Kylie Brant  

Current Excerpts

Deadly Intent

Prologue

She could hear him breathing.

Icy talons of fear shredded the fabric of sleep and brought Ellie Mulder instantly awake. Old habits had her keeping her muscles lax, her eyes still closed as she strained to identify what had alerted her. When she did, her blood ran as cold as the frigid Colorado wind beating against the windows.

The sound was the same snuffle snort that warned her whenever he was coming for her. He’d returned, just like he’d threatened. He’d snatch her from her bed, from her house and this time, she’d never get away. Not ever.

Her eyes snapped open, a scream lodged in her throat. The old terrors were surging, fighting logic, fueled by memory. It took a moment to see through the veils of the past and notice her familiar surroundings.

She was home. In her room. In her bed. And Art Cooper wasn’t here. He would die in prison.

A long sigh of relief shuddered out of her. The bright illumination of the alarm clock on her bedside table said one-eighteen A.M. The sleep scene on her computer lit the corner of the room that held her desk. And the large aquarium on the opposite wall was awash in a dim glow. She often ‘forgot’ to turn it off.

The items had been chosen because of the light they afforded. Her mom and dad had worried when she’d needed doors open and lights blazing to go to bed at night. But they’d been happy when she’d casually mentioned wanting a computer. Had expressed an interest in tropical fish. Had selected things to decorate her bedroom like the brightly lit alarm clock. Those things were normal, the psychologist said. And Ellie knew it was important that she seem normal. Even if it was a lie.

The slight noise sounded again and she tensed, her hand searching for the scissors she kept on the bedside table. But even as her fingers gripped the handle, her mind identified the sound. It was the gurgle of water in the overflow box for the aquarium. Not Cooper’s asthmatic breathing.

The realization relaxed her, but she didn’t replace the scissors. She kept them clutched in her hand and brought them close to her chest, the feel of the small weapon comforting. Learning her daughter slept with a knife under her pillow had made her mother cry. So Ellie pretended not to need that anymore.

She had become very good at pretending.

So good that her mom and dad had been thrilled with her new interest in Kirigami several months ago. She’d heard the psychologist tell them that the act of creating, of folding and cutting paper into pretty shapes would be very therapeutic for her. So there was never any fuss about the constant paper scraps on the floor. Fresh supplies appeared on her desk without her ever having to request them.

Only she knew that the new hobby was an excuse to keep a sharp pair of scissors with her at all times. And the psychologist was right. That part, at least, was very therapeutic.

The initial flare of panic had ebbed. She listened to the blizzard howl outside the windows and found the noise oddly soothing. Bit by bit she felt herself relax. Her eyelids drooped.

She had the half formed thought that she needed to replace the scissors before her mom came in the next morning to check on her. But sleep was sucking her under, and her limbs were unresponsive.

It was then that he pounced.

The weight hit her body, jolting her from exhaustion back to alarm in the span of seconds. She felt the hand clamped over her mouth, the prick of a needle in her arm and fear lent her strength beyond her years. Rearing up in bed, she flailed wildly, trying to wrest away, trying to strike out. She tasted the stickiness of tape over her lips. Felt a hood being pulled over her head.

There was a brief flare of triumph when the scissors met something solid, and a hiss of pain sounded in her ear. But then her hand was bent back, the weapon dropping from her fingers and numbness started sliding over her body. She couldn’t move. The hood prevented her from seeing. A strange buzzing filled her head.

As she felt herself lifted and carried away, her only thought was that she was being taken.

Again.

Chapter 1

The sleek black private jet sat waiting, it’s motors idling. It looked impatient somehow, looming dark and silent in the shadows, as if it had somehow taken on the personality of the man inside it.

Needles of sleet pricked Macy Reid’s cheeks as she hurried across the tarmac at the Manassas Regional Airport. Adam Raiker, head of Raiker Forensics and her boss, had demanded she be there within the hour. Her home in Vienna, Virginia was nearly twenty miles from the airport. Since the usual D.C. traffic was light at four A.M., she’d made it in less than forty-five minutes.

An attendant took her suitcases and stowed them for her as she wiped the frigid moisture from her cheeks and made her way up the steps to the aircraft. Her satisfaction at arriving early dissipated when she recognized the man seated in the roomy black leather seat next to her boss. Kellan Burke. Fellow forensic investigator. And the man she’d been avoiding for months.

Her stomach gave one quick lurch before she ordered it to settle. She gave Raiker a nod. “Adam.” She spared barely a glance to the other man as she chose the free seat next to her boss and buckled in. “Burke.”

“The inimitable duchess Macy.” Kellan gave her a sleepy smile that she knew better than to trust. “Been awhile since we’ve been paired on an investigation. Miss me?”

“Like a case of foot rot.”

“A comeback,” he noted admiringly. “You’ve been practicing.”

She could feel a flush heating her cheeks and damned yet again the fair complexion that mirrored her emotions. Almost as much as she damned the man for being right. Experience had taught her that it paid to have a ready repertoire of witty replies if she was to spend any length of time in Burke’s presence. Unfortunately, those replies usually occurred several hours after they were required, leaving her at the crucial moment as tongue-tied and frustrated as an eight-year-old.

It also paid to have her guard up, and her hormones on a tight leash. That experience was more recent, and the memory much more devastating.

Adam pressed a button on his armrest that would alert the pilot to ready for take-off. “Any squabbling and you’ll ride in the luggage compartment. Both of you.” He leaned forward to withdraw two file folders from the pocket of his briefcase and handed one to each of them as the jet began its taxi down the runway. Macy seized it, grateful to have something else to focus on.

“Steven Mulder.” Burke was studying the first sheet inside the folder, his expression thoughtful. “Why is that name familiar?”

“Maybe because he’s the owner of the discount stores that bear his name.” Raiker’s voice was dry. “A quick Google check shows there are two thousand Mulders in the country with several hundred more operations in Europe, Asia and South America.”

The name had also struck a chord of recognition with Macy, but not for the same reason. “Steven Mulder? His daughter was one of the girls rescued when you broke that child swap ring a few years ago.” The case wasn’t one she was likely to forget. Her testimony in the case helped put one of the perpetrators behind bars. It had also brought her to Raiker’s attention.

“That’s right.” For Burke’s benefit he explained, “Ellie Mulder was seven when she was snatched while attending a friend’s birthday party. FBI took control of the investigation almost immediately. She was found incidentally when one of my cases overlapped a couple years later. I broke up a child auction and her kidnapper was among those looking for a trade-in. By that point she’d been missing twenty-two months.”

Macy’s gaze dropped to the opened folder in her lap. A moment later she froze in the act of scanning the information he’d put together for them. “She’s been abducted…again?”

“Sometime between eleven and two A. M. this morning.” Raiker’s expression was grim. “The area was having a hellacious blizzard and Ellie’s mother went in to check on her. She discovered her missing from her bed and looked around the house. Woke her husband when she didn’t find her and they searched the estate. He called me an hour after they discovered her gone.”

“But not the FBI,” Burke guessed shrewdly.

Macy caught Raiker’s gaze on her and followed it to where her fingers laid against the folder. Her fingers were beating a familiar tattoo against the surface. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. Throat drying, she deliberately stilled them and refocused her thoughts.

“The feds failed her before.” She met Raiker’s stare, knew she was right. “They had nearly two years to find her the first time. But you’re the one responsible for bringing her home to them. So her father contacted you.”

Her employer inclined his head. “If the Mulders had their way, no law enforcement would be involved at all. They’re pretty devoid of respect for LEOs after the last incident. But I convinced Steven that he has no choice but to report Ellie’s disappearance. He has a personal relationship with the governor and both Colorado U.S. senators. He’ll use his influence to bring in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation as leads.”

“Elbowing aside the local PD,” Kellan muttered, still studying the contents of the file.

“The Mulder estate is located outside Denver’s city limits. It actually falls under the jurisdiction of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office. Without proper management, this could turn into a territorial tug-of-war of monumental proportions.”

Macy considered the ramifications. Being hired by a family member rather than the investigating law enforcement entity made their appearance on the scene a bit more tenuous. In a case like this, suspicion fell first on the family and those in closest proximity to the child. The CBI would worry that their allegiance to Mulder would take precedence over their commitment to teamwork. Without Raiker running interference, they could be shut out of the investigative end of things almost completely. He was going to have his plate full handling the politics of this one.

She glanced at Burke. Found him watching her through a pair of trendy dark framed glasses that were new since the last time she’d seen him. “They’re going to want to bring in their own people.”

“Of course. But it’s my job to convince them they don’t have anyone who can match the experience the two of you bring. Don’t make a liar out of me.”

It took her a moment to realize Raiker was joking. It was always difficult to tell with him. “You’ve checked on Cooper’s whereabouts?”

“Art Cooper is still in prison in Sussex, fulfilling his thirty year sentence for the kidnap and rape of Ellie Mulder.”

“And. . .the others?” It took all her resolve not to fidget under the shrewd look Raiker aimed her way.

“All accounted for, still inside serving their sentences.”

She wouldn’t have asked. Couldn’t have formed the words. But in the next moment he added deliberately, “Castillo has been bounced around some. He’s currently housed at Terre Haute in Indiana.”

“So are we looking at the original group you rounded up in that first case?” Burke demanded. “Do any of them have the jones to reach out this way from prison?”

“Every avenue will need to be explored.” Adam outstretched his injured leg, nudging aside the cane he was never without. “We can’t afford to overlook the possibility that Ellie’s disappearance this time is somehow connected to that first kidnapping. I’ll line up the interviews for each with the prison wardens and make personal visits.”

There was a sick knot of dread settling in the pit of Macy’s stomach. With an ease born of long practice, she pushed it aside and looked at her boss. “And then we have to decide who the real target of this crime is. Ellie Mulder, or her father.”

There were more than a dozen SUVs and vans parked in the wide drive that looped in a half circle in front of the sprawling Mulder estate. Additionally, what looked like a black oversized ambulance set on a sixteen wheeler was pulled up next to the house. It didn’t look like Steven Mulder had been successful in limiting the scope of the LEO presence. The still heavy snowfall had already buried the vehicles under several inches of wet snow that had turned the roads here from the airport into thick puddles of slush. A drop in temperature would make them treacherous.

Macy stepped out of the SUV and scanned the grounds. They’d been detained at the iron gates at the base of the drive, more than a quarter mile back until the CBI agent posted there had scrutinized their IDs and waited for permission from someone inside to admit them. That had given her plenty of time to eye the twelve-foot stone walls that surrounded the property. The discreetly placed security cameras that topped them at regular intervals. The security station in front of the gates was meant to be manned by a live operator. If a stranger had gotten in and out of the estate undetected, he wasn’t an amateur.

The front door of the home swung open as they got out of the SUV. From the grim-faced visage of the man in the doorway, Macy knew immediately he was another CBI agent.

He waited until they’d ascended the stairs to demand their IDs again. It occurred to her that the extra precautions were a bit late. Ellie Mulder was gone.

“Assistant director Cal Whitman is waiting for you in the study with Mr. Mulder. This way.”

They were led through a marbled floor hallway that was lined with paintings and punctuated by large abstract sculptures. Macy recognized some of the artists, had no doubt the pieces were original. With Mulder’s billions, there was little he couldn’t afford. Except the one thing his money apparently couldn’t buy.

His daughter’s safety.

“Not too shabby.” Kellan said in an undertone as he strolled along at her side, casting an appraising look at the place. “What do you figure? Fifteen million? Twenty?”

“I wouldn’t know.” It was usually best to ignore Burke. But the man made it difficult. Even now she could feel his pale green eyes on her, alight, no doubt, with amusement. It seemed to be the primary emotion she elicited from him.

The hallway seemed endless. They trailed Raiker and the CBI agent who had let them in. “Pretty easy to get lost in a place this huge,” Burke said, unzipping his navy down jacket and shoving his hands in its pockets. “How long do you think it would take them to locate us?”

“Why don’t you find out?”

He gave her a lazy grin. The prism of lights from the crystals on the overhead chandeliers shot his thick brown hair with reddish glints. She’d bet money he’d been auburn haired as a youngster. And probably incorrigible even then.

“If you promise to lead the search and rescue party, I might consider it. I can imagine it now. Me, weak from lack of food, maybe injured. You, bending over me in concern, wiping my brow, the strap of your lacy camisole slipping down one satiny shoulder. . .”

She resisted an urge to smack him, which was the most frequent emotion he had on her. “Why would I lead a search and rescue mission clad in a camisole?”

His smile turned wicked. “Why indeed?”

“Burke.”

They both jumped at the crack of Raiker’s voice. He was several feet ahead of them. They’d been speaking too quietly for him to have heard. Hadn’t they? “Yeah, boss?”

“Shut up.”

He slid a sideways glance at Macy and winked at her, clearly unabashed. “Shutting up, boss.”

And those, she noted, as they were ushered into a large dark paneled room, were the most promising words she’d heard all day.

The man who rose to his feet to step toward Raiker, his hand outstretched, was immediately recognizable. Steven Mulder. He hadn’t appeared at the Castillo trial Macy had testified at, but there’d been plenty of news stories devoted to his family since his daughter’s first disappearance. He was prematurely gray, with a long lean runner’s build outfitted in a tailored suit. It’s cost likely exceeded two months of her very generous salary. As the two men clapped each other on the shoulder and leaned forward to murmur a few words, her gaze went beyond them to the men still seated behind a long polished conference table. It was easy enough to guess which one was Whitman.

The assistant director had a decade on Raiker, she estimated, which would place him in his mid-fifties. It was difficult to tell his height while he was sitting, but she’d bet well under six feet. He had a shaved head and thick neck. His ill-fitting suit pulled across his beefy chest and shoulders. When his flat brown gaze flicked over them, Macy had the impression they’d been sized up in the space of an instant. There was nothing in his expression that gave away his thoughts about their inclusion in this case.

Mulder stepped away from Raiker and inclined his head in the direction of her and Burke. “Thank you for coming. I have tremendous respect for your boss. He performed a miracle once.” There was a barely discernible break in his voice. “I’m hoping he’s got another one up his sleeve.”

“Where Raiker is concerned, achieving the impossible is a daily expectation,” Burke assured him soberly. Macy remained silent. She was always leery about issuing assurances to victim’s families. Life didn’t always come complete with happy endings.

Mulder turned away. “Assistant director Calvin Whitman,” he gestured to the man she’d pegged as CBI and then to the second man, “and my attorney and friend, Mark Alden. He’s also Ellie’s godfather.”

Alden was impeccably dressed, but his dark hair was slightly mussed, and his eyes were as red rimmed as Mulder’s. He gave them a nod but said nothing.

“Why doesn’t everyone sit down and I’ll catch you up.” Whitman waited for them to take a seat at the table. As they shrugged out of their coats, he continued. “As per Mr. Mulder’s request to the governor, I brought a small team of agents and we arrived around five-thirty. My people are completing the search of the house and beginning to go over the grounds. An Amber Alert was issued before I arrived on the scene by the governor’s office.” There was a flicker in the man’s eyes at this breach of protocol.

“I’ll be coordinating the interagency involvement on this case. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s department will handle the calls regarding the alert, and fully investigate each. I’ve been assured the DPD will extend personnel and resources if needed.”

“Has the alert elicited any calls yet?”

Whitman didn’t appear to appreciate Kell’s interruption. “There’s been no trace of the child reported so far. I have an agent taking Mrs. Mulder’s statement. The live-in help have been interviewed and the other employees contacted. Many have arrived already. We’re preparing to question them.”

“Steven just finished his statement for Agent Whitman when you arrived.” It was the first time the lawyer had spoken. “We’ll expect a copy of it, and of all the case notes, to be shared with Mr. Raiker’s team members in an expedient manner.”

The tilt of Whitman’s head could have meant anything. But it was telling, Macy thought, that he had made no verbal agreement.

