The Bludgeonings of Chance

by Julia Verinder

17,000 words

Note: This story is set towards the end of the third season, around the time of the John Michaels episode.

- 1 -

8.30am, Tuesday, 20 hours missing - Prospect Park, Brooklyn

'Hey, Danny. No Jack?'

Danny shrugged. 'Hasn't answered his cell yet.'

There was no need to say more on that score. They'd all noticed that Jack had been somewhere else lately, which was why Samantha was so outraged that she'd even fumed to Martin about it when Jack warned her to keep their relationship - or the fallout from its failure - out of the office. He knew that she felt the warning vindicated her secrecy but, to him, it seemed pretty rich, given what Jack's acrimonious divorce had put them all through.

'So, what have we got?'

'Perin Rhodes. Thirty-two, single, dog walker, last seen here at around one yesterday afternoon.'

Martin raised his eyebrows. Less than twenty hours was pretty fast for a substantiated missing persons report on a single adult. He said only, 'Perin? Unusual name.'

'It gets more unusual,' Danny added teasingly. 'She had with eight dogs with her.'

'Eight? That's quite a pack for a city girl.'

'Professional dog walker. They weren't hers.'

'How can you go missing with eight dogs? What were they? Chihuahuas?'

Danny grinned and referred to his notebook.

'We've got two Labradors and a Spaniel. Then it gets weirder... two Italian Spinones, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, a Vimarer and a Chinese Sharp Eye.'

'A Weimeraner and a Chinese Shar-Pei,' Martin corrected.

'You know what these things are?'

'Yeah, and they're not small. I can't see your average mugger taking on a woman with eight of them alongside her.'

'I sure wouldn't.'

'Don't like dogs?'

Danny shrugged. 'They're okay. I prefer them with a leash and muzzle. You?'

'Grew up around them, I guess.' Having spent more time in the company of the family Great Dane than that of his parents, he liked dogs a lot. He might have said so in different company but, unsure what Danny might read into his feelings, decided to keep them to himself. 'The owners called it in?'

Danny nodded. 'That's how it got to us so fast - six different owners, all called the police when they found their dogs missing and couldn't reach Perin. Reports were coming in all evening.'

'So where do we start?'

'Sam's going to find Jack and start on the owners. Seeing our missing woman's got no one waiting at home, I figured we should ask around here first - see what other people using the park can tell us. There doesn't seem any way she made it back to Flatbush, given that she didn't drop the dogs off before she left the neighborhood.'

'Good call.'

Martin meant only that he agreed with the plan, but Danny must have read more into his reply.

'Things seem to have cooled down between you two..?' he fished.

Martin inclined his head in silent admission of the fact.

Danny gave a smile that seemed more consolatory than amused.

'Right. Well, you never told us it'd started, so let's just say it never happened.'

He headed towards a man whose two German Shepherds were leashed and walking obediently to heel. Martin considered the closing remark. He wasn't sorry he'd called it off, given that there were far less taxing ways to get a woman into bed if that was all the relationship was going to offer, and yet he wasn't in a hurry to erase it from his memory. In truth, he had no idea what he wanted - only that being hidden as if he were having an affair with a married woman wasn't a part of it.

Danny had already stopped the man and showed his badge.

'What's happened?' the man asked.

'Do you know a woman called Perin Rhodes?' Danny began.

After a slight, but natural, pause for thought, the man shook his head.

'Can't say I do. What's she done?'

'She's missing.'

'Why are you asking about her here?'

'She walked dogs in this park.'

The man smiled. 'No good asking by name then. You'd do better to say what kind of dogs.'


'Paid walker?' the man guessed, his tone becoming a little less friendly.

'Yeah. You don't like them?'

He shrugged. 'Some and some, I guess. Trouble is a lot of them have a dozen or more dogs loose. It can get dangerous, not to mention that half of them don't pick up either.'

'She had eight when she went missing.' He read the breeds from his notebook again, incorporating Martin's corrections and sounding like he knew what he was talking about.

'Oh, right, sure. I knew her well enough to pass the time of day.'

'She a bad one?'

The man looked puzzled.

'You said some and some.'

'Oh, no, she's all right. Belongs to some association for dog walkers - I saw the badge on her coat and asked her about it one time. They have rules, like eight dogs max, obeying the dog laws... whatever. I still can't see the point in folk buying dogs if there's no one around to take care of them, but I guess paying someone's better than leaving them to howl the place down all day.'

'Did you see her yesterday?'

He shook his head. 'I'm usually on the road. These two come with me.' He tickled one of the Shepherds' ears fondly. 'We walked at a lake out near New Haven.'

Danny gave him a card. 'If you hear anything that could help us...'

The man nodded, read the card and then tucked it carefully into his wallet. Martin knew his type: decent and willing to put himself out even for a relative stranger. For all that the general public was often disappointing, many of the people they spoke to were like him - grateful for their own good luck and sorry when misfortune befell another person.

Their next interviewee could scarcely have been more different from the calm fortysomething who'd unwittingly told them a lot about factions in the dog-walking community. About twenty years older, she was a fussy kind of woman, overdressed for a walk in the park and leading a cute but yappy powderpuff. It danced around Danny's legs, putting him on edge although Martin suspected he was more worried that it would pee on his trousers than bite him.

This time, Danny started with the dogs. He only got out a few words before being interrupted.

'Yes, yes, I know everyone who walks in the park. It's high time you people put an end to her type.'

'Her type?' Martin asked.

'Commercial dog walkers. It's a disgraceful business, letting packs roam wild and frighten the wits out of sensitive little boys like Roger.'

'Did the dogs in Ms. Rhodes' care hurt your Poodle?' Danny asked.

Martin suppressed a grin as the woman drew herself up stiffly.

'Roger is a Bichon Frisé, you ignorant young man.'

'But was he hurt?'

She gathered the dog into her arms and held him out defiantly. 'Look at his ear.'

Martin had to admit that it did look rather tattered.

'One of Ms. Rhodes' dogs did that?' he asked.

'A pack did it. How do you expect me to know which one? Roger and I avoid them when we can.'

Another familiar type, this one too caught up in her own resentments to answer questions objectively. She probably didn't know Perin or notice how she handled her charges.

Even if he hadn't thought they were wasting their time, the interview was cut short by a pack of dogs coming around a curve in the path. Mrs. Uptight waddled off back the way she'd come, with Roger tucked under her arm, muttering about what they ought to be doing with their time. Danny sized up the dogs that were approaching on a zig-zag course, several with noses to the ground. Martin could understand his apprehension, given there was no way the distant figure following them could intervene if things went sour. He strode on confidently, closing the distance fast and then wading through the dogs to show his badge to the person allegedly in charge of them.

'Good Morning, Ma'am. I'm Agent Fitzgerald and this is Agent Taylor.'

'What do you want?'

The question wasn't particularly hostile, just brusque.

'We're looking for a missing woman. One of the dog walkers here in the park.'

The woman fixed him with a cold, gray stare. 'Which one?'

'Perin Rhodes. She walks-'

'I know who she is.'

'Not a friend?'

'Hardly. She's a know-it-all bitch.'

He adopted one of his most inviting expressions, challenging her to explain the slur without saying anything. She didn't respond.

'Did you see her yesterday?'

'From a distance.'

'What time?'

'Around noon.'

If true, that would put it before their last sighting. 'When exactly?'

'I don't know, exactly. I left the park at twelve-thirty, so it was before that.'

'Did you see anything suspicious?'

'Such as?'

Getting fed up with her attitude, Martin let Danny take a turn.

'Like a man hiding in the bushes,' he goaded. 'For example.'

'No. I saw the same people I always see, with the same dogs they always walk. There were some men without dogs - people cross the park all the time - but I saw nothing to make me think they were criminals. However, I am not of a nervous disposition that dwells on such possibilities.'

Martin had to suppress another grin at that answer. Nobody could possibly imagine she was of a nervous disposition. In fact, he'd pity any mugger who tried to take her on.

'And you're sure about the time you left?' Danny checked.

'Yes. My schedule is the same every day.'

Martin went back to her previous answer.

'Ms. Rhodes had all her usual dogs with her?'

The woman considered the question for a moment, the first time she'd hesitated.

'I believe so. I wasn't near enough to be sure.'

'You avoided her?'

'Why should I?' Her tone was self-righteous, the voice of someone who'd never known doubt. 'I walk the extent of this park four times daily. I have no intention of giving way to the likes of her.'

Or anybody else, Martin would bet. He wondered if the dog-walking business was cut-throat enough to make one walker kill another. It seemed unlikely. Nonetheless, he took her details before letting her follow her wayward charges. Danny scowled at her back. When Martin raised his eyebrows, he nodded towards a steaming pile of crap in front of one of the benches.

'No wonder Mrs. Roger hates them.'

Martin grinned. 'I wouldn't bet on Mrs. Roger picking up either. Some of those prissy types let their dogs pee all over the carpets.'

'That's gross.'

'Anyhow, it seems like we can assume for now that Perin tries to act like a professional and some of the competition doesn't like it. But I can't see them killing her over it. Can you?'

Danny considered the question for a moment or two before shrugging. People did things for so many strange reasons that it was never wise to rule out possible motivations.

They trudged on, aware that a lot of people used the park and any one of them might have seen whatever had befallen Perin. Seeing how thickly wooded some parts of the park were made the abduction less surprising than it had seemed at first. If a man stepped out of the shadows with a gun, what was a woman alone going to do about it? If the gun was silenced, the man could shoot her and all eight dogs if things went sour and still walk away.


- 2 -

Samantha knocked at Jack's door for a second time.

'Okay, okay,' his sleepy voice mumbled inside.

