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It is almost a decade since Duluth said goodbye to its innocence. The city creeps ever closer to the anniversary of the year in which it found itself both gripped by murder and united in terror; and during which the pillar of its community, Detective Jonathan Stride, had his home and heart torn to ribbons by the claws of cancer. Cat Mateo, an orphan with a knack of landing on her feet, has bid farewell to a life on the streets. This once-stray teenager owes her rescue to Stride, the father figure she holds close to her heart. But Cat holds something else to her chest – a secret: the sheer power of which she could not possibly comprehend. A secret that, once out of the bag, will not just viciously scratch at Duluth’s still-healing wounds, but will make Stride wave goodbye to his convictions about the events nine years before, and say hello to his darkest fears…

Aside from Michael Connelly and Jack Kerley, there are few American thriller series where I have committed myself to reading each new book as it arrives. However, having been hooked by Brian Freeman’s Immoral  years ago, I am always happy to be drawn back to downtown Duluth, and to the trials and tribulations of Freeman’s stalwart homicide detective Jonathan Stride and his firecracker police partner Maggie Bei…

Despite my own familiarity with the series, and the characters contained within it, I love Freeman’s ability to so easily hook any new reader in, and this book would be a great place to start. The reason I say that is, that Freeman segues between two timelines, taking us back to the period immediately before the death of Stride’s wife, and how a particularly testing murder case will so resolutely intrude on the present. The balance between both narratives is perfect throughout, providing the reader with not only a more introspective examination of what makes Stride the man he is, but how criminal investigations are not always as clear cut as they seem, and how the sins of the past cannot always stay buried there. Also with the action pivoting between two timelines, Freeman sows small but pertinent details of his characters’ emotional weaknesses and strengths, and how they impact on their personal and professional relationships when put into focus nine years later.

With the police protagonists Stride and Bei being such well-realised characters and so integral to the thrust of the story , I did experience a little irritation at the antics of Cat, and the tendency to slightly simpering neediness of Stride’s current squeeze Serena. Although both these characters have experienced similar problems in the upbringing, I didn’t altogether believe in them, and did find them showing signs of stereotypical behaviour that I have seen oft repeated in fiction writing. However, Freeman’s depiction of Stride’s incredibly touching relationship with his late wife, Cindy, and the characterisation of Cindy herself, helped redress the balance in the female characterisation, and then of course, there’s Maggie Bei who totally dominates every scene she appears in. She is a brilliant character, small in stature, but in possession of a general ballsiness and frankness that will delight and entertain you throughout. And she’s got a soft side too. But not too soft…

I had a few misgivings about the plot, in terms of the use of coincidence as to Cat’s involvement in the whole affair, and the ending was a little contrived, but this can probably be attributed again to too much crime reading on my part. However, there were some nice touches including an ice-cold scheming woman whose character I loved, possibly guilty of mariticide  and her besotted sad act stalker, and the suspicion that arises in the reader as to her guilt or innocence. Did she? Or didn’t she? It’s fun playing detective and trying to work her out, amongst the smoke and mirrors that Freeman employs the way.

So a wee bit of a mixed affair for me personally, but I think the good aspects of this one, more than outweigh the little niggles it produced in me, and I would certainly recommend this as a series that warrants further investigation. Here’s an extract to tempt you in…

PROLOGUE

The Present

Serena spotted the Grand Am parked half a block from the

Duluth bar. Someone was waiting inside the car.

Mosquitoes clouded in front of the headlights. The trumpets

of a Russian symphony – something loud and mournful

by Shostakovich

blared through its open windows. Serena

smelled acrid, roll-your-own cigarette smoke drifting toward

her with the spitting rain. Beyond the car, through the haze,

she saw the milky lights of the Superior bridge arching across

the harbor.

There were just the two of them in the late-night darkness of

the summer street. Herself and the stranger behind the wheel of

the Grand Am. She couldn’t see the driver, but it didn’t matter

who was inside. Not yet.

She was here for someone else.

This was an industrial area, on the east end of Raleigh Street,

not far from the coal docks and the paper mill. Power lines sizzled

overhead. The ground under her feet shook with the passage

of a southbound train. She made sure her Mustang was locked,

with her Glock securely inside the glove compartment, and then

she crossed the wet street to the Grizzly Bear Bar. It was a dive

with no windows and an apartment overhead for the owner.