Mulder obviously thought so, too. “Just so we’re clear on this, Agent.” He placed his palms on the table and leaned forward, his tone fierce. “Raiker’s unit is here with the blessing of the Colorado governor and our U.S. senators. They will be a full part of this team.” He gave a humorless smile. “I’ve been through this before. I know how it works. Althea and I are suspects until proven otherwise. So is everyone else in this house. I realize that effectively shuts me out of most of the details in this investigation. But the person I trust won’t be shut out. He’s here to be sure other aspects of the investigation don’t stall while you’re wasting your time eliminating us as suspects.” When the CBI agent would have spoken, he waved aside his protest. “I’m not waiting two years to bring my little girl home this time.”

He made a slight gesture and Alden got to his feet, as well. “I recognize there’s information that you won’t share in my presence, so Mark and I will leave now. I want to be there for Althea when they’ve finished with her.”

The room was silent as the men left, shutting the door behind them. Upon their exit, Whitman eased his bulk back in is chair and eyed Raiker. “Your inclusion here puts us in a dilemma. You have to realize that.”

“The thing about dilemmas is they always have solutions.” Adam’s voice was no less steely. “Consider those solutions, Agent. You can’t afford not to utilize us.”

The other man rubbed the folds at the back of his neck. “You have to. . .” He paused them, seemed to choose his words more carefully. “I’m suggesting that you avoid any conflict of interest by waiting for my people to complete the search of the premises. So far, this floor has been cleared. I’ve got a crime scene responders’ unit going over the girl’s room right now.”

“And once they’re done, we have free access to the property and copies of any and all reports as they’re formulated.” Raiker clearly knew how to play the game. “My people will be included in all briefings and task assignments.”

“The information is a two way street.” The agent looked at Macy and Kellan, making no attempt to mask his expression now that Mulder had gone. The man was plainly unhappy with their presence. “If I learn that you’ve withheld something from me, you’re off the case and I’Il have you detained for obstruction.”

Macy noted Raiker’s fingers clenching around the intricately carved knob of his cane. It was his only sign of temper. His voice, when it came, was silky. “Threats are the realm of the unimaginative. You’ve got some very powerful people lined up behind Steven Mulder. They were summoned because the investigation into the previous kidnapping of Ellie Mulder went nowhere.”

“And you were the superstar there. Yeah, I got that.” Curiously, the squaring off seemed to have eased something in the other man. “I knew your rep when you were with the bureau.” His gaze lingered on Raiker then, as if taking in the eye patch and the scars on his throat and hands. “Got another earful about your outfit from my director. As long as we understand each other, I think we ought to get along well enough.”

His gaze traveled between her and Burke. “Which of you is the forensic linguist?”

“I am.”

His gaze settled on Macy then. “We don’t have a ransom note. At least nothing’s been found yet. But if the offender is going to reach out, I’d expect it to be fairly soon. Give him time to see the girl secured and then turn his attention to the next matter.”

“I have a few contacts in the penal department.” Macy was certain Adam’s words were a gross understatement. The man seemed to know people everywhere. “Everyone scooped up in that last case where Ellie was rescued is accounted for in his respective prison.”

“And there’s no one else out there that maybe slipped by you guys?” The gibe was nearly hidden in Whitman’s words. “How can you be sure you got everyone affiliated with that case?”

Raiker lifted a shoulder. “I had no reason to suspect otherwise, but anything is possible. That’s why I’m arranging another round of interviews with each suspect involved. I’ve got phone calls in to each warden to set them up.”

“Video?”

“In person.”

The special agent grunted. “That’ll save us some serious time and manpower.”

“When will we have access to the scene? And the rest of the house?”

Macy caught the barely discernible note of frustration in Kell’s voice. She seconded it. As private forensics consultants, it was rare to be called in on a fresh crime scene. This was one of the quickest callouts she’d ever participated in, and they were effectively being shut away from the scene for several more hours, if not longer.

“When the crime scene evidence recovery unit is finished. It’ll be evening at the earliest. Until then, you can participate in the interviews of the employees. They’ve already started and will probably take us most of the day.”

“How many people are we talking about?”

Whitman glanced down at a sheet of paper in front of him. But before he could answer Macy’s question, Adam said, “Mulder employs over thirty full and part-time employees in the winter months. That would include the daughter’s teacher and various instructors; piano, dance, whatnot.”

“How many live on the grounds?”

“None live in the house,” the special agent said, “but the teacher has an apartment over one of the garages. A mechanic, two stable hands and a couple groundskeepers have places above various other outbuildings. Everyone else lives offsite.” He consulted his notes again. “Half a dozen security officers, six maids, two drivers, three cooks, one personal assistant—a sort of secretary to Mrs. Mulder--a hairdresser, masseuse. . .it’s like a damn village around here.”

“And how many of those people were on the grounds yesterday?” Kell asked.

“In addition to the family there were thirty on the property at some point.” He lifted a shoulder. “A few never made it in because of the weather. Others left early. All have been notified that they’re wanted in for questioning. About three quarters have arrived so far. A couple business associates were on the property yesterday, too, as Mulder was working from home. His lawyer, Mark Alden, who you met. Lance Spencer, the firm’s accountant and Tessa Amundson, Mr. Mulder’s executive secretary. By his account, which was verified by Alden, they worked through lunch and dinner, with everyone departing by seven-thirty.”

“You would have looked at the tapes first,” Macy noted. She wondered if the agent had been getting to that or if he wouldn’t have brought it up if she hadn’t asked. “They’ve got live video feed, right? That means a security station inside the property with someone manning the cameras. Something had to have shown up on them.”

“Nothing that we’ve found yet. But we’ve only been at it a couple hours. I’ve got some of the best techs in the agency going over that feed. Whatever is there, we’ll find it.”

“How many of the security officers have arrived?”

Macy shot Kell an approving glance. They were on the same page. Right now, she was most interested in the interviews of the security officers. One of them had to know something or at least have intriguing ideas. No one knew the ins and outs of the estate’s safety precautions better.

“Two were on site when we got here. All but one of the others has arrived.”

“Tell us about the security specs.” Raiker had assumed a careless slouch. Macy recognized that the position relieved the cramps that frequently seized his leg. She knew better than to call attention to it.

“Well, you saw the twelve foot walls around the perimeter,” Whitman said dryly. “The grounds are secured by cameras mounted every seventy feet, and motion detectors. Two criteria are required for an alarm to sound—pixel change on the camera and motion on the sensors. The guard station is manned twenty-four seven. Gates don’t open without keycard ID and thumbprint identification. Then the vehicles and their undercarriages are inspected before they’re allowed through. The same procedure is followed when exiting.”

Raiker’s voice was sharp. “But the guard out front has override powers.”

“No. Override can only be done from the inside. But we’ve found no record of that yesterday. We’re looking deeper.”

Burke was exuding impatience. In a corner of her mind Macy was slightly disturbed to realize she knew the man well enough to read him so well. But his emotion mirrored her own. “Let’s get to those interviews then,” she said. “Starting with Mulder’s security team.” There didn’t appear to be any way to get on to the estate without security knowing about it.

Which meant one of the members of the team may have been involved in Ellie’s kidnapping.

“You’ve got people out there looking, right?” Chief of Security Ben Cramer folded his arms across his massive chest, his midnight gaze unwavering. “While you’re wasting your time on us, the trail’s going to shit. Whoever snatched the kid could have her out of the state while you sit here with your thumbs up your asses. We’re paid damn well to keep the family safe. My team’s the last place you ought to be looking.”

“You’re head of Mulder’s security.” CBI agent in charge Dan Travis ignored the man’s question, and his insult. “You know the specifications better than anyone else. What’s the weakness in the system?”

“There isn’t one.” Cramer’s response was immediate. “With all the checks and balances in place, there’s no way an unauthorized individual can come on the grounds, waltz in the house, grab the kid and get out again. I have a team of six rotating through twenty-four hour security; two man shifts of twelve hours each, three days a week.”

Travis looked ponderous as he did some mental math. “That leaves you with a couple men two days short for their full week.”

“Which gives us extra hands to deal with vacations and for those times Mr. Mulder requires personal protection. You think we’re a bunch of novices here? I provided security for every major U.S. diplomat to visit Iraq during the first couple years of the war. I earned my chops dodging roadside bombs, not pushing papers.”

“No system is flawless,” Macy put in crisply. Cramer’s attitude wasn’t totally unexpected, since it reflected that of the other men they’d interviewed from his team. “The girl is gone. Either an intruder entered the estate--”

“—Impossible,” the man interjected.

“—or someone known to her carried her away. Either way, there should be video of it.”

Cramer’s gaze traveled from one of them to the other. “I’m guessing if you’d found it you wouldn’t be wasting time talking to me.”

“The fact that we haven’t discovered anything on the cameras should worry you, Cramer.” Travis leaned forward, his square jaw tight. “Either there’s a major flaw in the system—which, as head of security, you should have discovered—or the video feed was disrupted in some way, which again, should have been foreseen.”

Cramer gave a short caustic laugh. “If you think every possible turn of events can be anticipated, you’ve been in your ivory tower too long.”

“That’s exactly what we’re talking about.” Macy eyed the two men cautiously. They looked like a couple strange dogs, snarling and snapping at each other, readying to lunge. “She didn’t just vanish into thin air. Whether you want to admit it or not, there was some sort of security breakdown. Your team is obviously best acquainted with the specs of the system. Either one of them is involved, or there was a huge failure of some sort. Convince us of which it was.”

The other man hesitated, as if seeing the trap in her words. Finally he ran a hand over his graying buzzed hair and said guardedly, “There are always improvements that can be made.”

“Such as?”

He flicked a look at the CBI agent, but Travis remained silent, apparently willing for Macy to take the lead for the moment. “I suggested several times to Mr. Mulder that there should be cameras inside the house. A couple men posted in here. He always refused. Said he wanted to keep his daughter safe but didn’t want her to feel like she was a prisoner anymore.”

Macy’s skin prickled. Of course, Cooper would have had some sort of surveillance monitoring the girl while he’d kept her captive. He’d continued to work and socialize, to volunteer at a local soup kitchen and serve as a lector in his church. Although she didn’t know all the details of that case, she imagined he’d kept the child locked up. Maybe used a computer and web cam to keep track of her throughout the day.

It was understandable that her father wouldn’t have wanted any reminders of that surveillance for his daughter when she was returned home.

“What else?”

Cramer lifted a shoulder. “Isn’t it enough? I pointed out that if we allowed people access—repairmen, caterers—maybe one stays behind. Hides in the house. Place is big as a fortress. He bides his time, maybe fills his pockets. Maybe plans an assault. So Mr. Mulder took other precautions. They never entertain here, always in their penthouse in the city without the kid around. And anyone let in from the outside like that, a couple of my men are allowed to accompany them inside. Stay with them the entire time and then escort them back out to their vehicle again.”

“The log doesn’t show any outside access for the last nine weeks,” Agent Travis pointed out.

Cramer shrugged again. With his yard wide shoulders, he could have doubled as a linebacker. “There isn’t much traffic through here. Mr. Mulder, he’s careful about bringing anyone new on the property. Takes months just to get security clearance on new employees.”

Prisons could have different walls. It occurred to Macy that Ellie Mulder had been just as much a captive here as she’d been with Cooper. Raiker had mentioned a teacher living on the premises. Apparently the child wasn’t even allowed to attend school, for fear of risking her safety.

“Anything like that, the exterior cameras still would have picked up the guy exiting the house,” the agent put in.

“It’s my job to point out weaknesses to the boss.” Cramer shrugged. “I was satisfied with the alternate precautions we put in place. But you asked about flaws. That’s the only one I came across when we went over the specs before putting system in place.”

“Who has access to the security cameras and codes?”

“My men work the front gate or monitor the cameras. I’m the only one on the team with the override code.” He immediately corrected himself. “At least the first half of the set. Two code strings are necessary to override the cameras or turn them off. And I wasn’t on the property at all yesterday.”

“Who has both sets of codes?”

“Mulder. And the company that designed the system.”

Travis gave a humorless smile. “Smart guy like you, you could probably figure out a way around that second set of codes and circumvent the system at a time of your choosing.”

The two men exchanged hard stares. “You need to talk to the security company,” Cramer snapped. “It can’t be done. That’s why it’s cutting edge. That’s why it cost nearly a half a million bucks.”

“You realize you’ve just indicated Steven Mulder is the only person who could have gotten his daughter off this estate without any video recording of it.”

“The hell I did.” Macy thought for a moment the security chief was going to come across the table at the agent’s suggestion. “That was your scenario, remember? There’s no way in hell Mulder arranged to have his own daughter snatched. You see the lengths the man went to in order to protect her?”

“Yeah, everything’s impossible, according to you.” Temper was leaking through Travis’s formally professional tone. “Except the girl’s gone. And you’re sitting here trying to convince us it couldn’t happen. Not with you at the security helm. Well, if that’s true, how the hell did she get off the property?”

“Maybe she didn’t.”

Macy’s gaze flew up; distracted momentarily from the notes she was scribbling about the interview. “What do you mean?”

Cramer jerked his head toward the CBI agent. “His outfit couldn’t find their asses with an extra set of hands. Since me and my men weren’t allowed to help search, I’m not convinced she isn’t still in the house somewhere.”

“You have some spots you suggest we check out?” The agent’s tone was silky.

Cramer didn’t take the bait. “Oh you probably looked real hard at the places a kid’s body could be stashed. We’ve got two feet of snow outside. She could be anywhere on the grounds. Or in the house. Trouble with you guys is you don’t look for the unexpected.”

“Maybe you’d like to—”

Fed up with the two men, Macy interrupted Travis. “What aren’t we looking for?”

For a minute she thought the security chief wouldn’t answer. He seemed to be having a difficult time contemplating whether it was worth it to take a swing at the CBI agent. Then after several long moments he broke eye contact with the other man to look at her.

“Like I say, they’re looking for a spot big enough to hide a kid.” The man’s expression didn’t change, but his eyes went bleak. “Maybe you ought to be searching smaller spots. Just big enough to hide pieces of her.”

back to Current Releases

Deadly Dreams

Chapter 1

The figure did a macabre dance as flames leapt to engulf it. Screams knifed through the night shadows, hideous and agonizing. The smell of gasoline lingered strong and heavy in the air, mingling with the stomach turning stench of seared flesh and hair. Garbled pleas for mercy interspersed the screams.

But there would be no mercy from the watcher.

Nude, he stood just close enough to feel the searing heat on his bare skin. The flames beckoned madly, enticing him to join them. Just a step closer, they seemed to hiss. Feel it. Share it. Make us one.

He withstood the furnace like blast as long as he could before moving further away, his gaze transfixed by the writhing human torch. Fire was endlessly fascinating. Unstopped, it would gild the body, melt skin, and singe bone until it was sated. By that time, the figure would be little more than charred fragments of teeth and bone. Flames purified, cleansed the act of evil until only the motivation mattered.

And no one had better motivation than him.

He flung out his arms like a preacher inciting the heavens, his form silhouetted against the brilliant glow. Justice had been a long time coming. And it couldn’t be evaded any longer.

Marisa Chandler fought through the weight of sleep in a desperate bid for consciousness. Rolling from the bed, she immediately dropped to the floor, her limbs unresponsive.

But the jolt yanked her firmly from dream to waking, and for that alone she was grateful.

A bit painfully, she pushed herself to sit upright, leaning against the side of the bed. Sweat slicked her body, as if the flames in her nightmares had emitted real heat.

It had felt real. They always did.

She took a moment to will away the shudders that still racked her body. It hadn’t been the same nightmare that had plagued her for four long months. She could give thanks for that, even as she fought to shrug off fear of what the vision might portend.

Resting her head against the mattress, she closed her eyes. Dreams like this one didn’t mean anything. Not anymore.

