Excerpt

Dead Ringer

Kate Kessler

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Dead Ringer, by Kate Kessler, known for her high-octane thrillers. In the following passage, we’re introduced to an FBI agent on her least favorite day of the year, as she readies herself to receive her annual calling card from her twin sister’s murderer.

Wednesday

“Better wake up, Ray Ray. You know what day it is.”

Some days, like people, were assholes. For Agent Rachel Ward, the eighteenth of May was the biggest asshole of them all. She didn’t need that familiar phantom voice in her head to remind her.

She stretched in bed, wishing she’d had just a little more to drink the night before so she didn’t remember it so clearly, but glad, from a hangover perspective, that she’d stopped when she had. Spending the day worshiping the porcelain god would be an even bigger mistake than the one lying next to her.

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Rachel turned her head. Dason Patrick—Trick to his friends—certainly qualified as a big mistake, but he was currently her favorite. Having sex with coworkers was not a good idea, but the FBI kept her busy enough that there was little time for socializing, so it was either the devil she knew or trolling for strangers. Strangers often required flirting, and she didn’t have the patience for that.

She didn’t have patience for much of anything.

Trick opened his eyes and smiled. His mother was Korean, his father Irish. It made for incredible offspring. “You’re feeding me before you kick me out,” he informed her as he scrubbed a hand over his face.

“Pizza?” she offered. He’d shown up at her door the night before with a large pie heaped with her favorite toppings. Maika, another coworker of theirs, had arrived shortly thereafter with what seemed to be a water tower of rum. She ought to resent the two of them for rallying around her, but she couldn’t. They had cheered Rachel’s younger sister, Naomi, as well, but today there’d be no consoling either of them. Today there’d be only regret and sadness, the same as there had been for almost two decades.

Today there’d be only regret and sadness, the same as there had been for almost two decades.

Trick watched her, his smile fading. He knew what day it was. He wisely—kindly—didn’t acknowledge it by asking how she was. “I’ll cook. You grab a shower.”

She didn’t want him to be there when she checked the mailbox, because she wouldn’t be able to hide her reaction when she saw that familiar envelope. It was her private pain, but she couldn’t make herself tell him to go. She lay there, silent as he swung back the blankets and slipped out of her bed. She was able to ogle his lean, naked body for all of fifteen seconds before he partially covered it with the jeans he’d tossed on the floor the night before. They hung low on his lips, the cut of his obliques on brazen display. He didn’t even seem to notice, just fastened his belt and padded barefoot to the kitchen. Rachel lay back against the pillows, her hand sliding over the warmth his body had left behind on the sheets. This thing with Trick was becoming more frequent. More comfortable. It couldn’t go on. It was too convenient.

But they knew each other, had the same job. He understood that her life was busy and sometimes dangerous. She didn’t have to pretend with him, or watch what she said. They could talk about the tough cases, be honest about their shitty days. It was nice.

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And last night she had needed him. Not just anyone, but him. She’d needed his dependable strength, his silence. She could trust him enough to be vulnerable with him.

Which was why she was going to have to end it. Just not that morning. Not when she might be able to persuade him into one more go-around before she really did kick him out. They had yet to invent a better way of avoiding reality than sex.

She got out of bed, grabbed her robe, and headed for the bathroom. Her left hand tingled as though it had been partially asleep. She must have slept on it again. She gave it a shake and wrapped her hair in an elastic on top of her head as she went. Five minutes under the cool spray woke her up, cleared the fog from her brain, and rinsed the cotton from her mouth. She shaved her legs and under her arms and then turned off the water. She toweled off, moisturized, and slipped into her robe. After breakfast, she’d spritz her hair with some dry shampoo and put on a little makeup to make herself presentable for work. Normally, she took the day off, but they were still looking for Sydney Cole, who’d gone missing three days ago, and she couldn’t bring herself to take the time—not when she believed Gemini had taken the teenager.

Normally she didn’t use nicknames for unsubs—it was frowned upon by most at the Bureau, but sometimes one caught on. She used the moniker because it gave focus to her rage and her hate. Her frustration and pain. She needed to call him something.

She was getting close to catching the son of a bitch, she could feel it.

Her bedroom was on the main floor, giving both her and Naomi privacy. They shared the brownstone that had been their grandparents’ house in New Haven. It was convenient for Rachel for work, and for Naomi because of its proximity to Yale, where she both studied and worked.

She was getting close to catching the son of a bitch, she could feel it.

The smell of bacon and coffee wafted toward her as she entered the kitchen. Naomi drifted down a few seconds later. She didn’t seem surprised to find Trick in their kitchen—another reason to end things, Rachel supposed. Or a reason to keep going.

Naomi and Rachel shared their mother’s red hair, but Rachel had their father’s gray eyes, while Naomi’s were bluer. Rachel was also several inches taller, at about five-eleven in her bare feet. Trick was still a few inches taller than that, which made her appreciate him that much more.

“Morning, you two.” Naomi said with a smug smile. The brat didn’t look the least bit hungover either.

Trick flashed her that killer smile. “Good morning, Sunshine. Breakfast?”

“Please.” Then she turned to Rachel.

Rachel smiled a little sadly as her sister came in for a hug, and gave her a hard squeeze. And then, close to her ear so Trick wouldn’t hear, “Check the mail, will you?”

Naomi’s eyes widened. “Really?” Like she couldn’t believe she’d ask. Not because it was such a secret, but because Rachel was always the one to check.

