Somewhere in the Washington, D.C. area, a woman lies helpless in a box—barely breathing and buried alive. In Quantico, the FBI receives a coded message from the woman’s abductor. He wants to play a game: decipher the clues, save the girl. But when FBI cryptanalysts crack the code, Special Agent Meg Jennings and her K-9 partner, Hawk, are too late. An innocent life is lost…and the killer’s game is far from over.
With more coded messages, the deadly pattern is repeated—again and again. As the body count rises, Meg decides to break protocol and consult her brilliant sister, Cara, to decipher the kidnapper’s twisted clues. Putting her job on the line, Meg is determined not to let one more person die under her and Hawk’s watch. If the plan fails, it could bite them in the end. And if it leads to the killer, it could bury them forever . . .
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Opening Volley: The first shots fired in a war.
The hound dog mix was found wandering alone on N Wakefield Street. Sporting a service dog vest, she dragged her leash behind her as she staggered down the sidewalk, her head sweeping from side to side as if searching for her owner. One of the neighbors, a dog owner herself, spotted the dog and lured her closer with a treat before catching her leash. It was only by chance that she noticed the note peeking out from the small plastic bone containing waste bags:
To: Meg Jennings, Forensic Canine Unit, FBI: IMHFL HVVGJ RVYUL HHCGW FSGGX RAUUL LRAVS QWBQY VICPE OIRCR GVCCX KIWNS FOCUX LGEKR JSHJI UPCHI
The FBI's Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit wasted no time running the code through their big computers while special agents discovered the identity of the missing woman: Ms. Sandy Holmes, a veteran of the Second Iraq War who suffered from occasionally debilitating bouts of PTSD, and never went anywhere without her dog. To find the dog alone was a significant concern. An hour later, the cryptanalysts confirmed her disappearance as they revealed the real message behind the string of eighty capital letters addressed to the FBI search-dog handler: "Find her before she dies. Come to Washington's House in Alexandria. The clock is ticking on her life."
Monday, May 22, 9:44 PM Forensic Canine Unit, J. Edgar Hoover Building Washington, DC
"Washington's House? Do they mean Mount Vernon?" Brian Foster asked.
Craig Beaumont nodded. The supervisory special-agent-in-charge of the Human Scent Evidence Team, part of the Forensic Canine Unit, cast his gaze around his team of handlers and dogs gathered in the bullpen. "That's what the CRRU cryptanalysts are saying. Mount Vernon is near the city of Alexandria, and they think Ms. Holmes is being held on the property. I don't know what we're looking at, so I want you all to go. Scott, we've got the dog's leash, so you'll be able to use that for tracking."
Scott Park laid a hand on the head of Theo, his lanky, droopy-eyed bloodhound. "Nothing he loves more than a good hunt." To punctuate Scott's words, Theo gave a huge ear-slapping head shake, his jowls flapping in concert.
Meg Jennings stared down at the driver's license photo of the missing woman, which she gripped in one white-knuckled hand. "Craig, is there anything that indicates why he sent the message to me? I don't even know this woman."
"Nothing so far, and I really don't like the fact that one of my team has been specifically named in this. Stay in pairs for now. I don't want anyone on their own until we know what's going on. The last thing I need is my people brought out to a site, only to be picked off."
The teams doubled up — Brian and his German shepherd, Lacey, with Meg and her black Labrador, Hawk; Scott and Theo partnered with Lauren Wycliffe and her border collie, Rocco — and set out. The drive was just a half hour down the George Washington Parkway, but they'd only been on the road for ten minutes when Meg's phone rang through her SUV's audio system.
"Meg, we've got a problem." Craig's voice boomed through the speakers.
Meg and Brian exchanged a sideways glance. "More than our missing victim?"
"We might be sending you to the wrong place."
Meg checked her mirrors and then smoothly pulled into the right-hand lane. "The Beltway is coming up. Do I need to redirect?"
Craig paused as if weighing his decision. "Get off, go west, and then circle back north on I-395."
"Where are we going?" Brian asked.
"The county or the cemetery?" Meg shot them down the exit ramp and then merged into Beltway traffic. "What happened to George Washington's house?"
"The coded message never said, 'George,' just 'Washington. ' One of the cryptanalysts wanted to make sure we weren't missing anything obvious, so he ran the message by a buddy of his, a history professor at Georgetown University, without telling him why the information was important."
"Unless the buddy is an idiot, he's going to question his FBI friend asking such a left-field question," Brian muttered under his breath.
"What?" Craig's echoing voice filled the passenger compartment.
"Nothing," Meg said, shooting Brian a look that clearly said, Behave. "What did the professor say?"
"He said Washington could also be George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington's grandson and the father-in-law of Robert E. Lee."
"Lee's mansion on the grounds of Arlington Cemetery. You think that's the clue?"
"This guy does. He says Arlington County used to be called Alexandria County, but the name was changed in 1920 because it was too confusing also having a city in Virginia named Alexandria. He said Custis's mansion went to his daughter and therefore, upon Custis's death, to Lee. Mount Vernon never occurred to this guy."
"But it could still be right," Brian reasoned.
