Killer Instinct Page 1

The majority of children who are kidnapped and killed are dead within three hours of the abduction. Thanks to my roommate, the walking encyclopedia of probabilities and statistics, I knew the exact numbers. I knew that when you went from discussing hours to days and days to weeks, the likelihood of recovery dropped so far that the FBI couldn’t justify the manpower necessary to keep the case active.

I knew that by the time a case was classified “cold” and found its way to us, we were probably looking for a body—not a little girl.

But…

But Mackenzie McBride was six years old.

But her favorite color was purple.

But she wanted to be a “veterinarian pop star.”

You couldn’t stop looking for a kid like that. You couldn’t stop hoping, even if you tried.

“You look like a woman in need of amusement. Or possibly libation.” Michael Townsend eased himself down onto the sofa next to me, stretching his bad leg out to the side.

“I’m fine,” I said.

Michael snorted. “The corners of your mouth are turned upward. The rest of your face is fighting it, like if your lips parted into even a tiny smile, it might clear the way for a sob.”

That was the downside to joining the Naturals program. We were all here because we saw things that other people didn’t. Michael read facial expressions as easily as other people read words.

He leaned toward me. “Say the word, Colorado, and I will selflessly provide you with a much-needed distraction.”

The last time Michael had offered to distract me, we’d spent half an hour blowing things up and then hacked our way into a secure FBI drive.

Well, technically, Sloane had hacked our way into a secure FBI drive, but the end result had been the same.

“No distractions,” I said firmly.

“Are you sure?” Michael asked. “Because this distraction involves Lia, Jell-O, and a vendetta that begs to be paid.”

I didn’t want to know what our resident lie detector had done to provoke the kind of vengeance that came laden with Jell-O. Given Lia’s personality and her history with Michael, the possibilities were endless.

“You do realize that starting a prank war with Lia would be a very bad idea,” I said.

“Without question,” Michael replied. “If only I weren’t so overly burdened with good sense and a need for self-preservation.”

Michael drove like a maniac and had a general disdain for authority. Two months earlier, he’d followed me out of the house knowing that I was the subject of a serial killer’s obsession, and he’d gotten shot for his trouble.

Twice.

Self-preservation was not Michael’s strong suit.

“What if we’re wrong about this case?” I asked. My thoughts had looped right back around: from Michael to Mackenzie, from what had happened six weeks ago to what Agent Briggs and his team were out there doing right now.

“We’re not wrong,” Michael said softly.

Let the phone ring, I thought. Let it be Briggs, calling to tell me that this time—this time—my instincts were right.

The first thing I’d done when Agent Briggs had handed over the Mackenzie McBride file was profile the suspect: a parolee who’d disappeared around the same time Mackenzie had. Unlike Michael’s ability, my skill set wasn’t limited to facial expressions or posture. Given a handful of details, I could crawl into another person’s skull and imagine what it would be like to be them, to want what they wanted, to do the things that they did.

Behavior. Personality. Environment.

The suspect in Mackenzie’s case had no focus. The abduction was too well planned. It didn’t add up.

I’d combed through the files, looking for someone who seemed like a possible fit. Young. Male. Intelligent. Precise. I’d half begged, half coerced Lia into going through witness testimony, interrogations, interviews—any and every recording related to the case, hoping she’d catch someone in a revealing lie. And finally, she had. The McBride family’s attorney had issued a statement to the press on behalf of his clients. It had seemed standard to me, but to Lia, lies were as jarring as off-key singing was to a person with perfect pitch.

“No one can make sense of a tragedy like this.”

The lawyer was young, male, intelligent, precise—and when he’d said those words, he’d been lying. There was one person who could make sense of what had happened, a person who didn’t think it was a tragedy.

The person who’d taken Mackenzie.

According to Michael, the McBrides’ lawyer had felt a thrill just mentioning the little girl’s name. I was hoping that meant there was a chance—however small—that the man had kept her alive: a living, breathing reminder that he was bigger, better, smarter than the FBI.

“Cassie.” Dean Redding burst into the room, and my chest constricted. Dean was quiet and self-contained. He almost never raised his voice.

“Dean?”

“They found her,” Dean said. “Cassie, they found her on his property, exactly where Sloane’s schematics said they would. She’s alive.”

I jumped up, my heart pounding in my ears, unsure if I was going to cry or throw up or shriek. Dean smiled. Not a half smile. Not a grin. He beamed, and the expression transformed him. Chocolate-brown eyes sparkled underneath the blond hair that hung perpetually in his face. A dimple I’d never seen appeared in one cheek.

I threw my arms around Dean. A moment later, I bounced out of his grip and launched myself at Michael.

Michael caught me and let out a whoop. Dean sat down on the arm of the couch, and there I was, wedged in between them, feeling the heat from both of their bodies, and all I could think was that Mackenzie was going to get to go home.

“Is this a private party, or can anyone join?”

The three of us turned to see Lia in the doorway. She was dressed from head to toe in black, a white silk scarf tied neatly around her neck. She arched an eyebrow at us: cool and calm and just a little bit mocking.

“Admit it, Lia,” Michael said. “You’re just as happy as we are.”

Lia eyed me. She eyed Michael. She eyed Dean. “Honestly,” she said, “I doubt that anyone is as happy as Cassie is at this exact moment.”

I was getting better at ignoring Lia’s suggestive little digs, but this one hit its target, dead center. Squished in between Michael and Dean, I blushed. I was not going to go there—and I wasn’t going to let Lia ruin this.

A grim expression on his face, Dean stood and marched toward Lia. For a moment, I thought he might say something to her about spoiling the moment, but he didn’t. He just picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder.

“Hey!” Lia protested.

Dean grinned and threw her onto the sofa with Michael and me and then resumed his perch on the edge of the couch like nothing had happened. Lia scowled, and Michael poked her cheek.

“Admit it,” he said again. “You’re just as happy as we are.”

Lia tossed her hair over her shoulder and stared straight ahead, refusing to look any of us in the eye. “A little girl is going home,” she said. “Because of us. Of course I’m as happy as you are.”

“Given individual differences in serotonin levels, the probability that any four people would be experiencing identical levels of happiness simultaneously is quite—”

“Sloane,” Michael said, without bothering to turn around. “If you don’t finish that sentence, there’s a cup of fresh ground coffee in your future.”

“My immediate future?” Sloane asked suspiciously. Michael had a long history of blocking her consumption of caffeine.

Without a word, Michael, Lia, and I all turned to look at Dean. He got the message, stood up, and strode toward Sloane, giving her the exact same treatment he’d given Lia. When Dean tossed Sloane gently on top of me, I giggled and almost toppled onto the floor, but Lia grabbed hold of my collar.

We did it, I thought, as Michael, Lia, Sloane, and I elbowed for room and Dean stared on from his position, just outside the fray. Mackenzie McBride isn’t going to be some statistic. She’s not going to be forgotten.

Mackenzie McBride was going to grow up, because of us.

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