Cat was inside.

Serena felt guilty putting tracking software on the teenager’s phone, but she’d learned

quickly that Cat’s sweet face didn’t mean she could be trusted.

When she pulled open the door of the bar, a sweaty, beery

smell tumbled outside. She heard drunken voices shouting in

languages she didn’t understand and the twang of a George Strait

song on the jukebox. Big men lined up two-deep at the bar and

played poker at wooden tables.

Inside, she scanned the faces, looking for Cat. She spied her

near the wall, standing shoulder to shoulder with an older girl,

both of them head-down over smartphones. The two made an

unlikely pair. Cat was a classic beauty with tumbling chestnut

hair and a sculpted Hispanic face. Her skinny companion had

dyed orange spikes peeking out under a wool cap, and her ivory

face was studded with piercings.

Serena keyed a text into her own phone and sent it. Look up.

Cat’s face shot upward as she got the message. Her eyes widened,

and Serena read the girl’s lips. ‘Oh, shit.

Cat whispered urgently in her friend’s ear. Serena saw the

other girl study her like a scientist peering into the business end

of a microscope. The skinny girl wore a low-cut mesh shirt over

a black bra and a jean skirt that ended mid-thigh. She picked up

a drinks tray – she was a waitress – and gave Serena a smirk as

she strolled to the bar, leaving Cat by herself.

Serena joined Cat at the cocktail table where she was standing.

The girl’s smile had vanished, and so had all of her adultness.

Teenagers drifted so easily between maturity and innocence. She

was a child again, but Cat was also a child who was five months

pregnant.

I’m really sorry’ Cat began, but Serena cut her off.

Save it. I’m not interested in apologies.’

She stopped herself before saying anything more that she’d regret. She was too angry even to look at Cat.

Instead, by habit, she surveyed the people in the bar.

It was a rough crowd, not a hangout for college kids and middle-class tourists like the bars in Canal Park.

Hardened sailors came to the Grizzly Bear off the

cargo boats, making up for dry days on the lake with plenty of

booze. She heard raspy laughter and arguments that would spill

over into fights. The bare, muscled forearms of the men were

covered in cuts and scars, and they left greasy fingerprints on

dozens of empty beer bottles.

In the opposite corner of the bar, Serena noticed a woman

who didn’t fit in with the others. The woman sat by herself, a

nervous smile on her round face. Her long blond hair, parted

in the middle, hung down like limp spaghetti. She had an all-American

look, with blue eyes and young skin, like a cheerleader

plucked from a college yearbook. Maybe twenty-two. She kept

checking a phone on the table in front of her, and her stare shot

to the bar door every time it opened.

Something about the woman set off alarm bells in Serena’s

head. This was a bad place for her. She wanted to go over and

ask: Why are you here?

She didn’t, because that was the question she needed to ask

Cat.

Why are you here, Cat?’

I wanted to go somewhere. I’m bored.’

That’s not an answer.’

Anna works here,’ Cat said. ‘She and I know the owner.’

Cat nodded at the waitress who’d been with her at the table.

Anna was playing with her phone as she waited for the bartender

at the taps. One of the sailors made a grab for the girl’s ass, and

Anna intercepted his hand without so much as a glance at the

man’s face.

She used to live on the streets, like me,’ Cat told Serena. ‘We’d

hang out together. If she found a place to sleep, she let me crash

there, too.’

I get it, but that’s not your world anymore.’

I’m entitled to have friends,’ Cat insisted, her lower lip bulging

with defiance.

You are, but no one from your old life is a friend.’

Serena knew the struggle the girl faced. Not even three months

ago, Cat Mateo had been a runaway. A teenage prostitute. When

someone began stalking her in the city’s graffiti graveyard, she’d

gone to Duluth police lieutenant Jonathan Stride for help. Serena

and Stride had been lovers for four years, and she knew he had

a weakness for a woman in trouble. They’d helped capture the

man who’d been targeting Cat, and when the girl was safe, Stride

made a decision that surprised Serena. He suggested that the

teenager live with them, have her baby there, and grow up in a

house with adults who cared about her.

Serena said yes, but she’d never believed that it would be easy

for any of them. And it wasn’t.

You’re a sight for sore eyes in this place,’ a male voice

announced.

