A Game Of Shadows – FREE Sneak Peak!
A special for my subscribers and followers who haven’t yet checked out my psychological thriller “A Game Of Shadows” from the Amelia Gardner series.
You can check out the opening chapters below for FREE, enjoy and thank me later 😉
Here is the blurb:
A dangerous killer is back to play a game decades after the last murder…
For many years, Amelia Gardner has struggled to come to terms with the disappearance of her mother, seemingly another unfortunate victim of the ruthless serial killer, The Shadow, who took pleasure in targeting the families of police officers.
Now in her thirties, Amelia is a crime junkie determined to uncover what happened to her mother. It has been years since Shadow went quiet, leaving the mystery behind her mother’s fate unsolved.
However, after Amelia’s sister suddenly goes missing, she is convinced that the disappearance is connected to the Shadow.
And when she begins receiving telltale threats like the ones the Shadow left his victims’ families, Amelia has to wonder. Is the original Shadow back? Or is this a copycat?
Either way, Amelia must beat a cunning killer at his own game and piece together the clues before he strikes again.
As their search leads them down a dark path, they quickly discover that there is more than just life and death at stake behind the Shadow’s deadly games…
It was just a house. Just an ordinary house. Somehow Amelia hadn’t pictured it that way. Something controlled and used by someone so evil should look the part. There should have been some kind of…insidiousness about it. Some haunting and menacing aura to ward off onlookers, to make the unsuspecting public want to look away and hurry out of sight. At least mail or old newspapers were piled in front of the door to hint at it being neglected. Not the red brick and white, aluminum-sided, split-level ranch in the middle of a suburban block of nearly identical houses, a modest commute’s distance from the DC metro area. Not so damn ordinary.
But it was.
She sat, glaring at the house on the opposite side of the well-maintained road in David’s unmarked Ford Crown Victoria, the standard police vehicle for detectives. The upper-middle-class neighborhood was still. Quiet. “All we’re missing is a pair of binoculars,” David muttered.
“Too obvious,” Amelia replied without missing a beat. She opened the door. “Come on,” she said as she got out of the car, her eyes scanning the house and those around it for signs that anyone might be paying attention to them.
David’s rushed warnings fell on deaf ears, and as her car door closed quietly but deliberately, he sighed in resignation and followed her across the road. Amelia had searched for what felt like a lifetime to end up in what was essentially her own backyard. Years of training and tutelage since before she was old enough to understand what it was had brought her to this moment.
Finally, she would see Shadow’s lair. If Nathan had been keeping Charlie here, then it stood to reason that Shadow’s influence had touched this place too. Finally, she would get her answers.
As David fell in line beside her, he checked that his service weapon was well secured in its holster at his side. They crossed the street, mounting the sidewalk. Empty blue recycling bins lay haphazardly on either side of the street in front of most of the homes but not this one. As Amelia approached the house with David in tow, she could hear her father’s voice, a little slurred from sleeplessness and always over-quippy, the words made of salt and vinegar in his mouth. The timeless cardinal rules of Jason Gardner.
Rule number one: “Silence doesn’t mean safety.”
The street’s quiet air felt like sandpaper on her skin. The still, humid air had a sticky weight that she felt all the way down to her boots. She didn’t feel like they were being watched, but she somehow felt like she should feel like they were being watched. It was the middle of the afternoon; adults were at their jobs, and kids were at school. The only witness to their approach was a squirrel that promptly scurried away from them and up a nearby tree with a chittering cry. A dog, barely audible, was barking in the distance, but it didn’t sound alarmed. Beside her, David squinted up to the blank windows, black from their point of view. No curtain twitched; no gate creaked. A sudden light breeze stirred some small flowers in the garden along the front of the property.
“Looks like no one’s home,” David said, tipping his head toward the house, then looking to Amelia.
She glanced back at him, their eyes meeting. Amelia pressed her lips together, fit the lower one between her teeth, and bit down. They stopped at the edge of the property. Amelia’s nails drummed in a rhythm on the low brick wall separating the public ground from private. “Someone’s home,” she said with the confidence only those truly in tune with their gut feelings could have. Her gut had never steered her wrong, and she was sure it wasn’t about to now.
“Amelia,” David sighed, lightly fingering the badge affixed to his belt, “We can’t just bust into a house without cause.”
“The phone signal was coming from in there,” she argued. “My signal guy doesn’t miss. That’s cause.”