The recognition brought both relief and despair.

The peal of the doorbell shrilled though her thoughts. Risa opened her eyes. Thought about ignoring it. But there was faint light edging the shades over the window, heralding dawn’s approach. Her mother would have just gotten off her cleaning shift a few hours ago. She deserved the sleep.

The bell rang again insistently. Heaving herself to her feet, she padded barefoot to the door, checked the judas hole. The image of the stranger on the front porch was tiny, but she didn’t need a larger image to identify him as a plain-clothes cop. Faintly intrigued, she pulled the door open, leaving the screen door latched in case she was wrong.

Her instincts hadn’t been exactly foolproof recently.

“Marisa Chandler?”

She took her time answering, scanning first the detective shield he held up for her perusal, then, more slowly, him. Caucasian, six feet, about one-eighty, all of it muscle. Black hair and eyes. Hard jaw, uncompromising chin. Only visible identifying mark was the small crescent shaped scar above one eyebrow. And despite his lack of expression, impatience was all but bouncing off him.

“Yes.”

“Detective Nate McGuire, Philadelphia Police Department.” He slipped his shield inside his jacket. “I’m on my way to a possible crime scene. My captain passed along a request from the Chief Inspector of the Detective Bureau that I extend you an invite to ride along. In an unofficial capacity, of course.”

A chill broke out over her skin, chasing away the remnants of heat that still lingered from the nightmare. “Why would he do that?”

McGuire lifted a dark brow. “I figured you’d know.”

She shoved her heavy mass of hair from her face and shook her head. Risa hadn’t looked up any old friends from the force since coming home four months ago. Had avoided news like the plague. That hadn’t been difficult given her mother’s penchant for watching only game shows and inspirational broadcasting.

“Apparently your employer, Adam Raiker spoke to Chief Inspector Wessels about it.” His midnight dark gaze did a fast once over, clearly wondering what it was about the woman in faded yoga pants and an ancient Penn State T-shirt that would catch the attention of the head of the detectives. “So I was told to stop and ask if you’re interested. I’m asking.”

She swallowed, just managed to avoid shrinking away from the door. “No.”

He nodded, clearly not disappointed. “Sorry to wake you.” Turning, he began down the stairs, leaving her to stare after him, fingers clutching the doorjamb.

Raiker. Damn him, her boss wouldn’t leave her in peace. Wouldn’t accept what she’d already accepted herself. Guilt, well earned, had rendered her useless. To him. To his forensics consulting company. And certainly to this detective.

The small house didn’t have a driveway or garage. McGuire was halfway to the street where he’d left his ride, a discreet black Crown Vic. He moved like an athlete, his stride quick and effortless. She had the impression she’d already been forgotten as he mentally shifted gears to his first priority, his response to the call out.

“What’s the crime?” For a moment she was frozen, hardly believing the voice had come from her. She didn’t do this anymore. Hadn’t for months. Likely never would again.

But still she waited, breath held, until he hesitated, half turned to call over his shoulder, “Possible homicide. A burned corpse was found about fifteen minutes ago.”

The air clogged in her lungs. Blood stopped chugging through veins. Organs froze in suspended animation. The figure in the dream danced in her mind again, the engulfing flames spearing skyward.

But those dreams had become meaningless. Hadn’t they?

Oxygen returned in a rush. “Wait!”

McGuire had reached the car now. And he made no attempt to mask his irReneetion. “For what?”

“Give me five minutes.”

His response followed her as she turned away to dash toward the bathroom. “You’ve already used three.” So she paused only to brush her teeth, drag a comb through her hair and shove her bare feet into sneakers. Then she headed out again, snatching her coat and purse in one practiced move as she passed the closet. Risa took a moment to lock the door behind her before jogging down the steps toward his vehicle, already regretting her decision.

She didn’t do this anymore. Couldn’t do it anymore.

Which didn’t explain why her legs kept moving her in the direction of the car.

She’d barely slid inside the vehicle before he was pulling away from the curb. Shooting the detective a quick look, she pulled the door shut and reached for the seat belt. “What’s the location?”

“Body was found in a wooded area in the northern part of the city,” he said in clipped tones.

“So you’re from the Northeast Detective Division? Or the homicide unit?” She busied herself buttoning her navy jacket. It had occurred to her that the day was likely to be long and chilly. The temps had been unseasonably cool for May.

“Homicide.”

It was what he didn’t say that caught her attention. “If you’re homicide, the call must have sounded fairly certain that there was foul play involved. Or else the crime bears some resemblance to one you’re already working. Which is it?”

Dawn was spilling soft pastels across the horizon, but the interior of the car was still shadowy. Even so, she would have to be blind to miss the mutinous jut to his jaw. “What’s your story, anyway?”

His attitude managed to slice through her self-doubt and land her squarely into familiar territory. She was well acquainted with suspicious cops. They would be the one element of her job she wouldn’t miss if she left it. When she left it.

“I assume Inspector Wessels told you whatever he wanted you to know.”

The sound he made was suspiciously close to a snort. “The chief doesn’t talk to me. And Captain Morales wasn’t in the mood for details when we spoke.”

She was sidetracked by his words. “Captain Morales? Eduardo Morales?”

“Yeah. Why?”

Surprised delight filled her. “When’d he get his bars? I hadn’t heard about his promotion.” If she’d looked up old friends while she’d be in town maybe she’d have caught up on department gossip. But first she’d been focused on recovery and rehab for the physical wounds and then…the thought skittered across her mind before she had a chance to slam that mental door shut.

Then she’d been licking her emotional wounds.

“How do you know Morales?” He did a quick right on red in an effort, she suspected, to avoid waiting for the light.

“I was eight years on the force here before joining Raiker Forensics five years ago. Worked out of the Major Crimes Unit—Robbery and Burglary.” Amazing that the words would be accompanied by a tug of nostalgia. “Morales and I were tapped for special duty on a Violent Offenders task force for several months. He’s a good cop. How long have you worked with him?”

“Just a couple months.” And it was clear that he was nowhere close yet to deciding if he shared her opinion of the captain. He shot her another sidelong glance. “You don’t look like a cop.”

“Chances are if I’d been knocking at your door at the crack of dawn, you wouldn’t roll out of bed looking much like one either.” She gave him a bland smile. “Unless you sleep with your shield pinned to your. . .chest.”

Amazingly, his teeth flashed, although he didn’t shift his attention away from his driving. “So you were on the job. But not homicide. Makes me wonder why Wessels wants you tagging along for this.”

“My experience has broadened since leaving the force.” And now it was her turn to go silent and brooding. Nothing could be gained from this outing, unless it was ammunition for her ongoing argument with Raiker. She was done with this work. The only question was why her boss remained unconvinced.

Risa recognized the area of town he drove to as one that used to be the haven of young drug users who wanted a remote place to get high. But it was deserted now, save for the police presence. The crime scene unit van was parked next to an unmarked car, and there were four other black and whites nearby. They got out of the car and made their way through a heavily wooded area before entering a clearing. It looked like the scene was secured and taped off, but those details were noted with a distant part of her brain.

Her focus was fixed on the blackened corpse lying inside the police tape.

A CSU tech was snapping photographs, and another man was kneeling next to the body fiddling with a machine she couldn’t make out from here. But those observations registered only dimly. It was the victim who consumed her attention.

Because her palms had gone suddenly, inexplicably damp, she wiped them on her pants as she walked with more than a little reluctance to the scene. And wished once more that she were anywhere but here.

“Which one of you took the call?” McGuire stopped outside the tape and scanned the half dozen uniforms in the vicinity.

“That’d be us.” Two men stepped forward, both of them casting Risa a questioning gaze. One was tall and beefy, a good six inches taller than McGuire. The speaker was several inches shy of Risa’s five ten height. With his thick neck, skinny limbs and sturdy torso, he bore an unfortunate resemblance to SpongeBob, of cartoon fame. “Officer’s Tready and Lutz.” A jerk of his thumb indicated his partner as the former.

“Detective Nate McGuire. Homicide.”

The flash of Nate’s shield seemed to only partially pacify the man. He was still eyeing Risa quizzically.

“So run it down for me.” McGuire’s tone held enough of an edge that it captured Lutz’s total focus.

“The lady who found it—Heather Bixby’s her name--was out walking her dog. Wasn’t sure what it was, but the body was still smoking when she came upon it. She called 9-1-1. Tready took her statement. She’s waiting over in the car there.”

“Walking her dog in this area? Alone, while it was still dark?” Doubt dripped from McGuire’s tone as he shot a look at the car the officer had indicated. Risa seconded his disbelief. Philadelphia had dozens of parks, many of them updated with miles of paved trails. There was one within walking distance of here. While this spot, if anything, had grown seedier since her time on the force. The trees and bushes were overgrown, and it didn’t appear as if public dollars were going to be spent anytime soon on creating recreation paths for joggers.

Lutz lifted his shoulders. “That’s what she claimed, and she’s sticking with the story. Making noises about needing to get to work, so if you want to talk to her, might need to make it quick.”

“Did you see anything else? Anyone else in the area?”

This time it was Tready who spoke. His low rumbling voice matched his craggy features. “No one. But the usual freaks who hang out here would have taken off first sign of a uniform.”

Nate nodded and dug in his pocket for a card. Handed it to Lutz. “Take the other officers and canvass the nearest neighbors. Write it up and send it to me at the homicide unit.” He headed in the direction of the witness, who was sitting on the edge of the back seat in one of the squad cars, feet on the ground, with the huge brindle mastiff planted squarely between them.

Risa hesitated. No matter how much she hadn’t wanted to come, she was stuck for the moment. And following the detective took her further away from the blackened figured in the scorched grass. The distance would be welcome. She trailed after McGuire, who was already speaking to the witness.

“Mrs.,” she was correcting him, one hand on the dog’s neck. “Like I told them officers, I brought Buster out for a run. I just live over on Kellogg.”

If Risa remembered correctly, Kellogg was a street of tired row houses, in a neighborhood still clinging to a fraying aura of respectability. Of course, that had been five years ago. Things changed fast in urban centers, and north Philly had long been one of the roughest areas of the city.

“You live there alone?”

Impatience settled on the woman’s face. “I’ve been through this once already. I live with my husband. He drives truck. I work a split shift at Stacy’s Diner, on Seventeenth and Spruce, and I’m way late. Hal-that’s my boss-is going to be a total prick about it, too. So if you could write me something, maybe on police letterhead, telling him I was helping you, it would go a long way.”

“We can work something out. So you were heading to work earlier?”

Letting out a stream of breath, Bixby leaned forward to give the dog an affectionate pat. “I came to run Buster like I do every morning. My shift starts at eight, so we left the house at five or so.”

“And you always come here?”

The woman’s hesitation was infinitesimal. “In winter we stick to the sidewalks. But yeah, when it’s nice we come here sometimes.”

“Reason I ask, it’s not the best area.” McGuire seemed impervious to the morning chill in the air, although it had Marisa turning up the collar of her spring coat. “This is a known spot for drugs.”

The woman lifted a shoulder. “Users, not dealers. And not this time of day, anyway. Doesn’t matter. No one bothers me when I have Buster with me.” She gave the animal a vigorous ear rub, which had it closing its eyes in canine ecstasy.

The woman was lying. McGuire had to realize it. But his voice was easy when he asked, “Did you see anyone else around this morning?” When she shook her head vigorously, he pressed, “Even in the distance? Someone running off, maybe?”

“No, it was just me and Buster. He was straining at the leash, dragging me toward…that.” Marisa resisted the impulse to turn her head in the direction the woman pointed. The longer she could put off looking at the victim, the longer she could dodge recalling elements from the dream. “I got close enough to realize it was something dead. Burned. Didn’t know if it was human but I called 9-1-1 anyway.” Her heavily made up eyes gleamed avidly. “It is, though, isn’t it? Human. You all wouldn’t be so interested otherwise.”

The detective reached in his pocket and withdrew a business card to give to her. “If your boss gives you any trouble, let me know and I’ll call him.” He accurately read the doubt flickering on the woman’s face. “The cell is department issued. It’ll show up on his ID screen.”

Shrugging, she slipped it into her pocket. “So I can leave?”

“Has a tech taken a sample of the dog’s hair yet?”

McGuire slid Risa a narrowed look. Clearly she was supposed to be seen and not heard on this outing. When the woman shook her head, the detective said only, “Wait here. I’ll send someone over right away.”

Bixby’s voice was plaintive as Nate walked away. “But why? I really gotta get to work.”

Following a hunch she didn’t question, Risa stayed behind. “It’s in case they find hair on the scene. They need a sample from your dog, so they can eliminate it in the identification process.”

“I didn’t let Buster get close enough for there to be any of his hair on that…thing.” If Bixby didn’t seemed resigned to waiting, the dog did. It flopped down on its belly, drooling copiously.

Risa shoved her hands in the pockets of her coat and gave the woman a knowing smile. “So what time were you supposed to meet him?”

“Who?” Heather frowned.

“The guy you were planning to meet this morning. What time did you have scheduled?”

She had the woman’s attention now. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I said I didn’t see anyone. You heard me tell that to the detective, right?”

“But you were lying. Or least not telling the whole story.” Risa squatted down on her haunches and offered the dog her hand to sniff. “If you left the house at five you would have had to get up shortly after four. Because first you showered, dressed, put on makeup before taking the dog out to a place you had to know would be a bit messy.” She nodded at the woman’s attire. Her sneakers were muddy, as was the hem of her tight jeans. “You’re not a runner, at least not today. You aren’t dressed for it.”

“Jesus, I got ready for work first, okay?” Bixby folded her arms over her ample chest.

“You said.” Risa nodded. “Dressed and ready to go three hours before your shift. Stacy’s Diner is only a few miles from here. Walking the dog for thirty minutes still has you back home at five-thirty, two and a half hours before your shift begins. Plenty of time to sleep in for another hour or two and wait for daylight. So I’ll ask you again, who were you meeting here?”

The woman smirked. “Can tell you’re no cop. Your detective skills suck. And I know when a person is just fishing. So go to hell.”

Buster was much friendlier than his owner. He gave her hand a lick and Risa stroked his massive head. “No problem. What time does your husband go to work? Maybe I’ll have better luck fishing with him.” She didn’t relish the flicker of panic on the woman’s face but she’d also never been fond of being lied to.

“There’s no reason to bother Hal. He drives all night and needs some rest before going on the road again.”

Rising, she contemplated the other woman. “Then don’t make me.”

Moistening her lips, Heather said, “He never even showed up. We were supposed to meet but he was running late. I called him when I found…that. He said call 9-1-1 but he turned around and went home.”

Instincts she’d thought lost and buried were humming now. “Because he didn’t want to be around when police showed up.”

“It’s not like that.” But she could tell from Bixby’s expression it was exactly like that. “He’s still on parole. Just a misunderstanding,” she hastened to explain. “He used some of the company’s money for a couple weeks, and even though he put it back later, when the head of accounting figured it out, they nailed him on it. Bastards cost him two years in prison.”

Risa didn’t point out that two years was practically a gift for embezzlement charges. “His name.”

Heather’s mouth set in mutinous lines. “That’s all I’m going to say. I don’t want to jam him up. He wasn’t even here and doesn’t know anything about this.”

“Your husband is Hal Bixby, right? On Kellogg Street?” Risa turned away. “Thanks for your time.”

“Wait!”

When Risa faced her again, the woman was staring at her with open dislike. “You’re a real bitch, aren’t you?”

“You have no idea.”

After several moments obviously spent waging an internal war with herself, Bixby finally said, “His name is Sam Crowley. But I swear, if you make trouble for him, I’ll hunt you down and kick your ass.” She smiled thinly. “I can be a bitch, too.

“I don’t doubt it.”

