BY: ALAN BRENHAM
He’s haunted by the memory of a kidnapping case gone wrong…
Not wanting history to repeat itself, Detective Matt Brady struggles to solve the disappearances of seven young women, but he quickly finds himself pitted against a criminal organization that knows as much about police procedure as he does—an organization that will do whatever it takes to stay one step ahead of him. His troubles are compounded when a young veterinarian injects herself into the investigation and is targeted to become victim number eight. When he tries to protect her, he finds himself in the crosshairs of a professional cop killer. Can Brady solve the case in time to save his new love, or will this investigation be the death of both of them?
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Cornered by Alan Brenham, Matt Brady is a detective investigating the disappearance of seven young and beautiful women. Haunted by the memories of a kidnapping in his past where the victim was killed before Brady could find her, he is now terrified that history is going to repeat itself. Woven into the story is a sweet romance that will touch your heart.
The characters are well developed and three dimensional. The plot is super strong, with numerous twists and turns that keep you surprised and intrigued from beginning to end—a real page turner. And, as with his first book, Price of Justice, the story has a definite ring of truth.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Cornered by Alan Brenham is a fine second book for this rising author’s repertoire. While not a sequel to Price of Justice, Brenham’s first book, Cornered is still a first-rate detective/mystery/suspense set in modern-day Texas and revolving around human trafficking.
I thought the characters extremely well developed and realistic. I especially liked the fact that the main detective, Matt Brady, was not a super-cop. He makes plenty of wrong turns and mistakes, some of them major. I also liked the fact that the plot really keeps you on your toes. There are no easy answers or shortcuts and the bad guys always seem to be one step ahead of the good guys right until the end. This one is a keeper, folks. You’ll want to stash it on your shelf to read again and again.
The disreputable white van, dirty and dented, cruised up and down the rows of cars parked in Temple’s municipal lot. Two burly men, driver and passenger, scanned the lot eagerly. The screech of tires caught their attention as a pale blue BMW sped into the lot. The BMW made a sharp right turn one row away from the van and zipped into the first available spot. Its driver, an exceptionally pretty, black-haired woman in her early twenties, flung the car door open and stepped out into the bright March sun.
The men in the dirty van straightened as she revealed herself. They hadn’t come there to admire her beauty or the stylish lines of her BMW. They had come for her.
Shouldering her purse, she flipped a tendril of hair off her forehead, reached inside, and pulled out a briefcase before starting off. Aiming the key remote over her shoulder, she clicked it and the car’s horn beeped as the tail lights flashed.
Had she bothered to scope out the lot, she would have seen the dirty van creeping along the row of cars behind her. She’d have seen the middle-aged transient in a worn-out, navy pea coat, hair graying and unkempt, standing between two parked cars, a short distance away.
The young woman jumped when her cell phone chimed. She took the pink phone from its holder, but before she could answer it, a sudden thump to her back knocked the phone to the pavement. A thick, muscular arm wrapped around her chest, pulling her backward.
“Hey!” she screamed. “Let go.”
The transient stood there, frozen in place.
Her scream was cut off when a hand holding a rag covered her nose and mouth. Dropping her briefcase, the young woman grabbed at the toxic cloth clamped to her mouth.
“Stop fighting me. It won’t do you any good.” The kidnapper jerked her off the ground and moved toward the open van like a spider with its prey.
Her legs kicked at empty space. She stretched one arm out toward the gray-haired transient. The muscular man glared at him, and the vagrant cringed at the warning he read in the look before backing away in short jerky steps.
It only took seconds for the abductor to hoist her into the van, tossing her onto a waiting mattress. The transient heard the grating noise of the sliding door and the loud bang as it slammed shut. The van sped out of the lot and turned south on North First Street.
The homeless man waited until the van drove through the traffic light at Central Avenue and out of sight. He plodded over to where the cell phone and the briefcase lay. He did a 360, scanning the lot, before rummaging through the briefcase. He removed a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. Peeling the paper back, he took a bite then stuffed the sandwich into his coat pocket. Peeking inside the briefcase, he spotted a cell phone charger and a banana.