When the door opened, he was already shuffling back into the apartment. He was half dressed - shirt on, pants off - and looked like shit. During their affair, he'd been a man in his middle years but right at the top of his game. Just lately, he'd been looking every month of his age, and more, and it was hard to see what had been so attractive. Even so, she remained as fond of him as ever.

'Jack? Are you all right? Do you want to call in sick?'

He shook his head, still looking groggy.

'Just having trouble sleeping. I'm awake half the night, and then I'm asleep when I need to get up. I'll be with you in five. Fill me in.'

She passed on what Danny had given her.

Jack's tousled head appeared around the bathroom door jamb.

'Snatched with eight dogs?'

'Yeah. Weird, huh? There've got to be softer targets.'

Jack disappeared again but she knew he would be mulling that over. She did the same, looking at the scenario from different angles and staring at a photograph of Perin Rhodes that she'd pulled off the computer. She wasn't a bad looking woman, with pretty auburn hair and smiling green eyes, but she didn't have the sort of looks that turned men's heads in the street. Lightly built and only five-foot-five, she wouldn't have much by way of cleavage or legs to flash at them. Perhaps more to the point, judging from the picture, she didn't look like the kind who'd bother trying.

Jack reappeared, wearing pants at last, and went over to a mirror to put on his tie.

'Depends,' he said, continuing the conversation as if she'd just spoken. 'Means it gets reported faster, but it also means we're likely to think it's not about her because they could have picked an easier time. But then, if it is about her - and it's personal - the dogs throw us off the scent.'

It was nothing unusual for the facts of a case to support several interpretations. Finding a missing person often depended on an insightful hunch without real evidence.

Their first call was the owner of the two Labradors on Danny's list, Mrs. Kyla Lane. The house was a gabled monstrosity on Prospect Park South, well off the street with a vast porch that would accommodate most of Samantha's apartment. She hung back while Jack rang the bell, ready to observe the householder carefully while he made the introductions.

Probably in her late forties, the woman who answered the door wore an understated linen suit with a cream silk blouse. Samantha's eye roamed appreciatively over the exquisite tailoring and down to the Italian leather pumps that rounded off the outfit. Hundreds in dog-walking charges must look a lot less when your wardrobe ran to tens of thousands.

Mrs. Lane was rubbing the thumb and forefinger of her right hand together in a nervous gesture that instantly betrayed the fact that she was pressed for time. However, Samantha could see from the anxiety in her eyes that she intended to give them as long as they needed, even if it made her late for whatever was awaiting her presence.

'Come on in,' she said briskly. 'I hope I can help. Obviously I'm worried for Max and Millie, but Perin's such a sweet girl... I hope nothing's happened to her... I can't believe...'

Her voice trailed away, what she couldn't believe too horrible to voice. The next ten minutes told them only that Perin had walked the Labradors for eighteen months, reliably and without incident.

'She's so organized,' Mrs. Lane concluded. 'Conscientious, of course, but also sensible about having contingency plans for when she's ill or unavailable for some reason. It's such a weight off my mind to know that I can depend on her. My social and charitable affairs have come to consume rather more of my time than my husband would like. I don't like to leave my dogs alone too much, even though they're usually very good, and I know they enjoy their hour with the other dogs.'

Next came the Weimeraner's owner, a man in a starkly masculine row house apartment in which every stick of designer furniture bore the scars of the dog's teeth. Five computers spread across three desks, plus a cluster of peripheral devices on the floor, confirmed that he occupied a virtual world. He probably didn't even notice the dog gnawing its way through his interior decor.

'I can't believe eight dogs can be snatched in broad daylight. What are you going to do about getting Neo back?'

'Our case is the disappearance of Ms. Perin Rhodes,' Jack pointed out coldly. 'If it weren't for the fact that she's missing, you wouldn't have a team of FBI agents looking for your dog.'

'But, for all we know, she's implicated.'

'So, she walks your dog every workday for a year, then suddenly snatches him and... does what?'

The man met Jack's eye belligerently for a few seconds, but had to look away when his gaze remained steady.

'I don't know. It's your job to figure it out.'

Just what they needed, Samantha thought as they left, an asshole telling them what their job was.

They got nothing new from the owners of the Italian Spinones or the Chinese Shar-Pei. Like the Labradors' owner, they were far better than comfortably placed and seemed almost as concerned for Perin as their dogs. She'd been working for both households for years and the story was the same: likable, conscientious and nothing to explain a disappearance. Neither of them thought there was the slightest chance of her being involved in anything illegal or, more to the point, that might hurt the dogs.

Their final interview in the Park Slope neighborhood was with Pieter Van Niekerk, owner of the Rhodesian Ridgeback. A powerfully built man, towering easily six inches over Jack, he was the first to admit that his dog was anything less than wonderful.

'They might get more than they bargain for with Loco.'

'How do you mean?'

'He's real strong-minded. He was crazy from the start - that's how he got his name - and he got worse as he got older. Perin's the fifth walker he's had, and the first to last more than two weeks. She's been taking him out for about six months and he's so much better. Everybody told me to get him castrated but I think that's barbaric. She said okay, but put a shock collar on him so's he can have some time off-leash. I'll tell you, I didn't like the idea but it's been the making of him.'

'Are you saying your dog is dangerous?'

'Not in the right hands. You wouldn't believe the change now he gets to run off his hormones for an hour a day - no more pissing around the house and humping visitors for a start - but I wouldn't want to be the man who tried to hurt Perin if Loco was with her. He's real attached to her.'

As they walked back to the car, Samantha considered Loco's likely fate. If he got protective, the chances were he'd be shot. No dog was a match for a bullet.

The last dog on the list, the Spaniel, took them out to Flatbush, not far from Perin's apartment. His home was a gloomy basement below a convenience store. Samantha studied every detail while they waited at the door. Seeing Jack doing the same, she knew that they were both zooming in on a piece of the puzzle that didn't fit.

They were admitted by a woman, Dawn Goslin, who, according to her records, was thirty-four but looked nearer forty. Samantha knew immediately that life had been hard on her, but couldn't tell if that was down to bad luck or bad judgment. Jack opened the interview.

'We need to ask you some questions about Perin Rhodes.'

'Yes, of course.' She kept talking while showing them in, without the need for questions. 'I've been trying to think of anything that could help but I can't. I don't know Perin that well - we met in the vet's waiting room - but she's been such a help to me. I can't believe anyone would hurt her. I mean, why would they?'

Samantha looked around while Jack continued his questioning. Cheap but clean furnishings spoke more of bad luck than bad judgment There was no sign of drink, drugs or crime, and the tidiness of the place gave no hint of evidence being hastily concealed ready for a visit from the authorities. A dog's stuffed toy lay on the sofa and Samantha pictured Mrs. Goslin clutching it before their arrival, worrying about her pet.

'But you think this is about her?' Jack asked. 'Not about the dogs?'

'What would anyone want with people's pets? There are thousands of dogs in rescue shelters - why steal one?'

Rather than explain the options, Jack changed the subject.

'If you don't mind my saying, you don't look like you can afford one-forty a week on dog-walking.'

'No, I can't. I know some of the rich owners pay a lot, but Perin charges me much less. She says Barney's no trouble, and we're on her way to the subway station.'

'How much do you pay?'

'Five dollars a day. It's hard to find when you're on minimum wage, but I do a twelve-hour shift and Barney needs his break. Even if we had a yard, it wouldn't be like a walk with the other dogs.'

'Why did you get a dog, if you can't look after one?'

Mrs. Goslin was clearly shaken by the question, but she answered without protest. Samantha guessed she was too worn down by her troubles to resist anybody in authority.

'My husband brought Barney home on our first anniversary. Things were very different back then...' She swallowed. 'We had a lovely apartment with a yard, and I worked around the corner. But then... after Tim got sick... it was all so expensive.' She shrugged. 'Now he's... gone, Barney's all I have left... I could never let him go. Do you...?' Her voice wavered. 'Do you think he's dead?'

Samantha looked at the horror in her eyes, an emotion that might have seemed misplaced without knowing why the dog had come to me so much to her.

'We're doing everything we can to find Perin,' she said gently. 'If we find her, hopefully we'll find Barney.'

After they'd left, during the drive to the next address, she looked across at Jack.

'You were a little hard on her, weren't you?'

He shrugged. 'Didn't seem to fit.'


They were all unsympathetic at times, bringing their own experiences or prejudices to cases that held personal resonance, but she didn't know what was making Jack grouchy about this one. So far, Perin and her customers were looking like innocent victims of a carefully planned crime.


- 3 -

12.30pm, Tuesday, 24 hours missing

'Any luck?'

'Yeah,' Danny spun his chair around. 'It's the Professional Dog Walkers Association International, and they confirmed she was an active member. They verified what we got from the man in the park, that she was conscientious and enjoyed her work. They also said she knows her dogs, so she's got a choice customer base and probably makes a decent living. The going rate's fifteen bucks a dog for a half-hour walk. Most nannies only make ten an hour, you know.'

Martin shook his head. 'Sam called in. Seems like Perin's a sucker for a hard-luck story. The Spaniel's owner only pays five bucks for the whole hour.'

Danny's eyebrows registered his surprise. 'Many of them like that?'

Realizing he'd created a false impression, Martin corrected it. 'No, the rest were paying one-forty a week, with a discount rate of two-sixty for pairs from the same customer. It's not like they can't afford it, with those addresses.'

Danny grinned, perhaps figuring Martin was starting to think like him, and multiplied it up.

'That's over forty grand, without whatever else she might be doing - not bad.' He came over to the meeting area and sat on the edge of the desk. 'The money in this walking game set me thinking. Could this be about the dogs? Are they valuable?'

Martin shook his head. 'Not according to what Sam's got so far. Some doting owners but the dogs were all pets, no show winners or studs, and people want puppies when they buy a pet. We'd be talking hundreds at most, if that.'

'Doting owners...?'

Martin looked at him thoughtfully. 'Are you thinking what I'm thinking?'