“Look, this badge gives me a lot of authority to search for your sister, but breaking and entering a private residence isn’t on that list. If you’re so sure, let’s try to get a warrant…”
“No judge is going to sign a warrant on the ‘paranoid hunches of Detective Gardner’s little girl,’ David. I told them it was him,” Amelia spat. “No one believed me. Now, we’re sure it’s him, but no one is going to back my hunch. And the hacker I used to triangulate her phone signal sure as fuck isn’t going to offer up any testimony.”
David sighed, turning his eyes on the house again. “I get why you feel you have to do this,” he murmured. “You feel responsible. I get it. Really, I do. But—”
“No, you don’t,” Amelia replied angrily. Amelia spent much of her life feeling pretty certain about pretty much everything, and right now, she was certain that her dearest friend did not “get it.” “If you’re not going to help me, go wait in the car,” she muttered, turning away.
“No,” David said, defiantly shaking his head. Amelia’s lips twitched into a fond smile, and she drew her eyes away from the house. David was a man who looked and acted like he’d just stepped out of a public service announcement for the neighborhood watch. Not a hair or toe out of line, which was grating for a crusader. But he was a loyal friend, and those were hard to come by these days.
Rule number two: “‘Trust no one’ is a bullshit mantra. Find your family, your clan, your crew, and give them a reason to follow you.”
“So, you’re in?” she asked, brow arched, holding out her right hand.
David sighed and clasped her forearm in his in a tight grip. “Yeah,” he said with one of his winning smiles, which lit up a room as bright as his baby blues. “I’m in.”
“Good. Let’s go,” she said, turning on her heel and heading past the wall.
They prowled through the yard together. Amelia’s firearm was in her hand, the same make and model of the standard police-issued Glock 19 David had strapped to his side—though she was far from an officer of the law, having never quite managed to follow in her father’s footsteps. It felt familiar and heavy in her hands. She’d pulled it out of the holster on the small of her back as soon as they left the street, onto the property proper. Steering away from the front door, she led the way around the right side of the house and clicked off the safety, drawing a glance from David, but she kept her finger off the trigger. She kept her eyes moving. Hunting criminals was like a shark chasing another shark. Being still for too long got you nothing but caught or killed.
Rule number three: “Always watch your six, and don’t forget to look up. People never look up nowadays.”
Modern humans didn’t have to worry about a freaking jaguar dropping from the trees in the jungle canopy anymore, but sometimes that was where the hunter was waiting for its inattentive prey. And the monster in her dreams did seem to favor high places.
She crouched low as she approached the windows alongside the house. David mimicked her, their steps in sync.
Rule number four: “If you can see them, they can see you.”
The house sat with bated breath as they circled it. The lawn was neatly trimmed, though the grass had grown a little long. There were light-colored flagstones forming a walkway, a three-step staircase at the side of the house near the downspout, and then the path continued around the back of the single-family residence. Amelia looked in each window but kept her glances sparing in case there was something looking back.
She paused when she reached the corner of the house, crouching low, one hand on the rough brick that made up the foundation. She could feel the heat of David behind her, pressed close so their shadows melted together. He didn’t have his weapon drawn, but the holster sat in her periphery as she cautiously tilted forward to peer around the back of the house.
Rule number five: “Mind the corners, and take a room in before you enter, if you can. Go in too fast and you’ll regret it.”
“See anything?” David asked her in a hoarse semi-whisper.
She huffed a frustrated breath and shook her head. “Nothin’. Stepford clean,” she replied, matching his tone.
He hummed. “There’s a shed back there. If I had kidnapped a woman, I’d keep her in there, or maybe the basement. These houses should all have a basement.” Amelia followed his gesture with her gaze, seeing the weathered but strong-looking, red-painted, wooden toolshed tucked into the back corner of the garden next to the privacy wall.
Amelia considered it, then shook her head with a dismissive sigh. “Not soundproof and not private enough,” she replied. “Basement’s more likely.” It was in David’s nature to consider every possibility, but he didn’t have the mindset of a sociopath. Which wasn’t exactly a bad thing.
She straightened, tucked close to the wall as she circled the rear of the house toward the back door. David followed close behind, casting a glance over his shoulder every few steps and scanning the windows they passed, checking for movement. The back door was white and plain, a pane of glass taking up the top half to let sunlight in and allow curious eyes to peer through. She looked, seeing a standard laundry room with linoleum floors and streaks of mud around a collection of shoes. Several pairs. Different sizes. A couple of men’s and at least one pair of women’s sneakers.