A roll of thunder made him look up. A dark bank of clouds seemed to be moving fast toward Temple from the west. Casting sideways glances, first right and then left, he pocketed the charger and the banana. Then he picked up the phone and trotted across the lot toward 3rd Street. By the time he crossed the street, a steady rain pelted him.
Two and a half months later:
Temple Police Detective Matt Brady stood in the middle of the parking lot of the H-E-B grocery store, gazing into the open driver’s door of a red Toyota sedan. Four plastic bags of groceries sat on the tan seat. A water-soaked spot from thawed foods covered part of the seat.
A total of four young women had vanished in the past two and a half months and the sum total of evidence that he had to work with was a dropped briefcase, two abandoned cars, and a bicycle lying in the weeds on the side of the road. A fifth missing woman wasn’t exactly the way that he had envisioned starting the workweek.
Shifting the sunglasses to the top of his head, he read the name off the woman’s driver’s license, Jill Rigby Cowan. Her home address wasn’t far from here, only a couple miles south in the Canyon Creek subdivision.
Brady let out a sigh of exasperation. How a woman could be snatched in broad daylight, while so many people moved freely across the lot, baffled him?
Once he got back to his office, he’d make his fifth call to FBI Special Agent Steve Casani in Waco. He wondered if maybe Casani ought to rent an apartment down here.
Casani had recommended Brady call Special Agent Rich Dunbar with the Behavioral Analysis Team Four out of Quantico. Team Four worked exclusively on cases involving missing adults where foul play was suspected.
The supervisory crime scene tech, Curtis Killebrew, stopped next to Brady. “Hey. You still with us?”
Brady blinked and took in a breath. “Find anything?” He grimaced when Killebrew glanced at him.
“Not yet. Whoever did this was smart and cunning. No trace evidence anywhere around the vehicle.”
Brady scrubbed a hand over his face. “Wonderful.”
“I’m here to serve,” Killebrew replied before wandering off.
Brady scanned the growing crowd. “Somebody witnessed this.”
A tow truck maneuvered in front of the Toyota. Department policy required that the vehicle be towed down to the police department and, after a warrant was issued, the technicians would search and process the vehicle for any trace evidence, prints, or other items useful for a DNA exam.
But Brady had serious doubts that anything useful would be found. He dropped the license into an evidence bag and strode over to Sergeant Anthony Wilkes, the patrol supervisor. “Any witnesses?”
“One.” Wilkes turned and gave a chin nod toward a heavy-set woman pushing forty. “She’s the one who called it in. She saw a vehicle leaving from a space next to this sedan.”
Brady gazed in the direction of a group of women standing nearby. “Which one exactly?”
Wilkes pointed. “The one with the purple streaks in her hair.”
“She have a name?”
Brady ducked under the yellow crime scene tape and flashed his ID at Birdie. He motioned for her to follow him away from the group. When they were far enough away, he flipped open a pocket notebook. “Tell me what you saw.”
“A white van drove off from right next to that car and went that way.” She pointed south on Thirty-First Street. “I think it left out from the space on the left side of the car.”
“What time did you see it?”
“Oh…a little after nine.”
“Did you happen to see the driver of the van?”
“No. I was pushing my cart from the store so I just saw the back of it and saw the car.”
“Something in particular?”
“Yeah.” She pointed at the Toyota. “The open door. When I got closer, I saw the purse on the ground. I just knew that something bad had happened. I mean no one leaves their car door open and–”
“Did you recognize the make of the van?”
“The brand of the van. Chevy. Dodge. Ford?”
“How about its license plate number?”
She gazed down at the asphalt pavement like she was thinking then raised her eyes up. “No, I didn’t.”
“You mentioned that it went south on Thirty-First Street. Did it leave in a hurry?”
“If you’re asking if it peeled out, no,” she said.
After getting her contact information, he handed her his business card. Brady gritted his teeth and peered off into the distance. No ransom demands had been made for the first four women so he ruled out a kidnapping-extortion theory. Informants that he had contacted hadn’t come up with anything. There was one snitch that he’d been unable to find. If there was anything out there to uncover, that guy could do it.
“Anybody else see anything?” Brady asked Wilkes as he headed for his unit.
“I’ll let you know if I come across anyone else,” the sergeant said while writing notes on a large notepad.