"It could, which is why Lauren and Scott are still headed there. Scott's got the leash, which means you won't have anything on hand to provide scent, so I know this makes it a bigger challenge for you — air-scenting and tracking an unknown target. Get to Arlington. Emergency Services is waiting to let you in. Move fast. As the note says, 'the clock is ticking,' and we just lost time." The line went dead.
Meg flicked a glance at Brian, seeing the unease she felt reflected in his eyes, and pressed down harder on the accelerator.
Monday, May 22, 10:23 PM Arlington National Cemetery Arlington, Virginia
They arrived at Arlington National Cemetery hours after it had officially closed. The grounds of the cemetery were dark, lit only by the light of a full moon; however, the main entrance was ablaze with lights. Several Arlington Emergency Services vehicles lined the main driveway. They ushered Meg's SUV through the main gates and then jogged over to meet the K-9 handlers as they let their dogs out of the SUV's special compartment and shouldered their search-and-rescue packs.
"Jennings and Foster?"
"That's us." Brian snapped Lacey's lead onto her FBI vest. "What are we looking at here? Are we expecting any one inside the grounds?"
"We've cleared the cemetery of all emergency personnel. Professional military mourners who attended today's burials, as well as grounds and admin personnel who were in during regular hours, went home hours ago. The only person who should be on the premises is the officer on duty at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Please try not to disturb him, unless absolutely necessary."
"We'll let the dogs lead us," Meg said. "But if they don't go in that direction, we won't interfere." She turned to Brian. "You and Lacey go north, and then circle around to the west and then south. I'll go south first and then circle around from there."
The handlers were of equal rank, but because of Meg's past experience as an officer with the Richmond PD, she naturally took the lead, which suited Brian just fine. "Check. Lacey, come." Brian jogged off, disappearing into the gloom outside the circle of lights surrounding them. Meg saw him pause inside the far gate by the gold shield of the US Marine Corps as he unclipped Lacey's leash. He flipped on his small, powerful flashlight; then he bent down to her, giving her the command to search, and she was off, Brian following at a light jog.
"Is there anything we can do?" the officer asked as Meg turned back to Hawk.
"Just stay out of the grounds for now. We need to find the only other person inside, except for the officer at the Tomb. We'll let you know if we need assistance. Hawk, come."
They walked away from the lights and officers and into the darkness. As Brian had done, she paused by the massive wrought-iron gates and removed Hawk's lead. She ran a hand down his back and met his gaze. "Find her, Hawk. Find Sandy." Hawk tipped his nose into the cool evening breeze momentarily, and then trotted down the road, into the darkness. She turned on her flashlight and followed.
Meg followed Hawk, pacing herself, knowing this could be a long search, if they were even in the right place. The cemetery was over six hundred acres — just less than one square mile — but packed with over four hundred thousand graves, monuments, outbuildings, an amphitheater, and a mansion. They might have to cover all that ground two or three times over in pursuit of an elusive wisp of scent, just to start the search proper.
Meg found herself studying Hawk's gait, looking for any impairment. He'd only been back on the job a few weeks, after being shot during their last case. It was only a flesh wound, but the hairless white scar arrowing over his hindquarter was a constant reminder of how close she'd come to losing him. She'd already lost one K-9 partner in her career; she was not about to lose another. But Hawk was strong and healed quickly, showing no sign of weakness as he loped along.
Hawk suddenly cut to the right, off the pavement of Roosevelt Drive and onto grass. As he arrowed between the pale, ghostly rows of headstones, Meg's eyes were drawn to the distant lights parting the darkness. Ahead, John F. Kennedy's eternal flame danced on its stone base in ever-shifting tones of red and orange. Above it, high on the hill keeping watch over the dead below, General Robert E. Lee's majestic columned mansion shone, lit by both spotlights and moonlight.
Come to Washington's House in Alexandria.
She turned back to her dog and the task at hand. "Find her, Hawk," Meg encouraged. She was very conscious of the fact she had to let Hawk lead, but the house was right there. She could help keep his spirits up and spur him on to —
He suddenly cut left, crossing back over Roosevelt Drive and then onto grass again. Meg cast one last look at the Greek Revival mansion and then turned her eyes back to her dog. Trust him. He knows what to do.
They ran through the moon-tipped granite headstones, and under the spreading boughs of trees, some hundreds of years old. Hawk's breath was coming louder now, but his gait was steady, only occasionally slowing to scent the air, then speeding back up again as if he understood the press of time.
To the west, the Memorial Amphitheater glowed at the top of stark white steps. Meg couldn't see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but she'd been there in person enough times to picture the solitary soldier on his march, his rifle on his shoulder, his steps sure. Honoring the dead and their memory every hour of every day.
Ahead, Hawk started to zigzag between the rows of stones, and Meg focused sharply on his body language. Up to now, he'd been running in a fairly straight line in search of scent. But now as his pattern changed and he wove back and forth, Meg knew he'd found part of a scent cone and was trying to distinguish the outer limits of the cone and the strengthening concentration as they closed in on the source. She praised him quietly, but hung back to let him work without distraction. Time was dripping away and every second could mean the difference between life and death.