It had been far easier, Risa thought grimly, as she approached the crime, to play Bixby than it was to force herself closer to the charred remains in the grass. With every step closer her heart increased its tempo until it was a beating a rapid tattoo she feared could be heard by the officers at the perimeter.

Was that nearby tree familiar, with its branches growing in an X shape, studded with leafy buds? Perspiration dampened her brow. Her palms. What about that building beyond the trees to the west, with its boarded up windows and tar paper roof?

“Hey, lady, you can’t go in there.” The hand on her elbow sliced through the sticky haze of memory and had her jumping in surprise. The officer released her when she shot him a look, but stood his ground. “Crime tape is up for a reason. You need to stay back.”

She was tempted, more than she should have been, to do just that. To wait quietly for the detective back at his car. To forget the dreams that seemed far too entangled with the scene inside the tape.

The dreams that had been blessedly absent for four long months.

Instead, she scanned the area for McGuire and pointed. “I’m with him. You saw us come together, didn’t you?”

The officer, with a fresh youthful face that pegged him as barely out of the academy, looked uneasy. “Well, yeah. But I thought…”

Mystified, Risa waited for him to go on. “You thought…”

The kid—and he really was little more than that—actually shuffled his feet. “Ah…look! The detective is waving you over.” The relief on his face was almost comical. “Guess it’s his call if he wants you to go inside.”

Still confused, she gave a little shake of her head before bending down to snag shoe covers from the opened box at her feet. Donning them, she grabbed a pair of latex gloves from the other opened box and ducked beneath the tape. She was halfway to where McGuire stood speaking to a slender blond man standing next to the remains--

--charred bones, melted flesh—

--when comprehension belatedly struck.

The officer had thought her presence here was due to a personal relationship with McGuire, rather than a professional one. Under normal circumstances, the realization would have had her grinning. But her chest was tight. Her throat closed. The closer she drew to the body, the more conscious effort it took to keep oxygen moving through her lungs. To resist the urge to sprint, far and fast, in the opposite direction.

“…use an accelerant?” McGuire was saying.

“Like I was saying…” The man broke off as Marisa approached. “Well, hello-o beautiful.”

Resisting an urge to look for someone he might be addressing behind her, she focused instead on the gas chromatograph the man was using. “What’d the VTA indicate?”

“Jett Brandau.”

Because it seemed churlish to refuse the hand the man thrust out, she took it for a moment. “Marisa Chandler.” When she would have pulled away, he made a point of squeezing her fingers for a moment longer before releasing them.

“Arson investigator?”

He sent a quick glance to Nate before responding. “That’s right. For the PPD.”

She nodded. As the fourth largest police department in the country, the force was plenty large enough to employ their own arson investigators who were also trained police officers. “And the VTA results?”

Brandau patted the side of the Vapor Trace Analyzer’s heating element. “Did three samples of the air over and around the body. Each yielded a substantial bump in temperature.”

“Meaning a flammable residue is present in the area,” she murmured, intrigued despite herself. It made sense. Starting someone on fire—if that’s what had happened here—was more difficult than it sounded. Fire required fuel. The fabric of the victim’s clothing would provide some, but with the wide range of fibers used, couldn’t be relied upon to burn evenly. If total conflagration were the intent, an accelerant would guarantee it.

“Let me know when you’re done getting the samples you need off the body so I can let the ME in. Then you can take comparison samples in the area as we finish searching each grid.”

“Will do.” The investigator shot her a smile that was probably supposed to be boyish, but to her jaundiced eye looked more than a little smarmy. “You’re welcome to stay and help.”

“I’ll pass.”

Her response didn’t seem to faze him. He set down the VTA on one corner of the concrete pad before approaching the body with an evidence kit. “Hey, where’s Cass?” The comment was directed at Nate and brought, to Risa’s mind, a definite reaction.

The detective’s lips tightened momentarily before he turned away. “She’s running late.”

“Reason I ask, I thought maybe the lovely Miss Chandler was her replacement.” Brandau deftly managed flirting with his other duties. He was already kneeling beside the body and opening his kit before looking up at her again. “It is miss, isn’t it? As in unmarried? Or really really unhappily married?”

“No, it’s dis.” When both men looked at her she gave them a small smile. “As in disinterested.”

“Ouch.” But there was no offense in the man’s tone as he carefully cut off a sample of charred fabric from the corpse and dropped it in a glass container. “On the other hand, I miss Cass.”

“I’ll wave Chin over since you seem so desperate for companionship.” Nate turned and gestured toward a slight Asian woman leaning against the medical examiner’s van who headed toward them with surprisingly long strides.

“No.” The panic on the man’s face was mirrored in his frantic movements as he sped up his collection process. “Seriously, no. I’m going as fast as I can here.”

“Concentrate,” McGuire advised blandly.

“You try to concentrate when you’ve got a pint-sized she-devil standing over you…hey, Liz.” His movements were almost a blur of motion as he quickened his pace even further.

The ME stared down at him with her hands on her hips, eyes narrowed. “How long are you going to be, Brandau? We’ve only got about a dozen hours of daylight. I’d like to start my examination before nightfall, so if you can just give me an approximate timeline…”

“A few minutes. Ten at the most.”

The diminutive woman cast a quick look at Risa then at Nate. “Where’s Cass?”

“Running late.”

“Uh-huh.”

Mystified, Risa was getting the distinct impression there was something in the air regarding the absent Cass, but it was apparent no one was going to enlighten her about it.

“I appreciate you coming yourself, Liz.”

Nate’s words spiked Risa’s interest. Normally an assistant from the ME’s office was sent to collect the bodies. The appearance of the ME herself was unusual. Not for the first time, Risa considered that this homicide might be one in a series.

He went on. “When Jett’s done here you can start your examination. Pinning down time of death would be very helpful to us, so the sooner…”

The medical examiner shot him a look that would have scorched metal. “You want me to pronounce time of death before I even get back to the lab with this? No problem, I’m a magician. I also pull elephants out of my ass in my free time. Which trick do you want to see first?”

“I don’t have to eat sarcasm to recognize the flavor, Chin. I was just saying.”

“You know I don’t deal in assumptions. After I get the remains back to the morgue and do a proper exam, you’ll be the first to know.”

“But they’re still warm, right, Jett?”

“Air around the corpse is about one hundred thirty-six degrees. Liz is going to have to use a shovel to transfer them to the gurney. You find the ID yet?”

“I just got here, remember?”

From the easy banter between them it was clear they’d worked together before. Risa was the outsider here. And that was fine with her. She was still regretting the impulse that had made her accept McGuire’s invitation to begin with.

And fighting a similar impulse to gaze at the steaming remains on the cracked cement pad beside her.

Back in her rookie days, she’d responded to her share of house fires or fiery car accidents. It was impossible to forget the sickeningly sweet, metallic smell of burnt flesh. She would have recognized it even had she not known the circumstances surrounding the call out today.

The pitted concrete square on which the body lay had once been roofed, and meant to hold a couple picnic tables. But roof and tables had disappeared long ago, leaving only skeletal wooden posts and rafters. The rafters were completely scorched, and fragments from them littered the cement pad. The pavement had kept the fire from spreading into the neighboring trees and brush. Risa wondered if the choice had been intentional.

She forced herself to gaze at the burnt figure clinically. This close, there was no mistaking it for anything other than human. Its limbs were drawn up in a hideous fetal position, wrists and ankles close together.

Intrigued despite herself, she sank to crouch beside it. “Were the wrists and ankles bound?”

The ME threw her a quick glance. “You mean because of the positioning? I won’t know for sure until I get back to the morgue. But the limbs will shrivel on a burn victim, and they’ll draw up toward the body.”

“Pretty damn hard to set someone on fire if they aren’t bound,” Nate observed.

She thought of the agonized dance of the victim in her dream. From its movements, at least the legs had seemed to be unfettered. But those visions might have nothing to do with this homicide. Especially if this death were related to other similar ones.

“Even if his limbs were completely secured he could still roll, trying to put out the fire.” She nodded toward the area in question. “There’s no evidence of that. Which makes me wonder--”

The detective followed the direction of her gaze, and her thoughts. “--if he were kept in place by a rope thrown over those rafters.”

“We’ll know more when after the body cools down and I can examine all sides.”

Risa nodded at the ME’s words. Had the person been burned while lying down, it would be reasonable to expect the burns to be uneven. It wasn’t unusual for burn victims to look relatively normal on the side pressed against the ground, where the flames had been unable to wreak their damage.

But the figure in the dream hadn’t been prone.

She looked at the detective. “How many others like this have you found?”

At first she thought he wasn’t going to respond. Instead he watched as the ME rose and strode rapidly toward the city van, snapping out orders to her assistants. But finally he responded, “This makes the third, although it’s too soon to tell if it’s connected to the others.”

“What linked the first two?”

He shot her a grim smile as he rose. “The first victims were found in remote areas. A combination of gasoline and diesel fuel was used as an accelerant. Both had their hands bound with duct tape but not their feet. They weren’t gagged.” His frown sounded in his voice. “That’s hard for me to figure. It’s easier to control the victims if they’re completely secured. Gagging them would ensure their cries wouldn’t summon help.”

“But neither would be as satisfying.” Her voice was soft, but from the sharpness of his gaze she knew he’d heard her. “The remote locations give a guarantee of privacy. And even if someone comes…by that time it will be much to late to save them.”

“You think he needs that? Their screams? But that still doesn’t explain why he wouldn’t bind their feet.”

“Maybe he needs that, too.” The death dance, she thought sickly, her eyes on the charred victim once again. The frenzied movements of panic and agony. She’d felt the watcher’s ecstasy as he surveyed the spectacle. The near-orgasmic exultation from seeing what’d he’d wrought. “It might be part of his signature.”

Something shifted in the detective’s expression, leaving it impassive. “Signature. You’re a profiler then?”

She rose, scanning the area. “All of Raiker’s investigators are trained in profiling, too.” Memory of the dream skated along the hem of her mind and she sought to gather it in, to examine the details more closely.

That had been the last thing she’d been thinking of when she’d wakened from it this morning. Although she had art supplies in her bedroom closet, she’d gotten out of the habit of keeping an easel in her room with fresh drawing pencils and paper, to sketch the visual elements.

The dreams had been gone for months. She hadn’t missed them.

And although Risa was far from accepting this one as anything more than a sub-conscious mind bump, it was second nature to draw on it to wring any useful information from it that she could.

If it were the victim’s death alone that had so satisfied the watcher, a gun or knife could have been used with far less effort. Her shoulder throbbed, as if in agreement. No, his pleasure had been linked to the particular type of death he’d arranged. The flames had driven him delirious with delight and he’d stayed as close to them as he’d dared.

Like there was an affinity there. Not just a murderer, but also one who chose fire deliberately because it satisfied a need inside him.

“It has to be death by fire,” she said finally. “And he needs to watch.” To experience it, deriving a sort of vicarious thrill from the flames. One of the crime scene investigators was photographing the area. Another was sketching it. Two others appeared to be waiting for direction from McGuire. “What’d the crime scene techs turn up in the other two deaths?”

“No wallets but IDs were left nearby.” When she turned to him, brows raised, he said, “Yeah, just far enough away to be sure they weren’t destroyed in the flames. Whoever the son-of-a-bitch is, he wants to make it easy on us.”

His jaw was clenched and Risa suddenly realized there was more going on here than a killer choosing random victims.

“So you’ve established a pattern in the victimology?”

Nate’s face was a grim mask. “Pretty hard to miss. If this one follows the same pattern, we’ll discover the victim is either currently on the job, or he used to be on the force.”

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Deadly Sins

Chapter 1

Despite what it said in the Old Testament, death was rarely the result of divine intervention. Often nature could be blamed. More frequently another person was the cause. On that drizzly gray evening in early November, nature had an alibi.

If Supreme Court Justice Byron Reinbeck had known what fate had in store for him that day, he’d have spent less time writing the scathing dissenting opinion on Clayborne vs. Leland. Which in turn would have had him leaving his chambers at a decent hour. That would have negated the need to stop at his favorite sidewalk vendor for flowers to take to Mary Jo, his wife of twenty-five years. She was having a dinner party that evening and he was running unforgivably late.

But not being blessed with psychic powers, he pulled over at the sidewalk in question. Danny was there, rain or shine, until the snow started flying. And he never folded up shop until he’d sold his entire inventory.

“Mr. Reinbeck, good to see you.” A smile put another crease in Danny’s grizzled well-worn face. A three-sided awning protected him and his wares. A small propane heater was tucked in the corner of it. “When you called I put ’em back special. I got just the thing.” He sprang up from his battered lawn chair with a surprising spryness.

Byron turned up the collar of his overcoat, belatedly remembered the umbrella in the backseat. Hunching his shoulders a bit, he pretended to contemplate the bouquet of yellow roses thrust out for his approval. He suspected Jimmy stocked them daily, on the off chance that he’d stop.

Yellow roses were Mary Jo’s favorite.

He reached for his wallet. “You’re a life-saver, Danny.”

The older man’s cackle sounded over the crinkle of the wrapping paper he was fixing around the bundle. “You gots to be in big trouble for these flowers not to do the trick.”

A quick glance at his watch told Byron that he was only a handful of minutes away from ‘big trouble’. He withdrew a couple bills, intending to leave without waiting for change.

He didn’t have a chance to turn around when the sharp ‘crack’ of the rifle sounded behind him. But he saw the splash of crimson on the front of Danny’s stained brown hoodie. A second later pain and shock paralyzed his system before he pitched forward, his lifeless body crushing the fragrant long stemmed beauties against the makeshift plywood table.

Adam Raiker rapped softly at the door of the library. Although there were three occupants in the room, only one voice bade him to enter.

Because it was the only one that counted, he eased the door open, his gaze going immediately to Mary Jo Waverly-Reinbeck. “Everyone’s gone.”

Even grief stricken as she was, there was no mistaking the command of the woman. The red sheathe she wore accentuated her pale blond hair and ice blue eyes. She was brilliant and witty and had been known to dismantle a seasoned defense attorney with a few well-chosen lines. But it was her devotion to one of Adam’s closest friends that had endeared her to him.

Tears still running freely down her face, she held out a hand to him. “Thank you, Adam.” He went to her, aware of the impatience emanating from the other two in the room. He took her hand in his and at her urging, sank into the seat beside her.

FBI Deputy Director Garrett Schulte leaned back in his chair and offered Adam a polite smile. But there was no pretense of civility from the other man. Curtis Morgan served in Homeland Security in some capacity, Adam recalled. Given his presence here, it was a position of some import. Regardless, it was Byron Reinbeck’s widow who held his focus.

“Gentlemen.” She took a moment to wipe at her face with a tissue. “I’m sure you both know Adam Raiker, by reputation if not personally. Adam is a dear family friend.” When her voice broke, she paused to compose it. “I’d like a few moments with him now. We can resume our discussion in fifteen minutes. If you’d excuse us?”

Schulte and Morgan exchanged a startled glance but the deputy director recovered first. “Of course.” When he rose, the other man followed suit. “Is there anything we can get for you?”

“I’d like a copy of the investigative report updated daily and delivered to me.” Even under the circumstances it was difficult for Adam to suppress a smile at the men’s uniform reactions to Jo’s crisply worded request. “Perhaps you can discuss the details involved for making that happen.”

Without another word, the men moved to the open door. Through it. And when it shut behind them, Adam knew the woman had successfully distracted the two from his presence here. They were going to be kept busy employing a duck and dodge strategy that would allow the investigation to continue in confidence while still placating the widow of one of the most powerful men in the country. Their focus on her connection to Byron Reinbeck also meant they’d underestimate the fact that Jo Waverly-Reinbeck was a brilliant assistant U.S. attorney in her own right.

If the situation were different he might feel a bit sorry for them.

“Thank you.” She squeezed his hand and sent him a watery smile. “For making the necessary calls. For getting the people out of here…God. I just couldn’t deal with that.”

