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   FORBIDDEN TERRITORY
    .............................................Excerpt

By mid-afternoon, when Andrew Walters called from a jet winging south to demand answers about his missing daughter, McBride realized he faced a worst-case scenario. Less than one percent of children abducted were taken by people outside of their own families. Most child abductions were custody matters, mothers or fathers unhappy with court arrangements taking matters into their own hands.  

But there was no custody battle in the Walters case. From all accounts, Andrew Walters had no complaints about the custody arrangement with his ex-wife. Over the phone, at least, he seemed genuinely shocked to hear his ex-wife had been murdered.  

When he learned Abby was missing, shock turned to panic.

"Did you check her school?" he asked McBride, his voice tight with alarm.

"Yes." The memory of Lily Browning's pale face and wild honey eyes filled McBride's mind, piquing his curiosity--and suspicion--all over again.  

"Is there any reason to think Abby might . . .?" Andrew Walters couldn't finish the question.
 
"It's too early to think that way."

"Are you sure Abby was with Debra?"

"As sure as we can be." When they'd found Debra Walters dead on the side of Old Cumberland Road, a clear plastic backpack with her daughter Abby's class work folder and a couple of primary readers had been lying next to her. Furthermore, neighbors remembered seeing Abby in the car with Debra that morning when she left the house.

Her car, a blue Lexus, was missing.

They'd held out hope Debra had delivered her daughter to school that morning before the carjacking, but McBride's trip to the school had turned up no sign of Abby.  

McBride looked down at his desk blotter, where Abby's photo lay, challenging him. He reached for the bottle of antacid tablets by his pencil holder and popped a couple in his mouth, grimacing at the chalky, fake-orange taste. "We've set up a task force to find your daughter. An Amber Alert has been issued. Her photo will be on every newscast this evening. We've set up a phone monitoring system at the hotel where you usually stay when you're in town, and a policeman will be within easy reach any time of the day or night. If you get a call from anyone about your daughter, we'll be ready."

"You don't have a suspect yet?" Walters sounded appalled.
 
"Not yet. There's an A.P.B. out on the car, and we've got technicians scouring the crime scene--"

"That could take days! Abby doesn't have days."

McBride passed his hand over his face, wishing he could assure Walters that his daughter would be found, safe and unharmed. But she'd been taken by carjackers who'd left her mother dead. McBride didn't want to think why they'd taken her with them instead of killing her when they'd killed her mother.

In the burning pit of McBride's gut, he knew they'd find Abby Walters dead. Today or tomorrow or months down the road, her little body would turn up in a dumpster or an abandoned building or at the bottom of a ditch along the highway.
But he couldn't say that to Andrew Walters.  

Walters' voice was tinny through the air phone. "Nobody's called in with sightings?"
 
"Not yet." A few calls had come in as soon as the Amber Alert went out. The usual loons. McBride had sent men out to check on the calls, but, of course, nothing had come of them.  

"Come on--when something like this happens, you get calls coming out your ass." Anger and anxiety battled in Walters' voice. "Don't you dare dismiss them all as crackpots."
 
"We're following every lead."  

"I want my daughter found. Understood?"
 
"Understood." McBride ignored the imperious tone in Walters' voice. The man was a politician, used to making things happen just because he said so. And God knows, McBride couldn't blame the man for wanting his daughter brought home at any cost.  
 
But he knew how these things went. He'd seen it up close and personal. A parent with a lost child was desperate and vulnerable. A nut job with a snappy sales pitch could convince a grieving parent of just about anything.

"We're about to land," Walters said. "I have to hang up."

"One of my men, Theo Baker, will meet you at the airport and drive you to your hotel," McBride said. "I'll be by this evening unless something comes up in the case. Please, try not to worry until we know what it is we have to worry about."
Andrew Walters' bitter laugh was the last thing McBride heard before the man hung up.
 
McBride slumped in his chair, anger churning in his gut. The world was mostly a terrible place, full of monsters. Killers, rapists, pedophiles, users, abusers--McBride had seen them all, their evil masked by such ordinary faces.