As Hawk crossed Eisenhower Drive, his search became more focused, his body tense, his movements more sure and directed. In the peripheral light of her flashlight, Meg noticed the sharpness of the engraving in the headstones and, slowing down, shone the light on several nearby stones, noting the recent death dates. Meg pulled the radio off her belt. "Brian?"
A moment's pause, then, "I'm here. Found something?"
"I think so. Hawk's caught a scent. Where are you?"
"Lacey circled us behind Arlington House, but there's nothing here. Maybe this isn't the Washington House the guy meant. Where are you?"
"Heading into section sixty, due east of the Memorial Amphitheater. From the look of things here, this is where the recent burials are. I've seen several from this year and last. Just wanted to give you a heads-up. I may need you."
"I'll be there. We'll stay on this until you say otherwise. I know where you are and can be there within a few minutes."
"Thanks. Over and out."
Hawk ran faster now, his nose skimming the ground, and Meg had to scramble a bit to catch up. Then, all of a sudden, he angled to the right, straight toward a fresh grave. Clearly, it was from a funeral earlier that day; even in the diffuse light of the flashlight beam, the grass was pressed down on both sides of the grave as if trampled by many feet. While dirt filled the grave to the grass line, it had yet to be turfed over. Out of respect, Meg started to circle around the grave, not wishing to disturb whoever had been freshly laid to rest. But she jerked to a halt when Hawk gave a single sharp bark and launched himself directly at the grave, landing at one end, his front paws already furiously digging.
She's in the grave? Buried alive?
Meg frantically scanned the area, her gaze coming to rest on a landscaping truck, twenty feet away, parked at the side of the road. The groundskeeping team had likely run out of time to close the grave completely before dark and had left everything in place to finish up tomorrow. She sprinted across the grass, darting between headstones, her gaze locked on the shovels standing upright in the truck bed. Snatching a shovel, she raced back to the grave, pulling her radio free.
"Brian, come in." She didn't even give him a full second before she barked his name again. "Brian!"
"I'm here. What's going on?" he gasped with a panting breath. "Lacey, hold."
"Get down here. I think Hawk's found her. He zeroed in on a fresh grave here in section sixty. He's digging, trying to get her out."
"She's in the grave? Holy sh —" He cut off his own profanity and she could hear the sound of his footfalls speeding up. "Lacey, come! I'll be there as soon as I can. Keep your flashlight on hand to guide me in."
"Will do." Meg cut the transmission, dropping her radio and flashlight onto the damp grass and dug in with her shovel as fast as she could, tossing spadefuls of earth out on the grass. Beside her, Hawk kept his head down, digging faster, a cloud of dirt flying out from between his back legs. Every once in a while, he'd tip his nose down as if to reconfirm the scent and then would be back at it, if possible with even greater urgency.
Meg's head shot up when she heard Brian's call and turned to see light bobbling about fifty feet away. She picked up her flashlight and waved it at him. "Over here." Brian jogged closer and she jabbed an index finger in the direction of the truck. "Grab a shovel."
Brian tore off toward the pickup as Lacey jumped in to join Hawk, immediately starting to dig. Returning, Brian dropped his flashlight on the grass, light spilling into the slowly deepening hole. For a full five minutes, there were no words, just the scrabble of paws and the repetitive stab of shovels.
Meg and Brian froze as his shovel made contact with something solid with a hollow echo.
"Finally," he muttered. "Lacey, time to get out, girl."
"Hawk, out." Meg motioned for him to jump out. "You're awesome, but this job is for us." She patted a grimy hand on the grass at the edge of the four-foot hole. "Good boy," she praised as he leapt out, Lacey on his heels. She met Brian's eyes. "Let's finish this."
The relatively unpacked dirt allowed them to work quickly, revealing the top of the dark wood coffin. Brian cleared the hinges on one side, while Meg worked on the other, digging back far enough for them to perch on a narrow band of dirt to open the box.
They tossed their shovels on the grass, crowding together at the side of the coffin.
The silence around them and at their feet made Meg's stomach clench nervously.
Together they bent down, curling fingers under the rim of the coffin lid to heft the heavy lid upward. Hinges protested slightly, the dirt-caked hardware jamming briefly, but then they yielded and the lid lifted smoothly.
The wash of illumination from the flashlights at the edge of the grass fell over the inside of the coffin where a woman lay limp. Meg dropped to her knees into the dirt, pushing aside clothing and torn strips of a satiny material, searching frantically for a pulse. Her shaking fingers slid across flesh that was still warm, smearing splotches of blood as she pushed in further.
"Let me try." Brian shouldered in beside her, his hands sliding in under hers.
Meg pulled back, horrified, taking in the contents of the coffin, as Brian desperately looked for signs of life.
There were two bodies in the coffin. A soldier buried in full dress blues, complete with shiny brass buttons and devices, light blue cord, and a starched white shirt. Above the shirt was nearly translucent skin on one side of the face and catastrophic burns on the other. Here was a man, clearly lost in the fury of battle, meant to finally rest in peace in his solitary grave, surrounded by countless row upon row of his fellow soldiers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Before It's Too Late"
Copyright © 2017 Sara Driscoll.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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