She moved up to the door, tucking her sleeve around her hand, drawing an incredulous look from David. She tested the handle, smiling when the door swung in on silent hinges. “Unlocked,” she said and shook her head.
Either Shadow had gotten overconfident or careless in his old age, or he wanted her to get in easily. Maybe Nathan had left it open for them, like a perfect gentleman.
David let out a low sound, and Amelia turned to him to find his dark brows drawn down, his lips turned into a concerned frown. “I don’t like it,” he said. “It’s too easy.”
Rule number six: “Don’t overcomplicate and overthink everything. Sometimes it’s easy.”
“Sometimes, it’s just that easy,” she replied. “Criminals can’t outsmart everyone forever. Christ, how many bad guys have you caught because they made a stupid mistake? Their hubris betraying them. You know they always think they’re smarter than we are. Yeah, some are idiots, but even the really smart ones screw up now and then.” But even as she said it, she felt an echo of the wrongness David described.
It didn’t fit with the ambiance of the house; it wasn’t right. Someone like Shadow should have a lair, a huge secret dungeon hidden away somewhere where he could concoct his evil schemes. That was what abandoned warehouses were for, for God’s sake. There was no aura of evil around this place. It was just ordinary. Really ordinary.
A fissure of uncertainty ran through her, but she pushed it down. Trust your gut, Gardner. Charlie was here. She had to be. Phone signals didn’t lie, and she’d heard her sister’s voice.
David checked behind them again, and for a moment, they were both still. Listening. Observing.
“Shall we?” she whispered when there was nothing.
“Yeah,” David murmured, sighing, and rubbed a hand over his mouth. He drew his weapon and gave Amelia another of his winning, over-confident smiles. Pulling his badge off his belt, he let the metal chain attached to it fall open, and he hung it around his neck. The breach was illegal, but the bad guys wouldn’t know that, and the shield might make them hesitate to shoot him. “Lead on.”
Letting out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, she gripped her pistol a little more firmly, placed her finger gently onto the trigger, and stepped across the threshold.
“You’re just being paranoid,” they had told her when she was twelve and expressed concern that her mom wasn’t answering her texts. Mom had always answered her within minutes. She was a stay-at-home wife with two young girls and a cop for a husband, one who was always holed up in his study or out on patrol or stuck at the office poring over his notes and cases. She had a lot of free time on her hands and a lot of people about to worry over. Sure, she and Mom weren’t super close, and they didn’t spend tons of time together, but she was always on the other end of the line when Amelia needed something. When Mom had stopped responding, there was always an excuse. A “good reason” why her mother might be suddenly hard to reach.
It took her father four days to finally confess that mom wasn’t coming home. That she had been taken, kidnapped by the man he was hunting. “Shadow” they called him because the man was like a ghost. He left nothing but his calling card, a congratulatory Hallmark greeting card—the kind you’d get for graduation or work promotion from a friend or family member—with a handwritten message to the spouse of the victim. Taped to the inside of the card on the blank page was a playing card. The playing card was always modified in some way, drawn on to create a whimsical design.
These calling cards, as they came to be known, were always left on the marital bed. The victims were always the spouses or domestic partners of law enforcement professionals. That was his first message before the taunts came.
“You’re just being paranoid,” they told her, when she stayed up all night during Charlie’s first sleepover, demanding hourly updates, worried sick when Charlie inevitably fell asleep. She spent hours tossing and turning and waiting for the morning check-in, staring at her phone between bouts of fitful sleep. Charlie didn’t know the rules, or she steadfastly and deliberately ignored them. She didn’t stay up with dad watching crime shows and absorbing every criticism and complaint her dad always issued during them. Charlie didn’t do her homework in dad’s study while he worked on cases. She didn’t ask questions about the process and the suspects and the perps and the arrests. She didn’t know about or care about the law.
She thought silence meant safety. She didn’t always check her six.
“You’re just being paranoid,” David muttered into the lip of his beer bottle as Amelia paced around their shared apartment, staring at her phone. It had been hours since the last text from Charlie. “She’s planning her wedding, for God’s sake, Amelia. Let the girl breathe,” David mockingly implored. Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
Amelia glared at him, silently. David was a cop—a homicide detective, to be precise.