'How much would someone pay to get their beloved pet back?'

'Could be ideal kidnap victims - they won't identify a suspect or testify in a case. And it's self-selecting: if you pay one-forty a week to have your dog walked, you'll surely pay a lot more to get it back.'

'Maybe they didn't plan on taking Perin... something could have gone wrong... maybe she got in the way...'

'Or maybe she played for time. Say they try to grab the dogs and the dogs don't want to go. She sees they want them alive and plays along, worried they'll kill the dogs and her if it goes bad.'

'But it's a lot of risk for low returns,' Danny mused. 'Surely even Mrs. Roger's only going to pay so much to get him back.'

'Yeah, but it's not like it was meant to be a real kidnap - dogs'd just be theft, maybe robbery with Perin there, or extortion with a ransom. Whatever - you're not going to do too much time for it. Jack's getting taps and traces on the owners' phones, in case it turns up anything useful, so we'll know if they start getting calls. Only the guy with the Weimeraner said no.'

'Anything there?'

'Can't see it if there is. He just seems like your regular pain in the ass. Says it's Perin and her trashy neighbors we should be bugging.'

'Nice of him to trust his dog to someone he thinks so highly of. But I guess he's right - time to take a look at Perin's apartment then.'

It was two rooms at the back of a run-down brownstone. The locks were good, but not good enough to delay Danny for long. He opened the door, then held it almost closed when they heard the tell-tale sound of nails on a hard floor.

'She's got a dog of her own.'

They hadn't thought of that, which seemed pretty stupid in hindsight, but the local cops had checked the place the day before. Surprised they'd left a dog in there, Martin went back to the car and got his coat. Along with his gloves, it would be fair protection unless the dog was very big or very fierce. He opened the door a few inches and peered through the gap.

Two medium-sized mutts stood a yard or so back, tails waving slowly. He read them as friendly but cautious and, deciding to take a chance, went in and waited to see how they responded. He knew it was risky - they had every right to be protective of their territory - but they didn't look much like guard dogs and the local boys must have braved them. He suspected Perin was the kind of owner who'd want her dogs to be quiet and tolerant of people in the building, rather than have them bark every time anyone passed the door.

The black one came forward, sniffed curiously at his glove and then licked it, but the sandy one backed away warily. They were scruffy critters, with wiry coats that grew every which way, but they looked well fed and content. Perin probably didn't have the money to buy fancy pure-breeds like her customers. Although the dogs had been alone for twenty-four hours, the apartment was tidy, with no sign of any anxiety or frustration from them. Of course, if they'd been tearing it apart, the missing persons report might have come from Perin's neighbors instead of her customers.

Looking around, he saw that a glazed double-door opened onto a narrow strip of back yard. The yard was divided into three terraces, two well-tended and the third more threadbare. A green plastic waste digester was installed in a corner of the third level, confirming it was the dogs' area. There was another good lock fitted to the doors, but the key was on top of the frame. The dogs were at his side in an instant, whining as he unlocked and tumbling through the gap as soon as they could. They both bounded straight up to the third terrace, and lifted their legs against the hedge that bounded the yard.

'Well trained,' he commented, as he turned back to Danny.

'They must've been busting, if they've been shut in since she went out yesterday. Nice of the local boys to just leave them here without a word.'

'I guess that settles it that she didn't leave of her own accord. Everything we've heard says she'd wouldn't have left them for too long.'

Leaving the dogs to finish their business, Martin followed Danny's example and looked around. Something told him they wouldn't find much to help them, perhaps because he was starting to think Danny might be right and it had more to do with the missing dogs than their walker. Still, one thing he'd learned during his time on the team was that knowing who someone was often told you where they were. They certainly needed to get to know Perin better than they had so far.

'She's just an average Josephine,' Danny said after a while. 'Enough money that she doesn't need to steal, not enough to make us wonder where it's coming from.'

It was true. The apartment was typical of its type, if cleaner and prettier than many, and, apart from an evident love of animals in general and dogs in particular, there was nothing to distinguish it from countless others. With everything present in moderation, from make-up to jewelry and food to alcohol, there were no obvious signs of any hang-ups, beliefs, habits or addictions likely to get its occupant into trouble.

While pondering that, Martin filled two bowls in a corner of the kitchen floor from a sack of kibble. The dogs fell on it as if they hadn't seen food in weeks, rattling the bowls against the side of the counter until not so much as a speck could still be clinging to them. When they were finally done, they scooted a bigger bowl around the floor until he filled it from the faucet.

Mute as they were, the dogs were perhaps the most eloquent testimony to their owner's character. That they were so amiable suggested that she did not keep them as guards. The sandy one had been reticent, watching Danny from a distance but without any sign of aggression. The black one had followed Martin more closely, studying his every move but doing nothing to interfere.

It was impossible to tell what was going on in their minds. Martin felt sure they knew that their mistress was overdue but what they made of her absence, or his presence, was a mystery. Although they seemed smart, he doubted they could analyze the options in the way that a person would. Even so, they seemed more than capable of observing, and acting on the basis of what they saw. They could detect no threat in what he and Danny were doing, and so they were letting it go for the time being. Suspecting they had more sense that some human witnesses he'd interviewed, he wished more than anything that they could speak about the woman whose life they shared.

'What are we going to do about them?' Danny asked.

'They can ride with us until we figure this out, can't they?'

Danny didn't look eager but, when he turned to the dogs, they both gazed up with such winning expressions that Martin knew he would relent. He looked for leashes and found them hanging on a hook by the front door. Casting around a bit more turned up a few supplies that he thought might be useful, so he stuffed them into a bag and tossed it to Danny. He clipped the leashes onto their collars, finding as he did so that their tags identified them as Treacle and Toffee.

As he led them out of the apartment, he saw a dark-haired man unlocking the door across the hallway. The man turned at the noise, and then called out without stopping to think first.

'Hey! Where are you going with those two?'

The challenge started boldly but trailed away into uncertainty. It was the instinctive reaction of a concerned neighbor, who only wondered after he started speaking what he was going to do if some wacko turned a gun on him. Martin left Danny to present a badge and introduce them.

'With Perin missing,' Danny wound up, 'These guys have been on their own all night. We figured we'd hang on to them until things get sorted out.'

'You're not taking them to the pound? To be destroyed?'

The question startled Martin. There was no law that entitled him to enter someone's home, steal their well-behaved dogs and have them killed - and nor would he want there to be.

'No,' he assured the man. 'Like he said, we're just looking out for them. Do you know Perin?'

'Yeah, sure.' His dark brown gaze shifted downwards, a typical sign of a lie, before admitting: 'But not as well as I'd like to. I only moved in about a month ago. We just say ciao - you know.'

'Mind if we ask you a few questions, Mr...?'

'Lancione. Doubt I can help you much, but I'm more than happy to try.'


They reconvened inside his apartment, which was just as small as Perin's but overlooked the street. It'd been a while since their last pit-stop and so they accepted the coffee that he offered. A jug was already steaming on the hotplate, and the washing machine was running, suggesting that he'd only been out for a matter of minutes.

'You didn't know she was missing?' Danny asked.

'No. How long?'

'Since yesterday afternoon.'

'Not surprising then. I see her most days, but it's not like I'd be worried if we missed a few.'

'You didn't hear these guys?'

Martin waved towards the dogs. They'd shown some interest in a pair of shoes by the door, but were now sprawled across a rug, as if they'd been following FBI agents around all their lives.

'No, but then I hardly ever do. I sometimes hear their nails out in the hallway, or maybe some barking and growling if Perin's playing rough with them, but that's about all. They don't howl when she's out or nothing like that.'

'So do you like her? Or just want to nail her?' Danny asked, a grin lightening the question.

Lancione held his eye for a second, then grinned. 'Across the hallway's too close to walk away.' He paused. 'I like her. I'm from upstate - dog hair feels homier than the brittle bitches I seem to meet in the city. I'm not a high maintenance kind of guy.'

The way he said it suggested that he wasn't interested in waiting around on women who spent all their time and money on looking good, not that he wouldn't put himself out for the ones he dated.

'You know much about her social life?' he asked.

Lancione shook his head slowly. 'We talked a bit about the kind of stuff we like to do... but nothing that personal. Hell, you guys must know the drill.'

Martin nodded encouragingly and reflected that he did indeed: those awkward early stages when you didn't want to screw up by saying you hated something she loved or whatever. Lancione was a good-looking man, so it seemed likely that his interest might have been mutual.

'She have many callers?'

'Not from what I heard. She's out a lot. She does three walks a day, usually takes those two on the local ones with some others from the neighborhood. The middle walk's the big one - longer, more dogs and richer owners, I think. She's out some evenings... does home visits for overnighters... gives a training class... and I know she's taking a fencing class.'

Martin smiled as he noted that down. It probably wasn't the first evening class you'd come up with for a woman, let alone a dog-mad one, but then three walks a day would make her pretty fit. The smile faded as he reflected on her abduction. It seemed more and more likely that she'd been taken at gun-point, going along with it as much for the dogs' sake as her own. There was a lot to be said for killing her later, in a less public place where her body was unlikely to be found.

They left soon after, feeling they knew a little more about Perin than they had before.


- 4 -

Interviews with the dog-owners had been followed by still more interviews, with all the other contacts Samantha and Jack could identify. Over and over, they heard the same thing. This was a woman whose life was just as it seemed, and no amount of digging revealed any more. The final call was her widowed mother, left so late because she barely seemed to figure in her daughter's life.

She'd said when they called that she hadn't heard from her daughter for five months and the phone records backed that up. She seemed resigned to the fact that they'd want to interview her, but there was no evidence of any emotional response to the reason for the interview.

'Doesn't she even care?' Samantha had muttered on their way to another prestigious address.

