MANHUNT by Tyler Anne Snell


Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Detective Braydon Thatcher looked at the dock with an anger he had learned to contain burning in his chest. No matter the time that passed, that spot was his personal hell.

"I just don't understand! Amanda and I fight sometimes, but nothing so bad that she'd just leave."

Braydon tore his eyes away from the dock, no longer in the Bartlebee name but that of the Alcasters, and took in the rumpled Marina Alcaster. She was upwards of sixty but looked as frail as if she were pushing eighty. Her slumped frame and thin bones were deceiving at best. Everyone in Culpepper knew she had a temper that often boiled over and ran hotter than the Florida heat. Her screech could be heard like a car crash in the town square.

Which was why no one, not Braydon or his partner Tom Langdon, was surprised to hear that Amanda had gone. Though, her mama refused to entertain such a thought.

"When's the last time you two had it out?" Tom asked, sending Braydon a significant look when Marina hesitated. "Did y'all fight last night?"

Marina pursed her lips and shifted a hip out. "I wouldn't call it a fight…but we did have a conversation."

"A conversation?" Braydon raised his eyebrow as Tom wrote that one down. "What kind of conversation?"

Marina put a hand on her hip. "A loud one." She huffed.

"Was Amanda mad when this loud conversation ended?" Another hesitant look.

"Well, yeah. She got in her car and left." Before Braydon or Tom could point out that Marina had called to file a missing-persons report, she rushed on. "But she came back later! Look—" she pointed over her shoulder at a blue Honda "—that's her car!"

"And you haven't seen her since?"

"No, that's why I called you two." Marina's temper was starting to flare and Braydon didn't have the patience to deal with it today. Not with the dock looming in the distance with its invisible stain of agony. Tom, one of the only constant friends Braydon had kept since the incident eleven years ago, knew his partner was distracted by the closeness of it. He took down Marina's contact information and assured her they'd look into it.

"We'll give you a call when we find her," he called, already following Braydon to the truck. "I bet you thought after your promotion to detective you'd have a lot more interesting cases than dealing with a little Alcaster dispute, huh?"

Tom was trying to lighten the mood Braydon had fallen into—he smiled big, exposing teeth slightly stained by too much coffee. Braydon appreciated the gesture and shook himself as they pulled out of the driveway and took the winding dirt path back to the main road.

Tom was right, though. Braydon expected—and hoped—for more exciting work than looking for Amanda, who was twenty-six years old and probably at a friend's house waiting for her own anger to sizzle out. Not to mention, her being gone wasn't an actual case until she had been missing for forty-eight hours. The only reason they had driven out was due to a lull in between cases. Also, it wasn't wise to anger the elder Alcaster, which is exactly what would happen if they had told her to wait her daughter out. So out they had come, ready to help a member of the community. Though, again, trying to patch up a fight between mother and daughter hadn't been on Braydon's mind when he signed up for law enforcement. For the better part of his career, he had worked hard for the promotion to one of the two detectives in Culpepper. The town wasn't big by any means, and mostly sleepy, but there were still investigations that needed working and cases that needed solving.

Plus, it wasn't the promise of excitement that had pushed him into the profession—it was the pursuit of justice.

"Have you ever met Amanda?" Tom asked, facing ahead so the sun lit up his blond hair.

Braydon nodded. "I've been to a few parties with her but that was when we were in school," he answered. "I had to be about seventeen…maybe eighteen." That had been almost eleven years ago, Braydon calculated. Back when he was going through the wild and rebellious stages of being a teenager—drinking, partying and feeding hormonal impulses at every turn. He had been one of the undesirables then, on the wrong side of the law that he now tried to uphold. His mother had sent him to church every Sunday as if it would absolve whatever demon had possessed him, but there was nothing Pastor Smith could preach that would end Braydon's lust for the wicked.

That is, until one rainy night changed everything.

Tom seemed to realize the bad mood was relapsing. He shifted in his seat and turned up the radio. The cool sounds of 103.1's program of all things '80s pumped through the truck's speakers. Normalcy returned in the small cab.

The end of September had crept up on the town, though the Culpepper heat still radiated like it was August. Sweat pooled beneath Braydon's white polo shirt, adhering it against his suntanned skin. One of the perks of his promotion—shedding the uniform. Despite his reformed sensibilities, wearing the cop getup pricked against his inner rebel.

It was a twenty-minute trek from the Alcasters' back to the station at the heart of town. Braydon spent the rest of the drive watching the rural part of Culpepper transform into neighborhood turnoffs, industrial buildings, shopping boutiques and the few dilapidated structures littered in between.