“What about the kids?” he asked quietly. The couple had two sons, both blonde like Jo, both in their teens. So far they were being shielded from the news of their father’s death.

“They’re with my parents. They’ll keep the boys away from the TV until I can go and tell them in person.” Her chin quavered once, before she firmed it. “We discussed this. Byron and me. Given our professions, I always thought I’d be the likelier target. God knows I’ve had plenty of threats. Remember the Calentro drug cartel trial last year? Somehow the USMS managed to keep me safe through that but Byron hasn’t had a serious threat in years. And still…”

Because there were no words, Adam released her hand to slip an arm around her shoulders. The passing minutes filled with her soft weeping caused a growing desolation inside him. Helplessness. There was nothing he hated worse.

Moments later, she drew away, mopped her face. And he recognized the determined expression she wore. “You’ve told us often enough over the last couple months, but are you truly okay? Completely recovered?”

The non sequitur had him blinking. “The bullets caught me in the one area of the chest that wasn’t already scarred. I’m still a bit miffed about that, but otherwise I’m fine.”

Her gaze was intent. “Who will have jurisdiction on this? The bureau?”

“DCPD will have been first to the scene. Marshals will have sent backup. Then you have the FBI and Homeland Security, just for starters. It’ll depend on what’s discovered at the crime scene. At the location of—”

“—the shooter,” she continued for him. Her tears had stemmed, as if she’d successfully willed them away. “With Byron a sitting justice, we’re likely to have every alphabet agency coming out of the woodwork trying to get a piece of this.” Her smile was fierce. “I’ve read the Justice reports. Regardless of 9/11, the agencies still haven’t learned to share intelligence. I don’t want Bryon getting lost in a bureaucratic pissing match.”

He couldn’t refute her logic. Although he’d left the FBI years ago, Adam had been an agent long enough to recognize the potential pitfalls of the upcoming investigation. “What are you proposing?”

“They won’t keep me in the loop of the investigation.” She waved away any response he might have made. “I know they can’t. That’s not my forte anyway.” Her pause then was laden with expectancy. “But it is yours. And that of your agency.”

With certain regret he answered, “As good as we are at Raiker Forensics, there’s zero chance that the feds would invite us to consult on a case of this magnitude. They’d see it as a duplication of services, for one. And my relationship to Byron would be considered a conflict of interest.” Although given the man’s far-reaching career thus far, he was likely personally acquainted with several top officials in both the FBI and DHS.

“Perhaps under ordinary circumstances.” A small sound was heard in the hallway. Jo lowered her voice as she reached out to grip his hand. “I have a few hours to trade on the expressions of sympathy that will be coming my way. Having the sitting U.S. Attorney General as a former boss is about to come in handy. And I fully expect the White House to call soon. President Jolson is responsible for Byron’s seat on the Supreme Court. I think he’ll grant his widow this one favor.”

Shock flickered. “Jo, if you accomplish that, I’d be working with the task force put together for this case. And given its sensitivity, I couldn’t—”

“—report directly to me? I know.” She leaned forward, her expression urgent. “But I trust you. Byron trusted you. And if you’re on this case I won’t worry because I know you’ll cut through all the bureaucratic bullshit to get the answers.” Her voice grew thick with tears again, although there were none in her eyes. They gleamed with purpose. “I want my husband’s killer. And if things get messy, I want the real facts, not the sanitized version or whatever the feds deem publicly palatable.” Her grasp on his hand tightened. “Before I beg my former employer and the President for a favor, Adam, I’m requesting one from you.”

I’ve never asked you for anything, Adam. I’m asking now.

There was no reason for Jo’s words to have memory ambushing him. To evoke the image of another time years earlier, from another woman with similar entreaty in her eyes. In her voice. Turning away from that woman had been the right thing to do. He still believed it.

And still lived with the searing regret that lingered.

He looked down at their clasped fingers. Her pale smooth skin contrasted sharply with the furrowed scars crisscrossing the back of his hand. Some decisions, made for the best of reasons, left haunting remorse in their wake. This one didn’t even require a second thought.

“I’ll do everything I can.”

“The prudent thing to do—for all concerned—is to bow out gracefully.” FBI Assistant Director Cleve Hedgelin looked at a point beyond Adam’s shoulder as he parroted the suggestion, which had no doubt stemmed from a loftier position in the agency’s hierarchy. But it was equally likely that Cleve shared the sentiment. He might have been Adam’s partner eight years ago, but he’d stayed on at the bureau. Had risen in its ranks in the Criminal Investigative Division. An agent didn’t do that without learning to toe the political line.

And after the spectacular ending of the last case they’d worked together, Cleve likely harbored his own reasons for keeping his distance from Adam. “There’s nothing that you can add to the case, and your involvement is a needless distraction.”

The office was outfitted more grandly than the cubicle Adam had been assigned when he’d worked in the Hoover building. He settled more comfortably into the plush armchair and sent the man a bland smile. “Stop wasting time. Attorney General Gibbons has already approved my full inclusion on this investigation. The president himself assured Jo Reinbeck that her wishes in this matter would be heeded. The agency’s objections to my presence are expected and duly noted. Let’s move on, shall we?”

An unwilling smile pulled at the corners of Hedgelin’s mouth. “Same ol’ Adam. You never were much for small talk.”

“Is that what that was?” When his thigh began to cramp, he shifted position to stretch his leg out. “And here I thought it was the usual bureaucratic BS. The bureau’s been painted into a corner with Gibbons and Jolson weighing in but still thought it was worth a shot to appeal to my more tender sensibilities.”

“You never had many.”

“And I haven’t developed any in the time since I left. Tell your superiors you gave it the college try and I’m not budging. So.” His hands clenched and unclenched on the knob of his cane, an outward sign of his flagging patience. “Catch me up.”

Cleve smoothed a hand over his short hair. It was more gray than brown now, but his pale brown eyes were covered by the same style gold wire framed glasses he’d favored eight years ago. His build was still slim, but the intervening years had left their stamp on the man’s face. Adam didn’t want to consider what showed on his own.

“We’ve got more agencies than we can handle jockeying for position in this investigation.”

“I imagine that kind of juggling comes with the job.”

The assistant director grimaced. “You have no idea. But in this case it means doling out pieces of the case to teams comprised of agents, and members from DHS, USMS, DCPD…and now you.”

“Nice to know I’m not crowding the field.” Adam wasn’t without sympathy for the man’s position. But the emotion didn’t run deeply enough to have him bowing out and making it easier for Hedgelin or the bureau. He’d made a promise to Jo. She’d done her part. She’d gotten him placed on the investigation. He had no allusions; it would have been her connections—and Byron’s—that had landed him here. Despite his past in the agency—or perhaps because of it—his presence would make them uneasy. His last case for the FBI had ended dramatically—and nearly killed him. Although he didn’t care about such things, to some it had made him a hero. But because he’d chosen to cut his ties with his former job, the bureau might regard him much differently.

That part didn’t matter. The investigation did.

“You’ll be partnered with two of our seasoned agents. I believe you know both from your time here. And Lieutenant Frank Griega will be your liaison from the DCPD.” Hedgelin dropped into his high-backed leather desk chair and shot Adam a small smile. “Given that our best guys in the Behavioral Analysis Unit were actually instructed by you, we’d be interested in any profile of the offender you put together.”

Adam inclined his head. Since he hadn’t made a point to keep up with many from the bureau once he’d left it, he had no idea who was still left in the BAU. But Cleve was right. Profiling had been a specialty of his while he’d been an agent. Now it was his employees at Raiker Forensics who received his tutelage. “Of course.” His pause was meaningful. “But it’d help to get some background on the case first.”

The agent leaned forward and stabbed at a button on his desk phone with the stump that remained of his right index finger. Adam wasn’t the only one who bore old injuries from the last case they’d worked. He rarely considered his own. When it came to human nature, it was only the scars on the inside that were worth noting.

Moments later the door to the office opened and a man and woman entered. With a glance, Adam determined that Cleve was right. He did know the agents. His gut clenched tightly once before he shoved the response aside by sheer force of will. He’d had recent dealings with Special Agent Tom Shepherd, as well as knowing him slightly when they’d both been with the bureau.

But his reaction had nothing to do with Shepherd.

“You recall Special Agents Shepherd and Marlowe?”

“Of course.” He gave them a curt nod.

Shepherd’s broad smile complemented his aging Hollywood golden boy looks. “You’re looking a sight better than you did a few months ago in the Philly CCU. I heard that the doctors took to calling you the miracle man.”

Her voice and face devoid of expression, Jaid Marlowe raised a brow at him. “Just a word of advice, you aren’t actually bulletproof. Next time you have an assassin after you, try Kevlar.”

“Now that I’ve discovered bullets don’t bounce off me, I may have to.” His tone was as mild as hers. No one would suspect that only a few short months ago Jaid had sat at his bedside clutching his hand, silent and pale, her wide brown eyes drenched in tears. In a medicated fog at the time, he might have thought she was an image produced by his subconscious. She’d taken up permanent residence there eight years ago, like a determined ghost refusing to be banished.

Cleve stood, taking three oversized brown folders from a pile on his desk and leaning across the desk to pass them out. Flipping his open, Adam saw it contained copies of the case file. Regardless of the minutes wasted trying to convince him to bow out, a file had already been prepared for him just in case.

The thought vanished when he focused on the pictures contained in the first manila folder inside. There was a clutch in his chest when he recognized his friend crumpled on top of the stained, broken plywood, bright yellow roses crushed beneath him. The depth of emotion blindsided him. He took a moment to acknowledge the feeling before tucking it away. Subjectivity crippled an investigator. Turning those feelings into purpose was the only way to help Byron Reinbeck.

“Any word from ballistics?”

Hedgelin nodded. “The kill weapon was a .308 Remington Model 700. Full metal jackets, which explains Shelton being killed with the same bullet. Passed through the justice and into him.”

Riffling through the pictures, Adam plucked out a few to arrange on his lap atop the open folder, side by side. After studying them for a moment he looked up. “The shooter was in the parking garage across the street?” At Hedgelin’s nod his gaze lowered again. “Second level, most likely. Easiest thing to do would be to back a van into a slot facing the street. Open the rear doors, take the shot and then drive away.”

“Second level, southeast corner,” Cleve affirmed. “Second level, southeast corner. The other folder has the scene photos.” There was a note in the man’s voice that alerted Adam. He shuffled through the pictures in the next folder. There was little to see in the images. No evidence of a rifle or scope. No tripod or shell casings. The shooter had coolly taken the time to pick up before fleeing the scene. There was nothing except…he squinted his one good eye at a photo of what looked like an ordinary five by eight white index card encased in a plastic Ziploc. On it was scrawled one word in what looked to be red marker.

Wrath.

As if reading his thoughts, Jaid said, “Wrath? The shooter was angry at the victim?”

Riffling through the rest of the photos in that file, he stopped at one that showed the card before it’d been disturbed. “Oh, he wanted this to be found, didn’t he?” Adam murmured. He’d first thought the bag protecting the card was an evidence bag used by the crime scene technicians, but now he realized the shooter had left it that way. Encased in plastic, with a fist-sized piece of broken concrete holding it in place on the pebbled flat roof of the building. “Wrath. One of the seven deadly sins.” Feeling the others’ eyes on him he looked up. “Not that I’m all that well-versed in the tenets of Catholicism but I had some exposure in my youth.”

“A passing exposure, obviously.” Jaid’s wry remark had the corner of Adam’s mouth quirking.

“It didn’t take, no. Much to the Franciscans’ despair.”

“As it happens I am a devout Catholic, so I had the same thought.” Hedgelin took a large manila envelope off his desk and opened it to shake out a single photo. Bracing himself with one fist planted on the desk, he leaned forward, holding the image up for them to see.

“That’s not Reinbeck,” Shepherd noted, shifting to better view what was obviously a crime scene photo.

“This victim’s name was Oliver Patterson.” The deputy director paused but when no one commented he went on. “He had a global investment and securities firm. Patterson Capital.”

“One of the too big to fail companies that plundered unfettered until the financial collapse a few years ago.” Recognition was filtering now, of the victim’s name and his company. Both had been on the receiving end of some unbelievably bad press after the upheaval, worsened further when its top executives’ obscene bonuses came to light. Adam assumed Patterson had ridden out the rocky times with help from the government issued bailout funds. He recalled the news stories surrounding the man’s death had been lacking in details. “When was he killed, last week?”

“Nine days ago in the parking garage of his building on I Street, Northwest.

Stabbed. You can’t tell in this picture but there was an identical card left at the scene.” Cleve’s expression turned grim. “It was impaled on the knife left in his heart.”

Intrigue spiking, Adam guessed, “Avarice.”

The deputy director nodded. “Close enough. The word ‘greed’ was written on the card, in red marker, much like the one found at the site of Reinbeck’s shooter. Another biggie according to church dogma. The DCPD is compiling copies of the complete report on that ongoing investigation. Griega will get it to us when it’s ready.”

“You think these two are serial killings?”

Hedgelin raised his hand as if to halt Jaid’s line of thought. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. DCPD tells me that the detail about the card got leaked three days ago. Wasn’t picked up by all the media outlets, but it was out there. No way to tell if we’ve got a copycat or if the same person killed both men. The manner of deaths was completely different. We’re a ways from tying the two homicides together, at this point.”

“But the religious connotation of the notes give us a link worth following up on.”

The deputy director didn’t reply to Shepherd’s observation. Instead, he took off his glasses to polish them with his handkerchief, a habit Adam recalled from their time partnered together. “We’re in the midst of having all the evidence from the Patterson homicide transferred to Quantico, where it will be given top priority. If there’s a link to be found, we’ll soon know about it. We still have a large group of DCPD officers canvassing the area surrounding last night’s shooting.”

Despite his cautionary note regarding a serial killer at work, it was obvious the bureau was looking closely into a connection between the cases. They had to. “What about the threats the justice received? Depending on how many clients took a bath in the financial collapse, Patterson probably had more than his share of enemies, too.”

Adam’s comment elicited a nod from Hedgelin. “Since it’s the USMS Judicial Security Division’s duty to anticipate and deter threats to the judiciary,” his voice was heavy with irony, “they have a thorough file on any targeting Reinbeck. It’ll take some time to compare them to those received by Patterson. You won’t be involved in that end of things. Right now you’re headed over to the Supreme Court building to help with the interviews there. It’s the JSD’s turf, so play nice. With over three hundred permanent staff members alone, it’s going to be a daunting task. You’ll be part of the contingent focusing on the staff that worked most closely with the justices. There are close to forty clerks, four fellows, administrative assistants and God knows who else in there with direct access to the judiciary. Your first focus will be on Reinbeck’s clerks and his administrative assistant.”

His attention shifted to Shepherd. “Take Raiker to security and pick up a temporary ID badge for him.” His smile was thin as he included Adam in his glance. “They’ll need to take a picture for it. Shouldn’t take longer than fifteen minutes or so.”

Barely restraining a grimace, Adam rose. Photos were a necessary evil at times, but one he avoided at all costs whenever possible. It clearly wasn’t going to be possible this time around. And the realization already had him feeling surly.

When the agents rose, Hedgelin looked at Jaid. “Agent Marlowe, if you’d stay for a minute?”

The order couched in the request had Adam’s instincts rising, but he didn’t look at her as he and Shepherd headed to the door. He’d been given a reprieve.

He had the next ten or fifteen minutes to figure the best way to handle working with the woman who represented the biggest regret of his life.

Since she wasn’t invited to sit again Jaid remained standing, her eyes fixed on the Executive Assistant Director. The pseudo-civility that had permeated his voice for the earlier briefing had vanished. The gaze he regarded her with was hard. “I had an opportunity to speak to Shepherd earlier. I’m going to tell you the same thing I told him. I want Raiker supervised at all times. He doesn’t conduct interviews alone. He doesn’t follow up on any leads without one of you accompanying him. The bureau may have had its arm twisted into including him on this case, but damned if we’re going to sit still and allow him to turn this thing into another chapter for his sensationalized memoirs.”