Jack had said nothing, but she knew him well enough to know that he found it equally difficult to understand a parent being so cold, even though he'd surely seen it many times before in his long career. Maybe the woman did care, but didn't know how to express love or even concern.

The interview, which was one of the emptiest Samantha had seen with a close relative, made it hard to believe there was any buried emotion. The only spark they saw was of resentment, but even that seemed distant - the legacy of disagreements too ancient to provoke a crime of passion.

'You like dogs?' Jack asked.

'No. I think they're disgusting parasites, not to mention that they're filthy and I'm allergic to them.'

'So Perin didn't have a dog when she was a child?'


'She seems to have made up for it since.'

'It's her way of getting back at me for denying her something. She's always covered with their hair and their stink. It's revolting. I wouldn't be surprised if she has fleas.'

Samantha frowned. 'Maybe she wanted to have a dog and, now she has her own place, she can.'

Mrs. Rhodes declined to comment and they left not long afterwards, knowing more about what hadn't been in Perin's life than what had. The experience was unsettling for Samantha, making her think again about the breakdown of her relationship with Martin. She'd denied him the warmth and honesty he wanted, even though at some level she'd known his need for those things went back to the coldness of his relationship with his father. While she'd run from a suffocating relationship with an over-enthusiastic mother, he yearned for someone to show him real affection.

Seeing how Perin's mother spoke about her gave a vivid impression of how Martin's father probably spoke to him. Of course, if Samantha hadn't been so reluctant to join him at family events, she would know how his father spoke to him. It hadn't occurred to her before that taking her into his family might have been hard for Martin, and yet she was important enough to make him want to do so anyway. She'd told him loud and clear that he wasn't important enough to make her reciprocate, even if that message had been unintentional.

'Having met her mother,' she said. 'I think Perin probably just wanted something with some love in it. Father long dead, no brothers or sisters, and dogs are so spontaneous and responsive.'

'And leave nice little gifts for anyone who comes along after them,' Jack added.

'Only with the wrong owners.'

'Yeah,' he said skeptically. 'How many do you think pick it up?'

She shrugged. 'A lot of people throw down candy wrappers, but I wouldn't want to outlaw candy.'

'Can tell you don't have children.'

'I had a dog when I was a child, Jack. He was... like a friend. Dogs are one of the few things I miss, living in the city.'

He winked, as if to say she could have it her own way.

'But maybe the city's not the place for them.'

She couldn't argue with that. Far too many big dogs were shut in small apartments, pack animals forced to spend long hours in solitary confinement, howling their lives away. It was odd, though, that she hadn't known about his dislike of dogs. Sometimes it seemed that all they'd shared was work and sex. Dragging her mind back to the case, she thought about Perin's chosen lifestyle.

'So maybe the dog walkers offer a valuable service - for the dogs, for sure, but maybe for the neighbors as well. Perin might have felt she was doing something worthwhile, in a small way.'

'Maybe that's why she lived in the city. I was thinking it'd be cheaper for her, and better for her dogs, to live somewhere more rural but there must be more potential customers in an urban area.'

Samantha nodded pensively. 'Back home, some people walked their dogs at noon and others had a run in the yard.' Given their own hours, it went without saying that city types might not be able to take a long lunch break. 'You can't build a run in an apartment and there's a lot of money in the city. A quick ride on the subway and she's into some of the richest real estate in the country.'

'Martin said nothing in her finances suggests she had any help from her mother.'

Samantha looked back at the house they'd left. It was almost as vast as the Labradors' home and the neighborhood looked good, albeit not in the same league as Park Slope.

'You'd think she'd be able to spare a few bucks for her only child.'

'Maybe her only child doesn't want her money.'

'Or maybe she doesn't want the strings that come with it.'

It couldn't be much fun having your mother sniffing at your clothes and following you around the house with flea spray. Samantha hadn't met Perin, of course, but she'd seen her dogs and read the report on her apartment. Neither offered any evidence to support her mother's accusation, beyond the normal amount of hair and smell that came with any dog. Kids weren't that much better in her opinion anyhow, with their dirty diapers and sticky fingers.


- 5 -

9.30am, Wednesday, 45 hours missing

Martin felt more than heard Danny's presence behind him.

'Any luck?' Danny asked.

He shook his head. 'Everything we found at the apartment checks out. She's got sixteen thousand in an account but it's taken her over three years to save it - I guess she's planning on a house one day. I've ID'd three boyfriends but they're all old news after amicable splits. The last one followed his job to Canada about eight months ago. I talked to some of the people at her dog training class, and some at the fencing class. Nobody knows of any new boyfriends and she didn't take the fencing class for self-defense - she started after she saw some Bond film-'

'Die Another Day? That was a great sequence.'

'I can't find any sign she was having problems of any sort. How about you?'

While Martin investigated Perin's life, Danny had been looking at the dog angle.

'Could be.' Treacle stirred under Martin's desk. 'Did you take these two home last night?'

'Couldn't leave them here.'

Danny reached to pet the muzzle that Treacle was poking hopefully at him.

'Getting to like him then?' Martin teased.

'Kinda hard to resist, isn't he? I tell you, if every dog in New York was as well behaved as these two, they'd have a better rep.'

That was for sure. They came when they were called, went where they were led and stayed where they were put. Comfort breaks proved challenging, as they were clearly used to being told when it was okay and he didn't know how to tell them, but, once he chanced on 'do your business', it was easy to pull over by a secluded trash can and scoop any poops before moving on. In his apartment, they sprawled contentedly at his side, first on his sofa and then on his bed. No doubt he was getting them into bad habits but he liked the company. In the office, Treacle slavered over a nylon bone while his buddy snored. Nobody seemed to have the heart to insist that they shouldn't be there.

'So, what did you find?'

Danny pulled up a chair.

'My surfing says it's been bumper year for dognapping in Britain. After a couple of celebrities had their pooches snatched for ransom, every piece of scum wanted in on the action. It seems a lot of people have paid out to get pets back - they don't always call the police, either too embarrassed or know it won't get priority with the low value and no violence. The ransoms are mostly only in the low hundreds, but sometimes up in the thousands. There was talk of twenty-five grand for a show winner, but I couldn't substantiate it.' He consulted his notebook. 'Two-and-a-half thousand pounds was the highest reliable figure I saw - what's that in real currency?'

'Over four grand.'

Danny whistled.

'So it's more tempting than we thought,' Martin added.

'Yeah, but mostly smaller scale to finance drug habits. One site said it depends on the breed as much as the owner's ability to pay. Working and gun dogs are less likely to be ransomed than sold on for puppy farming, drug training or whatever. That's what the missing dogs are, isn't it?'

'I think it's working and sporting over here. Whatever, they're all active and useful for something. I guess they were grouped that way, because Samantha said these all got the full one-hour walk. That's got to be how you get ahead: two bookings for half an hour don't deliver as much profit as one for a double slot, given the pick-ups and drop-offs.'

The buzz of Martin's phone interrupted their speculation.


'This is Kyla Lane, the owner of the Labradors that Perin Rhodes was walking.'

'What can I do for you, Mrs. Lane?'

'I've received a ransom note in the mail, postmarked in the City yesterday. I'm afraid I touched it before I knew what it was but I've put gloves on now.'

'What does it say?'

'To wire three thousand dollars to the Western Union office in Newark. It's to be collected in cash and they've given me a test question that I'm to specify. Once they have the money, they'll tell me where I can find Max and Millie. I'm not to speak to the police.'

'No mention of Perin?'

'I'm afraid not.' A slight tremor confirmed that the woman feared the worst.

'Is it hand-written?'

'No, I think it's from a computer printer. It looks very ordinary.'

Martin wondered if she'd expected it to be compiled from newspaper cuttings. Unfortunately, a printed letter was unlikely to tell them much. On a common brand of paper, letters were virtually untraceable and it wasn't as if they had any suspects' printers to check it against. Sometimes a scratch on the drum could be matched with confidence, but only when you knew where to look.

'What shall I do?'

The FBI normally advised against paying ransoms, but that was for human hostages. For the time being, they need to buy time and making the money transfers take as long as possible was one way to do that. There was no other way to stall, given that most of the owners could clearly afford a few thousand dollars without needing time to get the cash together.

Three grand was right in the middle of the range Danny had been looking at, enough to make it worthwhile but probably not enough to make an owner get two new dogs. From Jack and Sam's report on Kyla Lane, Martin guessed she'd go a lot higher than that if she had to. If Perin's life wasn't in the balance, she'd probably have paid up already.

'We'll need you to pay, but first we have to get a watch on the collection point.'

The tremor was back. 'Do you think they'll return my dogs?'

Martin had some background knowledge of his own, on top of Danny's dognapping summary. It wasn't encouraging. Many demands for money came from con artists pretending to have found lost pets. They preyed on people's misery and then moved right on without turning a hair. There were some happy reunions, but most owners were left without their money or their dog.

'There's no reason why not,' he said, as optimistically as he could. 'They can't describe the people who took them and you'll be less likely to press for more police action if you've got your pets back. Better for everybody.'

That would be true, if the perpetrators were smart enough - and rational enough - to see it. Of course, there'd be a lot less crime if nobody was dumb or desperate to get high.

'I hope so.'

He could hear the strain in the voice of a confident woman who wasn't used to having other people call the shots on something that meant so much to her.

'Let me set it up and call you back.'

At least they knew where they stood, he reflected. The dogs were to be ransomed, and perhaps returned, and Perin must have been caught up in the crime accidentally. There was no reason for the dognappers to want a human hostage who could identify them. Feeling better now that they understood the situation and would be able to do something, he started making calls.


- 6 -

Samantha and Jack did the rounds of the owners again as, one by one, they called in with ransom demands. Their reactions were mostly similar to, if marginally less intense than, those of parents facing the kidnapping of a child.

