It comes down to a few critical seconds as Zoe is forced to either outsmart a genius or watch her husband die.
With Easter only a week away, Zoe is pulled into a dangerous game after Zak is kidnapped, and the person who kidnapped him, challenges Zoe to The Sleuthing Game. Zoe is told that the only way to gain Zak’s freedom is to complete the challenges in the time allotted.
If she fails, Zak will die.
Zoe had promised she would retire from sleuthing now that she had an infant to care for, but the stakes are high, so she leaves the kids with Ellie, while she and Levi set out to beat a madman at their own game.
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I am really excited about this book. It was SO much fun to write. I hope you all will give it a try. If you’d like a preview I’ve included chapter 1.
Sunday, March 25
The first thing I noticed upon entering the room was that the bedspread didn’t match the carpet, which was a totally different color from the drapes. Mismatched decor is an odd thing to have float past your consciousness when you’ve just been told that a man whose friendship you value is dead and your husband is missing. On an intellectual level I knew I was in shock and the emotions that any rational person should and would experience were waiting just below the surface, but in that moment I felt nothing.
“Zoe, are you okay?” Sheriff Salinger asked.
I looked away from the drapes and stared at him with what I was sure was a confused expression. I knew something was expected of me, but I had no idea what it was everyone was waiting for.
“This is too much for her,” my friend, Levi Denton, said. He put his hands on my shoulders, turned my body toward him, and stared into my eyes, a look of concern evident on his face. “She shouldn’t be here. There must be another way.”
“I don’t disagree that it would be best if Zoe didn’t need to be here,” Salinger said, “but the instructions left by the person or persons who have Zak were very specific.”
I averted my eyes from Levi’s concerned gaze and looked around the room. There was blood splatter everywhere. My mind began to feel fuzzy as the room seemed to fade in and out. I felt a wave of nausea as I struggled to accept what I’d witnessed with my own eyes. This couldn’t be real. It didn’t make sense. I put my hand to my face to try to wake myself from this horrible nightmare.
“Zoe?” Levi put a hand on my cheek and gently turned my head so I was looking at him again. He looked so scared. So vulnerable. In that moment I knew this was real and not a dream, as I had hoped. I glanced to the floor and then back to Levi.
“How did he die?” I asked as I tried very hard to look away from the outline of Will’s body, which had been covered with a sheet.
“Shot in the head,” Salinger answered.
“He would have gone quickly, so at least he didn’t suffer,” Salinger added.
“When?” I asked in a voice so soft I wondered if anyone had heard.
“The 911 call reporting the sound of a gunshot came through about thirty minutes ago,” Salinger answered.
I closed my eyes as a single tear slid down my cheek. Thirty minutes ago, I’d been at home feeding my three-month-old daughter, Catherine Donovan Zimmerman, while Scooter Sherwood and Alex Bremmerton, the two children who lived with Zak and me, chatted about the funny thing they’d seen in town that afternoon. Thirty minutes ago, I was making plans for the Easter celebration I planned to host next weekend. Thirty minutes ago I hadn’t known that Will was dead or that Zak had been kidnapped by the monster who had killed him.
Levi put his arms around me and pulled me tightly into his chest. I closed my eyes and took comfort in the sound of his strong, steady heartbeat. I knew that giving in to the despair that threatened to overwhelm me wasn’t an option. I’d lost a friend today and my heart wanted to weep at the injustice of it. But if the note Salinger held was authentic, Zak was still alive, and it was up to me to save him. I glanced at the sheet on the floor and knew I must set the rage in my soul aside.
“I can take you home if you need some time to process what’s happened,” Levi offered as I felt my tears soak into his sweater.
I dug down deep for the strength I needed, squeezed him tightly around the waist, and then took a step back. “I’m fine.” I turned and looked at Salinger. “What do I need to do?”
I knew he’d found our friend and employee, Will Danner, lying in a pool of blood after receiving an anonymous 911 call. Will, a teacher at Zimmerman Academy, the private school Zak and I owned, had been staying in a motel near the Academy while his house was being remodeled. Zak had agreed to meet him that evening regarding a project on which they were collaborating. When Salinger arrived, he’d found a note in Will’s left hand and a burner cell in his right. The note detailed a very specific set of instructions stating that Zoe Donovan Zimmerman, and only Zoe Donovan Zimmerman, was to call the number provided on the piece of paper with the phone that had been left in Will’s hand.
“We need to call the number and find out what they want,” Salinger said. “There isn’t anything we can do to help Will. What we need to focus on is finding Zak.”
I swallowed what felt like a boulder in my throat, “I agree.” I held out my hand for the phone. Salinger handed it to me and I looked at it and frowned. “There’s blood on it. That doesn’t seem right.”
“Yeah, there’s blood everywhere,” Levi said.
“No, Zoe’s right,” Salinger said, looking at both the phone and the note. Salinger pulled back the sheet, causing me to look away as he did. “There’s blood splatter on the phone and the note but not on Will’s hands beneath the phone and the note.”
“And that’s important because…?” Levi asked.