A man in a rumpled blue dress shirt and loosely knotted tie

stopped at their table. His eyes darted between Serena’s face and

the full breasts swelling under her rain-damp T-shirt. He wiped

his hands on a Budweiser bar towel.

This is Fred,’ Cat interjected. ‘He owns the bar.’

The man shot out a hand, which Serena shook. His fingers

were sticky from sugar and limes. ‘Fred Sissel,’ he said cheerfully.

Sissel was around fifty years old, with slicked-back graying

hair and a trimmed mustache. He wore the over-eager grin of a

man who’d tried to smile his way out of everything bad in life.

Fights. Debts. Drunk driving. His cuffs were frayed, and his shirt

and tie were dotted with old food stains. His face had the mottled

brown of too many visits to a tanning salon.

So what’s your name, and where have you been all my life?’

Sissel asked. The teeth behind his smile were unnaturally white.

Serena slid her badge out of her jeans pocket. ‘My name’s

Serena Dial. I’m with the Itasca County Sheriff’s Office.’

Sissel’s mustache drooped like a worm on a fishing hook. The

sailors at the other tables had a radar for the gold glint of a badge,

and the tenor in the bar changed immediately.

Sorry, officer, is there a problem?’ Sissel asked, losing the

fake grin.

Do you know this girl?’

Sure, she’s a friend of Anna’s.’

Do you know she’s seventeen years old?’

Sissel swore under his breath. ‘Hey, I don’t want any trouble,’

he said.

You’ve already got trouble, and if I find her in this place again,

you’ll have even more.’

Yeah. Understood. Whatever you say.’

The bar owner raised his arms in surrender and backed away.

Serena saw emotions skipping like beach stones across Cat’s face.

Shame. Guilt. Embarrassment. Anger.

Fred’s a nice guy,’ the girl said finally. ‘You didn’t have to be

mean to him.’

Does he serve you alcohol?’

No,’ Cat said, but Serena didn’t trust her face. She leaned

closer to the girl, and although there was no booze on her breath,

she smelled cigarette smoke like stale perfume on her beautiful

hair.

You’ve been smoking.’

Just one.’

Serena wanted to scream at the girl, but she held her voice

in check. ‘You’re pregnant. You can’t smoke. You can’t drink.’

I told you, it was just one.’

Serena didn’t answer. She couldn’t fight teenage logic. As a

cop, she’d seen good girls make bad choices her entire life. She

knew how easy it was to cross the line. At Cat’s age, she’d been

a runaway herself, living with a girlfriend in Las Vegas after

escaping the grip of a Phoenix drug dealer. Not a month had

gone by in Vegas where she hadn’t fended off the temptation

to gamble, buy drugs, steal, or sell herself for the money she

needed. She felt lucky that the only serious vice she carried from

those days was being a recovering alcoholic. But luck was all it

was. A bad choice on a bad day, and her life would have taken

a different turn.

Across the bar, Serena saw the young blond woman – the

school cheerleader type – grab her phone suddenly and get to

her feet. She was nervous and excited and couldn’t control her

smile. She smoothed her long straight hair and moistened her

lips. If there was a mirror, she would have checked her reflection

in it. She took a breath, and her chest swelled. She headed for

the bar door, but backtracked to retrieve a baby-blue suitcase

from behind her table.

To Serena, it felt wrong. Visitors didn’t come to Duluth and

wind up in this bar on their first night. Her instincts told her to

stop the woman and ask questions. To intervene. To protect her.

Are you going to tell Stride?’ Cat asked.

Serena focused on the teenager again. She knew that Cat was

afraid of Stride’s disapproval more than anything else in her

life. He was like a father to her, and she was terrified of disappointing

him.

Yes,’ Serena said. ‘You know I have to tell him.’

Cat’s eyes filled with tears. She was a typical teenage girl,

using tears to get her way, and Serena worked hard to keep her

own face as stern as stone. Meanwhile, the bar door opened and

closed, letting in the patter of rain from outside.

The blond woman was gone.

It doesn’t matter what you tell him,’ Cat said, rubbing her

nose on her sleeve. ‘He’s going to kick me out sooner or later.’

Her voice was choked with self-pity. She was smart and beautiful

and eager to believe the worst about herself. She looked

for any reason to believe that her life wasn’t worth saving. To

sabotage the second chance she’d been given. That was part of

her guilt over who she’d been.