The owner of the Italian Spinones said very little, but her gray complexion spoke loudly enough: she'd probably been up all night and, even with the ransom demand, she didn't expect to see her dogs again. They were litter sisters and, judging by photos all around the walls, had been an integral part of the family for all of their eight years of life. They were even in the pictures of what Samantha assumed was the daughter's wedding. It was hard to decide whether it was worse to lose a dog with which you'd already shared many happy years or with which you were hoping yet to do so. Large dogs like hers might not live much past ten, but that was probably cold comfort.

The owner of the Chinese Shar-Pei was a wheelchair user. They hadn't pried into his condition but it clearly involved pain as well as immobility. The dog wasn't a specially trained canine helper but he'd told them on their first visit about its many accomplishments. He was trying desperately to put a brave face on the situation, something he'd surely had plenty of practice at doing, but he didn't fool Samantha and she knew he wouldn't fool Jack either. It was easy to forget what a lifeline a pet could offer to people whose lifestyles were not of their own choosing. Not only did a dog fetch and carry for its owner, but it gave him something to love and care for. People needed to feel they had value, and sometimes pets gave back what sickness had taken away.

Only the Weimeraner's owner struck a cool note, seeming as resentful of the amount as the crime.

'I could get three dogs for that,' he'd complained.

Jack had cut her off, no doubt aware that she was about to give the guy a piece of her mind, with a controlled but sarcastic rejoinder.

'If you need to save a few bucks, you could always get off your lazy butt and walk him yourself when you get him back.'

The man had looked up sharply, shocked at being spoken to in that way by a public servant, then said, 'I'll lodge a complaint about you, Malone.'

'Be my guest, but it'll take them a while to process it. There must be quite a stack by now.'

They left the man fuming and stopped to take stock by the car.

'I need to get back to the office,' Jack said. 'Are you okay with the last one?'

The last one was once again the Spaniel's owner. Samantha wondered if that was the woman's fate, always to be last in the line for anything.

'Sure. I'll just go by and see if she's had any news.'

She already knew that Mrs. Goslin hadn't, because she'd have been on the phone in a moment if she had. The dog's tag would have told the dognappers where it came from, and any hope of a ransom would have died with the address. He was probably already in a dumpster somewhere. Knowing that made a face-to-face visit unpleasant, but somehow necessary. Besides, in the event that Mrs. Goslin was implicated in the scheme - highly unlikely in Samantha's opinion - she'd be more relaxed with one, female, agent and might let something slip.

'Okay. I'll take a cab. Catch you later.'

Samantha turned east for Flatbush, steeling herself for a visit that she expected to take her close to tears. It was only partly because of the damned dog. Worse was the sight of someone who'd found a love that counted, and then had it snatched away when it should have had forty years to run. With so many deadbeats in the city who were no use to themselves or anybody else, it frustrated her when worthwhile lives were cut short by fate.


- 7 -

1.30pm, Wednesday, 49 hours missing

'I think I may have one of the dogs they said were missing on the news.'

Martin read the voice automatically, in a way that he'd found difficult the first time that Jack had stuck him with handling all the crank calls after a news report. Now it was second nature to take in every detail of what was said, and how it was said. The accent was Bostonian, or thereabouts, and the tone businesslike and helpful. Ten to one it was worth pursuing.

'What makes you think so, sir?'

'I was offered an English Springer Spaniel by a man who seemed kind of furtive. Now I've had some time with him, I can't see why anybody'd let him go and, if they had to for some reason, why they couldn't find a home for him. They said on the news that he had distinctive markings - we talking about a patch the shape of Africa on his left flank?'

'Where are you?'

Half an hour later, they were in a police dog training facility. The caller proved to be an ultra-fit sergeant who looked like he could run with a pack of dogs all day without breaking a sweat.

'Here he is.'

The dog at his side was as biddable and friendly as the two mutts now waiting in the car, but a good deal more handsome with a lustrous white coat covered in large patches of deep chestnut.

'What makes him different from what you normally get?' Martin asked, more out of curiosity than because he needed to know, having seen the patch.

'Springers can be crazy, especially the males, and that's the kind that usually come to us - immature and manic. This fella's probably four or five years old, and calm as you like. He's okay with dogs, cats, kids... He doesn't fit the profile of your average canine punk, and the guy who sold him to me didn't look like the sort who raises a fine four-legged citizen like this.'

'Hey, Barney!'

Danny's test was basic but effective. The dog's ears were far too long and silky to prick up, but they tried. The dog tilted his head on one side, looking for all the world as if he was trying to decide if they'd met before. Danny took out his notebook and riffled back to where he'd recorded the details of the missing dogs.

'Neutered male, five years old… the Africa patch… and a three-inch scar on his belly.'

The sergeant rolled the dog over so that Martin could inspect his belly. Just behind the ribs, where the coat was shortest, there was an irregular scar of the right length that looked more like it had been inflicted by a jagged edge than a blade. He'd been lucky it wasn't a few inches further back.

'Doesn't look like we need to scan for the microchip - he's got to be our boy.'

'They said on the news that none of the dogs were chipped. I thought that was weird.'

'If the woman who was walking them is alive, we want to keep her that way. There was a chance that saying the dogs were traceable might not help, if the men who took them were thinking resale not ransom.'

The sergeant nodded. 'Yeah, we usually scan before buying. I guess the news report stopped me this time... didn't want the guy to cut and run.' As if to explain his soft heart, he added, 'It's real hard losing the family pet - seen it happen.'

'Theory is that an organized gang wouldn't have taken the walker and, if they're amateurs, they might not have much idea what they're doing. Tell us about the guy.'

'Amateur could be right. Looked like a junkie to me.'

'Might fit,' Danny mused. 'Anyone who's dealt would know about drug dogs.'

'He was a Latino, mid-twenties, five-nine, one-forty, ponytail, goatee, broken nose, ripped left earlobe - could have lost a ring - and a thin scar here.' He indicated the right side of his forehead.

It was the kind of detailed description they'd hope for from a co-worker in law enforcement. The icing on the cake came when he reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of paper.

'I did this while the face was fresh in my mind, hoping it'd give you guys a head-start. I like to sketch in my spare time.'

The pencil drawing looked every bit as good as they'd get from one of their artists.

'You've been a big help. What do we need to do to get the dog released? His owner's fallen on hard times - that's why he wasn't ransomed like the others - but maybe the department can help out.'

The sergeant grinned. 'I knew I was blowing my budget when I took him. He's too old for us, and way too placid. I didn't even bother to test him for drive because I knew what the answer would be. What the hell? I'll put him down as a drop-out. It's only my pension at stake.'

'Thanks, man. It'll be appreciated.'

Martin took the leash and they headed back to their car.

'You're building up quite a collection, Fitzie. So, how many dogs do you figure you can get into the back of a department sedan? I hope they don't fight.'

Martin grinned but said nothing. If he had his way, Barney would be going straight home.


- 8 -

'I haven't had a note.' Dawn Goslin looked up tearfully at Samantha. 'They must have known that I don't have any money when they saw the address on Barney's tag. They've killed him.'

Samantha studied her closely. Although the woman was still a piece that didn't fit, all her intuition, training and experience said she was just caught in the middle of a bad situation. So what if one of the dogs turned out to be useless for ransom? He would just be collateral damage. It would be a slim chance indeed that the dognappers were soft-hearted enough to dump him back at the apartment.

Her phone purred.


'Looks like we've got the Spaniel, Samantha.'

'Really?' She heard the relief, and disbelief, in her own voice. 'I'm with his owner now.'

'We'll be there in five.'

Samantha turned back to Mrs. Goslin, whose expression had frozen between despair and hope, too afraid of disappointment to trust her interpretation of a few words in an optimistic tone.

'We can't be certain, but we think we have Barney.'


Martin hadn't said as much but Samantha doubted he was bringing a corpse over.

'Just a few minutes,' she stalled.

They sat in tense silence. The wait must have been agony for Mrs. Goslin but it was useful to Samantha, being long enough to make a pretense difficult to sustain. She was sure that the woman was a victim, just as much as the other owners, and that she had no idea whether they had the right dog, or whether he was alive or dead.

A car pulled up outside, but Mrs. Goslin did not go to the window to look. She knitted her fingers together, and Samantha could almost feel her willing her pet to come bounding through the door. As her hostess wasn't moving, Samantha opened the door to reveal Martin being hauled across the sidewalk by a Spaniel that was clearly very much alive. He grinned and dropped the leash, letting the furry missile fly forward and into the arms of his sobbing mistress.

'Right dog?' he called.

'Looks that way,' Samantha replied.

It was the first time she'd felt easy with him since he told her they were through. She'd had no right to be as put out as she was by the announcement, given the number of warnings she'd had that he needed more from her than she was giving him. Right through their acquaintance, from introduction to friendship to romance and back again, he hadn't changed - constantly thoughtful and courteous. That much was like a dog, perhaps too eager to please, but she'd been wrong to assume that he would wait indefinitely for her to show some eagerness to please him.

Perversely, she'd started to want him more once she couldn't have him. That set her thinking about what kind of woman she really was: surely not the kind who responded positively to being ill-treated by a man? She was starting to wonder.

On a more positive note, she liked seeing Martin around the dogs involved in the case: confident and caring, looking out for them not out of duty but because he wanted to. She also liked seeing his total disregard for the rules that said they shouldn't be in FBI offices and vehicles.

She smiled, just in recognition of a job well done but a smile nonetheless.

'Where was he?'

'A young Latino male sold him for drug training. A suspicious sergeant called us. Gave us a good description too.' He held up the sketch. 'We'll go back to the office and run this down.'

'Okay. Thanks.' She smiled at him again, pleased to have remembered how, and then went back into the apartment. 'It is Barney then?'