There was absolutely no reason for his tone, his words, to have her hackles rising. Feigning puzzlement, she asked, “He’s writing his memoirs?”

Hedgelin sent her a sharp look but she knew her expression was blank. She didn’t wear her emotions on her face any more. Adam Raiker had begun that lesson, all those years ago. Life had completed it.

“I’m certain you know what I mean. You’re to keep him firmly contained within the investigative parameters you’re given. In addition to the report you or Shepherd file online nightly, I want details on Raiker’s behavior. His thoughts about the case. Who he talks to. Anything he says of interest.”

In short, she was to spy on him. Just the thought filled her with distaste. She’d run her share of surveillance ops in her career, but informing on another member of her team was especially abhorrent. Especially since she suspected his most grievous crime was his mere presence in this investigation. The petty politics involved in the agency was her least favorite aspect of the job.

But she knew how to play the game. Or at least how to appear to. “Understood.”

He stared hard at her, long enough to have to her flesh prickling. “I’m told you knew him when he was with the agency.”

“I took a class he taught for the BAU.” The words were delivered in a bland voice. And didn’t reflect the sudden weakness in her knees. “Worked a couple cases with him after that.”

Hedgelin gave a nod, as if satisfied. “It’s to our advantage that you and Shepherd are on a friendly footing with him. That should keep him off guard. Just be sure you don’t let that friendship interfere with your duties regarding him.”

“It was a long time ago.”

He picked up a folder on his desk and opened it, clearly dismissing her. “Join them in security.”

Without another word Jaid turned for the door. She’d seen Adam twice in the last eight years. Each of those times he’d been in CCU, clinging to life. It had taken a wealth of strength to accept this assignment, realizing it would place her at his side for days, possibly weeks on end. She’d convinced herself that she could handle it. Could handle him.

But it had never occurred to her that she might be called on to betray him.

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Waking Nightmare

“I’m never going to get used to this weather.”  Ryne slid Abbie a glance as he backed the car out of the slot.  “How do you stand wearing long sleeves like that in the middle of summer?”

“Superior genes.”  Ignoring his snort, she spilled the contents from the file he’d given her onto her lap.  Flipping through the neatly arranged photos and reports, she noted they were sorted chronologically beginning with the first incident reported, three months earlier.

She looked at the detective.  “So if this latest victim turns out to be related to the others, she’ll be the. . .what?  Fourth?”

Ryne pulled to a stop at a stoplight.  “That’s right.  And she’s almost certainly related.  He’s injecting them with something prior to the attacks, and they all describe the same effects.  It turns the victims’ memories to mush, which means they haven’t been able to give us squat when it comes to details about the attacker.  From the descriptions they give, it also does something to intensify sensation.”

“Maybe to increase the pain from the torture,” she murmured, struck by a thought.  If that were the actual intent, rather than just hazing the memory or incapacitating the victim, it would be in keeping with a sadistic rapist.

The hair on the nape of her neck suddenly prickled, and it wasn’t due to the tepid air blasting from the air conditioning vents.  The atmosphere in the vehicle had gone charged.  She slanted a look at Ryne, noted the muscle working in his jaw.

“What do you know about the torture?”

Feeling like she was stepping on quick sand, she said, “Commander Dixon told me a little about the cases when we discussed my joining the task force.”

“This morning?”

“On the phone yesterday afternoon.”

The smile that crossed his lips then was chilly and completely devoid of humor.  He reached for a pair of sunglasses secured to the visor, flipped them open and settled them on his nose.

Irritation coursed through her.  “Something about that amuses you?”

“Yeah, it does.  Considering the fact that the last time I asked Dixon for another investigator—“ She didn’t miss the inflection he gave the last word. “—was yesterday morning, I guess you could say it’s funny as hell.”

Abbie stifled the retort that rose to her lips.  She was more familiar than she’d like with the ego massage necessary in these situations, though she’d never develop a fondness for the need.  “Look, let’s cut through the unpleasantries.  I have no intention of muscling in on your case. Since I was hired by Dixon, I have to provide him with whatever information he requests of me. But my role is first and foremost as assistance to you.”

His silence, she supposed, was a response of sorts.  Just not the one she wanted.  Her annoyance deepened.  According to Commander Dixon, Robel was some sort of hotshot detective, some very big deal from--Philadelphia?  New York?  Some place north, anyway.  But as far as she could tell he was just another macho jerk, of a type she was all too familiar with.  Law enforcement was full of them.  Departments could mandate so-called sensitivity training, but it didn’t necessarily change chauvinistic attitudes.  It just drove them deeper below the surface.

Abbie studied his chiseled profile. No doubt she was supposed to crumple in the face of his displeasure.  He’d be the sort of man to appeal to most women, she supposed, if they liked the lean, lethal, surly type.  His short cropped hair was brown, his eyes behind the glasses an Artic shade of blue.  His jaw was hard, as if braced for a punch.  Given his personality, she’d be willing to bet he’d caught more than his share of them.  He wasn’t particularly tall, maybe five foot ten, but he radiated authority.  He was probably used to turning his commanding presence on women and melting them into subservience.

One corner of her mouth pulled up wryly as she turned back to the file in her lap. There had been a time when it would have produced just that result with her.  Fortunately, that time was in the very remote past.

Ignoring him for the moment, she pored over the police reports, skipping over the complainants names to the blocks of texts that detailed the location, offense, MO, victim and suspect information.  “I assume you’re using a state crime lab.  What have the tox screens shown?” she asked, without looking up.

At first she thought he wasn’t going to answer.  Finally he said, “GBI’s Coastal Regional Crime Lab is here in Savannah.  The toxicologist hasn’t found anything definitive, and he’s tested for nearly two-dozen of the more common substances.  Reports on the first three victims showed trace amounts of Ectasy in their blood.  All victims deny being users, and the toxicologist suspects that it was mixed in controlled amounts to make a new compound.”

She did look up then, her interest piqued.  Use of an unfamiliar narcotic agent in the assaults might be their best lead in the case.  Even without a sample, it told them something about the unknown subject.

“Same torture methods?”

He shook his head.  “The first victim he covered with a plastic bag and repeatedly suffocated and revived.  The next he carved up pretty bad.  Looked like he was trying to cut her face off.  Another he worked over with pliers and a hammer.”

 “It’s unusual to switch routines like that,” Abbie mused.  “Some rapists might experiment at first, perfect their technique, but if you’ve got no trace evidence it doesn’t sound like this guy is a novice.”

“He’s not.” Robel turned down a residential street.  “He’s been doing this a long time.  Maybe he’s escalating now.  Maybe it takes more and more for him to get his jollies.”

It was possible.  For serial offenders, increasing the challenge also intensified their excitement. With that in mind, she asked, “Are there any uncleared homicides in the vicinity that share similarities to the rapes?”

He looked at her, but she couldn’t guess what he was thinking with the glasses shielding his eyes.  “Why?”

“He had to start somewhere.”  Abbie looked out the window at the row of small neat houses dotting the street.  “A guy like this doesn’t get to be an expert all at once.”  She turned back to Robel, found him still surveying her.  “Maybe he went too far once and accidentally killed his victim.  Or something could have gone wrong and he had to kill one who could identify him.”

“Good thought.”  The words might have sounded like a compliment if they hadn’t been uttered so grudgingly.  “We checked that.  Also looked at burglaries.  Nothing panned out.”  But her remark seemed to have splintered the ice between them.

“I’m not surprised the burglary angle didn’t turn up anything.  This isn’t an opportunity rapist.  Sounds like he goes in very prepared, very organized.  His intent is the rape itself, at least the ritual he’s made of the act.”

“I worked narcotics, undercover.  Did a stint in burglary, a longer one in homicide.”  He pulled to a stop before a pale blue bungalow with an attached carport.  Only one vehicle was in the drive.   “I can understand the motivations of those crimes.  Greed, jealousy, anger.”  Switching off the car, he removed the sunglasses, and slid them back into their spot on the visor.  “But I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around rapists.  I know what it takes to catch them.  I just don’t pretend to understand why they do it.”

Abbie felt herself thawing toward him a little.  “Well, if we figure out what’s motivating this guy, we’ll be well on our way toward nailing him.”

“I guess that’s your job.”  Robel opened his door and stepped out into the street, reaching back inside the vehicle to retrieve his jacket.  “You get in his head and point us in the right direction.  That’s what Dixon had in mind, isn’t it?”  He slammed the door, shrugging into his suit coat as he rounded the hood of the car.

Abbie opened her door, was immediately blasted by the mid-day heat. The rancor in his words had been barely discernible, but it was there.  So she didn’t bother telling him that getting inside the rapist’s head was exactly what she planned on.

It was, in fact, all too familiar territory.  She’d spent more years than she’d like to recall doing precisely that.

 

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Waking Evil

The helicopter landed in the clearing with a bump, bounced once, before settling on the ground again for good. Ramsey Clark shouted her thanks to the pilot, shoved open the door and jumped lightly to the ground, her lone bag slung over one shoulder. She ran in a crouch to avoid the rotors, heard the whop-whop-whop behind her indicating the pilot taking off.

She scanned the cluster of four people waiting nearby as she jogged toward them. The three men wearing suits each held a hand over his tie to prevent them from dancing in the breeze generated by the chopper’s rotors. “Director Jeffries.” The hand she offered was engulfed in the older man’s pawlike grip and squeezed until she had to hide a wince. The chief of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation hadn’t changed much in the years since she’d left its ranks. His craggy face might be a little ruddier. His mop of white hair a bit shorter. But his six-foot frame was just as straight, just as firm as ever.

“Good to see you again, Clark. I hear you’ve been making quite a name for yourself with Raiker Forensics.”

Since the director wasn’t prone to flattery, and since he could only have heard it from Adam Raiker himself, Ramsey allowed herself to feel a small glow of satisfaction. “Thank you, sir. I think I’ve learned a lot.”

Jeffries turned to the two men flanking him. “TBI agents Glenn Matthews and Warden Powell. You’ll be assigned to their team. If you need more manpower give me a holler and I’ll talk to the boss.”

Ramsey nodded her appreciation. Jeffries had no superior at TBI so they were being given carte blanche. Raiker had told her to expect as much.

The director turned to the man in the sheriff’s uniform on her right. “I believe you know Sheriff Rollings.”

Frowning, she was about to deny it. Ramsey knew no one in Buffalo Springs, Tennessee. But the sheriff was taking off his hat and recognition struck her. “Mark Rollings?” She shook her former colleague’s hand with a sense of déjà vu. “I didn’t even know you’d left TBI.”

“Couple years ago now. Didn’t even know I was interested in moving back home until the position of sheriff was open.” Rollings’s pleasantly homely face was somber. “Have to say, tonight’s the first time I’ve regretted it.”

“I assume you’ve looked at the case file.”

Ramsey’s attention shifted back to Jeffries at the question. At her nod, he went on. “Rollings has his hands full here calming the local hysteria, and after a week we aren’t progressing fast enough to suit the governor’s office. The area is attracting every national media team in the country, and the coverage is playing hell with his tourism industry expansion plans.” The director’s voice was heavy with irony.

“I understand.” And she did. Being brought in as a special consultant to the TBI pacified a politically motivated governor and diminished some of the scrutiny that would follow the department throughout the investigation. If the case drew to a quick close, the TBI reaped the positive press. If it didn’t. . . The alternative didn’t bother her. Ramsey had served as shit deflector many times in the past in her capacity as forensic consultant. If the investigation grew lengthy or remained unsolved, she would be served as sacrificial lamb to the clamoring public. Or to the state attorney’s office, if someone there decided to lay the blame on Jeffries.

“Raiker promised a mobile lab.”

“It’ll be here tomorrow,” she promised the director. “But for certain types of evidence we may need access to the TBI facility on an expedited basis.”

“We’ll try to speed any tests through the Knoxville Regional Lab.” Jeffries beetled his brows. “Just help solve this thing, Clark. It’s causing a crapstorm and I don’t want a full fledged shit tornado on my hands.”

Ramsey smiled. She’d always appreciated Jeffries’ plainspeak. “I’ll do my best, sir.”

“Can’t recall a time that wasn’t good enough for me.” Clearly finished, he turned to his agents. “I’ll expected daily updates. And keep me abreast of any major developments.” Without waiting for the men’s nods he turned and strode briskly toward a road about a quarter mile in the distance. Ramsey could make out two vehicles parked alongside it.

“I’m guessing you’d like to get on into town, drop your stuff off in the room we lined up for you,” Mark was saying.

Ramsey shook her head. “I want to see the crime scene first.” Since diplomacy was often an afterthought for her, she added belatedly, “If that’s okay.”

The sheriff raised a shoulder. “It’s all right with me. What about you fellas? Want to come along?”

The two agents looked at each other and Powell shook his head. “We’ll head back into town.” He shifted his gaze to Ramsey. “We’re set up in the local motel on the outskirts of town. One room serves as our office. We got you a room there, too when Jeffries told us you were coming.”

And by not so much as a flicker of expression did he reveal his opinion on her being brought in on the case, Ramsey noted shrewdly. She’d have to tread carefully there, with both agents, until she was certain how her presence here affected them.

“I’ll check in with you when I get to town and you can bring me up to date on your notes so far.”

When the agents headed in the same direction Jeffries had gone, she turned to Rollings.

“Let me get that for you.” He reached for her bag, but she deflected the gesture.

“I’ve got it, thanks.” She fell into step beside him as they walked toward the tan jeep emblazoned with Spring County Sheriff in black lettering on a green background. “Tell me about the case.”

“Same ol’ Ramsey.” A corner of Rollings’s mouth pulled up. “Always with the small talk. Chatter chatter chatter.” His voice hitched up a notch as he launched into a pretend conversation. ‘Well, I’m just fine, Ms. Clark. And how have you been? How’s that new job of yours? The wife? Oh, she’s fine, too. Still adjustin’ to small town life, but the two little ones keep her pretty busy. What? You’d like to see pictures? Well, it just so happens I have a couple in my wallet. Got them taken at the local Wal-Mart just last month. . . .”

“I can play the game if I need to,” she replied, only half truthfully. “Didn’t figure I needed to with you.”

He stopped at the vehicle, his hand on the handle of the driver’s door, his face serious again. “No, you don’t gotta with me. Figure we go far ‘nough back that we can just pick up. But you’ll find you’ll get further with some folks in these parts if you put forth the effort. I know you never had much patience for mindless chitchat, but the pace is slower ‘round here.”

She was more familiar than he knew with the unwritten customs and tradition demanded by polite society in the rural south. Had, in fact, spent her adult life scrubbing away most of those memories.

Rather than tell him that, she gave him a nod across the roof of the car. “I’ll keep that in mind.” She opened the back door and tossed her bag on the seat behind the wire mesh used to separate prisoners from the law enforcement personnel. Then she slid into the front passenger seat.

He folded his tall lanky form inside and started up the Jeep while she was buckling in. Several minutes later he abruptly pulled off the road and began driving across a field. After the first couple of jolts, Ramsey braced herself with one hand on the dash and the other on the roof of the car.

“Sorry.” Rollings’s lean frame seemed to move seamlessly with each jar and bump. “It’d take half an hour for us to get there by road. The kids that found the body hiked across through the woods on the other side, but going in from this direction will be an easier walk, though I’m told it takes longer. Brought the body out this way.”

“Has the victim been ID’d yet?”

“Nope. White female, between the age of eighteen and twenty-four. Found nude so no help with the clothing.” A muscle jumped in Mark’s jaw. “Not from these parts, is all I know. No hits from National Missing Persons database, at least not yet.”