This part of town had once been run-down—a meeting place for drug dealers, prostitutes and people who liked and used both. It wasn't until six years ago that Richard Vega had pumped life, and money, back into the four-block stretch. The New York City native had a business acumen to be reckoned with and enough funds to open Vega Consulting—a company of marketing strategists created to serve not only Culpepper, but all of North America.

Braydon didn't know the extent of how Vega Consulting operated, but he had to believe they were doing well. Richard Vega lived at the end of Loop Road with an electronic gate surrounding the five acres of land he had purchased without batting an eye.

The partners had fallen back into a comfortable silence the last few minutes of the drive. It was as though the growing distance from the dock was lifting a sour weight from Braydon's shoulders. When the police station came into view, the ill feelings had all but disappeared, though Braydon knew he wouldn't get any sleep tonight.

"Langdon," Tom answered after his phone did a vibrating dance.

Braydon pulled into the parking lot that butted up against the side of the station. The building dated back to the '50s and had been renovated at least three times. It was all brick, cracked tile and offices that were small enough to pull double duty as closets. When most officers, Tom included, complained about the state of the building, Braydon found he didn't share their sentiments. He never felt more at home than when he set his eyes on the place.

He turned off the truck and met the humidity with a deep breath. It was midmorning, and the heat was at its worst. The rain that had bathed the town hours earlier had done little to reduce the temperature. He smiled to himself. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Despite all of the opportunities he'd had to leave his hometown, it was beautiful days when the sun was shining that reaffirmed his decision to stay. A person just couldn't beat a beautiful day in Florida.

"Okay, we're right outside now." Tom hung up the phone and followed Braydon around the building to the front double doors with Culpepper Police Department hung in rusting letters above them.

"There's a woman waiting in your office," he said, holding the door open. "And apparently she's not too happy."

Braydon quickly ran through the list of women he had been with in the past few years, trying to find a name that stuck to someone who might be pissed. Well, recently pissed. Angela had been the last woman he had been with but that had been two months ago. Surely, she wasn't the one in his office pitching a fit.

"She's from out of town," Tom offered, cutting off Braydon's line of thought. "Probably got a ticket from John and wants to complain to someone." John was a policeman who loved giving tickets to tourists passing through. Some people loved golf, John loved giving tickets. Braydon sighed.

"I'll deal with her," he said, feeling his nerves switch to annoyed. He'd never had much of a stomach for outsiders.

"Sounds good to me. I'm going to call around and see if I can't find Miss Alcaster."

They parted ways after walking through the lobby and into the largest room in the station. Rows of desks, computers, chairs and coffee cups filled the room. Some were occupied with Uniforms—a few colleagues Braydon didn't like and a few who didn't like him. John the Ticketer's chair was empty. He was probably writing someone up right now, Braydon mused. Along the far side of the room stood four doors that led to a break room, Tom's office, Braydon's office and the conference room. To the left, with the blinds always shut over the window in the door, was Captain Westin's domain.

A man was smart to avoid that office when the captain's temper was high.

Braydon walked across the room and let out a sigh as he saw his door was closed. Why they had left a stranger unsupervised was an issue he would bring up as soon as he ushered her out. Not only was it an invasion of privacy but also breaking regulation.

He reached out to grab the doorknob when the old oak slab flung open.

"It's about damn time!"

Braydon stepped back, caught off guard. He furrowed his brow at the woman standing before him. No one in Culpepper would believe she was anything but an outsider. Despite the heat and humidity, she was wrapped in a black pantsuit with a blazer that covered the length of her arms and a shirt that dipped low in a V. Although Braydon tried to keep his gaze up, he couldn't help noticing the suit hugged her chest and hips in a very attractive way. Her skin was creamy porcelain, another sign that Florida was not her home. It stood out like a shock against the glossy dark hair that was pulled high in a bun. Although her eyes were a deep shade of sage, there was no denying the fire that sparked behind them.

"I've been waiting in here for almost half an hour!" she fumed.

Braydon put up his hands. "Whoa, calm down. Why don't you take a seat and we'll get this all straightened out." He moved around her, catching a whiff of perfume. It filled his senses with its sweet aroma.

The woman hesitated, as if unable to immediately obey, before she dropped down into the seat across from his desk.