“You should know better,” she scolded him. “This is how a lot of bad shit starts.” She checked her phone again. No new messages.
David scoffed, rising from the old couch they’d found at a flea market with a sigh and crack of his knees. The couch sank in every cushion and was truly the ugliest shade of green Amelia had ever seen, but it was soft and good for passing out on, and most importantly, it was cheap. Living in DC didn’t come easily, especially on a private investigator’s salary, and Amelia wasn’t the kind of woman to pass up a bargain. He absently kept his eyes on her as he went into the kitchen.
“You need to relax,” David informed her, tossing his empty bottle into the recycling bin by the door, causing Amelia’s head to jerk up toward the sound of the empty bottle striking several others. “Go get a massage or go out and get laid. Something.” He grinned at her. “Switch off that brain of yours, and that goddamn phone. Take a load off. I’ve heard people do it all the time, and it’s my understanding that it’s actually good for you. All the cool kids are doing it.”
“If I wanted to get laid, I’d just ask you,” Amelia replied, deadpan.
David laughed, shaking his head, and fetched another beer from the fridge. “You want one?” he asked, his head half in the refrigerator as he glanced at her.
She fixed him with a raised brow. “I don’t need a drink. I need my sister to answer her damn phone. Don’t you have a night shift tonight?”
“Martinez switched with me,” David replied. “He’s got a baby on the way, needs the hours. So I have some solo Netflix and chill action unless you want to play Madden.”
She hummed. “Good for him.” She checked her phone again. “I’m not in the mood for a game, David. And I don’t have time, anyway. Charlie and I are meant to go visit Dad, but if she’s not answering her phone… It’s Monday. It’s every Monday. Where the hell is she?” She sighed, forcing down the new wave of anxious concern that she always got when she thought about Charlie’s radio silence. “I guess I’ll go alone,” she grumbled, willing herself to believe that her sister probably really was just hip-deep in some kind of bridal bliss.
“I can go, if you want company,” David offered. “Your dad likes me.”
“You’re funny. He tolerates you because you wear a badge,” Amelia said with a lopsided smile, her tone and mood softening a little. “Don’t push it.”
To that, David merely laughed, cracking open his latest cold one, then expertly flicking the cap into the recycling bin while sprawling over the couch again like he owned it. Technically he paid more rent than she did, but every piece of furniture was hers.
“If you get beer on my couch, I’m kicking your ass,” she called, shouldering her bag and putting her phone on the loudest volume so she’d hear it if Charlie ever remembered her dear older sister and thought to put her mind at ease.
David answered her with a one-fingered salute, which she returned, before grabbing her keys and leaving their apartment. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” she called over her shoulder.
David laughingly replied, “That’s a shortlist.”
The Chinatown Metro Station was a short walk from her apartment. It was cold, winter clinging bitterly by the nails to whatever final days it could manage before giving way to spring, and the wind always kicked up around the station. An upside of the chill in the air was that the crowds on the street were thin. She pulled the collar of her thick jacket up around her cheeks, her pale fingers biting at her in protest at being exposed to the wind. She briefly entertained the idea of grabbing a coffee or hot tea before she got the train but discarded it quickly. Drinks like that grew cold fast and ran the risk of being spiked or spilled, and she just wanted to get out of the wind.
She tucked her chin into her collar and hurried down the station stairs, grimacing at the scent of old urine and the sight of so much grime. Christ, shouldn’t tax dollars be paying for a regular clean at this point? She certainly paid enough of them. She was pretty sure one or more of the homeless vets she walked past on the way here would have gladly picked up a scrub brush for a decent wage if asked.
The temperature downstairs wasn’t a whole lot higher than the street, but being out of the wind was a lot more comfortable. She swiped her metro card and hurried to the Red line, stopping briefly to enjoy a talented young busker performing. She tossed a five-dollar bill into the young girl’s guitar case. Amelia briefly bemoaned never learning to play an instrument when she was younger, but who had the time?
The Red line would connect through the metro center and get her to the Blue Line, which would take her all the way out to Franconia, the end of the line in Northern Virginia. The commute was about an hour and a half in total, which she spent crammed with far too many people. It gave her time to silently count her blessings that Dad had relocated from New York after her mother went missing. The change of scenery was what they had.