She nodded. “Please.”

They didn’t get mail delivery that early in the morning, but every year since that fateful day there’d been an envelope left for her sometime during the night before. They’d been more frequent in the early years, sometimes coming every month.

Now it was only on the anniversary, and sometimes special occasions. Her parents had installed security cameras after the first delivery, but somehow the photos still got there. Once, they’d actually found one of the homeless people hired to deliver it, but he couldn’t remember who had paid him to drop off the “gift.” That’s what the bastard called it on the notes he left.

Rachel went back into the kitchen, admiring Trick’s naked back as she entered the room. He was all tanned skin with muscles rippling just below the surface. “Need help?”

“You can start on toast,” he suggested. He never used to trust her to do even that, despite the fact that she was a decent cook, and proficient with a toaster. She glanced over her shoulder as Naomi walked in. Her younger sister shook her head.

Rachel frowned. Nothing? That couldn’t be right.

“Just a sec. I need to check something.”

Both of them looked at her as she practically bolted from the room, but neither said a word. She opened the front door and stuck her head out—the neighbors didn’t need to see her in her robe. It was a beautiful spring morning and she barely noticed, or cared. The mailbox was bolted to the side of the house. She lifted the lid and stuck her hand inside, groping around for what she was sure her sister had missed.

Nothing.

Her heart gave a bewildered and hard thump. What did it mean? She’d gotten an envelope on this date for the past seventeen years, without fail. She craned her neck, checking the porch, the steps, even the front lawn. Nothing.

Her fingers shook as she closed and locked the door. She turned, pressed her back against the heavy wood.

Eighteen years ago, Rachel’s sister Hannah had gone into New York on a school trip and never returned. Police in both New York and Connecticut looked for her. Then the FBI showed up, because when they learned that Hannah was one half of a set of identical twins, they realized what had happened: Hannah had been taken by the serial killer they referred to as “Gemini” because he had a thing for twins.

The “good news,” they said, was that Hannah was probably still alive, because Gemini liked to keep his victims for a while—as if that was a comfort. What they didn’t tell them— not until they had to—was that Gemini also liked to send “presents” to his victim’s twin. Rachel had already begun to think her sister was lost forever when that first envelope arrived just a few days later. She’d been horrified to open it and see a photo of Hannah, sitting on a bed in a tank top and panties.

She’d had bruises on her thighs. That’s what Rachel remembered most clearly. Those, and the breakdown her mother had when she saw the photo. She tried to hide them after that—sometimes she succeeded. The only person with whom she shared them was Agent Crouse at the FBI. Lauren Crouse, who was now her boss.

“Rach?”

She opened her eyes. Naomi stood there, at the far end of the foyer, her pale face stricken.

Rachel shook her head. They couldn’t talk about it now.

Trick was at the toaster when she reentered the kitchen. He glanced over his shoulder at her. “What’s wrong?”

She shook her head. “Nothing.”

He regarded her a little while longer with his shrewd dark gaze. “Okay.” He wasn’t stupid. He knew what day it was. He knew the case, but he didn’t push.

Rachel didn’t release her breath until he turned back to the toaster, which was supposed to have been her job. She swallowed. What was that feeling in the pit of her stomach? Despair? Relief? Whatever it was, it didn’t stop the damn thing from growling. And it wasn’t going to help, so she ignored it and pushed Trick out of the way. “I’ll take care of this. You concentrate on the eggs.”

He glanced at her—she could feel it—but she hid behind her hair. When the toast popped, she grabbed it and started scraping butter across it like her life hung in the balance. What did it mean that she hadn’t gotten an envelope? Was he done with her? God, she’d just left Naomi standing there, wondering what it meant. Maybe there would be something in the box later. All these years that annual delivery had been a knife to her heart, but she’d also begun to look forward to it, in a macabre kind of way. The fact that it was not there made the ground feel unsteady beneath her feet.

All these years that annual delivery had been a knife to her heart, but she’d also begun to look forward to it, in a macabre kind of way.

“Do you want me to go?” Trick asked, his voice low, for her ears only. He was so respectful and considerate, she used to wonder if it was an act. It wasn’t.

She forced a smile—that wasn’t too hard to do with him.

“Who will feed me if you leave?”

His lips curved. God, he really was gorgeous. “I’m sure you’d find someone.”

It was meant as a joke, she knew that, but there was an edge to his words. She really was going to have to end this thing between them. Or at least put a little distance there. Using each other to scratch an itch wasn’t doing it for him anymore. He wanted more, and she was inexplicably terrified to give it to him. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to be a decent person and cut him loose.

“I’ve been without her for as long as I was with her,” she blurted. “It’s been so long that sometimes I actually forget, and then May eighteenth comes around.”

“There are some wounds time can’t heal,” he said. “It just makes them deeper.”

His words struck her, resonating behind her ribs. She couldn’t even make her mouth open to agree.

Trick’s phone rang. He turned the burner off before grabbing it out of his jeans pocket. “Patrick.” Rachel watched as his lean face registered surprise. His gaze locked with hers. “I’ll get her. We’ll be right there.” He disconnected. “Get dressed.”

Rachel’s heart rate kicked it up a notch. “What is it?”

“They found Sydney Cole. She’s alive.”

Rachel ran to the bedroom.

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From DEAD RINGER, by Kate Kessler. Used with the permission of the publisher, Redhook. Copyright © 2018 by Kate Kessler. 




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