Authors: Tami Hoag
Tags: #Psychological, #Serial Murderers, #Psychological Fiction, #Serial murders, #Mystery & Detective, #Government Investigators, #General, #Romance, #Suspense, #Minneapolis (Minn.), #Mystery Fiction, #Fiction
He performs his profane ceremony in a wooded Minneapolis park, anointing his victims, then setting the bodies ablaze. He has already claimed three lives, and he won’t stop there. Only this time there is a witness. But she isn’t talking.
Enter Kate Conlan, former FBI agent turned victim/witness advocate. Not even she can tell if the reluctant witness is a potential victim or something more troubling still. Her superiors are interested only because the latest victim may be the daughter of Peter Bondurant, an enigmatic billionaire. When he pulls strings, Special Agent John Quinn gets assigned to the case. But the FBI’s ace profiler of serial killers is the last person Kate wants to work with, not with their troubled history. Now she faces the most difficult role of her career—and her life. For she’s the only woman who has what it takes to stop the killer… and the one woman he wants next.
In the darkness a match is struck. Not for heat, not for light… but to ignite the fire of a killer. He leaves nothing behind but ashes… and the ice-cold certainty that he will strike again.
MY THANKS AND heartfelt gratitude first and foremost to Special Agent Larry Brubaker, FBI, for so generously sharing his time and expertise. I state unequivocally he was
the pattern for Vince Walsh! (Sorry about that, Bru.) I will also note here that between beginning this book and finishing it, a number of changes have taken place in the FBI units formerly—and within this story—known as Investigative Support and CASKU (Child Abduction Serial Killer Unit). Now under the blanket heading of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, the agents in this unit no longer work sixty feet below ground at the FBI Academy in Quantico. Literally moving up in the world, they get to have windows in their new place. Not as interesting for writers, but the agents appreciate it.
My sincere gratitude also to the following law enforcement and legal services professionals for graciously giving their time to answer my many questions. As always, I’ve done my best to bring a feeling of authenticity to the jobs depicted within this book. Any mistakes made or liberties taken in the name of fiction are my own.
Frances James, Hennepin County Victim/Witness Program
Donna Dunn, Olmsted County Victim Services
Sergeant Bernie Martinson, Minneapolis PD
Special Agent in Charge Roger Wheeler, FBI
Lieutenant Dale Barsness, Minneapolis PD
Detective John Reed, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office
Andi Sisco: A million thanks for making connections for me! You’re a star.
Diva Karyn, aka Elizabeth Grayson: Special thanks for some inspired suggestions regarding a particularly gruesome fetish used herein. Who says suspense writers have cornered the market on disgusting knowledge?
author Eileen Dreyer: Thanks for the usual support, technical and otherwise.
Diva Bush, aka Kim Cates: For more of the same.
And special thanks, Rocket, for your support, empathy, encouragement, and the occasional necessary kick in the ass. Misery loves company.
SOME KILLERS ARE born. Some killers are made. And sometimes the origin of desire for homicide is lost in the tangle of roots that make an ugly childhood and a dangerous youth, so that no one may ever know if the urge was inbred or induced.
He lifts the body from the back of the Blazer like a roll of old carpet to be discarded. The soles of his boots scuff against the blacktop of the parking area, then fall nearly silent on the dead grass and hard ground. The night is balmy for November in Minneapolis. A swirling wind tosses fallen leaves. The bare branches of the trees rattle together like bags of bones.
He knows he falls into the last category of killers. He has spent many hours, days, months, years studying his compulsion and its point of origin. He knows what he is, and he embraces that truth. He has never known guilt or remorse. He believes conscience, rules, laws, serve the individual no practical purpose, and only limit human possibilities.
“Man enters into the ethical world through fear and not through love.”—Paul Ricoeur
, The Symbolism of Evil.
His True Self adheres only to his own code: domination, manipulation, control.
A broken shard of moon glares down on the scene, its light faint beneath the web of limbs. He arranges the body to his satisfaction and traces two intersecting X’s over the left upper chest. With a sense of ceremony, he pours the accelerant. Anointing the dead. Symbolism of evil. His True Self embraces the concept of evil as power. Fuel for the internal fire.
“Ashes to ashes.”
The sounds are ordered and specific, magnified by his excitement. The scrape of the match against the friction strip, the pop as it bursts with flame, the whoosh of the fire as it comes alive and consumes. As the fire burns, his memory replays the earlier sounds of pain and fear. He recalls the tremor in her voice as she pleaded for her life, the unique pitch and quality of each cry as he tortured her. The exquisite music of life and death.
For one fine moment he allows himself to admire the drama of the tableau. He allows himself to feel the heat of the flames caress his face like tongues of desire. He closes his eyes and listens to the sizzle and hiss, breathes deep the smell of roasting flesh.
Elated, excited, aroused, he takes his erection out of his pants and strokes himself hard. He brings himself nearly to climax, but is careful not to ejaculate. Save it for later, when he can celebrate fully.
His goal is in sight. He has a plan, meticulously thought out, to be executed with perfection. His name will live in infamy with all the great ones—Bundy, Kemper, the Boston Strangler, the Green River Killer. The press here has already given him a name: the Cremator.
It makes him smile. It makes him proud. He lights another match and holds it just in front of him, studying the flame, loving the sinuous, sensuous undulation of it. He brings it closer to his face, opens his mouth, and eats it.