It has nothing to do with that,’ Serena told her calmly, ‘and

you know it.’

When he was married to Cindy, Stride didn’t want kids,’ Cat

protested. ‘So why would he want me now?’

You’re wrong about that, but even if it were true, it doesn’t

matter. He took you in, Cat. He wants you there. We both do.

What happened in the past, what happened with Cindy, has

nothing to do with who he is today.’

You wish,’ the girl snapped.

The words shot out of her like a poisoned arrow. Funny how

teenagers could always find your weak spot and apply pressure.

If there was anything in Serena’s life that made her feel like an

insecure child, it was the thought of Cindy Stride. It was the suspicion

that Jonny was still in love with his wife.

Still in love with the wife who died of cancer eight years ago.

Cat knew what she’d done. She looked upset now. ‘I’m sorry.

I didn’t mean that.’

But she did. And she was right.

Come on,’ Serena said, shoving down her own emotions. ‘Let’s

get out of here.’

She took Cat’s arm in a tight grip, but then something made

her freeze. A woman screamed. It came from the street, muffled

by the clamor of the bar. She almost missed it. The cry stopped as

quickly as it started, cutting off like the slamming of a window,

but Serena knew exactly who it was. She cursed herself for not

listening to her instincts when she had the chance.

Serena told Cat to stay where she was. She shoved through

the crowd and broke out into the street. Outside, the drizzle had

become a downpour, blown sideways by the wind. The Grand

Am she’d spotted earlier was still parked half a block away, its

headlights white and bright, steaming in the rain. Immediately

in front of the sedan was the woman from the bar, her body

flailing as she fought to free herself from a man who held her

in a headlock.

Serena shouted, and the woman saw her. Soundlessly, in panic,

she pleaded for rescue. Serena marched toward them to break

up the assault, but she’d barely taken a step when a gun blew up

the night. One shot. Loud and lethal. The blond woman’s pretty

face, twisted in panic, became a spray of bone, brain, blood, and

skin. Her knees buckled; her body slumped to the wet pavement.

In shock, Serena threw herself sideways toward the outer wall

of the bar.

The bar door opened, and Cat called out curiously, ‘What was

that? What’s going on?’

Serena yelled with the protective fury of a mother. ‘Cat, get

back inside right now!

Then she was running. She saw a tall man in a hooded sweatshirt,

his back to her as he escaped. The killer. She didn’t stop

for the woman lying in the street. There was nothing she could

do to help her. She charged after the man, struggling to match

his steps, but the pain of the effort weighed on her chest. Rain

soaked her black hair and blurred her eyes. The asphalt was slick.

The man sped into the darkness of a side street that ended in

dense trees, with Serena ten feet behind in pursuit. Matchbox

houses on both sides bloomed with light as people crept to their

windows.

Serena closed on the man when he slipped and lost a step.

The woods loomed directly ahead of them. She knew where she

was; the street ended in sharp steps that led down over a creek

into the grassy fields of Irving Park. She took a chance, and she

jumped. Her body hit the man in the square of the back, kicking

him forward, bringing both of them down. He slid onto the mossslick

concrete steps. She scrambled to her feet and dove for him,

but he was ready for her. He spun around in the blackness and

hammered a fist into her stomach. He grabbed her head. His

fingers drove her chin into the rusty railing bordering the steps,

where bone struck metal. Her teeth rattled as if driven upward

into her mouth. She collapsed to her knees.

He skidded on his heels and jumped down the rest of the steps.

She heard his footsteps splashing into the creek below them. He

was gone, breaking free into the wide-open land of the park. She

hadn’t seen his face.

People from the bar ran toward her, shouting. Somewhere

among them, Cat called her name over and over in fear. Serena

tried to stand, but she was too dizzy, and she fell forward, tasting

blood on her tongue. She was on all fours now. Her hands pushed

blindly around the muddy steps, hunting for the railing to use

as leverage as she stood up. She felt rocks and tree branches

and bug-eaten leaves beneath her fingers, and then, finally, she

brushed against the iron of the railing.

Except – no.

What she felt under the wet skin of her hand wasn’t the railing

mounted beside the steps. It was something else. Something

metal and lethal and still hot to the touch.

When her brain righted itself, she realized it was a gun…

 

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