Mrs. Goslin nodded, dabbing at her tears with a crumpled tissue while clutching the dog close with the other arm. It was plastering the side of her face with slobber. 'I'd know him anywhere.'

'Looks like he feels the same.'

She nodded and sniffed once more before speaking. 'Thank you for being so understanding, Agent Spade. I know a lot of people think it's foolish to get attached to a dog.'

Samantha reached out to stroke the wriggling dog's silky coat. 'He's a super dog.'

'Isn't he just?' Mrs. Goslin hugged him again. 'But I'm not so foolish that I've forgotten Perin. You have to find out what happened to her, and make them pay if they've hurt her.'

There was a resolve in her voice that had been overshadowed by sorrow and fear before.

Samantha nodded. 'We'll do everything we can. You can be sure of that.'


- 9 -

3.00pm, Wednesday, 50.5 hours missing

Danny was still staring at the sergeant's sketch.

'Know him?' Martin asked.

Danny stared for a few more seconds before speaking slowly. 'No, I can't place him. Something about him sure as hell seems familiar though.'

Martin took the sketch and squinted at it. He thought maybe he could see what Danny meant but then, the more you looked at something, the more familiar it came to seem.

'Let's get a copy done without the facial hair and broken nose. Maybe that'll help.'

It did. The moment the artist put it on his desk, Martin knew why the face had seemed familiar. He held it up to Danny.

'What's the betting our friendly neighbor has a brother?'

Danny looked at it for a second or two, then started tapping on his keyboard. Martin watched over his shoulder. The two men weren't that alike, just enough to make him doubt coincidence. It was something about the eyes and mouth that had registered as familiarity.

'Bingo. Stefano Lancione has a baby brother, Adriano. And it seems he likes to take things without asking. Theft.... grand theft... robbery... must be working his way up.'

They compared the sketch with his photograph. There was no doubt.

'Drugs?' Martin asked.

'Only possession.'

'So, are they in this together or does baby brother get the idea all by himself?'

Danny scrolled through the rap sheets. 'No violence here, just threats. Probably got the nose in jail.'

'And Stefano?'

More clicking and scrolling. 'Nothing we know about.'

'Maybe he's the smart one.'

Danny looked up. 'Remember how he said across the hallway was too close to walk away?'

Martin nodded. He remembered the pause after those words too, which suddenly seemed more significant than it had at the time, almost as if Lancione were daring them to realize that Perin hadn't been allowed to walk away from him. He also remembered the interest that the dogs had shown in that pair of shoes by the door. With Lancione looking freshly showered and the washing machine running, there might not have been much scent for them to catch. Not a high maintenance kind of guy, he'd said, but it was starting to sound like any kind of maintenance was too much for him. The remark about brittle bitches, which had sounded natural enough in the casual guy-to-guy chat they were having, began to assume more misogynistic overtones.

Martin reached for his phone. Jack and Samantha were on the streets again, this time chasing down Perin's local customers on the off-chance that one of them might know something that could help. An old adage maintained that most of what a good liar said was true, and Lancione's description of Perin's activities had proved to be spot on. She did a half-hour walk morning and afternoon with a pack of neighborhood mutts whose owners were all elderly or infirm in some way. They paid according to their means, but all at only a fraction of what the Park Slope crowd were billed.

'Jack? It's Martin. We might have another angle on this.'

He summarized what they'd found out about the Lancione brothers, then outlined their suspicions. It could have played out any number of ways but his bet was on Stefano's interest being in the woman and the ransoms being a payoff for his brother's help in taking her.

Jack was silent for a second or two.

It always took time to assimilate a change in direction, and they surely weren't thinking rape when a woman was attacked in the company of serious canine protection, but Martin was now sure that Perin wouldn't willingly have permitted the dogs to be hurt in her defense. No doubt she went along with Adriano's threats thinking that everything would be okay if he got his money, little knowing that far worse was in store for her once they were out of sight.

'We'll go back to the apartment block,' he said at length. 'See if we can get a tail on the neighbor. He hasn't seen us yet, and he might take us right to her. You and Danny run down the brother.'

Martin gave him everything they'd got on Stefano before hanging up.

'Jack says they'll tail Stefano. If Perin's still alive, he'll probably be calling on her.'

Danny nodded and started following up what they'd found on Adriano Lancione. They might hit lucky, find an address that tied in with something else on the case, but Martin wasn't optimistic. They hadn't got much to match against.


- 10 -

'So how do you see this?' Samantha asked. 'Do you think all this can really be about rape?'

She and Jack were sitting in a black sedan parked outside Perin's apartment block, having seen Lancione enter and established from a neighbor that there was no rear exit.

'Could be a good cover,' Jack said. 'If the police had found her in her apartment, raped and killed, any male neighbor would be on the list. This way, nobody's looking that hard for a personal connection. And we have no idea where to start looking for a body.'

She nodded thoughtfully. They'd run down every lead and contact, just as they always did, but they hadn't delved deeper for something they weren't expecting to find. No doubt, if they'd had reason to suspect the neighbor, they'd have managed to find something that didn't add up somewhere, if only they'd looked long enough.

'You think she's dead?'

Jack shrugged. 'I'd say either she's been dead since a few hours after they took her, or she's scheduled to die when they've finished with the dogs. Doesn't seem much reason to kill her in between, unless something went wrong or she stepped out of line.'

'Doesn't give us much time, with the ransom notes all in.'

Jack acknowledged that with a tilt of his head. 'Better hope Martin's right about the Lancione connection. If he is, and they locate the younger brother, we should find her.' He paused, then his customary hang-dog expression brightened a little. 'Seems Martin likes dogs.'

'Shut up, Jack.'

'I was just saying.'

'Well don't.'

Bad enough that Danny saw her and Martin surrounded by hoards of kids, having barbecues behind a white picket fence, without Jack adding dogs to the portrait of domestic bliss. Worst of all was the fact that a part of her liked the image. She knew they made a handsome couple, and an instinctive reaction within her found the dream of perfection appealing, but memories of the frustrations of her own picket-fence teenage years made her wonder what the charming children of imagination would make of their parents' predictable existence. She'd always imagined that, if she became a mother at all, she'd be the working kind like Vivian but then, watching Jack's marriage disintegrate thanks in part at least to the competing demands of two careers, she'd started to doubt the wisdom of trying to have it all. On top of all that, Vivian's health scare didn't help, given that stress couldn't have improved her condition even if it hadn't caused it.

There was no easy answer to the conundrum. She knew couples in which the man had become house-husband but few really took to it, finding that activities and amenities were all pitched at women, and even fewer of the wives enjoyed having a dependent partner. Samantha couldn't see Martin being any more willing to give up his career than she was, and she knew herself well enough to be sure that having him do nothing but change diapers and shop for groceries would diminish him in her eyes. She wasn't particularly proud of that fact, but she was far too honest to lie to herself about it. On the other hand, she thought they'd probably both come around to wanting kids at some time. Although the subject had never come up, Martin was a traditional man in a lot of ways and having kids was about as traditional as life got. It was just one of the many doubts that kept her from taking the bold step he wanted from her and she could see the irony in that: it was supposed to be the man who was reluctant to commit.


- 11 -

Having failed to turn up a recent address for the younger Lancione, Martin and Danny drove over to Newark rather than rely on the locals to monitor the collections. They hadn't decided whether to intercept the man or follow him back to the city. If they challenged him, he might not talk. If they tailed him, he might shake them off. Danny figured possession of the money and use of the test question would be enough to make him talk. In any event, finding him had to be the first step.

Martin had parked right out front of the Western Union office. The weather was warm and so, thinking the car would soon heat up in the sunshine without the air-conditioning running, he'd rolled the back windows down. He was confident the dogs would stay put. Treacle was wide awake as always, sitting bolt upright and admiring the view, while his buddy was curled up feigning sleep, although one eye opened from time to time to check that all was well.

Danny was on the inside. Having explained the situation to the manager, he was now waiting for a signal that someone was making the collection. Mailing notes might make the demands harder to trace than using telephone or e-mail, but it was also less reliable. It was more than lucky that all the notes had been delivered promptly and received by owners who'd taken time off the commitments that normally required them to use a dog walker in the first place. As it was, all the ransoms had been paid and now awaited the dognapper. They'd opted for playing it that way in case something went wrong - the last thing they needed was to have it go bad because the money was short.

'Got him.' Danny's voice came through the earpiece. 'Looks just like his picture - no change.'

That was stupid, Martin reflected. He could have used a basic disguise while selling the Spaniel, or cut his hair and shaved afterwards if they were real. It didn't take much to cloud an investigation, but this guy wasn't even trying. That was a good sign because it suggested the brothers thought they were free and clear. They'd be more careful if they realized they were under suspicion.

'I think we should take him while we can,' Danny went on. 'If we lose him, we've got zilch.'

'Okay. Follow him out and I'll challenge.'

Martin got out of the car and leaned to look into the rear window.

'Stay,' he said, quietly but firmly.

Treacle's mouth was open in a wide smile, tongue lolling. Toffee regarded him briefly with one eye before closing it again.

He drew his gun, careful to keep it out of sight of passers-by, and held it at his side, pointing downwards. His stomach churned. No matter how often he prepared to face a criminal, he still felt a flutter of nerves beforehand. He didn't dislike the sensation and knew it was only the adrenalin talking, a natural response of the body that was designed to keep him alive.

He recognized Lancione immediately. The sergeant's sketch had been good, capturing not just the features but the expression too. It was far more like him than the prison photographs they'd seen. Despite the family resemblance that led them to him, he was a much less attractive man than his brother: shorter, skinnier and rattier. Once the broken nose and scars were factored in, he became the type of man that a woman might cross the road to avoid.

Beginning to wonder if they might not have the wrong idea about the nature of the two men's roles in Perin's disappearance, Martin stepped forward, badge raised, and issued his challenge.