A monster had taken Abby Walters, and the longer he kept her, the smaller the hope of ever getting her back alive.

McBride picked up Abby's photo, his expression softening at the sight of her gap-toothed grin. "Where are you, baby?"

She wasn't really a pretty child, all knees, elbows and freckles, but in the photo, the sheer joy of life danced in her bright blue eyes. People would notice a kid like Abby Walters. Even in the photo, she had a way about her.

Her photo had certainly affected Lily Browning, though not how McBride had expected. When he'd shown Abby's picture to others at the school, the grinning child immediately brought smiles to their faces. But Lily had looked ill from the start.

She was keeping secrets.

About Abby Walters? McBride couldn't say for sure, but sixteen years as a cop had honed his suspicious nature to a fine edge. He knew she couldn't have been in on the kidnapping; witness testimony had narrowed down Debra Walters' time of death to sometime between seven-twenty and eight-thirty in the morning. According to Carmen Herrera, Lily Browning had been in a meeting at six-thirty and hadn't left until seven-forty when students started trickling in. She'd been in class after that.
But he couldn't forget her odd reaction to Abby's photo.

On a hunch, McBride pulled up the DMV database on his computer and punched in Lily Browning's name. While he waited for the response, he mentally replayed his meeting with her.

He'd noticed her eyes first.  Large, more gold than brown, framed by long, dark lashes. Behind those eyes lay mysteries. Of that much, McBride was certain.  

She was in her twenties--mid to late, he guessed. Clear, unblemished skin as pale as milk, maybe due to the headache. Or was she naturally that fair? In stark contrast, her hair was almost black, worn shoulder-length and loose, with a natural wave that danced when she'd moved.

She was beautiful in the way that wild things were beautiful. He got the impression of a woman apart, alone, always on the fringes. Never quite fitting in.

A loner with secrets. Never a good combination.

The file came up finally, and McBride took a look. Lily Browning, no middle initial given. Twenty-nine years old, brown hair, brown eyes--gold eyes, he amended mentally. An address on Okmulgee Road , not far from the school. McBride knew the area. Older bungalow style homes, quiet neighborhood, modest property values. Which told him exactly nothing.  
Lily Browning wasn't a suspect. She was just a strange woman with honey-colored eyes whose skin had felt like warm velvet beneath his fingers.

Irritated, he checked the clock. Almost four. Walters' plane would have touched down by now and Baker would be with him, calming his fears. Baker was good at that.
 
McBride wasn't.  

He was a bit of a loner with secrets himself.

As he started to close the computer file, his phone rang again. He stared at it for a moment, dread creeping up on him.  
Abby Walters' photo stared up at him from the desk.
 
He grabbed the receiver. "McBride," he growled.

Silence.

He sensed someone on the other end. "Hello?" he repeated.

"Detective McBride?" A hesitant voice came over the line, resonating with apprehension. Lily Browning's voice.
 
"Miss Browning." He heard a soft intake of breath, but she didn't speak. "This is Lily Browning, right?" He knew he sounded impatient. He didn't care.

"Yes."

Subconsciously, he'd been waiting for her call. Tamping down growing apprehension, he schooled his voice, kept it low and soothing. "Do you know something about Abby?"  

"Not exactly." She sounded reluctant and afraid.
   
He tightened his grip on the phone. "Then why'd you call?"
 
"You asked if I'd seen Abby this morning. I said no." A soft sigh whispered over the phone. "That wasn't exactly true."

McBride's muscles bunched as a burst of adrenaline flushed through his system. "You saw her this morning at school?"

"No, not at the school." Her voice faded.

"Then where? Away from school?" Had Ms. Herrera been wrong? Had Lily slipped away from the meeting after all?
 
The silence on Lily Browning's end of the line dragged on for several seconds. McBride stifled the urge to throw the phone. "Miss Browning? Where did you see Abby Walters?"
 
He heard a deep, quivery breath. "In my mind," she said.

McBride slumped in his chair, caught flat-footed by her answer. It wasn't at all what he'd expected.

A witness, sure. A suspect--even better. But a psychic?

Bloody hell.


Text Copyright 2006 by Paula Graves. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.