“I’m going over to the Cowan house and talk to her family,” Brady said as he checked his watch.
A young girl in her late teens with an acne problem answered the door at the Cowan home. Next to her stood a small dog, more bark than bite. When Brady introduced himself, the girl twisted a ring on her forefinger. “A detective? Here?”
Brady looked past her into the interior of the house. “Is Mr. Cowan here?”
“No, sir, he’s at work.”
He flipped the notebook open. “What’s your name?”
“Tina Smitherman. Why? Has something happened?” A twinge of fear resonated in her voice.
“Are you related to the Cowans?” he asked.
“I’m babysitting their son.” She twisted the ring faster and cast a sidelong glance over her shoulder. “Jamie.” She glanced at Brady then down at his notepad. “His mom should be back any minute. She went to the store.”
Tina’s brow furrowed. “Is something wrong?”
If he told her Jill Cowan was missing and presumed kidnapped, the young girl might freak out. “This is an open investigation so I can’t comment. So if you would, go ahead and describer her for me.”
“Sure. She’s got blonde hair down to here.” Tina touched her shoulder. “A white tanktop and, um…denim shorts.”
“Do you have a phone number for Mr. Cowan?”
“Umm, sure.” Tina took a step back and unlocked the screen door. “Would you like to come in?”
Brady nodded. “Thank you.”
He opened the screen door and walked into the foyer. An old-fashioned roll-top desk sat against the wall, opposite the door. He saw Tina disappear around the corner.
He stepped into a nicely furnished living room. A freckle-faced boy sat on the floor in front of the table, playing with Matchbox cars, seemingly oblivious to Brady’s presence. Guessing his age to be about five, he watched the boy push a red car across the shiny wood floor.
A couple of minutes later, Tina returned with a slip of paper and handed it to Brady. “That’s his cell number.”
Brady flipped open his cell phone and punched in the number. Then he walked back outside. No need for the son and the babysitter to hear this.
After seven rings, a sleepy-sounding man answered. “It’s midnight. Who’s calling?”
“Is this Ben Cowan?”
“Yeah. Who’s this?”
“Mr. Cowan, my name is Matt Brady. I’m a detective with the Temple Police. I’d like to visit with you about your wife, Jill. Where are you now?”
“Jill?” Cowan’s voice rose up several octaves. “Is she okay?”
“I’m at your house now. Where are you?”
“Tokyo.” His questions came rapid-fire. “Is Jamie okay? Where’s Jill? What happened?”
Brady summarized what he knew before asking questions. “Did either of you have any enemies? Anybody who had a grudge?”
Cowan said nothing for a moment. “A couple of former co-workers were kind of pissed at me, and maybe a neighbor. But none of them would do anything to Jill.”
The theory of a staged abduction lurked in the back of his mind. “Any reason your wife might leave on her own?”
“Leave? Like leave Jamie and me? No, no way.”
“Was she employed outside the home?”
“Yes, at the Samuelson Veterinary Clinic.”
Brady perused his notes to make sure he had not missed anything.
“Look, Detective, can we discuss this tomorrow?” His voice cracked with emotion. “I really need to get to the airport now.”
“Sure. I’ll leave a contact number with your babysitter.”
After ending the call, he walked over to the boy. Jamie was a cute kid. Sandy-brown hair with blue eyes and freckles scattered across his nose and cheeks.
Brady squatted down next to him. “I wished I had cars like these when I was your age.”
Jamie glanced at him. “My daddy got these for me.” He held up a dark green car. “This is like my daddy’s car.” He rolled the toy car a short distance on the floor then crawled on all fours after it.
“How old are you?”
Jamie glanced at him and held up four fingers on one hand and one on the other before rolling the red car along the floor again.
Brady went back to his office, a blue cubicle with a window overlooking the rear of the Bell County Courthouse Annex.
He sat down and entered Jill Cowan’s information into the Texas Crime Information Center and the National Crime Information Center along with description of the white van. He also plugged Jill’s data into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, database.
He studied the large poster board hanging on the wall across from his cubicle. In the upper left corner was a map of Temple with four blue pins marking the locations of each disappearance. To the right of the map were driver’s license photos of the first four women. Now he needed one for Jill.