"Now, Mrs… "

She waved her hand through the air. "Miss," she corrected impatiently. "Sophia Hardwick." The name sounded vaguely familiar but Braydon couldn't quite place it. The red-lipped Sophia had scrambled his attention. "And like I told the man out there, I'm here about my sister." She was gearing up to explain, her hands intertwining on the top of the desk. The way she leaned forward a fraction, didn't improve the hold on his concentration.

Before she could start, Tom appeared in the door. His brow was furrowed. He didn't bother with knocking.

"Braydon, we need to talk." He tipped his head toward Sophia. "This will only take a minute, ma'am."

Sophia slammed her hands onto the desk. She stood with such speed that Braydon mimicked the act, hand flitting to his holster.

"Are you serious? You just got in here. I've only had time to tell you my name for heaven's sake! You will not put me off anymore," she said, looking between the men. "I'm here because my sister is missing and I need you idiots to do something about it." There was a pause as all of the air seemed to rush out of her. Color tinted her cheekbones, whether from the exertion or her makeup, Braydon didn't know.

"I didn't know Amanda had a sister," he said, lowering his hand but still on guard. Sophia may have been petite but her passion was seeping out of every pore.

"What? Who's Amanda?" she huffed. "I'm here about Lisa." Braydon looked at Tom, who had turned white as a sheet. Something must have happened as soon as Tom had gone to his office.

He looked down at a paper in his hands. "Lisa? Does she happen to go by Trixie?"

Sophia shook her head. A few strands of hair came loose at the movement. Tom's upbeat mood was gone—an issue that brought Braydon's nerves back to the edge.

"No. She goes by Lisa. Lisa Hardwick."

Tom's mouth set in a deep frown. Without explanation to Sophia he turned to Braydon. "We need to talk," he said. "Now."

"Unbelievable! I just tell you that my sister is missing and you just—"

"Ma'am. We will be with you in a second," Tom snapped. It was a rare occurrence to hear the shorter of the two men so tightly strung that Braydon didn't hesitate. He followed Tom into the conference room two doors over.

"What was that about?"

Braydon didn't know what answer to expect but it sure wasn't what came next.

"Cal Green, you know him?"

Braydon nodded. "The mechanic?"

"Yeah, well he left a message a few minutes ago. He says his secretary, Trixie Martin, hasn't shown up to work for two days. He got worried because she wasn't answering her phone and headed to her place. All the lights were on, the TV, too, and the front door was unlocked. He talked to the nearest neighbor but they didn't see or hear anything. Her car was even in the driveway." He didn't wait for Braydon to respond. "If that woman in your office is telling the truth, then that means—"

Braydon felt like he was waking up—all of his senses stood alert.

"That means that we have three missing women."

Sophia was fed up with all of the interruptions Culpep-per had to offer. From the moment she had stepped foot inside the police station it had been a stream of one after the other—keeping her from asking whole questions, let alone getting full answers.

She had been bounced from officer to officer only to be told to keep quiet and wait for the lead detective to come in from a call. So, there she had stayed, sans the quiet. The four-hour trip had strung out her already thin patience as she left voice mail after voice mail on Lisa's phone. It wasn't her fault that the Culpepper PD wasn't prepared for her volley of loud complaints.

Sophia smoothed out the invisible wrinkles in her slacks and tried to keep her temper in check as the minutes ticked by and the detective hadn't returned. On a normal day she would have been more understanding, perhaps more patient. She knew that if she were back home in the city, the chances of her still waiting in the department's lobby would be great. At least here she had been ushered into an office. Small blessings and silver linings.

Being alone was something Sophia had grown accustomed to throughout the past few years, but she found the lack of communication now was grinding into her anxiety. Lisa might fly by the seat of her pants 80 percent of the time, but she had never been so irresponsible as to leave without saying a word. Their relationship may have become strained lately, but it wasn't that strained.

"Sorry to step out like that." Detective Thatcher walked back into the office with a notebook under his arm. Instead of sitting behind the desk, he leaned on its corner and tilted his head down to meet her gaze. His eyes were the color of the sea—swirls of aquamarine. They were the kind of eyes that captured a person, making them want nothing more than to get lost within the bright pools. Sophia hadn't noticed their allure until he was so close.

He had a swimmer's build—tall, lean, but with muscles that peeked through his clothes. His shirt was pulled taut over broad shoulders, while his sun-kissed skin was a rich bronze—a shade she hadn't been able to achieve in the muck of Atlanta. In contrast to his partner's thinning blond hair, Thatcher had a mass of dark brown locks that were mussed to mimic what she thought would be his bed hair.

Sophia realized she had been staring. She needed to pull it together for Lisa. She cleared her throat and pushed her back straight.

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