Excerpt from Her Last Breath by Linda Castillo, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Her Last Breath

A Kate Burkholder Novel

by Linda Castillo

Her Last Breath
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2013, 320 pages
    Jul 2014, 320 pages

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I call out to him. "Andy, are you hurt?"

He looks up at me, as if wondering why I would ask him such a thing. "No."

"How many in the buggy? Did you check?" I'm on my feet and looking around for more passengers, when I spot another victim.

I don't hear Andy's response as I start toward the Amish man lying on the grassy shoulder. He's in a prone position with his head turned to one side. He's wearing a black coat and dark trousers. I try not to look at the ocean of blood that has soaked into the grass around him or the way his left leg is twisted with the foot pointing in the wrong direction. He's conscious and watches me approach with one eye.

I kneel at his side. "Everything's going to be okay," I tell him. "You've been in an accident. I'm here to help you."

His mouth opens. His lips quiver. His full beard tells me he's married, and I wonder if his wife is lying somewhere nearby.

I set my hand on his. Cold flesh beneath my fingertips. "How many other people on board the buggy?"

"Three … children."

Something inside me sinks. I don't want to find any more dead children. I pat his hand. "Help is on the way."

His gaze meets mine. "Katie…"

The sound of my name coming from that bloody mouth shocks me. I know that voice. That face. Recognition impacts me solidly. It's been years, but there are some things—some people—you never forget. Paul Borntrager is one of them. "Paul." Even as I say his name, I steel myself against the emotional force of it.

He tries to speak, but ends up spitting blood. I see more on his teeth. But it's his eye that's so damn difficult to look at. One is gone completely; the other is cognizant and filled with pain. I know the person trapped inside that broken body. I know his wife. I know at least one of his kids is dead, and I'm terrified he'll see that awful truth in my face.

"Don't try to talk," I tell him. "I'm going to check the children."

Tears fill his eye. I feel his stare burning into me as I rise and move away. Quickly, I sweep my beam along the ground, looking for victims. I'm aware of sirens in the distance and relief slips through me that help is on the way. I know it's a cowardly response, but I don't want to deal with this alone.

I think of Paul's wife, Mattie. A lifetime ago, she was my best friend. We haven't spoken in twenty years; she may be a stranger to me now, but I honestly don't think I could bear it if she died here tonight.

Mud sucks at my boots as I cross the ditch. On the other side, I spot a tiny figure curled against the massive trunk of a maple tree. A boy of about four years of age. He looks like a little doll, small and vulnerable and fragile. Hope jumps through me when I see steam rising into the cold night air. At first, I think it's vapor from his breath. But as I draw closer I realize with a burgeoning sense of horror that it's not a sign of life, but death. He's bled out and the steam is coming from the blood as it cools.

I go to him anyway, kneel at his side, and all I can think when I look at his battered face is that this should never happen to a child. His eyes and mouth are open. A wound the size of my fist has peeled back the flesh on one side of his head.

Sickened, I close my eyes. "Goddammit," I choke as I get to my feet.

I stand there for a moment, surrounded by the dead and dying, overwhelmed, repulsed by the bloodshed, and filled with impotent anger because this kind of carnage shouldn't happen and yet it has, in my town, on my watch, and there's not a damn thing I can do to save any of them.

Trying hard to step back into myself and do my job, I run my beam around the scene. A breeze rattles the tree branches above me and a smattering of leaves float down. Fingers of fog rise within the thick underbrush and I find myself thinking of souls leaving bodies.

Copyright© 2013 by Linda Castillo

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