“It’s important because it suggests Will was already holding them before he was shot,” I explained.
Salinger carefully rolled Will’s body to one side and I forced myself to watch. “There isn’t any blood beneath his torso,” Salinger confirmed.
Levi paled. “Are you telling me some wacko made Will lay on his back holding the phone and note and then shot him in the head?”
“It could have occurred that way, but it’s more likely Will was already unconscious when he was shot,” Salinger explained.
“I guess that’s a good thing,” Levi mumbled.
I looked at the phone again. I knew once I started there was no going back. I had no idea where this first phone call would lead, but I had a feeling I was in for a bumpy ride. Nothing else made sense. The setup had been much too elaborate for an easy and painless conclusion to be on the horizon.
I looked at Levi again. He frowned, but I could see he was struggling to be strong for me. “I guess we should do this.”
I looked at Salinger. “Are you ready?”
Salinger nodded. “Hold the phone away from your ear so we can hear what’s being said as well.”
I nodded and pushed the Call button on the phone that had already been programmed. After only one ring a deep voice that sounded unreal came on the line. The message seemed to have been prerecorded using an automated voice system.
“Welcome to The Sleuthing Game. The purpose of the game is to solve the eight puzzles you will be provided before the allotted time for each runs out. If you are successful, your husband will be returned to you unharmed. If you are unsuccessful you will never see the father of your child alive again. The first set of instructions, as well as the first puzzle, has been taped to the bottom of one of the tables at the Classic Cue pool hall. You have until eight p.m. this evening to retrieve and follow the instructions. No cops or Zak dies.”
I glanced at Salinger. “What sort of sicko are we dealing with?”
Salinger frowned. “I don’t know.”
“It makes no sense that anyone would shoot one man and then kidnap a second one simply to make Zoe engage in a ridiculous game of some sort,” Levi stated.
“Do you really think whoever is behind this will kill Zak if I refuse to play?” I asked, fighting the dizziness that threatened to thrust me into a state of unconsciousness. I took a deep breath and fought the urge to slide into the darkness. Focusing on Salinger as he looked around the room, I felt the dizziness dissipate.
“I don’t know,” he repeated. “But given the fact that he or she has already killed once, I think we have to assume they will.”
“Who would do such a thing?” Levi asked a question that had been asked before and I knew would be asked a dozen times more before this was over.
“It’s obviously personal,” I said as I felt my strength begin to return. “Someone wants to make me jump through a bunch of hoops. I’m going to assume we’re dealing with someone I’ve harmed in the past. The fact that they’re referring to their sick ploy as The Sleuthing Game indicates to me that the person behind this is most likely someone I helped put in jail.” I looked at Levi. “I need to do this. I can’t risk Zak’s life by not cooperating. I need you and Ellie to stay with the kids until this is over.”
“You can’t do this alone.”
“I think I have to. I don’t want Ellie and the kids to be alone. I need you to be with them.”
I could see Levi wanted to argue, but then Salinger spoke. “I’m going to call the county office to see if I can get a couple of deputies to watch your house.”
“Thank you. I’ll feel better about things if I know the kids are safe and this psycho can’t grab one of them next, if that’s what they plan.” I glanced at my watch. “I need to get a move on if I’m going to find the next set of instructions before the deadline.”
“I’ll run home and change into plainclothes,” Salinger said. “I’ll borrow my neighbor’s car as well. I’ll follow you from a distance.”
“What if they see you?” I asked.
“The voice on the phone specifically said no cops,” Levi stated. “I know you said you were going to change out of your uniform, but the person who’s doing this probably knows what you look like. I think I should be the one to follow Zoe.”
I looked toward Levi and shook my head vigorously. “I don’t want to put you in any danger. This madman wants me and only me. I need to do this alone.”
I couldn’t help but notice the look of resolve that crossed Levi’s face. “I’m not letting you do this alone. That isn’t an option. Someone has to go with you and because the voice on the phone said no cops that someone can’t be Salinger.”
Levi grabbed my shoulders. He forced me to face him. I could see he was as determined to help me as I was for him to be safely out of harm’s way. “I’m going with you. I know you don’t think you need me, but you do. I know you think you’ll be putting me in danger, but you won’t. You said yourself this seems to be some sick game between you and whoever is orchestrating it. I doubt they’ll have a bit of interest in me.”
My resolve hardened. “If it’s personal between me and this person why did they kill Will?”
“To get your attention,” Levi answered. “To demonstrate the lengths to which they’ll go if you don’t comply with their instructions. Please.” Levi looked me directly in the eye. “I’m going with you. Don’t fight me on this.”
I glanced at Salinger. “What do you think?”
Salinger shrugged. “I suppose Levi has a good point. You most likely will need help, and as much as I’d like to provide it, maybe he should be the one to go with you. The last thing we want to do is make whoever is behind this angry by ignoring the no-cops dictate. I’ll head over to your house and stay with Ellie and the kids until the guys from the county show up. Levi can call me after you retrieve the next set of instructions. I think right now we need to do what the kidnappers are asking to the best of our ability. Once we know what they’re really after we can work together to come up with a plan.”