He made three phone calls. The first was to Agent Rich Dunbar in Quantico. He left a message as well as his email address.
The second call went to Casani. Brady left a quick summary of the fifth kidnapping on voicemail. Then he punched in the cell number for his girlfriend, Cassandra Evans Cassandra worked for the Driver’s License Division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. “How’s work?”
“Busy. I think every kid at Temple High School showed up today for their driving test. I’m swamped with grading them, collecting fees, and doing the paperwork. This afternoon I have to schedule road test candidates for the troopers. How are you doing?”
“We had another woman taken. Off the H-E-B parking lot.”
“Oh no. That’s what…four, five? Any leads on who’s doing it?”
“Five and I’m looking for a white van.”
“A white one? So you do have a witness?”
“Not a reliable one.”
“At least it’s a witness.”
“I need a favor.”
“What? Another driver’s license photo?”
“Yeah. Jill Rigby Cowan. Her date of birth is–”
“Sweetie, I don’t need that anymore. Let me pull her up.”
A short silence.
“Hmm. I can see why someone kidnapped her. She’s very pretty. I wish I had hair like hers. Okay, one photo on its way to you. You owe me.”
“Fair enough. Lunch? Say where and when.”
“Tomorrow at eleven? How about that cafe you guys go to?”
“It’s a date.”
After ending the call, Brady went back to studying the investigation board. On an attractiveness scale of one to ten, he pegged each one of them at a ten. All were in their early or mid-twenties. Of the five disappearances, Beverly Masters, Carolyn Jackson, and Moira Cavazos were single and could have conceivably gone off with a new acquaintance. Photographs of Master’s briefcase and her BMW were pinned under her picture. If she’d have walked off into the sunset, why leave her briefcase and that pricey BMW on the parking lot?
Next to Masters was the photo of Doctor Pamela Rooker. She could conceivably have skipped town with a secret lover, but from what he had gleaned from her family and friends, she was a newlywed and very happy. She owned a thriving OBGYN practice. Nobody in their right mind would leave all that, he surmised. Directly under her picture was one of a Nashbar road bike lying in the weeds on Midway Drive. According to a local bike shop, that model of Nashbar sold for around five hundred dollars.
Based on family and co-workers, Jackson and Cavazos had no real ties here so they could have left town anytime they wanted.
Hearing the ‘beep’ of an incoming email, Brady turned to his laptop. One email: a photo attachment from Cassandra, reminding him about their lunch date. He printed out Jill’s driver’s license picture and pinned it on the board along with a Stick ’Em note with the words White Van.
When he heard the rapping sound and the “Hey, dude,” he looked back.
Detective Stan Hoffman stood there, eating a Devil Dog straight out of the package with a Coke in the other hand. The man’s pants appeared as if they had been trampled by a herd of cattle.
Brady scoffed. Hoffman always had food stuffed in his mouth. He leaned back in his chair and appraised the size of Hoffman’s protruding gut. “All that cholesterol is going to kill you if you don’t ease up.”
Hoffman inspected the board, taking a bite from the cake. “Any luck finding those women?”
“If I did, you think that board would still be there?”
Hoffman stuffed the remainder of the Devil Dog into his mouth and reached back with his free hand, shooting Brady the bird. He stepped from one picture to the next. “What do you think, kidnapped or a serial at work?”
“No ransom demands. No bodies found.”
“Then every one of these chicks is brothel-bound,” Hoffman said, wiping crumbs from the corner of his mouth.
“Maybe.” It was a fact that Brady suspected but didn’t want to admit. Brothels moved their women from place to place. It meant finding them would be that much harder.
Hoffman plopped down in one of Brady’s extra chairs. “Ever hear about those underground cathouses in LA?”
Brady gave Hoffman a thoughtful look. “Or a massage parlor.” He turned around to enter data into the case file. “Or in a thousand other places.”
“You still dating that brunette chick from DPS? What’s her name again?”
“Cassandra. And yes, I am.”
Hoffman got up and walked out of the cubicle. He pointed at the board. “If you need me to show you how to work these, let me know.”
Ignoring Hoffman’s comment, Brady kept working on the case reports. Beverly’s co-workers called the police when she failed to show for a staff meeting and after a city employee found her briefcase in the parking lot. Brady assumed she still had her cell phone with her and hoped a call would be made from it so its location could be triangulated. But, so far, nothing.