Dry, airplane-like air greeted her as she exited the metro at Franconia Station. She pulled her hands out of her pockets, rubbing them briskly and nudging her way through the turnstiles to avoid touching them. She checked her phone. The signal was shoddy at best during transit, and she had hoped Charlie would have texted her during the ride, but there was nothing from her sister.
Trying not to worry, Amelia crossed the overpass walkway that led to the parking garage, went down the stairs, then smiled when she saw the old station wagon that predated her idling in the kiss-and-ride. It was a pale-blue Ford Taurus from the ’80s and had been her father’s civilian vehicle since before she was born.
She got into the car, sighing gratefully at the warm air that greeted her and reached over the console to give her father a greeting hug. Jason Gardner had gone in the opposite direction of most retired cops. He had forgone the bald and clean-shaven look, and now had a full head of jet-black hair and a beard that went down to his chest. He had never been particularly overweight save for the stereotypical Irish beer gut, but he had slimmed down since living alone.
He smiled, showing all of his teeth and gave her a pat on the shoulder. “Hey, Flower.”
“Hi, Bee,” she replied, grinning as he put the car in drive and carefully pulled out of the kiss-and-ride. It was a forty-minute drive to his townhouse in Centreville.
“Any buzzes today?” Jason asked idly, turning down the radio station so the animated chatter of DC 101’s host was background noise.
She sighed. “Nah,” she replied, idly flicking away a piece of lint from her leggings. Damn things always trapped hair, she didn’t even have a pet, and somehow it manifested and clung to her. “Things have been slow. Maybe people have finally started to trust each other.” She laughed. “I’m gonna have to get a day job to make ends meet.”
“Worse things have happened,” Jason replied, amiably. He glanced over at her while they came to a brief halt at a red light. “No Charlie today?”
“No,” Amelia frowned. Sure, Charlie was busy with her wedding, and she’d only recently moved in with her fiancé, but they always made time to go visit Dad on Mondays.
She checked her phone again. Nothing.
“You’re just being paranoid,” she muttered to herself. But it sounded like David in her head, and like the assistant counselor who had told her the same thing when her mother went missing, and like her best friend when she was a kid and Charlie was at her sleepovers.
“I haven’t heard from her for a while,” Amelia said, shifting her weight and rubbing her hands together. Her phone dropped to her lap. She tried to keep the worry from her voice, but her dad was a good cop, both with his perps and his daughters.
He hummed, fingers flexing on the steering wheel. “How long?”
“Couple of hours.”
He hummed again. “Not long enough to declare her missing,” he said mildly. “Any change in her behavior?”
“I haven’t actually seen her since we visited you last,” Amelia replied. That was abnormal, too. They usually met every other day or so for coffee. That had slowed, reasonably so, since Charlie moved in with her fiancé. And Amelia, ever aware of her own feelings, had tried to figure out if it was jealousy or not. Jury was still out on that.
But Henry was an artist and worked from home. Charlie was trying her hand at writing children’s books for Henry to illustrate. Also from home, which meant if Henry wanted to whisk her out to the beach house, or they saw a show they wanted to catch using his parents’ box at the Kennedy Center, they could. But Charlie was good about keeping Amelia informed because she knew how her sister worried about her.
Her father was silent. Too silent.
She turned to look at him. “What about you?”
“Haven’t seen her since Monday, either,” Jason said slowly. Traffic moved on, and for a moment, there were only the sounds of the car and the whistle of the wind outside. “She and I haven’t had our daily calls as much, either. Have you called her?”
“Three times,” Amelia said, “today. And sent several text messages. Of admittedly increasing levels of urgency and agitation.”
He frowned, pursing his lips. It made his beard dip in toward his neck, concave. “That’s…unusual,” he said carefully.
Amelia nodded. They were both skirting around the thing neither of them wanted to admit. It was nearly the anniversary of Mom’s disappearance, and she was certain by looking at her father’s face that his thoughts were similar to hers.
“Might be nothing,” she said, forcibly light. “She’ll probably call while we’re eating. She was always kind of scatterbrained.”
He hummed noncommittally. They both knew that wasn’t true. Charlie could come across as a bit shallow and flakey, but she was clever in her own way and pretty good about keeping in touch.
“I’ll go pay her a visit, after,” Amelia promised. “I’ll let you know.”
“I appreciate that.” Jason smiled. For a moment, the low-hanging storm cloud of anxiety abated.
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