Chapter 1 -The Desert
Pain shafted through Liz's brain, and she groaned as she slowly got to her knees, unable to lift her head. Nausea roiled in her stomach, the bitter taste of bile strong in her dry mouth.
She hadn't been this hungover since the night she graduated from the police academy and fell prey to her half sister's evil influence. Riva was four years older than Liz and her best friend.
Liz tried to open her eyes, but the blinding light made it impossible. Even with her entire body aching, her tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth, and the early morning sun beating relentlessly down on her, she realized she had to have been really drunk because she was only wearing a panty and bra.
She groaned again, with more feeling, as the sand under her knees and arms registered. Was she at the beach? How did she get there? Wasn't it fall in Boston?
Something wasn't right. If only she could think past the throbbing in her head. She sat fully upright; the world took a slow spin, and she almost keeled over, but she overpowered her weakness. Liz knew she had to get her eyes open to see where she was. She could be in danger.
It took several tries before her blurry vision would settle into cohesion, and adrenaline kicked through her system, rapidly dispelling her symptoms.
Horror slammed through Liz. Healed tattoo's on her left upper arm and below her navel brought reality crashing in. She didn't have to see the rest of her body to know she also had a tattoo on her back, just above her buttocks. She'd seen these markings on grainy surveillance photos of the Rayburn Cartel Members, but these were not just any markings.
These tattoo's belonged to the Rayburn men's wives, and only two of Christopher Rayburn's sons were unmarried. Sixteen-year-old Lucas and thirty-year-old Caleb. Even as she turned her arm to take in the tattoo fully, she recognized Caleb's family crest.
After Christopher retired in twenty-eighteen, Caleb became the patriarch of the Rayburn family. The international man of business whose law degrees, savvy, and connections kept him ten steps ahead of the law.
From the moment she took on this case, people warned her, but her involvement with the Rayburn family was inevitable. Christopher Rayburn was the man she, her mother, and sister hid from for the last twenty-two years. He was the reason her father died in prison, a broken man who turned out to be a stranger that not even his wife truly knew.
The first day she started investigating the Rayburn's, she received a bouquet. The card simply read, "Leave the Rayburn's alone, or you will regret it, daughter of Elijah." No one at the precinct knew she was Elijah McGrath's daughter. To them, she was just Liz Howard from Edenvale.
The card shook her, and she shredded it before dumping the flowers in an outside trashcan. She hated lying to her curious colleagues, making it off as a "thank you" from a former colleague. Then again, she should have been used to lying to them. She was not Elizabeth Howard, and her parents didn't live in Edenvale. Her mother was not a teacher, and her father had not been a military man.
Her mother lived in Glenwood with her sister. She used to be a Harvard law professor, but she was an accountant working from home these days.
The wind stirred a strand of hair into her face, and it was not the shade of blond she dyed it for the last four years. Instead, it nearly perfectly matched the dark brown her hair really was, and the usual irritation of the colored contacts, which made her eyes seem greyish-blue, were absent. Without them, her eyes were the same intense azure blue as those of her mother and sister.
She spotted a black rucksack lying close to her and scrabbled over the sand, hoping it contained clothes. She glanced up and froze with her hand on the leather bag. This wasn't a beach, but the desert.
The far-off drone of a car caught her attention, and shielding her eyes against the sun, Liz made out a road in the distance. She dumped the contents of the bag on the sand. Sunscreen. Liz quickly rubbed the expensive moisturizing sunscreen over her sensitive skin after wiping the sand off with a small towel.
She yanked the tight black t-shirt over her head, hastily pulling on the designer leather pants and leather boots. This was typical Rayburn attire. They even provided sunglasses, aspirin, and water. She took a few careful sips before inspecting the contents of the bag.
A wallet with five hundred dollars. Driver's license for Elizabeth McGrath Rayburn with her correct date of birth and ID number, and a photo of her mother and sister sitting on their porch in Glenwood. The wallet and photo were a threat. They knew who she truly was and where her family lived.
There was only one way they could know that; they owned someone in witness protection or higher up. Which meant they always knew where the McGrath family was and could have reached out, at any time, to end them all... if they felt so inclined.
She zipped open a pouch, and she was startled to find rolls of cash, about a hundred thousand dollars if she had to guess. Liz put it down as if the money burned her.
A small envelope had her name on it in the elegant hand of Muriel Rayburn, Caleb's mother. She'd seen it before and marveled at the old-fashioned penmanship of the fifty-two-year-old social dynamo.
Muriel Rayburn was born Clark, a wealthy heiress and one of Boston's elite. She gave Christopher Rayburn the legitimacy to run his cartel under the guise of a legal business empire.
Liz carefully pulled free the embossed, off-white, elegant card.
"Welcome to the family. Caleb made a wise choice. It is time Elijah's daughter found her true place in our world. This ring belonged to my grandmother. I suggest you wear it to show your good faith." Signed Muriel.
Liz fingered the ring attached to the card inside a small envelope. She wanted to cast it into the desert, but she suspected that would be a very foolish move. She slipped it on her ring finger with a feeling of doom and distaste.
Liz opened the black binder, and her world crashed to a standstill. Threatening her family had been unnecessary. Caleb Rayburn had killed off Elizabeth Howard.
The memories came in flashes. The first image of her taking the lead on a Rayburn warehouse raid. Entering the building, realizing a moment too late that the two officers with her had not followed her inside. Turning her head to see the door swing shut. Her earpiece buzzing with static, then stopping. An explosion of white light. Her ears ringing as she lay on the ground. A shadow, the sting of a needle, and then nothing.