He’d uploaded the phone’s description and its electronic identification number into the TCIC and NCIC databases. The cell carrier agreed to notify him if and when that cell phone was used.
The next three women had vanished in two-week intervals. Pam was number two. Crime scene techs found nothing on her bicycle or in the immediate area.
Carolyn’s car was located by uniformed officers at Temple Lions Park near the picnic pavilion. According to her roommate, Carolyn always went there to jog in the evening three times a week.
Moira was last seen when she left work late to go to her car and head home. Her car was still parked at her office, still locked, and parked in her assigned slot. The only other lead he had was that each disappearance occurred either at shift change or when the district car had been dispatched on a call. He had checked the dispatched calls, wondering if they were decoys. Three were bogus calls but the other two seemed legit.
Just like Jill Cowan. No trace evidence. No contact from any kidnapper. No ransom demand. If Jill’s kidnappers were the same as the ones for the other four, there’d be no demand. He had hoped for solid leads from citizens but what he got were a truckload of rabbit trails.
Sitting there, he eyeballed the streets around the H-E-B, theorizing the route the van likely took from the lot. Since no police or sheriff’s units in Bell County had found the van, he checked routes out of the county. The myriad of highways and back roads were just too numerous. Plus he knew there was no way supervisors would authorize patrol units to stop and check every white van they saw.
© 2013 by Alan Brenham
“…a rock-solid thriller…multiple scenes of nail-biting intensity…First-rate crime fiction…” ~ Kirkus Reviews
Midwest Book Review:
“Cornered may be set in modern Texas and deal with human trafficking; but that’s too simple a description. In actuality Matt [the main character] is a human being facing all the uncertainties and questions that make his detective work a challenge and a pleasure, and these qualms drive his personality and efforts throughout. It’s a real pleasure to see the humanity that Matt embodies as he embarks upon the search of his life – and to join him in piecing together the few clues that comprise one of the most challenging cases of his life…It’s rare to see a protagonist who struggles with so many ideas and encounters simultaneously: in reality Matt is a juggler, keeping all the balls in the air but with a satisfying uncertainty that reflects his humanity and self-doubt. The villains here – Weaver and Chiles – are equally well drawn and as the story shifts perspective between detective and perps, readers gain full vision of the motivations and actions of each…Add a surprise twist to the ending and you have a mystery/thriller combo that reaches its crescendo in a flight to redemption and romance, concluding with new possibilities for all who survive the final confrontation. In short, a mystery/thriller that is steady and gripping throughout: just the ticket for readers who seek something more complex in their detective reading.” ~ Midwest Book Reviews READ FULL REVIEW
“Alan Brenham’s Cornered is a taunt thriller filled with murderous twists and turns that will satisfy readers who love good crime fiction. As a cop and a lawyer, Brenham has been there and done that and, in this, his second outing, the authenticity of his storytelling ability continues to shine through.” – Michael McGarrity, New York Times Bestselling Author of Hard Country & Backlands
“With nail-biting suspense reminiscent of your favorite Criminal Minds episode, Cornered dives into the dark world of human trafficking and criminal investigation while exploring just how far one man will go to stop history from repeating itself. Personal and professional relationships entangle while brilliant twists and turns keep readers guessing until the very end. Brenham adds a sense of rawness to his writing that comes from having served as a law enforcement officer and then criminal defense attorney for twenty-seven years. The setting of Cornered is notably personal to him, as it is the same city he served as a police officer for much of his career.” READ FULL REVIEW
“Fascinating, well-researched thriller. This stuff really goes on.” ~ James Hayman, USA Today Bestselling Author of Darkness First
“A brilliantly written, compelling crime thriller, action packed, clever…guaranteed to keep the reader guessing until the very end.” ~ Susan Keefe, Susan’s Shelf
IP Book Reveiws:
“…a realistic and riveting crime drama…this novel is a must read…” ~ Christopher Ackerman, IP Book Reviews
“Cornered looks like another winner…There’s enough violence here, enough sex, enough smarts, and plenty of intertwining subplots to keep a lover of detective fiction on the edge.” ~ Palmetto Review