fashioned that morning. Socratic questioning or not, the doc just didn't get it. Because he didn't want to. "Don't you see? Lou, Agent Walker and the other deputies in my department—they all knew Joe for less than forty-eight hours. They hadn't worked side by side with the man for years. Shared investigations with him. As I did—while Joe was dirty."
That earned her a nod—but not one of agreement. "I can tell you feel strongly about this stuck point." Manning thumbed through the sheets on the clipboard, then looked up. "I see you've entered it into your log. That's good. We'll be coming back to it in later sessions. But right now, I'd like to take a few moments to discuss your decision to surrender your badge. From your comments earlier, it sounds as though your resolve to quit the force is a direct reaction to your pending award. Is this correct?"
Score one for the shrink's own interrogating skills.
"And when is the ceremony and the reception?"
"So, it's over six weeks—and six more of our sessions—away. We'll be working through a lot in the coming month and a half. And that work will change you—for the better. I suspect you'll feel differently about the award and the reception by then."
"I doubt it."
"But it is possible, yes?"
Sure. And Joe would be breaking out of Fort Leavenworth that afternoon—to rousing cheers from the families of all those soldiers and vets he'd murdered.
"Theoretically, yes. It's possible."
"If that's the case...what would be the harm in waiting a few more weeks—two, at the very least—to see if your feelings change?"
"About the ceremony?"
"And turning in your badge. You've already begun therapy." He pressed his tented fingertips into the stack of worksheets. "You're putting in the work. Very solid work, too. Do you think that perhaps you owe it to yourself to postpone the decision to resign? To make absolutely certain you're basing a serious career move on your desires and not your fears?"
As much as she hated to admit it, the man had a point.
Not to mention, before that horrific slew of Garbage Man murders, there'd been but two homicides in her jurisdiction in the previous decade and a half.
What could be the harm in waiting fourteen more days?
Because there was the added fact that they were already down two deputies in Braxton—or about to be.
Besides Lou, they were supposed to have five additional officers in the department. Bob Feathers had retired a few weeks before Burke had left that first row of sacks on a deserted gravel road on the outskirts of town. The department's next senior-most deputy, Seth Armstrong, had turned in his notice this Wednesday morning. The easygoing, until-now unflappable bubba had held up against the sight of those crisp sacks and the shrink-wrapped body parts that had been inside, only to fold upon confronting a rusted barrel brimming with the remnants of countless murdered vets awaiting disposal when he, Lou and the others had executed the warrant on the pet crematorium.
Lou was still reeling from the fallout of this latest pending loss and scrambling to find the talent to fill not only Feathers' slot, but now Seth's as well.
It was the only reason she hadn't bailed on Lou on the spot when he'd told her about that asinine award.
"Fine." The delay would give Lou a bit of a breather before he had to hire someone to fill her position too. "Do I need to sign another contract?"
The shrink's laser stare returned. "Do you need to?"
Well, the last one hadn't kept Max's watch off her wrist, had it?
She flushed at the depth of her weakness. Shook her head. Then gave the doc the verbal commitment she knew he wanted. "I'll hang onto my badge for at least two weeks—and I won't turn it in without telling you first. You have my word."
The added offer to discuss it with him first got her off the hook with the watch, at least for the moment, because the man nodded, then leaned over the arm of his chair to retrieve a stack of ABC worksheets from the coffee table. They were identical to the ones on his lap—except these were blank. Manning set the virgin sheets atop the others and used his pen to scrawl several words inside the middle square of the uppermost one.
He leaned forward to pass the entire fresh batch to her. "This week's homework is more of the same. Consult your stuck point log and choose at least one a day to work through—including the one I just wrote out for you."
Even before she glanced down, she knew what he'd written. She was about to respond when the far-right pouch on her utility belt vibrated.
Manning sat back in his chair and tipped his head toward the pouch. "Go ahead; I can see that you're on duty today."
Her flush returned—with a vengeance. But she slid her phone from its slot as she stood. Short of copping to the implicit façade her department polo, utility belt and 9mm presented—and worse—what choice did she have?
Either way, it was a good decision. Lou's name flashed onto the screen.
She headed for the corner of the office for privacy as she accepted the sheriff's call—just in case. "What's up, boss?"
"Afternoon, Kato. I just swung by your place, but only saw Ruger."
"I'm in Little Rock. I had something to take care of this morning." Something she'd deliberately left out of her recent conversations with the sheriff—even though Lou was more akin to honorary uncle than boss, and had been for over a decade and a half.
And, no, she did not feel guilty.
Kate glanced back at Manning, ignoring that pointed, silver brow and the silent tsk that came with it.
Damn it, she didn't.
"You 'bout done with that errand?"
Oh, Lord. This was more than one of the "I was in the area" drop-ins that Lou had taken to making these past four weeks to not-so-subtly check up on her following Grant's murder and Joe's arrest. She could hear it in the rasping stress of his tobacco-roughened voice.
She set the homework sheets on the corner of the shrink's desk so she could tug Max's watch from her pocket. No wonder Manning had retrieved the homework blanks. They'd chewed through the session's allotted time a minute ago.
She returned the watch to her pocket. "I'm wrapping things up now. I can be back in Braxton in half an hour. What's wrong?"
"We got a body. It's lyin' in Parson Weaver's current crop of winter wheat. No idea what poor soul it belonged to though."
She closed her eyes—and prayed.
It'd been barely a month. That was just enough time to rouse the psychos out there. Please don't let this be a copycat.
Lou must have sent up the same prayer when he'd gotten the word, because his telling sigh filled the line. "No, it's got its head—and all the important parts. Least ways, I think so. Cain't say for sure...'cause damned near every inch of what is here has been burned to an unholy crisp."
She kept her eyes shut. It was the only way to fight the urge to slide down to the carpet beneath her boots and curl into a quivering ball.
The only thing stronger was that damned itch. The one that'd taken up residence once again in and around her left wrist.
She slipped the fingers of her right hand back into her pocket and anchored them to Max's watch, holding on to the Doxa's solid face with her last remaining shred of sanity as she forced herself to open her eyes. To stare at the stack of worksheets she'd set on the corner of Manning's desk.
My judgment can't be trusted pulsed up at her.
Somehow, those five simple words were that much more real in the shrink's handwriting. That much more decisive.
Despite that stark, written statement—and all the muck that had been churned up with it—the distinct edge of fear in Lou's voice managed to slice deep into her gut and anchor in. Her fingers were clenched around the watch so tightly now, they hurt.
She blew out her breath anyway—and nodded.
"I'll be right there."