'FBI. Keep your hands where I can see them.'

Lancione stopped, looked around with jittery eyes, saw Danny and hesitated.

'That's right,' Martin confirmed. 'Two of us and one of you. Just take it easy.'

Lancione raised his left hand and held the bag in his right away from his body.

'What's the problem?' he asked.

'Put the bag down.'

Lancione didn't move.

'Put it down!'

When Lancione finally moved, he was fast.

The bag was already flying at Martin, precisely in his line of fire, when Lancione spun around to face Danny, a gun in his hand before he'd completed the turn. Martin had no doubt they'd get him, one way or another, but his immediate concern was to stop Danny taking a bullet in the process. Wounding Lancione wouldn't stop him getting a shot off, and killing him would tell them nothing about Perin's whereabouts. He deflected the bag automatically, even while he was still thinking through the options. Then another variable came into the equation, or two variables to be precise.

In a blur of black fur, a growling fury flew through the open window of the car. With far faster reactions than a human, unhampered by the considerations running through Martin's mind, all Treacle seemed to see was his temporary masters looking threatened. His teeth closed on Lancione's outstretched wrist, yanking it downwards before the gun had completed its arc and sending a bullet into the sidewalk. Toffee was slower out of the car, clearly apprehensive, but added plenty of volume to the attack when he started barking.

The gun fell to the ground, while Lancione yelled. His terror came as no surprise to Martin. In his experience, people who hurt animals usually feared them. He picked up the weapon, and then covered Lancione while Danny frisked him for more. Treacle surrendered his hold on the wrist but added his savage growl to Toffee's voice. Martin hoped their presence would scare Lancione enough to make him talk, and it wasn't long before they rewarded his trust with an address.

'Right. Let's go.'

'There's no way I'm getting into a car with those two.'

'You'll do as you're told, scumbag,' Danny assured him cheerfully, cuffing him and then shoving him into the back of the car and letting the dogs jump in behind him.

They sat facing Lancione, Treacle on the seat and Toffee on the floor, wearing watchful expressions that Martin hadn't seen on them before. He was beginning to revise his judgment of their histories, suspecting they'd come to Perin as rescues not bargains. Hidden beneath the loving natures she'd probably nurtured, he thought there must lurk memories that enabled them to recognize a threat in an instant, before his brain had finished processing it, and respond decisively as they had. It seemed unlikely that they could have understood the purpose of a gun, but they might well have felt the effect of a raised arm in a former life.

Letting Danny take the wheel for the return journey, he called Jack.

'We've got Adriano Lancione,' he reported. 'He claims Perin's alive, says his brother's holding her in a warehouse in Bed-Stuy.' He read the address from his notebook. 'Insists he had nothing to do with that.'

'His brother's in his apartment right now,' Jack said. 'We'll put someone on him, and get over to the warehouse with backup.'

'Right. We'll go back to the office and scrape this piece of crap off our shoes.'

Jack laughed. 'Nice metaphor, but Sam tells me good owners pick up.'

Martin smiled, pleased to know that her views on dogs might be one thing she shared with him not Jack. The smile faded as he put the phone in his pocket and considered what charges they'd be able to bring against Adriano Lancione. As he'd already given up the address and was trying to pin the rape on his brother, that left him implicated in theft and extortion as a minimum. It was uncertain whether they could get him on kidnapping. Martin doubted that Stefano would have revealed himself until Perin was safely locked away, meaning that Adriano probably snatched her, but only time, and her testimony, would tell.


- 12 -

6.30pm, Wednesday, 54 hours missing

Samantha snapped her phone shut.

'He moved as soon as we left. He must have made us.'

'He probably figured we were watching Perin's apartment.'

Samantha had assumed that Lancione knew they were onto him but Jack was right. There was nothing unusual in a department car being outside the residence of a missing or murdered person. He was probably just playing safe, seeing no reason to attract attention to himself.

'He's headed east on the subway.'

That put him somewhere behind them, most likely headed for the warehouse. He would probably gain on them to start with but then he'd have a walk from the subway station.

'We need him to tie himself to it,' Jack pointed out softly.

Samantha knew he knew she knew that. He was just slowing the pace, like a rider gathering in the reins to steady a horse. He would be as eager as she was to end Perin's ordeal as soon as possible, but they needed evidence, not hunches, about Lancione's involvement. Her testimony might be enough, but only if she was alive to give it.

While Jack was driving to the warehouse and parking out of sight around the corner, Samantha called the backup units to make sure they approached without sirens and concealed themselves from view. Once everything was in place, they went around to the front of the building and found hiding places with a view of the entrance.

The area was noisy - the typical city blend of traffic and trains, homes and workplaces - and she could only just hear the sound of dogs barking somewhere in the building. It probably wasn't loud enough to prompt a complaint, especially as the neighboring properties were also warehouses and mostly looked empty.

The last report put Lancione only minutes away but it felt far longer before she caught sight of a figure. Although she didn't expect to hear much over the ambient noise levels, the street itself was almost deserted and she could track his approach easily.

Not satisfied with catching him on the threshold, Jack waited until he opened the padlock on the door. It would be hard to explain having a key to the building, if Perin was imprisoned within.

'FBI, Mr. Lancione. Raise your hands and keep them in plain sight.'

The use of the name was designed to communicate how much they knew, closing off options that might be running through the suspect's mind. Lancione obeyed slowly, his careful consideration of the courses open to him almost palpable.

'What is this about?'

'Just keep your hands where I can see them.'

Behind Samantha, a ring of agents covered the arrest. When he saw them, Lancione's shoulders slumped and he let her take two guns and a knife from him before another agent cuffed him.

'Let's go see what brings you to an empty warehouse in your spare time.'

Jack pushed Lancione inside and then instructed an agent to watch him. The barking told them which way to go. They progressed cautiously, following procedure even though the locked door and brother in custody gave them no reason to expect an accomplice. Leaving all but two of the junior agents to check the lower floors, Samantha and the remaining two agents followed Jack up to the floor where the dogs were being held. The barking echoed along a corridor, creating an almost deafening barrier of sound, but they needed to check every room they passed.

One by one they reported them empty until, at last, they found Perin. She was strapped to a hospital-style bed, gagged and naked except for a coarse blanket that had slipped to reveal half her shivering body. Great purple, yellow and black bruises covered her.

Apart from her, the room was empty.

'Take care of her.'

Jack's four softly-spoken words were loaded with emotion. If Samantha hadn't been there, he would have done the comforting - and he was surprisingly good at that side of the job - but she was there, and conventional wisdom said a woman preferred to be with a woman after rape.

Samantha went forward alone, concentrating on Perin's plight and trusting the other agents to secure the floor. She spoke slowly and clearly, explaining who she was as she removed the gag and loosened the bonds. Jack would have water and clothing sent up as soon as he could. Meanwhile, Samantha wrapped the blanket around Perin and sat on the edge of the bed, hoping her presence was reassuring but not too intrusive.

Perin murmured and wept for a while, slowly surfacing from the daze she'd been in when they entered. There would be several reasons for her condition, from mental shock to physical trauma to simple dehydration. The paramedics would decide the relative impacts of each, but Samantha had enough experience to feel fairly confident that there were no injuries from which Perin couldn't recover and everything they'd learned about her suggested she had the personality to do it.

'I was sure I was going to die,' she whispered. 'Once the bastard let me see him, I knew he wasn't going to let me go.'

'We've got both of the Lancione brothers in custody. You're safe now.'

Samantha included the names of the prisoners automatically, making sure that Perin knew where they were at so that she could correct them if any of their assumptions were wrong. It was too early for formal questions and statements but it was important to encourage her to tell them anything they needed to know. It wasn't too long before she recovered enough to ask the one question Samantha had been expecting.

'Did you find my dogs? Are they okay?'

'They're fine. One of my co-workers has been taking real good care of them. They've been with him day and night, so you don't need to worry about them any more.'

The news cheered Perin a little. Clearly, in the midst of everything else, she had been concerned for their safety.

'I was afraid he'd killed them. He wouldn't tell me.'

Samantha hadn't thought of that. She'd assumed the dogs might have got a bit thirsty, but would eventually have been found by someone if not by Martin and Danny, but Perin was right: there was no telling what a man like Lancione might do to make his captive suffer. That might explain why the dogs had been omitted from the police report on the apartment, if he'd hidden them then without realizing that a more thorough FBI search would follow so soon afterwards. If he intended to hurt or kill them, he'd do it in front of their mistress. He might not have got around to that before Martin and Danny took them away. Losing them probably hadn't mattered, given that refusing to tell her their fate had been torture enough for Perin.

A knock at the door heralded supplies, which Samantha got up to collect so that there was no need for yet another agent come into the room. She helped Perin to drink and then wrap herself in a robe. They'd need a doctor to take samples before she could get properly clean and dressed, but meanwhile she could be warm and decent.

'I still don't understand why he did this,' Perin said weakly 'He'd never even asked me out.'

Samantha understood her puzzlement. She couldn't see why a man who'd acted the friendly neighbor would do what Lancione had done to her. It wasn't as if she'd rejected his advances - in fact, it sounded as if she'd probably liked the look of him. Not yet overwhelmed by the emotional aspects of her ordeal, she was still trying to rationalize it.

'Rape's not really about sex,' Samantha said, as gently as she could.

'I know they say that, but... well, it is sex, isn't it? It doesn't make sense.'

'Making love to you wouldn't have satisfied him. He needed to dominate you.'

It was clear from Perin's expression that she understood the concept - how could she not when she specialized in canine behavior? - but believing it of a man she'd known and liked came harder. The acquaintance had been brief and casual, but still it had to make her doubt her judgment.

'Some people satisfy the need in harmless ways - sex games - but some people play for real.'

'Why pick me? I'm not submissive by nature. I wouldn't be able to do my job if I was.'