“Okay.” I looked at Levi, having come to a decision. “Let’s go.”
The drive between the motel where the attack had occurred and the Classic Cue was accomplished in silence. It took every ounce of strength I could muster not to curl into a fetal position and sob until the sweet peace of unconsciousness overcame me. The thought that Zak was being held by a crazy person filled me with more terror than my mind was able to process and I knew it was only a matter of time before my determination slipped and a feeling of helplessness returned.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I needed to calm my mind so I could focus. I needed to stay strong for Zak. I let my mind wander until eventually it landed on a thought about Catherine and the prebedtime feeding the two of us enjoyed each evening. Catherine knew Ellie and I supposed she would be fine with favorite honorary auntie putting her to bed, but in the three months since she was born I’d never missed a single bedtime feeding.
Given what was going on, it was a good thing I’d been forced to stop breast feeding. I’d felt like a total failure when I learned my body wasn’t producing enough of the nutrients my baby needed, but now that I wouldn’t be able to be with Catherine for however long this sick, sick game took to complete, I was glad she was used to taking a bottle. It would have been a lot harder on both of us if we hadn’t already made the transition.
“We’re almost there,” Levi said, breaking into my daydream.
I sat up and opened my eyes. “When we get to the Classic Cue I’ll go in and find the next set of instructions while you call Ellie. I know Salinger said he was going to head over to the house, but she must be frantic.”
“Yeah, I’m sure she probably is.”
“Tell her that Alex knows where everything she’ll need to take care of Catherine is. And tell her to keep the kids home from school tomorrow. I don’t want them to go out at all until we’re able to track this guy down and put him safely behind bars.”
“Okay. I’ll tell her.” Levi turned onto the street where the pool hall was located. “Maybe we can figure out who he is and where he’s holding Zak. If we can find him we can end this. At some point he’s bound to make a mistake, give something away.”
I glanced out the passenger side window. Familiar buildings passed as we slowly made our way down the street. It was cool this evening, so the sidewalks were sparsely populated; still, it seemed odd that there were people going about their normal lives completely unaware of the fact that Will was dead and Zak was missing. “Yeah,” I whispered as Levi stopped at a crosswalk. “We should keep our ears open. The sooner this is over the better.”
We arrived at the pool hall and I went in alone. Levi and I weren’t certain how the killer would react to his presence, so we decided it was best for him to hang in the background. The pool hall was crowded and the tables were all occupied, which was going to make searching for a note taped beneath one of them difficult. I walked up to the first table, where two men who looked to be in their early twenties were engaged in a game of eight ball. “I’m sorry to interrupt your game, but I need to crawl under your table for just a minute.”
“Did you lose something, sweetheart?” one of the men asked after looking me up and down with a suggestive grin on his face.
“I dropped an earring the last time I was here,” I lied. “I’ll only be a minute.”
The men stepped back and I got down on my hands and knees. I tried to ignore the catcalls as I slipped under the table. Yes, I realized my jeans-covered backside was sticking up in the air in a most unfortunate position, but I had little choice in positioning my body as I tried to move around in the tight space. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the note, so I thanked the men, then went to the next table and repeated the humiliating process. There were sixteen tables in the room, which would mean a lot of time crawling around on the dirty floor with my butt in the air if the note happened to be taped to the last one I checked. Luckily, I found both a note and a cell phone taped to the undercarriage of the eighth table I crawled beneath. I grabbed both and headed out to the car.
The note contained a set of instructions along with a riddle that, when solved, would lead me to a location. The note indicated that the phone would ring at exactly 9:14. I was to answer it on the third ring. If I had solved the puzzle and ended up in the correct place I would have the information I needed to be able to answer the second question. Once I provided the answer I would be given nine additional minutes to provide five additional answers.
“Okay, so what’s the riddle?” Levi asked.
“‛To find the clue you must peel back the letters and find that which remains,’” I read aloud.
“Huh?” Levi asked. “What on earth does that mean?”
“I think it’s suggesting there’s a hidden message contained within the riddle. Or maybe invisible ink was used to write something on the back.” I continued to stare at the piece of paper in my hand. The psycho who had gone to all the trouble of orchestrating the game wanted me to play, so they wouldn’t have started off with a riddle I couldn’t solve.
“Peel back the words,” Levi said as he held out his hand, indicating I should give him the note. “Maybe he wants us to focus on part of what’s provided. I notice there seem to be a lot of pretty specific numbers.”
I thought about the note. The fact that he wanted me to pick up on the third ring and answer the second question was unusual, as was the time of nine-fourteen for the phone call.
“Okay; what numbers are mentioned in order?” I asked. I took out my phone to record them.
“The instructions state that you’ll get a call at 9:14, so that’s 9-1-4. Then you pick up on the third ring and answer the second question, so that gives us 9-1-4-3-2. After that you’ll be given nine minutes to answer five more questions.”
“That’s 9-1-4-3-2-9-5,” I said aloud. ‘I know where we need to go.”
“Where?” Levi asked.
“It’s Zak’s private line at Zimmerman Academy.”