Then he turns and walks away. Already thinking of next time.
The sight burned its impression into the depths of her memory, into the backs of her eyeballs so that she could see it when she blinked against the tears. The body twisting in slow agony against its horrible fate. Orange flame a backdrop for the nightmare image.
She ran, her lungs burning, her legs burning, her eyes burning, her throat burning. In one abstract corner of her mind, she was the corpse. Maybe this was what death was like. Maybe it
her body roasting, and this consciousness was her soul trying to escape the fires of hell. She had been told repeatedly that was where she would end up.
In the near distance she could hear a siren and see the weird flash of blue and red lights against the night. She ran for the street, sobbing, stumbling. Her right knee hit the frozen ground, but she forced her feet to keep moving.
Run run run run run run—
The cruiser still rocked at the curb. The door was open. The cop was on the boulevard, gun drawn and pointed straight at her.
“Help me!” The words rasped in her throat.
“Help me!” she gasped, tears blurring her vision.
Her legs buckled beneath the weight of her body and the weight of her fear and the weight of her heart that was pounding like some huge swollen thing in her chest.
The cop was beside her in an instant, holstering his weapon and dropping to his knees to help. Must be a rookie, she thought dimly. She knew fourteen-year-old kids with better street instincts. She could have gotten his weapon. If she’d had a knife, she could have raised herself up and stabbed him.
He pulled her up into a sitting position with a hand on either shoulder. Sirens wailed in the distance.
“What happened? Are you all right?” he demanded. He had a face like an angel.
“I saw him,” she said, breathless, shaking, bile pushing up the back of her throat. “I was there. Oh—Jesus. Oh—shit. I saw him!”
“WHY AM I always the one in the wrong place at the wrong time?” Kate Conlan muttered to herself.
First day back from what had technically been a vacation—a guilt-forced trip to visit her parents in hell’s amusement park (Las Vegas)—she was late for work, had a headache, wanted to strangle a certain sex crimes sergeant for spooking one of her clients—a screw-up
would pay for with the prosecuting attorney. All that and the fashionably chunky heel on a brand new pair of suede pumps was coming loose, thanks to the stairs in the Fourth Avenue parking ramp.
Now this. A twitcher.
No one else seemed to notice him prowling the edge of the spacious atrium of the Hennepin County Government Center like a nervous cat. Kate made the guy for late thirties, no more than a couple of inches past her own five-nine, medium-to-slender build. Wound way too tight. He’d likely suffered some kind of personal or emotional setback recently—lost his job or his girlfriend. He was either divorced or separated; living on his own, but not homeless. His clothes were rumpled, but not castoffs, and his shoes were too good for homeless. He was sweating like a fat man in a sauna, but he kept his coat on as he paced around and around the new piece of sculpture littering the hall—a symbolic piece of pretension fashioned from melted-down handguns. He was muttering to himself, one hand hanging on to the open front of his heavy canvas jacket. A hunter’s coat. His inner emotional strain tightened the muscles of his face.
Kate slipped off her loose-heeled shoe and stepped out of the other one, never taking her eyes off the guy. She dug a hand into her purse and came out with her cell phone. At the same instant, the twitcher caught the interest of the woman working the information booth twenty feet away.
Kate straightened slowly, punching the speed-dial button. She couldn’t dial security from an outside phone. The nearest guard was across the broad expanse of the atrium, smiling, laughing, engaged in conversation with a mailman. The information lady came toward the twitcher with her head to one side, as if her cotton-candy cone of blond hair were too heavy.
The office phone rang once … twice. Kate started moving slowly forward, phone in one hand, shoe in the other.
“Can I help you, sir?” the information woman said, still ten feet away. Blood was going to wreck the hell out of her ivory silk blouse.
The twitcher jerked around.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked again.
… fourth ring …
A Latina woman with a toddler in tow cut through the distance between Kate and the twitcher. Kate thought she could see the tremors begin—his body fighting to contain the rage or the desperation or whatever was driving him or eating him alive.
… fifth ring. “Hennepin County Attorney’s Office—”
The movement was unmistakable—planting the feet, reaching into the jacket, eyes going wider.
“Get down!” Kate shouted, dropping the phone.
The information woman froze.
“Someone fucking pays!” the twitcher cried, lunging toward the woman, grabbing hold of her arm with his free hand. He jerked her toward him, thrusting his gun out ahead of her. The explosion of the shot was magnified in the towering atrium, deafening all ears to the shrieks of panic it elicited. Everyone noticed him now.
Kate barreled into him from behind, swinging the heel end of her shoe against his temple like a hammer. He expelled a cry of startled shock, then came back hard with his right elbow, catching Kate in the ribs.
The information woman screamed and screamed. Then lost her feet or lost consciousness, and the weight of her falling body jerked down on her assailant. He dropped to one knee, shouting obscenities, firing another round, this one skipping off the hard floor and going God knew where.
Kate fell with him, her left hand clutching the collar of his coat. She couldn’t lose him. Whatever beast he’d had trapped inside was free now. If he got away from her, there’d be a hell of a lot more to worry about than stray bullets.
Her nylons giving her no purchase on the slick floor, she scrambled to get her feet under her, to hang on to him as he fought to stand. She swung the shoe again and smacked him in the ear. He twisted around, trying to backhand her with the gun. Kate grabbed his arm and forced it up, too aware as the gun went off again that there were more than twenty stories of offices and courtrooms above.