'It would have been more satisfying for him when he forced you to be.'

'But he barely knew me. We didn't meet until after he moved in - it was pure chance we met at all.'

Samantha put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. 'It often is... just the wrong time... wrong place...'

Perin nodded, but Samantha suspected it would be a long time before she found a way to accept such an unsatisfactory explanation for what she'd been through.

'Did he do all this? What about his brother? Adriano?'

'He threatened me, first to get the dogs and then whenever they were any trouble. He slapped me a couple of times but he never showed any interest in... anything else.'

'But he knew what Stefano was doing and went along with it?'

Perin nodded. 'He didn't seem to care one way or the other.'

'Were they intending to return the dogs?'

'I'm not sure. I think they meant to, at the start, but then realized it wouldn't be easy with some of them. You can't chain a dog up and torment it, then take it for a walk like nothing's happened. They talked about giving this address, after they'd got rid of me, but they were worried what you'd be able to tell from forensics.'

Anyone with any sense worried about that, although in truth forensics often told them far less than TV shows suggested. It was a mixed blessing, with the fear of such evidence perhaps discouraging some criminals but probably making others more careful - and therefore harder to catch.

Jack came in at that point, stopping just inside the door and saying nothing. Samantha knew he was awaiting her judgment on whether Perin was up to helping them.

'How are you doing?' she asked.

Perin gave a not-great-but-what-can-you-expect shrug.

'We could use some help with the dogs. We can call for handlers, but they know you...'

Perin nodded. 'They're my responsibility. I have a friend at a shelter who'll help.' Her face crumpled, the prospect of speaking to someone she knew too daunting. 'Would you call her?'

'Of course,' Samantha assured her. 'Jack'll do it now.'

After Perin had given the number, Samantha helped her limp along the corridor towards the sound of barking. At the end was a large open area that looked as if it had once been some kind of workshop. A heavy duty pipe ran along one wall, about a foot off the ground, and the dogs were chained to it at intervals. There were no food or water bowls, and the area around each dog was filthy with urine and feces. Several of the short-coated dogs had visible cuts and swellings, with their longer-haired companions presumably having similar but less obvious injuries.

'Shit,' Perin muttered wretchedly. 'I helped them do this... they said they'd shoot the dogs if I didn't... I managed to convince them to sell Barney but... I didn't know what else to do.'

Ignoring the stench, she started at one end and spent half a minute with each dog, talking in a low voice that had an instant effect on most of them. It took longer with the Weimeraner, which was shaking pitiably and dribbled urine while she stroked and reassured it. Samantha could just about make out the curses she was heaping on their captors in that soothing tone.

Jack joined them at that point, an agent with bolt-cutters alongside him.

'There wasn't a canine transport in the area, but we've got a truck and dog crates.' Jack looked at Perin. 'Are you up to this? Your friend's on her way - we can wait until she gets here.'

Perin shook her head. 'It'll be easier on them if I do it. Just let me talk to Loco first.'

She went over to the Ridgeback, which had been snarling in Jack's direction since he came into the room. She squatted so that she was at his eye level, but evaded direct eye contact and stayed out of his reach.

'It's all right now, Loco. I'm safe. You're safe.'

The dog looked at her, a low growl still rumbling in its throat.

'Get me a muzzle for him,' she said quietly.

'Will he get over this?' Samantha asked, while they were waiting for the agent to fetch a muzzle.

'I don't know. He was never easy, and that bastard played with the shock collar until the battery went flat. He could be dangerous now, instead of just difficult, but at least he has a caring owner. I think the others can go home, probably the sooner the better, but he needs somewhere quiet until he's calmed down and we figure out where he's at. Angie'll check them over and do what 's best.'

The agent returned with a muzzle in one hand and a gun in the other. 'Tranquilizer dart?'

'Are you confident of the dose?'

'Should be fine. It's set for a sixty-pound dog, and he looks way over that.'

She nodded reluctantly. 'He's nearer ninety. It's probably best all round, and the rest'll do him good. Wait until I've taken the others down.'

Ten minutes later, the dogs were crated and ready to go. Perin hesitated, clearly wanting to go with them. Samantha took her arm and nodded towards a waiting ambulance.

'You need to get checked out in hospital. You've done plenty. They'll wait for Angie.'

'You'll make sure they're all right?' Perin asked Jack.

He nodded. It was ironic that he'd ended up on dog duty but Samantha knew he'd tidy up the loose ends as always, regardless of his personal views on dogs in the city. Meanwhile, she would accompany Perin, take a statement and see what the doctors said.

'Tell Angie to put Loco somewhere where he can't see or hear people or dogs, so he can settle down, and make sure Neo's owner realizes he's going to need to give him some TLC. The man's a...' She seemed to be searching for a suitable adjective to describe him.

'Pain in the ass?' Jack offered.

Perin managed something close to a wry smile. 'You noticed.'

Jack gave a weary grin back. 'How could we not?'

'Tell him he'll have to answer to me if he punishes that dog for piddling on the floor.'

'Didn't seem to care if he chewed the place to bits. I doubt he'll notice.' He paused at the doorway, probably realizing that being ignored was one of Neo's problems. 'TLC - I'll tell him.'

Samantha'd had plenty of cause to question her wisdom at getting involved with two of the three men on her team, but she'd never truly regretted the men themselves. Not only were they both the epitome of gentlemanly discretion, but they regularly demonstrated that they were decent and caring too. She had no doubt that Jack would put Neo's case in the strongest possible terms.


- 13 -

Where Barney had been ecstatic at returning to his owner, Treacle and Toffee were more cautious. Their calmness throughout the investigation led Martin to take their tranquility for granted until they attacked the younger Lancione brother. They became agitated again when they entered the elevator in the FBI building, although this time they were inquisitive rather than aggressive.

Treacle sniffed at the wall first, then looked at his buddy, ears pricked and head on one side. His question was as clear as if he'd spoken: What do you think? That's her, isn't it?

Toffee repeated the inspection, rising onto his hind legs to explore the area more closely before dropping back onto all fours and adopting the same quizzical expression.

Treacle gave it one more sniff before starting to whimper.

Martin petted them fondly. 'All right, boys. Not long now.'

Their progress into the office was punctuated by sniffs. The dogs had no way to know that they were being taken directly to their mistress and pulled towards anything that bore her scent. Martin let them have their way, amused and intrigued to see how their world differed from his. He could see Perin through the glass partitions and open blinds, although the view wouldn't have been good enough for a positive identification had he not expected her to be there. The dogs had no such inside information and, aside from the fact they were under three feet tall, didn't look that far ahead anyhow. Their noses were their world, and they clearly didn't want to take a wrong turn.

Perhaps he was deliberately delaying the meeting with Perin. He certainly wasn't looking forward to it. Even after three years, some aspects of street crime were still tough for him. As both Jack and Vivian had said at times, you weren't supposed to get used to it. Although rape wasn't the worst crime they saw - child abuse probably came top of the list for the whole team - fear of facing its victims was among Martin's personal demons. No, he thought, not fear. Embarrassment.

He was glad that Jack and Samantha had done the hard part. Although he knew the facts of Perin's ordeal, she'd had chance to get cleaned up so he wouldn't be confronted by the evidence. Trying to look more relaxed than he felt, he followed the dogs towards Jack's office with Danny behind him.

Perin was standing with her back to them, gazing at the window on the far side of the main office, her stance more confident than he'd expected and only a tightness across the shoulders betraying any tension. She turned around as they approached. Livid bruises covered most of her face and one eye was swollen shut. Little resemblance remained to the happy woman in the photograph on their board. In its place was the anxiety and pain of a brutal abduction, but then her good eye went to the dogs and relief chased those emotions away.

He let them go to her and watched her kneel down stiffly and draw them close. No longer frantic, standing with their front paws on her thighs, they tenderly licked the tears from her cheeks. There seemed more to their bond than a dog-owner relationship, almost as if they felt her suffering.

She looked up at him.

'Thank you,' she whispered. 'Agent Spade told me what good care you'd taken of them.'

He shrugged awkwardly, feeling that they'd done too little, too late, to deserve her gratitude. Sometimes, even when they won, it felt like they'd lost. He'd felt a little better when they heard that the outlook for the Ridgeback was more promising than expected - with his owner taking some time off work for the time-consuming process of rebuilding the trust in people that had been so cruelly abused - but the dog wasn't the only one with hidden wounds to heal.

Perin gave a slight shake of her head. 'I have my life.'

As glad as he was of that, he doubted it would be the same life she'd had before she met Lancione. She might lose her customers and, even if they stood by her, she might never have the courage to walk alone again. It was unlikely she'd been having any more friendly chats with male neighbors. A year down the line, her character might be as changed as her face was at that moment.

Perin seemed to have sensed his regret when she rose to her feet, picking up the dogs' leashes as she did so.

'Look at these two,' she said softly. 'Before they came to me, they'd been locked in a dark shed for years. They were knee-deep in filth, nails so long they couldn't walk, covered in sores and beaten half to death. Look how they are now. Not every dog knows how to take a second chance at life, but they sure did. I wouldn't like to be outsmarted by my dogs.'

There was determination in her tired eyes as she left, a dog at each heel.

'Gutsy lady,' Danny said.

Martin nodded.

He wished she hadn't needed to be, but it was good to know she wouldn't have to recover alone. Few people could provide the constant and unconditional affection her dogs would give whenever she needed it, day or night. Samantha's affection was neither constant nor unconditional, and yet he craved it. Thinking about Perin's parting words, he admired the outlook that saw rescue as a second chance, rather than dwelling on abduction and rape as insurmountable tragedies.

Maybe it was time to think about a second chance for Samantha and himself.

Please send comments to Julia Verinder

The title comes from Invictus, written by the English poet W. E. Henley in 1875:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud:
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.