So a Jane Doe, at least for now. Ramsey felt a stab of sympathy for the unknown woman. She’d died alone and away from home. Was that worse than being murdered in familiar surroundings? Somehow it seemed so.

“How valuable have the wits been?”

“What, the kids?” Mark shot her a look. “Told us what they know, which didn’t turn out to be much. Both scared silly, of course. Spouting nonsense about red mist and screaming and dancing lights. . .tell you what I think.” The Jeep hit a rut with a bone jarring bounce that rattled Ramsey’s teeth. “I think half is fueled by that blasted legend folks ‘round here insist on feeding regularly.”

“Legend?” The case file contained only facts of the case. But when facts were in short supply, other details took on more importance.

Rollings face looked pained. “Guess you’ll be hearing it from ‘bout every person you talk to in town. I know I can count of you, out of anyone, not to be distracted by nonsense.” Still, it seemed to take him a few moments to choose his words. Or maybe he was saving his strength for wrestling the Jeep. Beneath the velvety spread of pasture, the terrain was wicked.

“We’ve got something of a local phenomena here called the Red Mist. Someone else could explain it better but it’s caused by some sort of reaction from some plants ‘round here coming in contact with iron oxide in stagnant water, coupled with contaminants in the air. . .once every blue moon the fog in low lying areas takes on a red tinge for a day or two. Nothing magical about it of course, ‘cept the way it makes folks ‘round here take leave of their senses.”

“So the kids that found the body saw this red mist?”

“That’s what they’re saying. And I do have others in these parts that claim they saw the same thing, so might’ve been true. But local legend has it that whenever the red mist appears, death follows.”

The Jeep hit a rut then that had Ramsey rapping her head smartly on the ceiling of the vehicle. With a grim smile, she repositioned herself more securely in her seat and waited for her internal organs to settle back into place. Then she shot the man beside her a look. “Well, all nonsense aside, Sheriff, so far it appears your local legend is more grounded in facts than you want to admit.”

Rollings brought the Jeep to a halt a few hundred yards shy of the first copse of trees. “Don’t even joke about that,” he advised grimly. “My office is spending too much of our time dealing with hysterical locals who set too much store by superstitious hogwash. The truth is, this is a quiet place. The crime we do have tends to be drunk and disorderlies after payday at the lumber mill, or the occasional domestic dispute. Once in a while we have a fire, or a bad accident to respond to. But violent crime is a stranger here. And when it appears, people don’t understand it. They get scared, and when folks get scared they search for meaning. This legend is just their way of getting a handle on how bad things can happen near their town.”

Ramsey got out of the car and stretched, avoiding, as long as possible, having to look at that expanse of woods ahead of them. “That’s down right philosophical, Mark. Didn’t learn that in the psych courses at TBI.”

He reached back into the car for the shotgun mounted above the dash, and straightened to shut the door, a ghost of a smile playing across his mouth. “You’re right there. I understand these people. Lived here most of my life. I know how they think. How they react. Don’t always agree with ‘em. But I can usually figure where they’re coming from.”

They headed for the woods, and Ramsey could feel her palms start to dampen. Her heart began to thud, the physical reaction annoying her. It was just trees, for godsakes. Each nothing but a mass of carbon dioxide. And she’d mastered this ridiculous fear—she had—years ago.

Deliberately, she quickened her step. “You hoping to go hunting while we’re here?” She cocked her head at the shotgun he carried.

“Not much of a hunter. But we do have some wildlife in these parts. Those kids were downright stupid to come in here at night. There’s feral pigs in these woods. An occasional bobcat. Seen enough copperheads around in my time to keep me wary.”

When her legs wanted to falter at his words, she kept them moving steadily forward. Felt the first cool shadows from the trees overhead slick over her skin like a demon’s kiss.

“Wish I could tell you there was much of a crime scene,” Mark was saying as he walked alongside her. “But apparently a bunch of kids dared eachother to come into the woods and bring back proof they’d been here. First ones back to town got bragging rights, I ‘spect. So they paired off and trooped out in this direction. Shortly after the two found the victim, a few other kids arrived on the scene. And then the whole thing became one big clusterfuck because we had tracks and prints all over the damn place.”

Ramsey felt a familiar surge of impatience. No one liked to have the scene contaminated but one of the few downsides to her job with Raiker Forensics was that she was rarely called to a fresh crime scene. By the time their services were requested, the crime could be days, or weeks old. She had to satisfy herself with case files, pictures of the scene and notes taken by the local law enforcement.

“The way Jeffries talked, you’ve gotten more than your share of unwanted media attention.” They stepped deeper into the woods now and the trees seemed to close in, sucking them in to shadowy interior. She resisted the urge to wipe her dampening palms on her pants leg. “Seems odd for national news to be interested in a homicide in rural Tennessee.”

“I suspect some local nutjob tipped them off. It’s the legend again.” Mark’s face was shiny with perspiration, but Ramsey was chilled. She would be until they stepped back out into the daylight again. “Every two or three decades there’s this Red Mist phenomena and a couple times in the past there’s been a homicide around the same time. The two circumstances get linked, and all of a sudden we have people jabbering about secret spells and century old curses and what have you.”

She made a noncommittal sound. Part of her attention was keeping a wary eye out for those copperheads he’d mentioned so matter-of-factly. But despite her impatience with idle chitchat, she was interested in all the details that would have been missing from the dried police-speak accounting of facts pertinent to the case so far. Evidence was in short supply. It was people who would solve this case. People who’d seen something. Knew something. The tiniest bit of information could end up being key to the homicide. And with no murder weapon and no suspects and little trace evidence, she’d take all the information she could get.

“We’re still trying to sort out tracks from the kids at the scene with any that may have been there earlier.”

“And you’ve eliminated each of the kids as the possible killer?”

“Shoot, Ramsey these kids are sixteen, seventeen years old!”

When she merely looked at him, brows raised, he had the grace to look abashed. “Yeah, I know what you’ve seen in your career. I’ve seen the same. But ‘round here we don’t have kids with the conscience of wild dogs. They all alibi each other for up to thirty minutes before the body’s discovery. Witnesses place the lot of them at Sody’s parking lot for the same time. Pretty unlikely a couple hightailed it into the woods, committed murder and dumped the body knowing more kids would be traipsing in any minute.”

Unlikely, yes. Impossible, no. But Ramsey kept her thoughts to herself. She was more anxious than ever to review all the notes on the case and hear what Agents Powell and Matthews had to say on the subject.

There was a rustle in the underbrush to her right, but it didn’t get her blood racing. No, that feat was accomplished by the trees themselves, looming like sinister sentinels above her. Hemming her in with their close proximity. She rubbed at her arms, where goose flesh prickled and shoved at the mental door of her mind to lock those memories away.

Some would have found the scene charming, with sun dappling the forest floor with brilliant slants of light, spearing through the shadow. They wouldn’t look at the scene and see danger behind every tree trunk. Wouldn’t feel terror lurking behind. Horror ahead.

The trail narrowed, forcing her to follow Rollings single file. “Whose property are we on?”

“Most of it belongs to the county. We’ve got little parcels that butt up against the land of property owners but we’re standing on county ground right now.” They walked in silence another fifteen minutes and Ramsey wondered anew at any kids foolish enough to make this trek at night.

Sixteen or seventeen, Mark had said they were. She knew firsthand just how naïve kids that age could be. How easily fooled. And how quickly things could go very wrong.

One moment they were deep in the forest the next they walked out into a clearing with a large pond. It was ringed with towering pines and massive oaks, their branches dripping with Spanish moss and curling vines. The water looked boggy at the edge closest to them, with clumps of rushes and wild grasses interspersed between the trees.

Ramsey’s gaze was drawn immediately to the crime scene tape still fluttering from the wooden stakes hammered into the ground. A plastic evidence marker poked partway out of the trampled weeds near the pond, overlooked by the investigators when they’d packed up.

And in the center of that tape, crouched at the water’s edge was a man repeatedly dunking something into the water and then holding it up to examine it before repeating the action yet again. A few yards away a jumble of equipment was piled on the ground.

She eyed Rollings. “One of yours?”

The sheriff looked pained as he shook his head. “Now, Ramsey,” he started, as she turned toward the stranger. “Better let me handle this.”
But she was already striding away. “Hey. Hey!”

The man raised a hand in a lazy salute, but it was clear he was much more interested in the reading on the instrument he held than he was in her. Ramsey waited until he’d lowered the tool to jot a notation down in the notebook open on his lap before he looked up, shot her a lazy grin. “Afternoon, ma’am.”

“Interesting thing about that yellow tape all around you,” she said with mock politeness. “It’s actually meant to keep people out of a crime scene, not invite them inside it.”

The sun at her back had the man squinting a bit at her, but the smile never left his face. And it was, for a man, an extraordinarily attractive face. His jaw was long and lean, his eyes a bright laser blue. The golden shade of his hair was usually found only on the very young or the very determined. Someone had broken his nose for him, and the slight bump in it was the only imperfection in a demeanor that was otherwise almost too flawless. Ramsey disliked him on sight just on principal.

“Well, fact is, ma’am, this isn’t an active crime scene anymore. Hey, Mark.” He called a friendly greeting to the man behind her. “Kendra May know you’re out walking pretty girls around the woods?”

“Dev. Thought you’d be finished up here by now.”

Ramsey caught the sheepish note in Rollings’s voice and arched a brow at him. The sheriff intercepted it and followed up with an introduction. “Ramsey Clark, this is my cousin, Devlin Stryker. He’s uh. . .just running some tests.”

“Your cousin,” she repeated carefully. “And does your cousin work for the department? If so, in what capacity?”

Rollings’s face reddened a little. “No. He’s a. . .well, he’s sort of a scientist, you could say.”

Stryker rose in one lithe motion and made his way carefully back to the rest of his belongings, which included, she noted, a large duffel bag with unfamiliar looking instruments strewn around it; a couple cameras, a night vision light source and. . .she blinked once. . .a neatly rolled up sleeping bag.

“Odd place to go camping.”

“Can’t say I used the sleeping bag much last night.” He unzipped the duffel and began placing his things inside it. “Too worried about snakes. I thought I’d stick around a while to compare last night’s readings with some from today.”

With quick neat movements he placed everything but the sleeping bag in the duffle and zipped it, standing up to sling its strap over his shoulder. “I’m done here for now, though.”

“Done with what, exactly?”

Devlin sent her an easy smile that carried just enough charm to have her defenses slamming firmly into place. “Well, let’s see. I used a thermal scanner to measure temperature changes. An EMF meter to guage electromagnetic fields. An ion detector to calculate the presence of negative ions. Then there’s the guassometer, which. . .”

Comprehension warring with disbelief, Ramsey swung back to face Rollings, her voice incredulous. “A ghosthunter? Are you kidding me? You let some paranormal quack compromise the crime scene?”

 

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Waking the Dead

Chapter One

Seven stainless steel gurneys were lined up in the morgue, each occupied by a partially assembled skeleton and a large garbage bag. The bones gleamed under the florescent lights. An eighth gurney was heaped with the stray bones that had been found lying separately. Caitlin Fleming’s first thought was that the extra bones looked forlorn. Deprived of their dignity, until they could be rejoined to form the remnant of the person they’d once belonged to.

Her second thought was that without the skulls, the chances of identifying those persons decreased dramatically.

“What do you think?” Sheriff Marin Andrews demanded. Her booted feet echoed heavily as she walked from one gurney to the next. “The bones were pretty much loose in the bags, but the medical examiner made an attempt to re-assemble them. We brought out the bones scattered on the bottom of the cave floor in a separate body bag. Recovery operation was a bitch, I’m telling you. The cave branches off from the original vein, gets wider and higher. Then it drops off to a steep chamber about seven feet down. These were probably dumped from above into that chamber.”

Cait barely restrained a wince as she thought of what the recovery process might have entailed. And what could have been destroyed or overlooked. “I think I’ll want to see the cave.”

Andrews’s expression first revealed shock, then amusement. “Fortunately for you, that won’t be necessary. It’s on the face of Castle Rock and not too accessible. Either you climb or rappel down over the edge, or you scale upwards nearly eight hundred feet. There are trails, of course, but they could be tricky for an inexperienced climber. We don’t need an injury on our hands before we even get started.”

“I’m not inexperienced.” Cait knew exactly what the sheriff saw when she looked at her. It was, after all, the appearance she’d cultivated for well over a decade. But her days on the runways of New York, Milan and Paris were long behind her. She was most comfortable these days in a room exactly like this one or hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I’ll want to see the cave,” she repeated firmly.

The other woman shrugged. She wasn’t much older than Cait, maybe thirty-five or so. Her looks were nondescript. A sturdy build filling out a beige uniform. Close cropped light brown hair and hazel eyes. But Cait knew better than anyone that appearances could be deceiving. Marin Andrews had a reputation for being an excellent, if ambitious cop. And that ambition, along with her father’s millions, were rumored to be priming her for a chase to the governor’s mansion.

Cait’s help in solving this case would provide a stepping stone to that end.

“Figured you’d want to see the area, anyway. We’ve hired Zach Sharper to stay available during the course of the investigation to take you anywhere you want. He’s the guide who found the bodies. Said he was preparing for a client who wanted to spelunk some out of the way caves, so Zach explored a few off the beaten path. Thought he’d discovered a new one when he stumbled on this.” Andrews’s waved a hand at the skeletons. “He runs a wilderness guide company. Rafting, kayaking, mountain climbing, hiking, that sort of thing.” The assessing look in her eye said better than words that she didn’t believe Cait’s assertion of her outdoor experience. “He’s also on the search and rescue team when campers and hikers go missing. He’s got some rough edges, but he’s the best in the state.”

“I can handle rough edges.” Cait walked around the gurneys to look more closely at the nearly identical junctures where the skulls had been separated from each skeleton. “Looks like an ax may have been used here. Or something else with a wide sharp blade heavy enough to decapitate the victim with one blow.” If they were living in the 1600s she’d suspect a guillotine. The slice was that clean. There were no serrations at the top of the skeletons. The skulls hadn’t been sawed off. “You’ve got four men and three women, but I suspect the medical examiner told you that.”

“He did, but this thing is way out of his league and he knows it. He’s a pathologist, not a forensic anthropologist. When I saw what we had here, I immediately thought of Raiker Forensics. Adam Raiker assures me you’re the best in this field.”

She bent over to examine the femur of the second skeleton. The guy had suffered a fracture to it at some point in his life. It had knit cleanly, suggesting certain medical attention. “I am,” she responded absently. She looked up then to arrow a look at Andrews. “My assistant will be arriving at dawn tomorrow with our equipment. Will this facility remain available to us?”

“It will. Anything you need, talk to the Lane County ME. His name is Steve Michaels. You’ll have to meet him tomorrow.” Cait followed the direction of the woman’s gaze as she looked at the clock. Eight PM. And Cait had left Dulles Airport at six am, east coast time. Weariness was edging in, warring with hunger.

“I’ve arranged two rooms for you and your assistant at the Landview Suites here in Eugene. You’ve rented a vehicle?”

“Picked it up at the airport.” The compact SUV looked perfect for the ground she’d be covering in the course of this investigation. “I’d like all the maps you can provide for the area. Roads, forests, surrounding towns. . .” A thought struck her then and she looked at the other woman. “And thanks for arranging for the weapon permit so quickly.” Raiker refused to let any of his consultants work without one.

Andrews lifted a shoulder. “Raiker made it clear that condition wasn’t up for discussion. I doubt you’ll need it. These bones have probably been in that cave for a decade or more. Even if we determine foul play, that would mean the unknown subject could be long gone by now. The threat should be minimal.”

“You think so? Come smell this.” She held up the skeleton’s leg with one hand under its fibula.

Andrews looked at her askance but she approached cautiously and gave a token sniff. When she straightened she looked quizzical.

