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…
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
– 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
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
‘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
‘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
‘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
‘I get it, but that’s not your world anymore.’
‘I’m entitled to have friends,’ Cat insisted, her lower lip bulging
‘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
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
‘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,’
‘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
‘You’ve been smoking.’
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
‘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
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…