“Calcium oxide.” The faint but unmistakable odor still clung to the bones. “Lime,” she explained when the sheriff looked confused. “It’s possible that we’ll find it’s a naturally occurring element in the cave’s chambers.”

“Or perhaps an UNSUB decided to hasten the decomposition process by covering the corpse with lime prior to dumping the remains,” Andrews said slowly.

Cait nodded. “Even without help, it doesn’t take decades for a corpse to be reduced to a skeleton. In some climates it’d be a week if the body were left out in the elements. In Oregon it’d take several weeks or months, depending on where the body’s dumped, the season, the temperature, insect and animal access. Maybe you’re right and these bones have been there for decades. But not necessarily.”

When she saw the satisfied gleam in the sheriff’s eye, Cait knew she’d read the woman correctly. Whatever the outcome of this case, Andrews was going use it to vault her political career. And solving a current crime spree would make for a lot better press than some old murders that had happened long ago.

But the woman only said, “I’ve got a copy of the case file for you in the car. You’ll be reporting directly to me, but a great deal of the time I’ll have you working side by side with my lead investigator, Mitch Barnes. You can meet him tomorrow, too.”

Her attention was already back on the skeletons. There was a lot of preparatory work to be done on them, but it would have to wait until tomorrow when Kristy arrived. Although she’d be supervising the lab work, these days Cait was an investigator first, a forensic anthropologist second. And she was anxious to get a look at the secondary scene.

“I’ll want to get my assistant started first thing tomorrow morning. Have Barnes meet me here at nine and tell Sharper to stand by. We’ll head up to. . .”

“. . .McKenzie Bridge,” the other woman supplied.

“. . .and he can take me to Castle Rock. Show me how he happened to discovered the remains of seven people.” She shot a glance at the sheriff as they headed to the door. “How did Sharper react to the discovery? Is he pretty shaken up?”

Andrews gave a bark of laughter, real amusement showing in her expression. “Nothing shakes up Sharper, unless it’s people wasting his time. He’ll be steady enough, don’t worry. But he won’t win any congeniality contests.”

Cait shrugged. “I don’t need congenial. I’ll be satisfied with competent.”

Andrews led the way out of the morgue, the echo of her booted footsteps ringing hollowly. “I may need to remind you of those words after you meet him.”

Her first stop had been an office supply store. The next was a fast food drive through for a grilled chicken salad with definite wilting around the edges. Cait had eaten in between setting up her work area. The crime scene photos were tacked to the white display boards sitting on top of the desk. A collection of labels, index cards, markers and post it notes sat neatly at the base.

Now she sat on the bed leaning against the headboard, the contents of the fat accordion file folder scattered across her lap and on the mattress. The photographs taken in the cave chamber had been taken with a low light lens, but they were still darker than she’d like. While she was able to easily make out the skeletons’ proximity to one another, it would be much more difficult to use the pictures to tell which one was which.

There was a preliminary report from the ME, Steve Michaels, and it appeared to be solid work. Exact measurements of each set of bones were included, as was a thorough examination for evidence of trauma. None of the skeletons showed recent signs of injury. Perhaps the missing skulls would. Or maybe the deaths were the result of poison. Cait narrowed her eyes, considering. She found herself hoping the decapitation had been enacted posthumously. The deaths would be too gruesome to contemplate otherwise.

Had the skulls been removed to impede identification of the victims? To prevent investigators from detecting a telltale method of death? Or were they kept by the perp as trophies?

Taking a look at her watch, Cait began gathering up the materials and replacing them in the file. But it occurred to her that if she could answer those questions, she’d be a long way toward profiling the UNSUB they were searching for.

Kristy Jensen was a full foot shorter than Cait at four-eleven, a wispy ethereal creature with an otherworldly air. Slap a pair of wings on her, and with her elfin features and blonde wavy hair, Cait had always thought she’d looked like a fairy in a kid’s storybook.

Once she opened her mouth, however, that notion would be dispelled forever.

“There is no fucking good way to get to this fuck dump of a town, you know that, don’t you?” Kristy sipped at her Starbucks coffee and aimed a gimlet stare over the rim from cornflower blue eyes. “Charter plane, my ass. Eight fucking hours it took me from Dulles. I could have walked faster. I could have parachuted half way here, hitched a ride on a mother-fucking migrating duck and still gotten here before that damn plane.”

“So the plane ride was good?” Cait laughed at her diminutive friend fingered her as they entered the morgue. “And you owe me four bucks. I’m giving you a pass on the ‘damn’, and the one finger salute, because at least that’s silent.”

“We haven’t even started work yet,” Kristy complained. But she was already digging in her purse to pull out the money. “I think we should change the rules so it only counts during work time.”

“Tough love.” Cait snatched the five from the woman’s hand and handed her a one in change. “You wanted help cleaning up your language. Can’t change the rules mid course.”

“Why not, nothing else has changed, except for my disposable income. I’m still swearing like a one-legged sailor.”

They showed their temporary ID to the clerk at the front desk and headed down the long hallway to the room where Andrews had brought Cait the evening before.

“Discipline,” she chided. But there was no heat to the word. She could care less whether Kristy sounded like a hardened special ops soldier, as long as she did her job to Cait’s exact specifications. And since she was the best assistant she’d ever been assigned, Cait was satisfied. “Anyway you’ll cheer up quick enough once you see what we have to work with.” She paused before the door at the end of the hall, before opening it with a dramatic flourish.

“Sweeeeet,” Kristy breathed, when she got a glimpse of the remains on the gurneys. “Very sweet. What do we have, mass burial? Mass murder,” she corrected as she got closer and noted the lack of human skulls attached.

“I suppose we have to allow for the possibility that someone stumbled upon that cave long before the wilderness guide did,” mused Cait. The thought had occurred belatedly, once she’d gone to bed, the contents of the files still filling her mind. “Someone with a sense of the macabre who took the skulls as souvenirs.” There were other possibilities, of course. But she found it unlikely that a group of cave explorers would have all followed each other down into the chamber, once one had fallen in. Unless it was a suicide pact.

Kristy was practically salivating as she walked between each gurney. “So you want me to clean them first, right? And then match up the spare parts with the proper skeleton?”

“I want you to start a photograph log first,” Cait corrected. “I need a notebook kept of images of each skeleton throughout each step of the process.” It would easier to correct mistakes that way, especially in the tricky process of reassembling the full remains of each, which was often a matter of trial and error. “The ME should be around somewhere. Get him to give you a copy of the measurements he’s done.”

“But you’ll want me to do my own,” the other woman said surely.

Cait sent her a look of approval. “I doubt he had a caliper to do the measurements with. We’ll want to double check and make sure the bones are with the right remains. Match the spare ones over on that extra gurney. And then you can clean the bones. And we’ll see exactly what we’ve got here.”

“What should I do in my spare time?” But her sarcasm was checked. Kristy was hooked by the enormity of their task, just as Cait was. Anticipation was all but radiating off her in waves.

“I heard voices.” At the sound of the newcomer the women turned toward the door. The man approaching them was average height, with hair as dark as Cait’s. He wore blue scrubs, shoe covers and a slight smile that faded as he got closer. Then his expression took on that slightly stunned expression that was all too familiar. He stared from Cait to Kristy and back again, with the look of a starving man surrounded by a steaming banquet. “Ah. . . Michaels.” He held out his hand to each of them in turn, visibly wrestling to get the words out in proper order. “Steve. I am, that is.”

He looked chagrined but Cait spared him no slack. “Well, Michaels Steve, I’m Cait Fleming.” She jerked a thumb at the other woman. “My assistant Kristy Jensen. I’ve got your preliminary report. Appreciate it. Kristy will be working down here most of the time. I’ve been assured that whatever she needs, she can come to you.”

While she spoke the man seemed to have regained his powers of speech. But twin flags of color rode high on his cheeks and his dark eyes still looked dazed. “Certainly.” He dragged his gaze away from Cait and fixed it on Kristy. “Certainly,” he repeated.

“Then I’ll leave you to get started.” She didn’t know if the investigator would be here yet, but she wasn’t anxious to spend any more time with the ME who looked like he’d just cast them in a low budget porn fantasy involving a threesome and a stainless steel coroner’s station. She started out of the room, throwing a look at Kristy over her shoulder. “Keep me posted.”

As she headed through the door she heard her assistant say sweetly, “So Michaels Steve, why don’t we go out to the truck and you can help unload the mother-fucking equipment.”

A smirk on her lips, Cait decided to let it slide. Nothing to shatter a guy’s X rated fantasy than a pint sized angelic blonde with a mouth like a sewage plant. She almost felt sorry for him. Would have if she weren’t still annoyed at his all too common reaction. As it was, she figured he was going to get exactly what he deserved working with Kristy.

When she stepped out of the morgue doors she saw the Lane County Sheriff squad car pulling up to the curb a full fifteen minutes early. Her good humor restored, Cait rounded it to approach the driver’s door. A stocky deputy got out, extended his hand. “Mitch Barnes, Ms. Fleming.”

Belatedly, Cait realized she was still wearing the morgue temporary ID. She pulled it off as she shook hands with the deputy. “Looking forward to working with you, Mitch.”

The man came to her chin, had receding blonde hair and brown eyes that were pure cop. And it was her shoulder harness that drew his attention rather than her face or figure. She liked him immediately for that fact alone.

“Sheriff says you want to head up to Mckenzie Bridge. Over to Castle Rock.”

She nodded as she dropped her ID into her purse. “I’d like to get a look at the dumpsite. Get a feel for it.”

“You got the pictures?”

Understanding what he was getting at, she nodded. “Still want to see it.”

Shrugging, he leaned into his front seat only to withdraw a moment later with an armful of maps. “Andrews said you asked for these.”

“I did, thanks.” She took stack from him. “If you want to lead the way up to the McKenzie Bridge area, I’ll follow this time. That way you don’t have to wait around while I go through the cave if you don’t want to.”

“Sounds good. It’s about a forty-five minute drive. I’ll call Sharper on the way and let him know we’re coming by.” A smirk flashed across the man’s otherwise professional demeanor. “He’ll be thrilled to take you to the cave.”

Coupled with the sheriff’s comments the night before, Cait had the distinct impression that the guide they kept mentioning was light on social graces. The thought didn’t bother her nearly as much as it would if he were another ogler like the ME.

Men like that rarely brought out the best in her.

How the hell had he gotten into this mess?

Fuming, Zach Sharper threw another look at the rear view mirror at the empty ribbon of road behind him. The answer was swift in coming. Ever since he’d reported his findings from that cave, Andrews had had him wrapped up like a damn trick monkey. First he’d had to lead law enforcement to the place. Then there’d been the incessant questioning.

And now he found himself forced to be at the beck and call of some consultant hired by the sheriff’s office. Playing glorified nursemaid to a cop—or close enough to a cop—promised to be worse than the biggest pain in the ass client he ran across from time to time. At least he had a choice taking on the clients.

Yeah, not being given a choice here rankled the most.

He saw the county car headed toward him. Zach put on his sunglasses and got out of his Jeep. Damned if he’d been about to travel down to Eugene and then back again, once he’d heard what the consultant wanted. And he sure as hell hadn’t wasn’t going to arrange for the cops to meet him at his place. Whispering Pines was his getaway. His refuge. Guests were rarely invited.

A small navy SUV pulled off the road in back of the sheriff’s car. He was unsurprised to see Mitch Barnes get out of the lead car. The way Zach heard it Barnes did most of the grunt work for Andrews while she got all the glory. He’d been the first of the cops to follow Zach into that cave. The sheriff sure hadn’t gone in, though she’d been present, running things on top Castle Rock while her people had hauled the bones out. If Barnes wanted another pass at the cave he sure as hell didn’t need Zach. He knew where it was located.

Made a guy wonder if this was just one more way for Andrews to yank his chain, show him that she was calling the shots.

He got out of the car and walked toward the deputy, who was approaching on the inside shoulder. The driver of the SUV got out, too, but it was Barnes Zach concentrated on. He wasn’t a bad sort, for a cop. Maybe he could talk him into a change of plans. Zach was resigned to the fact that he wasn’t going to get out of this forced alliance with the sheriff’s office. But Andrews wouldn’t necessarily have to know whether he was the one playing nursemaid, or if one of Zach’s employees fulfilled the duty.

Although truth be told, he wasn’t sure he had an employee he disliked enough to saddle with this job.

“Barnes,” he said by way of greeting. The other man gave him a nod. Wasting no time, he continued, “Maybe you and me can reach a. . .”

“Sharper, I want you to meet Caitlin Fleming, a consultant for the sheriff’s department. She’s with Raiker Forensics.”

The inflection in the man’s voice imbued his last words with meaning. But it was his earlier words that had Zach halting in disbelief. Tipping his Wayfarers down he looked—really looked—at the woman approaching.

The mile long legs could be right. And she was tall enough; only a few inches shorter than his own six-three height. The kiss-my-ass cheekbones were familiar. But it was the thick black hair that clinched it, though shorter now than it’d been all those years ago. He didn’t need her to remove her tinted glasses to know the eyes behind them were moss green and guaranteed to turn any breathing male into an instant walking hard-on.

His voice terse, he turned his attention to the deputy and said, “Is this some kind of a joke?”

Barnes blinked. “What?”

“I mean are there going to be TV trucks and cameras following our every move?” Christ, what a clusterfuck. He could already imagine it. But he’d seen enough so-called entertainment featuring desperate cultural celebrities to anticipate what was going on here. “I’m not about to get involved in a reality TV show or whatever the hell she’s part of. You can tell Andrews the deal is off.” Andrews had threatened to jam him up with the constant renewal of permits needed to take his clients camping or kayaking. But maybe he could bribe someone at the permit department to circumvent her meddling. He was willing to take his chances.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“He’s talking about me.” The voice was smoke, pure sex. He’d never heard her speak before, but he’d imagined it often enough years ago in his adolescent fantasies. “Probably recognizes me from some of my modeling work, isn’t that right, Sharper? A long time ago. If you want me to believe you’ve changed from a sweaty hormone ridden teenage boy who undoubtedly used one of my posters to fuel your juvenile wet dreams, then you’ll have to credit that I too grew up and moved on. I want a first hand look at that cave. You’re going to take me there.”

Somehow when he’d imagined her talking decades ago it had been without that tone of withering disdain. His disbelief dissipated, the skepticism remained. He slanted a glance at the deputy. “Seriously, Barnes. This is the department’s consultant?”

The man’s manner was stiff. “Like I said, she’s from Raiker Forensics. The Mindhunters. That might not mean anything to you, but in law enforcement circles it carries a helluva lot of weight.”

Caitlin Fleming as a cop. The implausibility of it still rang in his mind. But then he gave a mental shrug. Most people in these parts used to be something else. Many were reluctant to talk about their pasts. Including him.

Especially him.

He looked her over again, noting the jeans, tennis shoes and long sleeve navy t-shirt. “Either we hike down Castle Rock or climb up it. Either way, it’s not a walk in the park. Mitch here can tell you that. You might want to rethink visiting it in person.”

Instead of responding, she looked at the deputy. “You coming along?”

He shook his head. “Once was enough for me. I’ve been stopping in at the forest service stations in the area. Getting a look at the citations they’ve issued in the last few years.”

She nodded. “I’ll be anxious to look them over when you’re done. See you back in Eugene, then. This will probably take most of the day.” She walked back to her SUV and pulled a pack out of the back of it. Then she locked it and headed back to where they stood waiting for her.

“We’ll use your vehicle, Sharper. I don’t care which approach we take to the cave, although I’ll want to explore both of them.” She headed toward where he’d left his pickup parked on the shoulder of the road. Her voice drifted behind her as she walked away. “I’d already been warned you were an asshole, so your attitude isn’t much of a surprise. But it’ll be up to you to convince me that you’re as good at your job as I’ve heard. Right now, I’ve got to say, I have my doubts.”

 

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